Weeding the garden: Supporting the natural self-healing processes of the mind

To Turcich, the walk was a seven-year meditation, particularly the first two years, which were more solitary. As he walked, so much was going through his mind – his history, his values, his hopes. It all came to a head in the deserts of Peru and Chile. “I was on my own so much, just with my thoughts. The way I describe it is like weeding your garden. You don’t realise it, but your head is full of these weeds and when you’re walking, you’re on your knees pulling weeds. After about a year and a half, when I was down in south Peru, I felt like I’d thought all the thoughts, and the garden was clean. There was no more angst, no regrets, nothing I could pick through. I was in the Atacama desert, lying under a million stars, and it felt I was at the bottom of myself. All the doubts went.”

– The Guardian, The man who walked around the world: Tom Turcich on his seven-year search for the meaning of life

I haven’t walked around the world but love walking and I have noticed what he describes.


If you put yourself in a situation where you don’t have too many (modern) distractions, the mind tends to settle on its own. This can be through walking, spending time in nature, doing art, playing music, meditation or mindful movement practice, or something else.

The shift can happen relatively quickly and may not last that long. Or it can gradually happen over time and be more lasting, for instance, through regular meditation practice, doing a meditation or mindful movement retreat, or walking for weeks or months.


Just like our body, our mind is self-healing. Its dynamics are self-healing.

A part of that dynamic is to bring anything unresolved to the surface. What’s unfelt comes up to be felt, what’s unexamined to be examined, what’s unloved to be loved.

So although our mind, when less distracted, engages in a self-healing process, it’s not always pleasant.

Sometimes, when we start a period that’s more undistracted, it can be very uncomfortable. A lot of smaller issues and mental noise come to the surface and it takes time for the mind to naturally settle.

And sometimes, we can have long quiet periods, and then old issues activate and come to the surface.

(In my case, I found meditation very enjoyable in my teens and twenties and did it daily for hours at a time. More recently, at the onset of the dark night, a lot of deep trauma came to the surface which made it far more challenging for me to be with all of it.)


I am not exactly sure what’s happening, but here is my best guess:

Our mind has a natural self-healing tendency. When we are less distracted and mentally busy, this self-healing process is allowed to take place.

And that self-healing process takes a few forms.

As mentioned above, it involves feeling what’s unfelt (emotions, states), seeing what’s unseen (about ourselves, our role in situations), examining what’s unexamined (stressful stories), and finding love for what’s unloved (all of the above and more).

It involves shifting our relationship to stressful stories. We may identify stressful stories we were not aware of previously, which in itself is helpful. (If we are not aware of them, they run us. If we are aware of them, we can recognize them and relate to them more intentionally.)

We may come to recognize the stories for what they are. They are stories, questions about the world. They leave a lot out, and they are often not accurate. Holding onto them is stressful. And what’s genuinely more true for us is often more peaceful.

We may also learn to meet our experiences with more kindness. We may notice that a lot of our discomfort comes from struggling with our experience. And we may try out meeting it with more kindness and find it’s more comfortable and also helps us in our daily life. It’s more pleasant, kind, and wise.

We may also learn to meet our habitual patterns with more kindness. We recognize our mind and behavioral patterns. We may see that some were formed in response to difficult situations in our childhood. We may disidentify a little with these patterns, and find some compassion for ourselves. (And others, since they have their own.) And we may find a way to relate to these more consciously, even as they come up.

Something else may also happen through being with ourselves in a relatively undistracted manner and over time. And that is that we shift our relationship with our human self. We may notice that all content of experience comes and goes, including what we took ourselves to be. (This human self, these feelings, these thoughts, this name, these stories). If it all comes and goes, it can’t be what I most fundamentally am. So what am I, more fundamentally? What am I in my own first-person experience? Here, we may find ourselves as what any content of experience happens within and as. We find ourselves as the field that the world, to us, happens within and as.

All of this can happen naturally if we are undistracted over time. It seems part of the natural self-healing processes of the mind (and body). And it all either brings healing or supports healing.


We can support this natural self-healing process in several ways.

The main one is to allow ourselves to be with ourselves in a relatively undistracted way, regularly and over time. This provides the condition for the self-healing process to take place. And we can do it in many ways, as outlined above. (Go for walks, knit, paint, play music, be in nature, play with children or animals, meditate, do mindful movement, go on a retreat, and so on.)

Receiving guidance for meditation is helpful. This can be basic meditation. (Notice and allow what’s here as it is, and notice it’s already allowed and noticed.) Heart-centered practices. (Tonglen, ho’oponopono, Heart Prayer, Christ meditation, etc.)

Training more stable attention helps this process, and just about anything else, enormously. (For instance, bring attention to the sensation of the breath at the nostrils. Rest in noticing those sensations. And gently bring attention back if it wanders.)

We can also be guided in more structured inquiry, and learn this for ourselves. We can learn to identify and examine stressful thoughts. (The Work of Byron Katie.) We can explore how the sense fields combine to create our experience. (Kiloby Inquiries, traditional Buddhist inquiry.) We can also find what we more fundamentally are, and get more familiar with noticing and living from (and as) it. (Headless experiments, Big Mind process.)


As usual, I find an evolutionary perspective helpful.

We evolved in nature and as part of nature, in relatively small groups, and to be active with our hands and body. We gathered food. Carried water. Chopped wood. Grew food. Sew and knitted clothes.

It’s only the recent generations that we have lived in a modern world with cities, apartments, a faster pace, and modern gadgets.

Our biology and mind evolved in nature, and many of us are living in a world that’s quite different.

I imagine that the natural self-healing process of our mind was allowed to unfold more freely for our ancestors. Even if they were active, they were typically less distracted and more focused on what was in front of them, so their mind had space to process and self-heal. (At least, to some extent.) In our modern life, we are typically so hurried and distracted (with the internet, news, podcasts, music, etc.) that our mind doesn’t have the same chance.

To give our mind that space, we need to recreate or mimic the life of our ancestors. It doesn’t necessarily mean living in nature and growing our own food. But it does mean engaging in more meditative activities, and perhaps arranging our life so these happen naturally as part of our daily life.


Outlined like this, it all sounds relatively simple and straightforward.

But simple does not mean easy. It can still be challenging. (It is for me, with all the trauma that came up.) And that’s why it’s helpful to find support. It helps to find a group of people doing the same.

This process tends to bring up what’s buried. If we start on this process, for instance with meditation or mindful movement, and we know we have trauma, it’s good to have guidance from someone skilled in working with trauma, and ideally to have that support and guidance from the beginning before anything comes up.

And traumas and issues may come up that require more attention than just giving our mind space to heal. We may need more focused therapy, in whatever form is available to us and makes the most sense to us. (Talk therapy, somatic therapy, energy work, inquiry, and so on.)

Read More

Nostalgia & the healing impulse within our fascinations

Nostalgia, once thought of as a brain disease, is actually a healing neurological mechanism elicited in times of distress.

– description of The benefits of being nostalgic, a BBC mini-documentary

My assumption is that when our mind is fascinated by something that may seem meaningless, frivolous, or frustrating, there is a healing impulse within it.

The healing impulse within nostalgia

Nostalgia can help us digest and come to terms with the past, learn about ourselves (what we enjoy), and make changes in our life now – either to bring in more of what we enjoy or let go of something that doesn’t serve us.

It all depends on how we relate to it. Do we get bogged down by the nostalgia? Stuck in longing for what was and no longer is? Unhappy about our current life? Caught up in remorse? If so, and if we don’t allow the process to continue and find healing, it’s not so helpful. (I assume that’s why John Hodgman likes to call nostalgia a “toxic impulse”.)

We can also support the healing impulse within nostalgia. We can use it to come to terms with the past. Identify what we enjoy and what makes us come alive, and find ways to bring it into our life now. We can identify what’s in our current life that’s not aligned with what’s important to us and find ways to reduce or eliminate it.

I am sometimes nostalgic about my time at Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Lake City. What about that time did I enjoy? It was the climate, nature, daily meditation, and an international community of people with similar interests and orientations as me. How can I bring more of that into my life? I am out in nature when I can. I do spiritual practices, although not communally. I have an international community of like-minded friends, although it’s mostly virtual. And the climate where I am is not so good for me. I am planning to move to a warmer, sunnier, and drier climate, which I know is what helps my health the most. In this place, it’s possible I’ll be able to bring in more of nature, communal practice, and an international community.

What’s the healing impulse in other – sometimes unwanted – fascinations?

What else is our mind fascinated by that may, on the surface, not seem so helpful?

We can be worried about the future. Annoyed by something in the present. Reliving past traumatic experiences. Obsessed by something we would rather not be so focused on. And so on.

In these cases, the mind is drawn to a place where it’s stuck. It’s caught up in stressful beliefs and unhealed emotional issues.

As with nostalgia, if the process stops there, it’s not necessarily so helpful. Then we just get the unpleasantness of it without the resolution and healing.

So how can we support the healing process?

In general, by asking: What needs healing? And how can we support that healing?

And if it’s me…. Identify the stressful beliefs and assumptions behind it and question these. Identify any emotional issue behind it and invite in healing for it. Shift in how I relate to the trigger and what’s triggered in us, for instance through dialog (parts work, subpersonalities) or heart-centered practices.

If I am annoyed by noise from my neighbor, it points to something unhealed and examined in me. I can find thoughts like: He should be more considerate. He shouldn’t use noisy machines. He should have a wild garden instead of a sterile manicured one. I cannot find peace. I can then examine each of these, for instance using The Work of Byron Katie. I can also identify triggered identities – perhaps “sensitive” and “considerate” – and examine these, for instance using Living Inquiries.

If my mind goes to worries about the future or stressful events in the past, I can identify beliefs and identities and inquire into them. I can identify emotional issues and invite in healing for them in whatever way works for me. I can find the parts of me that are triggered and dialog with these. I can use heart-centered practices to shift my relationship with the trigger (now, in the past, or in the imagined future) and what’s triggered in me.

Why is the mind drawn by what needs resolution or healing?

I suspect this is a built-in mechanism that came through evolution. The ones whose mind was drawn to what needed resolution were more likely to find this resolution, and they functioned better as human beings and were more likely to successfully bring up children, grandchildren, and children in the larger family – all of whom may have shared this trait. They were also more likely to contribute to the success of the tribe or community which included people who shared this trait.

At a micro-level, the mind is drawn to what needs resolution through creating a charge. The mind associates certain thoughts (connected with what’s unresolved) with certain sensations, and the thoughts give meaning to the sensations and the sensations give a sense of charge, substance, and reality to the thoughts.

The gifts in frustrating fascinations

So there is a gift in apparently meaningless, frivolous, or frustrating fascinations.

On the surface, they can seem useless or uncomfortable, and if the mind gets stuck in them, it can be unhealthy or unhelpful.

And yet, if we join in with the impulse and examine it, we may find something of great value.

We may find healing, clarity, insights, and an opportunity to mature.