“If you don’t plow the earth, it’s going to get so hard nothing grows in it. You just plow the earth of yourself. You just get moving. And even don’t ask exactly what’s going to happen. You allow yourself to move around, and then you will see the benefit.”     Rumi

What a beautiful use of soil as a metaphor!

The Sufi tradition in general, and Rumi in particular, excel at poetically unveiling the wisdom contained in the most mundane things.

In this case, Rumi calls our attention to something we normally don’t notice- the soil on which we walk, out of which our food emerges. Rumi’s words encourage us to examine what soil is and how it works, and thus remember many truths about inner processes.

At first, I jumped on the “movement” aspect of this quote. As I packed my bags and cleaned out the apartment a few weeks ago, I was questioning my desire to travel with Giulia and Gabriel. Hearing this reminded me that yes indeed, like the soil, I just need to keep things in motion and trust that benefits will emerge.

In the past, I’ve seen the benefits of motion for myself. Artists, scientists, and spiritual seekers find that the “soil of  the self” needs to be tilled for insight or creativity to emerge. As any farmer knows, the soil is literally burgeoning with creative potential that’s just waiting to break through in the right conditions. The same is true of the creative potential lying dormant in ourselves. If you remain in the same environment, surrounded by the same people year after year, it’s very possible that your mind and soul will become hardened without you even noticing.

So we set out from Montreal last week, and after three fuss-less airplane rides (Gabriel seems to be a born traveller), we arrived in my childhood home in Colorado. It’s nice for me to visit, but I know the soil of this town cannot indefinitely nurture me.

Prompted by a Rumi-like desire to move at the age of 18, I set forth from this place knowing that in order for my potential to flourish, I needed to move to other places and expose myself to new ideas. I couldn’t have possibly envisioned that 12 years later, I would be back here married to a Frenchwoman I met in India, carrying our baby born two months ago in Montreal.

True, there was some part of me that longed for this type of life to emerge. In many ways, I “tended the soil” and “planted the seeds” for this to emerge (learning French, saving money to travel in India, etc.). But there’s a part of me who feels the surprise a farmer would when, after having planted certain crops, he found other plants had taken root alongside the intended harvest.

There’s always an element of mystery as to the shape and composition of what exactly will emerge, whether in our lives or in a farmer’s field. We don’t always know what’s brewing just beneath the surface.

This is an important element about soil that I didn’t notice in my initial excitement.

As important as it is to work the soil and keep it moving, it’s also healthy to let a field rest from time to time (Jews even have a biblical commandment in Leviticus to give their land a “sabbatical year” every seven years!).

Archimedes in his “eureka” moment

I have personally seen why many artistic and scientific breakthroughs have come while taking walks, resting in baths, or in dreams. Some of my most exciting “Eureka moments” have come when I’ve taken a break from my work and simply allow my mind to wonder. Sometimes ideas and images come back to inspire me long after I’ve been directly exposed to them; there’s no telling when a nugget of inspiration will bubble up.

Trying too hard to come up with a brilliant idea is like constantly turning up the soil: you might find some interesting morsels, but for the real potential to break forth, you have to stand back and wait.

I find that extremely difficult to do. There are periods when my creative output drops… and I get worried very quickly. There are periods when I’m unable to keep up my formal meditation practice, and I start getting down on myself for my lack of discipline.

The key is not to freak out when it seems like nothing is going on. Like the soil, cultivation of the mind, body, and soul requires a fine balance between activity and passivity.

There are times when we do need to break out the plow and stir things up. Perhaps more difficult is to cultivate the trust to simply step back and let the soil do its work.