Transform yourself. Transform the world. No magic necessary.

Transform yourself. Transform the world. No magic necessary.

There’s never been a better time to try Meditation in Action.

Toby working in his garden. (Photo given by Deborah Matthews).

By Toby Matthews

Yes, I know that old J.K. Rowling has kind of lost her mind over the last several months. I am confused by much of what she has been saying and disagree with the rest.  Regardless, I have always found her books (among many others) to be my friends.  

Like all of my re-readable, literary friends, the plot, the characters, and even the writing speaks to me in different ways at different times and often provides me some of the support I need to get through the day.

My mind has returned time and time again to a passage in the seventh and last book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows during these crazy times. 

Harry is behind a cottage looking over the sea.  His friend and rescuer, Dobby the house-elf, has recently been murdered and Harry has escaped to safety at his friend Bill’s house:  “And shortly afterward, he had set to work, alone, digging the grave in the place that Bill had shown him at the end of the garden, between bushes.  He dug with a kind of fury, relishing the manual work, glorying in the non-magic of it, for every drop of his sweat and every blister felt like a gift to the elf who had saved their lives.”

I think much of what my body and spirit has needed these days is manual work.  

I spend so much time working on my laptop or being traumatized by news videos on my phone.  Then I watch Netflix or YouTube to “relax”.  

I am not describing anything new here for you.  We all know the pitfalls of this amorphous, pandemic-time lifestyle.  It’s a necessity for those of us who aren’t cooking or delivering food or providing healthcare and other essential services.

So, how do “we of the screens” deal with all the emotional overwhelm we feel bubbling up inside us every day?  What do we do when even that run or Deborah’s Advanced Flow is just a drop in the bucket of easing our distress?

Perhaps a stillness practice works for you – like mindfulness meditation. I find that helpful too.  But sometimes I need meditation in action.

Like Harry, I need to connect with my body. 

 I need to connect with my own effort and strength.  I need to connect with the earth in all its messy, dirty, smelly glory.  And, somehow, I need to connect with what has been lost and what could be possible in the future.


This Spring I have been filling raised cedar beds in our garden with soil. 

 They are enormous:  10’ x 4’ x 30”.  So many wheel barrows full of compost pushed up a steep ramp and dumped!!!!  (Five beds are filled so only three to go.  Woohoo!) 

Toby adding compost to the raised cedar beds. (Photo given by Deborah Matthews)
Photo given by Deborah Matthews

 I have literally worn blisters on my hands.  Some days I don’t think I can keep going, but I continue to try like a salmon swimming up river.

I feel the blade of my shovel cut through the piles of soil. The sweat squishes in my boots and gloves.  I push through my legs and back and arms as I heave the weight over the lip of the bed again and again.  The dusty smell of decay and potential growth billows up my nostrils. 

 Like Harry, I relish it.  Most importantly, my body can do actual things in the actual world. 

 That is a comfort.


Through manual work, I co-create a place of grief and hope with the world outside my backdoor.  

A place where my body can be in conversation with racial animus, with ICU’s full of the sick and dying, and with that rat snake eating the baby bluebird right in front of me.  

And yet the work of my hands is an act of believing in the future.  The bed will be filled with plants one day.  Some day we will harvest the pumpkins and squash that used to be grown on this land thousands of years ago by native people.  The goldfinches will dance and sing between the black-eyed susans and the joe-pye weed.

I am not suggesting that everyone take on gigantic garden tasks to find this sense of connection through meditation in action.  

I am sure some of you had the health and courage to peacefully protest over the last several months.  I can’t imagine a better practice than joining your voice with the cries for justice of other people and to feel their footfalls through the soles of your feet.  

Likewise, many of you don’t have the inner resources for huge outdoor projects; you are living with high pain levels or debilitating fatigue. Don’t push yourself. 

 There is joyful effort and there is pushing beyond healthy limitations. 

I suggest that you take a few minutes for a short walk under a shady tree and perhaps feel its bark with your hands or weed a small patch of ground or flower planter.  Listen to the wind as your work.  Notice the ground and the sky and the tiny creatures that surround you.

As you give yourself to this hands-on cultivation of the world, let it water and feed those places inside you that need to be taken care of.

Harry gloried in the non-magic of his manual labor and felt better.  We can too.

5 Comments

  • Linda Jarboe

    July 12, 2020 @ 9:36 pm

    I love this.

    Very thought provoking

    Thank you

  • Kim Childress

    July 13, 2020 @ 7:13 am

    I love this article so much! Gardening is so therapeutic! Thank you for this much-needed piece!

  • Toby

    July 16, 2020 @ 2:21 pm

    Hey y’all,

    Wanted to point you towards a fantastic, graphical website that maps native tribes, territories, and treaties.

    https://native-land.ca/

    If you are interested, look up where you live. My Durham house is on Catawba and Shakori land. The Atlanta house where I grew up was on Mvskoke (Muskogee/Creek) land.

    • Martine Rey

      November 16, 2020 @ 2:37 pm

      What a wonderful site, thank you Toby. I used to live in Durham, on Shakori land. Now I am living in France, a whole other story . . .

  • Toby

    July 20, 2020 @ 4:38 pm

    Take a listen to Bryan Stevenson describing a story of racial truth telling and reconciliation through the medium of soil and manual work:

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-ezra-klein-show/id1081584611?i=1000485472204

    The whole podcast is thought-provoking and the story starts at 36:36.

    Much love,
    Toby

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *