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The Mindful Garden, by Stephanie Donaldson

The Mindful Garden: Serene Spaces for Outdoor Living, by Stephanie Donaldson
Ryland Peters & Small, 9781788795951, 144 pages, February 2024

Stephanie Donaldson’s The Mindful Garden: Serene Spaces for Outdoor Living joins the list of items that bring a sense of peace and serenity into my life along with Palo Santo sticks, the flicker of a votive in a small metal holder, and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.

Donaldson offers ways for all of us – from the suburban gardener to the urban dweller with very little outdoor space – from the experienced to the novice – to create our own haven, a retreat, a place to de-stress. The book contains stunning photographs by Melanie Eclare that made me want to sell everything and move to my husband’s country of birth, England, and recreate the spaces in the book.

Luckily, Donaldson writes some words of caution, “…before making any changes it is always wise to separate the realizable dreams from the fantasies.”1 I stopped making flight reservations and settled into the book to be guided to ways that I could create my very own place of peace in my outdoor space. For as Donaldson writes, peace is a “central element in the creation of a successful mindful garden.”2

I hadn’t really ever considered the mood that I wanted to create in my outdoor space. I mindlessly go to the garden store and picked up random plants and garden accessories without any real plan. But this season, I’m becoming more intentional with how I space my backyard.

Donaldson asks the reader to consider the tone that one wants to create to support calm versus stimulation, simple rather than busy. A space where one removes rather than adds to. And she asked me a question that no one had asked me, which is what do I want from my garden? What appeals to me? What centers me? How novel!

Upon her advice, I considered how I want the garden to be used and how I want it to look. Do I want a space for meditation or contemplation? Do I want to add water features (many of which can be added for a nominal cost without running electricity)? How does the garden look in different light – from early morning to dusk? What type of seating do I want? What materials appeal to me? What style suits me – symmetrical or balanced?

She guides the reader in how to consider the use of color (recommending a subdued palette versus complimentary colors).  Suggestions are offered in creating barriers with the use of things like stones, fences, shrubs, and trellises. And to consider scents – what plantings offer scents that calm versus stimulate.

The book offers so many suggestions that any of us can use to create a mindful space. The photographs will automatically bring a sense of calm, and there’s ton of them throughout The Mindful Garden. However, what I really liked about the book was that Donaldson was aware that we all don’t have acres of land and limitless funds to create a serene space. We can use a ceramic bowl to hold a small battery-operated foundation to create a slow flowing water feature. She showed a water feature using glass bricks filled with pebbles on a rooftop without a “plant in sight.”3

We might want to do some small tweaks to bring calm into our space or we might plan something a bit more ambitious (but again, she reminds us, doable). Consider your location (it’s challenging to have a wildflower meadow on your city lot), consider aiming for creating a space that won’t need constant attention (such as weeding). You might find out, after a few changes that Donaldson inspires, that you suddenly feel peaceful in your space.

“If you feel happy in your garden and there is nothing to change, then trust that feeling. You already have your mindful space…”4

Overall, Donaldson is a wonderful guide for bringing serenity into your life, beginning with your outdoor space, in The Mindful Garden. This book allows you to discover relaxation, peruse the pages, see what inspires you, and then take those steps to bring what you need and want into your life. You can do it with whatever space and budget you have available; Donaldson will show you how.

Mindful Homes Interview with Anjie Cho

Anne: Hello, Anjie! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me about your newly released book Mindful Homes: Create Healing Living Spaces with Mindfulness and Feng Shui  (CICO Books 2023). I really enjoyed it and have already used many of the concepts to rearrange space in my own home. For those who might not know much about feng shui though, would you share a bit about it?

Anjie: Hi Anne, so nice to meet you. And thank you so very much for including me on your blog Musing Mystical!

