Years ago, a mentor with vexing regularity would remind me to look at what’s growing in my Bodhi garden. The gentle reminder irritated me because it brought home a stinging reality, that – if I choose to accept it – I am a co-creator of what shows up in my life.

After some resistance, I begrudgingly peered over to see that in fact, I had a Bodhi garden, where life showed up. The term Bodhi means “awakened”– an undeserving attribute for my garden, as my resistance revealed a low-level woke-ness.

Still, the idea that we travel life as gardeners stuck with me.

Our Garden is a Conversational Network

A garden was a metaphor to illustrate life as a conversational network. Let me begin with some terms.

First, consider that life exists in a conversational domain – a lens through which to view reality, in this case as conversations. Facts, actions, feelings, experiences, friends, systems, identities, and products all interlink as an interwoven web of conversations. We also consume or employ interpretations to connect and sustain conversations to experience reality.

Through the lens of a conversational domain, everything says something about our lives: the car I drive, books I read, coffee I drink, my friends, family and job, where I socialize, food I eat, how I tip servers … everything. Each is connected to – or is a result of – our speaking and listening. Poet David Whyte considers this question in his poem on the Conversational Nature of Reality.

Second, consider that we ARE a conversation representing or messaging our contribution or effort. Whether managed or not, we show up as conversations: our identity, persona, reputation, character, accomplishments, or failures speak for us whether or not we are present. Who we are, what we do, and what we have speaks for and about us.

Third, we also HAVE conversations. Each of us travels in a conversational network. Consider this our conversational diet. Conversations we consume create the conditions that expand or shape our conversational network. In other words, if we are what we eat, then our lives are marked by the conversations we consume.

Conversations Create us

So then when reality disappoints us, let’s not ask: Why did that happen? as if “that” is out there, in-the-world independent of us. Rather we might ask: Why do I say that?

This is not mystical or magical, it is intentional – a design that lives in our speaking and listening.

In their book The Four Conversations,” Jeffrey Ford, Ph.D., and Laurie Ford Ph.D. discuss four fundamental, yet underused, conversations in business. When employed in the workplace, these conversations can engage or initiate action, enroll support, increase performance, assess situations, clarify understanding, create closure, and open new possibilities.

These conversations are not mere tools to produce change; they embody the air we breathe to access and influence human endeavors. When we view businesses, systems, and organizations as networks of conversations we observe that they speak and say something. Conversations, then, are both content (to inform) and context (to form): We embody and convey meaning, which generates the conversations that then construct reality, as a network of conversations.

Moreover, when we pay attention to our garden, as our conversational network, we notice what we are saying and have access to making a difference. Are you aware of your conversational network? Do you know which conversations create conditions that connect you with some and not others; that have you engage certain activities and not others; that have you consider certain possibilities and not others?

Cultivating Your Conditions

Before we begin growing our garden, let’s cultivate some conditions.

Space: Is there space to grow the bounty you wish? Can new things emerge or is every space cluttered, is your spare time full of tasks, and every silent moment filled with idle chatter? Anything different requires space to grow newly. Consider that after leaving a relationship, or a job, we often require time to change course. If not, we reflexively leap back into a familiar pattern. That space affords us a clearing, a new perspective to surface questions and challenge assumptions.

Openness: What are you open to receiving? What changes or learning do you require to alter the conversations in your network? Are you open to new ideas or conversations, or do you resist them? Are your conversations tired, or superficial? If so, are you willing to upgrade them? Can you receive input on current items that require change?

Intention: Whether aware of them or not, our intentions shape our speaking and listening. What is your conversational diet, and is it a match for your intentions in life? Do you merely prattle on about being a writer with those at a local pub on weekends or in a monologue with yourself? Becoming a writer will require consuming conversations by those involved in writing (either through literature or in dialogue). A clear intention will find you engaging those conversations.

These three conditions cultivate a growing conversational network. They are akin to the soil, sunlight, temperature, and climate required for a robust garden. Each is taken for granted unless they are lacking.

Growing Your Conversational Network

With our conditions established we begin gardening, to practice.

Plowing = Loosen the ground (your mind) to plant new conversations in your garden. Much of this involves creating practices to honor the three conditions above to remain open, intentional and with space. Exercising, eating clean, getting enough sleep, and meditating are good practices to upgrade conversations about “self,” to plow new ground.

Seeding = Plant new conversations with invitations, resources, learning, and practices to cultivate the best crops (ideas) that support your intentions. Invest time in growing a new conversation by accepting an invitation to a seminar, or reaching outside of your network. Be patient with new conversations, nurture them with care for your future. Remember, you reap what you sow …

TIP: creating any change requires consuming more conversations from your future, than of the status quo. This often requires more weeding and pruning to create space.

Feeding, as watering or fertilizing, requires attention. Begin by observing where you place your attention in two ways. First, pay attention to what you empower (fertilize). Empower gossip, you’ll attract gossip. Empower action and accelerate change (see Four Conversations). Second, pay attention to what you focus on. Your focus is like water to plants. What you water grows. Focus on conversations that speak to your future, or your intentions, and watch them expand. Focus on complaints and you will tire. We always have a choice in what we talk about, and what we listen to.

Weeding = Pull out (let go of) anything toxic, whether your own self-talk, or self-assessment, or conversations that undermine your best intentions. Yank out individuals you find draining, or cynical. Be ruthless in pulling weeds from your garden. Question everything. Weeding encourages the conversations that support your intentions, or create space for new conversations.

Maria Popova in a recent Brain Pickings (on friendship), cites a letter Vincent Van Gogh wrote his brother—“that we refine ourselves. Our choice of relationships can either reinforce the limiting patterns of thought and feeling that have long governed us, or decondition them by helping us learn new patterns of attachment and orientation of being.”

Pruning = Pruning aligns your conversational network and requires cutting back on some growth to spur on other growth. Not all conversations are equal. I begin with time and frequency. Some conversations merit 20 minutes, some over lunch for an hour, others occur over dinner or extended periods. Some conversations nourish you (internal dynamic); others may stimulate (external dynamic). Some are needed intermittently; others require more frequency to support your highest intentions.

As a budding writer, you can expand (feed) your conversational network to include a writer’s group, and invite (seed) new individual conversations that find ideas flowing. Then prune away the weekly happy hours, perhaps to once-monthly.

Tending = Pay attention to what’s growing in your garden. When you create conditions and garden with intention, you will find unexpected growth. This is where my mentor pointed me. Whenever I commented on something in my life, she’d say, are you tending to your garden? If it’s showing up in your life, it’s either a managed or unmanaged conversation, on your radar or just below it. Don’t be surprised by unexpected conversations, new ideas, an opportunity, or new practice. A cultivated garden will offer surprises from your future that you may not recognize.

Remember, it’s coming from YOUR garden!

Conversations are Alive

Conversations live in and through each of us. We are all interpreters of our lives and how others impact them. We cannot sustain a crop of ideas or services absent the conversations that they provoke or reveal. Tending to our garden will guide our focus and point to what we need to empower. What to weed out, and what to prune.

Cultivation is not control.

Remember, gardening is an organic endeavor, absent the need to control or force. Gardens defy the laws of mechanics or computing. They are not predictable but can be plowed and pruned; not precise but can be seeded and weeded.

When we let go of control and begin to cultivate space, we become open, more intentional, and can grow new crops.

Becoming a gardener of your conversational network will cultivate ideas, expand vision, deepen wisdom, and encourage your best intentions.

Reading Time: 7 min. Digest Time: 9.5 min.


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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.