Torture victims turn to gardens for hope
It's spring again, and in the shadow of downtown Minneapolis, tiny green tulip spikes are about to push their way up through the barren brown earth of a freshly watered garden. In the coming months, they will be replaced by coneflowers, broad-leafed hostas, and milkweed. The space will fill with birds, butterflies, rabbits, and visitors from around the globe, who may choose to take just a few minutes to stroll through or linger for several hours. Though their origins are diverse, a majority of these guests share a common history: They have been victimized by both physical and psychological abuse.
The garden is a project of the Center for Victims of Torture, a world-renowned organization founded in 1985 to aid those who have suffered political violence. The center, headquartered in a Victorian house, has affiliates in 14 countries and serves survivors throughout the United States. Its clients experience feelings of isolation, trauma, and anxiety; many are haunted by flashbacks and nightmares. To treat this range of symptoms, commonly attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the center provides a three-tier treatment regimen: safety and stabilization; grief and mourning; and reconnection with family and community.
According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD has been a subject of study since the end of the Vietnam War, and researchers are still compiling information. It is known that PTSD affects the way the brain retains memory, and while drugs can mitigate symptoms, a purely pharmaceutical cure seems unlikely. Many psychologists, among them Joe Ruzek, recommend that patients, in order to cope over the long term, spend time in nature engaged in creative activities, which explains a growing interest in gardening as a healing tool.
Betty Ann Addison designed the center's garden. During summer months, people wait for appointments either on the cozy garden bench or on a large, canvas-covered swing. Along with serving as a waiting and meditation space, the garden is a conversation starter for many clients who, when they see the beauty growing around them, begin to open up to staff and talk about their own gardens, especially the plants they miss from back home.
The garden is also a salve for employees who need a place to process painful stories and horrific images. Many staff members are now gardeners themselves, since it helps them stay connected with a calming influence amid the constant stress of work.
Because a sense of isolation often accompanies PTSD, gardening is also used to help people connect with one another and reestablish a sense of trust. Every year on June 26, the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the center holds a tree-planting ceremony. Several flowering trees are added to a growing grove at the front of the house, and, according to the center's C.C. Strom, volunteers 'plant messages of hope and healing in anticipation that the hopes will grow and flourish.'
A few basic principles lie at the heart of every healing garden, Addison says. Ideally it should be planted in a place that has shade, sun, and silence, so people can meditate undisturbed. The plot should be tended year round, no matter the weather, so those who use it have both a sense of permanence and a feeling that the environment can be trusted as a life-giving force; to that end, it should include evergreens as well as flowers. Finally, the garden needs a focal point for meditation. At the Center for Victims of Torture it's a small rock garden with delicate wildflowers emerging between large rocks, symbolizing both a struggle for life and triumph over adversity. Ultimately, Addison says, gardens are all about transition -- whether it be from illness to healing or from life to death. They change by the hour, week, month, and year. They require us to relinquish control: A deep appreciation of life emerges with each sprouting plant, even the weeds. And simply by embracing natural rhythms, people from all walks of life, no matter the nature of their past experiences, can learn to accept the inevitability of loss and find hope in the promise of new life.
Spiritual Gardening at Home
Here are a few ideas from Oregon-based herbalist and gardening expert Richo Cech to help you start your own spiritual garden.
Set an intention. State your need or purpose for the garden and the nature of the relationship you'd like to have with it.
Create a design that reflects your intention. Choose a mix of plants that nourish body, mind, and spirit, such as herbs that are flavorful or medicinal or that have spiritual importance. For example:
White sage is an herb with antioxidant and antibacterial properties that can be made into tinctures, teas, and incense.
Tulsi or holy basil is used in Thai recipes. Hindus also grow it outside the doors of their homes and temples to purify the space.
Don't wage war on weeds. They are not your enemy! Here are some things to do instead:
If they can't be eaten, chances are they can be turned into medicine. Certain weeds, such as dandelion, burdock, chickweed, and nettle, are full of vitamins and medicinal properties.
Practice patience. Use weed pulling as a chance to remove blockages to kindness. Don't think of them as 'bad,' just remove them to refocus energy and conserve soil nutrients for preferred plants.