In a nutshell, what is feng shui? Feng shui is a healing modality that comes from China that looks at the flow of qi (life force energy) in you and your spaces. My personal definition is slightly different. Feng shui is a mindfulness practice that invites you to explore the world around you. It’s about paying attention to the details of your environment, without judgment, and seeing that we are interconnected and interdependent with our spaces.

Anne: Feng shui has been an interest of mine for quite some time, though I admit I get overwhelmed by the details sometimes. Your book really helped me to get out of my mind though and feel into the energy. How were you first introduced to feng shui? What do you believe attracted you to it? I’m curious as to what was going on in your life at the time. Were you instinctively incorporating feng shui into your life without realizing it? 

Anjie: In my late twenties, during my Saturn return, I found myself looking at what was no longer working in my life. I was depressed, and felt resigned to the agonizing belief that all there was to life was getting up and going to a job that depleted me. I had an epiphany during my first reiki session while I was visiting Thailand. I realized that I needed to make a big shift, to make a big turn. I started studying meditation and yoga, which led me to have curiosity about how I could bring more depth and meaning in what I spent most of my waking hours doing– work! 

I was working in architecture, so I looked at feng shui. I took some classes and then for years started eyeing the three-year certification program that I ended up graduating from. It was only when I had another opportunity to make another turn in my life, during the last big recession, where I took that plunge. This was one of the first times in my life that I invested in something with no expectations and no desired outcome. I just knew my heart leapt with joy when I learned more and more about the profound practice of feng shui. Then my whole world started opening up. I never had any aspirations to write a book (let alone two!), teach, be any sort of public figure, etc. I just thought I’d be working for an architecture firm my whole life. So yes, I just followed the path laid out for me and it led me to feng shui.

Anne: You write that one should approach creating more aligned spaces beginning with intuition. I totally get that and use it for myself. But, when I get to the more technical aspects of feng shui, like using the bagua, my eyes glaze over and I throw my hands up and throw in the towel. These technicalities turn me off. Is there hope if I don’t follow most of the “typical” tenets of feng shui?

Anjie: Everyone has intuition, but that doesn’t mean everyone has cultivated skills and wisdom of any practice (like feng shui, or meditation, or creating a loaf of bread, or playing piano). It requires a bit of elbow grease 🙂 If the technicalities throw you off, then feng shui is probably not your thing. Just like I have no interest in making my own bread, it’s not my thing. One would not just say, well intuitively I know how to play piano…. It’s important to have some respect and cultural appreciation of practices and ancient wisdoms. At the same time, I wrote my new book Mindful Homes with newbies in mind who do throw in the towel when they get confused. It’s part of my life path, and I feel it’s also part of my responsibility to share feng shui teachings in a way that is digestible. But that said, it’s totally ok to throw in the towel! I think the important thing is to be respectful and not say that you know feng shui when you have not practiced. 

Anne: That makes a lot of sense! I loved the themes of interconnectedness and interdependence that ran through the book. I also found it refreshing and liberating to read that I was released from fixing a space or even myself. Can you describe your unique “turnaround approach” when most view as feng shui being a “fix” to imperfection? Do you feel that most feng shui teachings focus on fixing versus unfolding of one’s true nature in one’s physical and non-physical spaces?

Anjie: I think most of the western world as a whole is geared to a fix it approach. It’s not unique to feng shui. We think a pill, money, or a lot of “Likes” will make us happy, when really there’s much to look at underneath the surface. I don’t follow feng shui practitioners except my students and teachers. This teaching of interconnectedness, interdependence, becoming friendly with yourself, are within Buddhist and Taoist dharma teachings that are the underlying foundation of feng shui. Most things on a superficial level are about fixing. And that’s ok. My new book Mindful Homes is an invitation to take it a step deeper and offer what I have found helpful in my life. So, others can teach or practice feng shui as they wish. They can live life as they wish. And it’s all included.

Anne: How do you work with a living space that seems to be completely at odds with feng shui such as weird floor plans, stairways that can’t be moved for optimal feng shui benefit, etc.

