Self-awareness is a key aspect of cultivating an ecocentric identity. When we strive to create a gardener’s identity, we do so with intention and awareness of our goals and behavior. Gardening mindfully is not only beneficial for our garden as it protects us from mistakes and boosts awareness of our garden but can make it feel as though we are a part of our garden. When we meditate while gardening, we are connecting to the earth on a personal and emotional level (Gillihan, 2020; Howard, 2011). This feeling of connection is a part of the ecocentric identity. Though gardening and meditation are powerful tools on their own, when we blend them together they become a skill that can help guide us through most of what life can throw at us.
Both meditation and gardening help us practice executive functions (Holas & Jankowski, 2013; Lassander, Hintsanen, Suominen, Mullola, Fagerlund, Vahlberg, & Volanen, 2020). Executive functions help us experience and operate in the current moment so that we may pay attention and problem solve without becoming distracted (Diamond, 2013). Executive functions are essential to maximizing our ability to work, socialize, or focus on whatever task we might be doing. The core executive functions, as outlined by Diamond (2013), are working memory, inhibition and interference control, and cognitive flexibility.
Working memory is the ability to hold bits of information in our minds and manipulate them to reach a goal (Diamond, 2013). If building or working in a community garden, there will be various tasks that require working memory to get done. If we are building a raised bed, we will need to remember the steps to assemble it. If planting a new plant, we need to remember what we just planted and where. When cultivating an ecocentric identity, working memory is important to keep track of what is going on in your environment. It helps us piece together the different actions of the different moving parts in our garden, such as the bees pollinating the flowers or how our plants affect the fertility of the soil.
Inhibition and interference control is our ability to choose what has our attention and switch attention between tasks (Diamond, 2013). This core executive function is our ability to utilize self-control. Working in a garden requires focus. If we are in the middle of planting a tomato plant but get distracted before we can put it in the hole we just dug, the plant will likely die and we will not be able to harvest from it. In the raised bed example, if we get distracted we could hurt ourselves. When doing a task meant to help cultivate ecocentrism, being able to focus on the task will help us get the most out of it.
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to think creatively and find novel solutions to problems (Diamond, 2013). In the garden, there are lots of different problems, each with lots of different solutions. For example, a common problem in the garden is the presence of aphids or other pests. An easy solution to this problem is to spray them with pesticides to kill them all. However, this brings other problems such as pollution and potentially getting the pesticide into the produce. One way to solve this problem is to try to attract predators to your garden such as ladybugs or lacewings. You can often buy bags of ladybugs at stores, but there is no guarantee they will stay to eat the aphids. It is an investment to build a ladybug habitat for the future. The aphids may never be gone, but they are proof that your garden is providing an ecosystem for native species. However, this is just one solution for one pest. With each pest in your garden, there are multiple solutions, all relying on our cognitive flexibility to solve.
Meditation and mindfulness allows us to engage our executive functions, making them stronger and more effective. Engaging in mindfulness practices means shifting the mind to focus on the present moment, openness to new experiences, awareness of changes in the environment, and awareness of multiple perspectives (Gallant, 2016). In the garden, each of these can correlate to something different. Focusing on the present means we actively engage in the task we are doing. Openness to new experiences means we should be willing to try multiple approaches to a problem in the garden without being pessimistic. When we are aware of the changes in our garden, we will notice when a plant is ready to harvest. When we are aware of multiple perspectives, we are better able to understand those perspectives and be sympathetic with others who share our environment.
Meditation has been used to help people feel better for thousands of years, most of what we know coming from Buddist traditions (Holas & Jankowski, 2013). However, much of the scientific aspects of meditation and mindfulness are new and not fully understood. One model of mindfulness is the metacognitive model. The metacognitive model separates the different aspects of metacognition and outlines the various effects it has on our thought processes (Jankowski & Holas, 2014).
