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Infinite patience yields immediate results. --Marianne Williamson

Delayed Gratification

--by Alanda Green, syndicated from heartfulnessmagazine.com, Jul 22, 2017

nature spirituality

ALANDA GREENE uses her experience of planting seeds to discuss the idea of not expecting anything from the work we do.


In my Educational Psychology class, I learned about delayed gratification, the ability to wait for a desired result, to postpone an immediate reward for a greater one later. A study of preschool children had been conducted to determine their capacity for delayed gratification. Each student was offered one marshmallow now with the promise of another marshmallow as well if able to wait fifteen minutes without eating the first one. Some gobbled up the marshmallow immediately, others struggled and finally succumbed before the time was up, and others managed to wait and have the double pleasure. The children who participated in this study stayed part of a longer forty-year research project. This study revealed that the group of preschoolers who exhibited the ability to wait for the reward showed much higher success in all areas of life in adulthood: health, happiness, SAT scores, work and general social integration.

Later, while teaching in my own classrooms, I always had students who struggled with a postponed payoff and probably all of us have known adults who continue to have difficulty with delaying gratification. These people are unlikely to be drawn to gardening. Practically everything about gardening connects to delayed reward.

Take the basic act of planting, for example. I have been planting seeds for as long as I can remember when, as a very small girl, I joined my father in our backyard. Dad always marked out a couple of rows for me, and I dropped tiny radish seeds along the trench he grooved with a stick. Then a row of impossibly smaller carrot seeds beside them. We covered the seeds, patted them firmly, and watered. And I watched, ready to eat whatever grew, expecting it any moment.


“It will take a few days or a week before they show above the ground,” my father said. A week? That is like an eternity to a little kid. But the days went by and finally small round green leaves emerged where the seeds had been placed.

“Can we eat one?” I asked.

“Not for a while yet. Maybe three weeks.”

Three weeks! That is like almost a lifetime. Sometimes I pulled one out, disappointed to find a skinny pale red root that was nothing at all to munch on.

Then finally I would hear, “Okay, they’re ready. See that curved bit of red showing at the dirt.”

I love radishes – their taste, their round red brightness, the contrast of green leaves to red globe, and mostly their connection to my father and my first gardening experiences. And I love how they are usually the fastest of the seeds to sprout. Carrots require quite a bit more skill in the delayed reward area.

No matter how many times I plant seeds, these small, hard beads of potential, I am thrilled when the signs of growth emerge. It is as if I never really believed it would happen this time. Seems just too improbable that those tiny pieces would transform as they do. If you held some radish seeds in your hand and showed them to someone who knew nothing about growing things, and told them what would happen when put in the ground and water poured on them – well, they might think you were a bit daft, or else that you were trying to fool them. Because how could such a thing happen? Or maybe they would think you believed in magical thinking, or had no clue about things worked in the real world. It is sort of like putting an eye of newt in a cauldron, repeating strange words and expecting something to happen.

Without an understanding of
delayed gratification,
the connection between the green leaves
emerging to the seeds
that went into the ground
might never happen.

Pretty improbable. Without an understanding of delayed gratification, the connection between the green leaves emerging to the seeds that went into the ground might never happen. Even when it does, and when I get the connection, it is still a miracle. I still see how little I really have to do with the intelligence for growth hidden in the seed.

I have friends who think using so much time in spring to dig and plant and weed is just not worth it. “It’s only food. You can get good radishes at the market. It’s too much work for what you get,” and so on.

I’ve mused about how these facets of gardening connect to spiritual life and practices. Rewards can be immediate, just as the right now reward is in planting seeds with the pleasure of hands in dirt, talking with your dad or being outside. But there is another reward to come. With a garden, I’ve got enough years of experience to know that there’s a waiting period and then a pay off from planting a seed happens.

Many people express how meditation has immediate rewards and speak of the benefits they feel on a daily basis – calm, more relaxed and peaceful, more at home in their own skin. I have experienced all this, but that is not the reason I meditate. Besides, those words do not always describe a meditation session. Sometimes it is uncomfortable, challenging, difficult, anything but peaceful. Sometimes I wonder why I am doing it at all. I feel the urge to bolt, the sense that cleaning drawers would be a better application of time, that my mind will never stop its antics and I might as well get something practical accomplished.

I keep doing it for the same reason I planted those seeds as a little girl. I didn’t have the experience or knowledge to know what the outcome would be, but I trusted my father. He was the one who knew until my own experience validated his words. In the same way, I trust my spiritual teacher.

The timeframe is larger than for a radish seed’s authentication, but maybe, relatively, it is similar. Maybe as ability to delay gratification develops, the time period extends. Maybe it will take more than this lifetime to know from my own experience what will be the outcome of regular meditation.

A few weeks did seem like nearly a lifetime to a three-year-old. Maybe gardening is the very best activity to prepare for what meditation requires.

When considering spiritual practices, even the words delayed gratification or postponed reward do not accurately fit the gap between what I am doing now and what will unfold as a result.

Conventional psychology teaches us that humans are motivated by pleasure. Delayed gratification occurs when an increased pleasure further in the future makes waiting and forgoing the immediate one worthwhile. With spiritual practice, the idea of doing it for reward, for anticipated pleasure, or for gratification doesn’t really resonate. It is more about meaning.

It helps me understand karma – the connection of what I do now to what transpires in the future. In the garden, I cannot know all the influences or conditions that are at work. Sometimes a seed doesn’t germinate. Sometimes worms come and burrow through the white flesh and the brown tunnels of their travel leave the radishes inedible. Sometimes unpredictable weather upsets the growth. The radishes get all leafy and the root is hard and hot. They get pithy and dry. And sometimes they are just perfect.

That intelligence of life,
the pattern of growth, the weather
– all this is beyond my control.
Yet I play a part.
My teacher was fond of saying:
When the track is laid,
the train must travel over it.
But we can choose the track we lay.

I notice how often I think I can control it all and get the perfect radish every time. I can’t. But I can enrich the soil with compost, keep it watered, plant at appropriate times, cover to keep the flies that lay the eggs that become the worms away. But even so, I am just helping things along. That intelligence of life, the pattern of growth, the weather – all this is beyond my control. Yet I play a part. My teacher was fond of saying: When the track is laid, the train must travel over it. But we can choose the track we lay.

There is something about faith here too. It’s faith built on trust. It means trusting a much larger time frame and process before the evidence is clear. But for sure, the garden teaches me that making no effort does not allow a desired outcome to happen. Cannot guarantee it will happen – too many unpredictable factors at play.

But it is also a window on the relationship to effort and grace. Without the effort of doing what I can in creating a receptive environment for the seed, the grace that lets the seed’s intelligence unfold will not do so to its potential and maybe not at all.

This article is syndicated from Heartfulness magazine. Heartfulness is an approach to life, the world around us, and to our Self. Learn to Meditate. How to Meditate. Heartfulness Meditation. Mindfulness. Yoga. Author Alanda Greene lives in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia, Canada. Having a deep connection with nature, she and her husband built their house of stone and timber and a terraced garden, and integrated their life into this rural community. Alanda’s primary focus is the conscious integration of spirit with all aspects of life.


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