Anjie: I teach that even if something has challenging feng shui, it might be helpful for that person. Sometimes we are attracted to homes that may open us up to or even exacerbate a situation because we are at the place to work with it. It’s workable. So with any floor plan or client, it’s all workable. When I work with a client and their space, it’s a 1-1 connection so it’s hard to say what I would do, because each situation, each space, each moment, each request is different. Just like we are all different.

Anne: It seems that creating healing spaces begins with noticing – noticing your feelings to something, your reactions, your “gut” response. I liked how you mentioned simple things like noticing your plants – have they outgrown a pot, are their leaves dusty. Is intentional noticing or honoring what your body is noticing through intuition, at the basis of feng shui?  

Anjie: Sometimes this can be a part of feng shui as I’ve suggested in my book. I don’t know if others practice this way or would necessarily agree. It’s just one of the many tools in the toolbox. There’s an invitation to see the world as non-binary. It doesn’t have to be yes/no good/bad black/white or this is feng shui, this isn’t.

Anne: What do you feel is the difference between feng shui and decluttering? Can you have an optimal dwelling space, whether internally or externally, with a lot of “things” in that space be it furniture or thoughts? 

Anjie: When feng shui was developed, there was no such thing as clutter. Clutter is a modern-day dilemma. And a feng shui practitioner does not have the same skills as a Professional organizer. I have zero experience in helping someone declutter their space. 

And yes, of course, one can have a lot of things in a space and it can be perfect for them. 

Anne: The book stretched the concept of feng shui for me in a way that created a great expanse. The section on space that also touched on manipulating and stretching time was a bit mind blowing. As was the focus not only on external spaces but also our internal spaces as well. You recommend a daily meditation practice. Can you briefly describe how such a practice creates a mindful inner space?  Do you feel that feng shui, along with meditation, are an ongoing practice instead of a one-and-done effort?

Anjie: I don’t know how to describe the indescribable. And I think it would be a disservice to do so. When I teach my students, and when you read my book, you’ll see there’s a large focus on your own experience. This is why meditation practice is so helpful. No one can tell you what your experience is in meditation, no matter how many words you put to it. And no one will ever understand you. But I’ve found, as a meditation practitioner, my most meaningful and helpful moments have been a direct result of sitting in silence with myself. For instance, I can do a whole meditation retreat with a stranger, never say a single word, and yet we have created a space and walked a journey together. And afterwards we don’t need to talk about the details, yet we know we have experienced a meaningful inner space together.

So, I would say, I can’t tell you or describe it. I would just recommend you practice it.

And for my students and myself, we see feng shui as a lifelong practice, study, and lifestyle. It’s a philosophy that trickles into every part of life, just like we are always present IN physical spaces. Feng shui is the space around us. At the same time, it’s totally ok for someone to just try things, meditation or feng shui or scuba diving :), and decide it’s not for them! 

Anne: One of my favorite aspects of Mindful Homes is how it includes ways to use crystals to enhance the space. How did you come to learn about crystals and the effects they have on one’s space?

Anjie: We all live on this planet earth. We walk on the earth. Crystals or even ordinary stones, come from the earth. It’s something we all understand. Most of us learn at a very young age that a diamond is of great value, it sparkles, comes from the earth, it offers clarity. I learned about crystals from just having them around me, from what others taught me, books, and I especially love crystals in jewelry. I make malas, and love to wear gems and semi-precious stones and metals. But even an ordinary stone that you meet on a hike can be a teacher. Stones, rocks, gemstones have been on this earth much longer than humans. There’s much stillness and wisdom there. In my book I review how crystals can be connected to feng shui principles through color, meaning, or by listening to the stone itself. 

Anne: You write that in feng shui, everything is alive, even our dwelling spaces as it’s filled with qi, the life force energy. You recommend that we name our dwelling spaces to reflect that qi. This reminded me of when I traveled to visit my husband’s family in England and I was struck that people named their homes. When they referenced going to someone’s house, they didn’t say “Let’s go to Marion’s house,” they said, “Let’s go to Sunnybrook,” the name of the house. How does one pick a good name?