Metacognition is divided into three components: metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive experiences, and metacognitive skills (Jankowski & Holas, 2014). Metacognitive knowledge is information about different situations and how to use this information (Jankowski & Holas, 2014). For example, we might be aware that we hold specific gardening information, such as which plant grows best in mid-summer. Metacognitive experiences are when a person is aware of the outcome of specific cognitive processes (Jankowski & Holas, 2014). These can be emotions or thoughts regarding a task. For example, we know our opinions and emotions on garden pesticides. Metacognitive skills are the utilization of executive function to achieve a specific outcome (Jankowski & Holas, 2014). Meditation is the perfect example of a metacognitive skill.
According to Holas and Jankowski (2013), mindfulness has 3 cognitive components: meta-awareness, basic awareness, and tacit monitoring. Meta-awareness in meditation is the conscious and active awareness of meditation. When we engage our meta-awareness, we are actively paying attention to our executive functions, utilizing working memory, inhibition and interference control, and cognitive flexibility to focus on being mindful (Holas & Jankowski, 2013). When cultivating an ecocentric identity, this can be used to be actively aware of our purpose in cultivating ecocentric ideologies. Basic awareness is our awareness of the environment or what is happening in our body (Holas & Jankowski, 2013). In meditation, this can be focusing on the breath or tension in the muscles. We can use this in gardening to actively engage in the gardening activity. Tacit monitoring is our ability to notice undesirable cognitive processes (Holas & Jankowski, 2013). These can be things like intrusive thoughts or negative affect. In meditation, we are taught to notice and accept these without struggling with them. In the garden, this would be similar to noticing a pest infestation or a plant that is not doing as well as we had hoped. In these cases, it is best to notice and accept the situation before moving on to a solution. When we utilize these thought processes, it is easier to reduce the stress levels in our bodies, allowing us to focus on solutions (Holas & Jankowski, 2013). Ecocentric thought often involves accepting the bad with the good, such as a pest infestation. If we get stressed, we might go for the easiest solution and use pesticides and not consider the damage we are doing to our local ecosystem. If we can take a step back and relax our mind, other solutions will be easier to find.
An ecocentric identity is cultivated through interactions with nature. Gardening is a good way to cultivate this identity through these interactions, However, there is a link between the physical act of gardening and identity self-worth. Gardening is a form of exercise, and as such can be associated with motor competence. Motor competence is a person’s ability to move proficiently in locomotor, stability, and manipulative skills (Timler, McIntyre, Rose, & Hands, 2019). Oftentimes, gardening will require manipulative skills more than locomotor or stability skills, but all three can be beneficial in a garden. Cultivating these skills not only increases the quality of our work, but is associated with how we perceive our social competence, physical appearance, romantic appeal, behavioral conduct, close friendships, and self-worth (Timler, et al., 2019). If we grow produce, people might be impressed with our work or like us more if we give it away. A well-maintained garden will give us confidence in ourselves and we might feel like we are more interesting to our partners for it. If we decide to donate what we grow to charity, we might think we are exhibiting more humanitarian behavior. If we give what we grow to a friend because we love them, we might feel closer to them. Overall, these things contribute to our sense of self-worth in our community and relationships. When we cultivate an ecocentric behavior, our community gets bigger and starts to include all the life in our ecosystem and the land that we use to garden. If our garden interacts with the ecosystem positively, our self-confidence will reflect that benefit.
When engaging in meditation, we are practicing our executive functions, strengthening them as we focus. When we garden, we are practicing them in the same way we would be while meditating. While meditation and gardening are beneficial to executive functions, stress levels, and self-image, the benefit does not “double-up”. Rather, gardening with meditation provides additional practice and support. From personal experience, mindfulness meditation practices connects you to yourself while mindful gardening connects you with your environment and the Earth. They both have benefits that might differ or overlap to varying degrees but are different methods of performing the same act. With the added social and physical benefits of gardening, doing so mindfully nourishes every aspect of life.