Anjie: Oh yes, we do that in New York City, too. I didn’t think of that connection. There’s no good/bad name. And the name can always change. I think the key is to offer a name that arises from sincerity. Then it’s not necessary to judge it as good or bad. That said, if the word already has a lot of personal negative connotations for you, that might be something to pay attention to. I don’t think I’d want to be called “ugly” or “stupid”. 

Anne: A few years ago, I was home for a few days and so spent a lot of uninterrupted time in my living space. I noticed new things like how beautiful the late afternoon light was in one room where I had been reading. I experienced a quiet early morning having coffee outside when I’d normally been hurrying to work. Your book’s section on an unscheduled day resonated. Can you talk about the benefits of having an unscheduled day at home?

Anjie: One benefit is receiving messages from the home. There may be something the home can tell you that you’ve been neglecting. It’s very easy to take our homes for granted, and sleepwalking through life. But the world has so many gifts to share if we can just open our eyes and heart.

Anne: How does one incorporate the ideas in this book into one’s life if we share a space with others who are not so attuned or supportive of the changes we want to make? And you have recommendations for what to do if you don’t have disposable income to spruce up an outdoor space? For example, a house that lacks shutters or a space that is just dirt instead of lawn. What can you do if you are a renter and the space is not yours to decorate as you’d like?

Anjie: I recommend you only work on the spaces you are permitted to adjust. There should be some sort of consent from the other(s) that you share your spaces with. Or just make the shifts in the spaces that are yours. Same with renters, you can make the changes that are possible within the guidelines provided by your landlord. If you are staying in someone’s home, it’s not your home to change, but you can ask for permission if it’s something that you feel is important.

It’s a misconception that feng shui requires “disposable income.” For instance, if you want to bring a crystal into your home you can go out in nature and see if you find an ordinary stone that wants to come home with you. You can ask for permission and consent. If you get a yes, then you may take it home. 

Always, I say you can only do the best you can with what you have. It’s not helping you to say “yes, but……” you’re only creating the blocks for yourself.

Anne: Wow, thank you so much for all this insight Anjie! You’ve given me so much food for thought as I continue to become more aware of my connection to the space around me in my home. 

Anjie: You’re welcome! Thank you so much Anne!

For those whose interest is sparked by this interview, you can glean much more of Anjie’s wisdom in Mindful Homes: Create Healing Living Spaces with Mindfulness and Feng Shui (CICO Books 2023). I highly recommend it for those looking to spruce up their space and naturally shift the energy both within and around their home.

Mindful Homes, by Anjie Cho

Mindful Homes: Create Healing Living Spaces with Mindfulness and Feng Shui, by Anjie Cho
CICO Books, 1800652119, 144 pages, April 2023

Mindful Homes: Create Healing Living Spaces with Mindfulness and Feng Shui by Anjie Cho is an amazing resource for those seeking a change in how they live and the spaces they inhabit. Those spaces include living spaces, work spaces, outdoor spaces, and even one’s internal space.

Quiet and powerful; reflection and movement; slow and steady, these are all the ways I started to see the environment around me when reading this book. By unfolding awareness and remaining present-focused and forward facing, I tapped into the subtle energy surrounding me. And through contemplation coupled with action, as taught by Cho, I was able to create space both within myself and my home.

Cho, a registered architect and feng shui educator, naturally melds feng shui with mindfulness. She writes of her understanding that “each client, teacher, student, each and every person, being, and space is complete and perfect as they are.”1 This is the part where I exhaled in relief and gratitude coupled with a tinge of incredulity. This is the first (and only) book that I’ve picked up that touches on feng shui and isn’t filled with “to do” lists to correct problems.

Instead, Cho invites the reader to become aware of their own intuition and instead of working to fix something, instead work on shifts, subtle and bold, small and large because “if something shifts in your home it can not only be a reflection but a catalyst for change in your inner spaces.”2

Cho approaches feng shui was a “mindfulness-based practice, because our environments are connected to and resonate with us. Feng shui is a meditation in action, a dharma art so to speak.”3 II very much appreciated that Cho does not view feng shui as a quick fix or a superficial decorative style because as she continually reminds the reader, “you are truly perfect as you are.”4

A mindful approach to feng shui aligns the shifts made in one’s external environment with one’s internal landscape. We develop an increased aware of the spaces that we inhabit come to realize that “everything around us…are alive.”5

The book, illustrated with photographs of living spaces that elicit feelings of calm, is divided into nine sections that delve into tenets of feng shui like the use of the feng shui “map” or bagua and the connection between mindfulness and feng shui and creating a mindful space. In writing about the bagua she spends time focusing on certain crystals and their particular use in each gua. There is also a short description on how to use the feng shui crystal mandala and guidance for working with the crystals.

The section, The Seed Reveals and Eight Petal Lotus Blossom, is the one that she recommends referring to as one progresses through the book as it provides an overview of feng shui and its principles. Working with one’s insight and intuition, Cho offers a way to explore the five elements (earth, metal, water, wood, and fire) to learn more about them, “beyond what can be described by language.”6 She writes a meditation that one can follow but also provides an audio and video version of this guided meditation at mindfulhomesbooks.com

Also described in depth is the unseen flow of qi, or the “unseen life force energy that flows in, through and around all living things.”7 She provides guidance on how to make space for ne qi, whether for new beginnings, abundance, health, travel, children, self-cultivation, visibility, one’s path in life, and relationships including self-love. 

Cho also describes how to meet one’s heart in the bedroom, nourishing one’s self in the kitchen, and aligning one’s path in life with one’s workspace. The concluding section deals with interconnecting one’s home with the community.

As a practitioner of rituals, I loved the sections on space blessing rituals, awakening the deity of your bed, mindful eating, and blessing of objects. The book touches on such a wide range of topics such as creating an unscheduled day at home, and practicing letting go of objects. She offers practices such as doing one good deed a day for 27 days and if you have clutter, moving nine things a day for 27 days. 

Overall, I highly Mindful Homes: Create Healing Living Spaces and Feng Shui as well as visiting the website to avail one’s self of the meditations. Compared to other feng shui books, this book makes it easy for beginners to use the techniques to enhance their living space. It is sure to provide inspiration for how you can subtly change the energy of your environment to feel more at ease and filled with peace. I am continuing to move though the book’s practices, letting my intuition guide to me the sections of the book that are calling the most for my attention.

The Art of Breathing, by Danny Penman

The Art of Breathing: How to Become at Peace with Yourself and the World, by Danny Penman
Hampton Roads Publishing, 1642970425, 128 pages, May 2022

Breathing may just seem like the simplest thing in the world – something that doesn’t even cross our minds on a daily basis, it just happens to us. Naturally, The Art of Breathing: How to Become at Peace with Yourself and the World by Danny Penman PhD has much more to say on the subject. If breathing is really an art, it must be an ability which we can develop and deepen to reach a far greater depth than the usual automatic bodily process we’re so familiar with. Penman’s depth of experience and expertise as a meditation teacher and award-winning author certainly delivers on that promise. 

Going hand-in-hand with developing breathwork is the practice of mindfulness, which has become such a prevalent subject in recent times. As these topics have gradually diffused into western culture, and as more and more books, courses, and retreats emerge every year, how does an individual book stand out amid the crowd? Penman’s answer is to match the form to the content, which is certainly the most striking aspect of this little book.

The Art of Breathing doesn’t seek to simply impart information and techniques, like so many other books on these subjects do. Instead, the design of the books is a delightful journey through visual space as well as the realm of ideas. You almost can’t find a page without some sort of illustration, alternative layout, or background image that draws in your senses and evokes the presence of the natural world while you learn how to harness the power of your breath.

Some texts on meditation and mindfulness can be a little dry, like an instruction manual that has great results promised at the end, but Penman’s book takes an entirely different approach. As the title suggests, mindfulness practices are not meant to be solely therapeutic but also aesthetic. The quality of your experience is at least as important as the less-stressed, calm, and present state of mind you wish to gain. The immersion in imagery, which often involves plants, animals, and other scenes from Nature, helps to ground the reader in the world rather than removing awareness to the abstract mental realm.

As many practitioners of mindfulness, meditation, yoga, etc. would tell you, deliberately striving to achieve a specific result is more likely to be a hindrance than a help.

“The aim of mindfulness is not to intentionally clear the mind of thoughts. It is to understand how the mind works. To see how it unwittingly ties itself into knots to create anxiety, stress, unhappiness, and exhaustion.”1

Instead, Penman writes that mindfulness provides you with a place where one’s thoughts and emotions may be observed like the rise and fall of the waves, and in those spaces between lies a realm of expanding insight.

One of the specific features of this book that stands out is the design of the meditations and other exercises presented throughout the chapters. You might be familiar with meditations in other books that are paragraphs of text instructing you what to do. But if you aren’t a long-practicing meditator, those kinds of instructions can be difficult to hold in mind – especially while you’re supposed to be paying less attention to what the mind is saying. Not an ideal method for this sort of practice, unless you happen to have a picture-perfect memory. This is another place where Penman’s dedication to an aesthetic quality of presentation manages to shine forth.

In addition to offering audio versions of the meditation exercises on his website, Penman solves the problem of “too much text” by using flow charts set against the background of a great tree, full of tangled branches. It’s so easy to imagine a nest of birds hiding just out of sight while your eyes move over these pages, reinforcing the strong connection with the natural world that the author is encouraging us to remember. While engaging in these practices, it is a simple matter to glance at the next bubble in the flowchart to see the next step of the exercise. I found this incredibly helpful at keeping my attention focused on the exercise, moving from one step to the next without having to search for the place I’d left off.

The artistic style and layout isn’t the only aesthetic feature of this book either. Mindfulness practices can sometimes get stuck in the meditation-phase, where it seems like the only way that this quality of experience develops is by just focusing on the breath. But there’s so much more than breathing in Penman’s work.

For instance, you’ll find a Fruit Meditation, which takes mindfulness out of the breathwork realm for a moment and into the full range of the senses. Through deliberate exploration of a piece of fruit in all its sensory aspects, the exercise heightens your attention to all the little details packed into the simple activity of eating. Experiencing the manifold presence of a piece of fruit is an awakening to the quality of our sensations that our usual habits and attitudes might be ignoring.

This emphasis helps us move beyond the mindfulness found in meditation exercises and brings it out into the everyday world – a bridge that many books find difficult to cross. Penman is also unafraid to challenge common practices and conceptions about mindfulness and meditation. He argues, for example, that many people – especially beginners – would find cross-legged, lotus position meditation difficult and distracting.

Instead of trying to force yourself to sit in the “proper” position, where the discomfort of the body may hinder your ability to relax into a mindful state, Penman suggests that all you need is a Chair, a Body, some Air, your Mind, and that’s it! Although developing different positions and postures may be great in the long-run, your practice shouldn’t be held back on that account.

Overall, The Art of Breathing receives a big, two-thumbs-up recommendation. Although much of the content about breathwork, mindfulness, and meditation can be obtained from many other sources, Penman’s book stands out in its artistic presentation. This gives the work a sense of wholeness and integrity, which helps immerse the reader more deeply and immediately in the quality of awareness that is the subject of the book. And while it’s a short book – you can easily read the whole thing in an hour – its wisdom and exercises are so easy to return to that you’ll want to find it a prominent space on your shelf.