The murky depths of a compost bin may not be everyone’s idea of a feast for the eyes – but it is food for my soul.
In bleak midwinter when little else is happening in the garden I watch worms squirming and chomping through gunk and gloop to transform it into rich black soil. This means I get raspberries and roses in abundance in my tiny back yard in Brighton in summer.
The tangible benefits of composting are well known: it conditions the soil, reduces landfill and greenhouse gas. Shovelling the stuff makes you huff and puff which is a great workout.
It is also a beautifully simple, miniature model of the life cycle of decay and renewal. Compost gives me indisputable proof that lovely and delicious things can grow from unwanted revolting stuff. When I’m wading through life’s crap I get solace from this thought.
Compost is Yin Yang in action. The Taoist symbol reminds us that nothing is in opposition because all things are connected. Life and death hold the seed of the “other” imbedded in their core. I see this in my compost pile, where rhubarb flourishes next to the rotting materials.
Forget the philosophy books, all you need is food scraps, curiosity and time for contemplation to see the profound truth of Yin Yang of in decay and renewal.
Fascination with waste materials is important in Buddhism too. The ancient and venerated Satipatthana Sutta is the founding text of the mindfulness tradition. It describes the “foulness” of sweat, fat, tears, spittle and snot to give a full picture of what it means to be a mortal body. A gruesome description of a corpse devoured by various kinds of worms and human bones piled high, rotting and crumpling to dust, demonstrates the principle of impermanence. Contemplation of the compost pile can give you the same insight without Satipatthana’s scary visions.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh puts a more cheerful spin on putrefaction. True Love: A practice for awakening the heart uses compost as a metaphor for processing of difficult emotions. Consciousness is something organic in nature, he says. “Sadness, anger and the unwanted materials of the mind can be transformed into flowers of compassion, love peace.”
Han argues that the waste materials of the mind are precious and vital for our survival and development. “The gardener is always on the look out for scraps so he can grow flowers. The waste materials of the mind – fear and pain – are not to be thrown away. A little bit of practice is all you need to transform garbage into compost and compost into flowers. Suffering nurtures understanding, compassion and happiness.”
The principle of non-duality – Yin Yang – is clearly visible in compost according to Han. “If you look deeply at the compost with the eye of a meditator you can see lettuce and tomatoes. If you look deeply at a flower with the eye of a mediator you can see compost.”
You don’t need to belong to a religious creed to get inspiration from rotting materials. Shakespeare harvested many dramatic and artistic riches from the cycle of decay and renewal. He makes fun of the process in the comedy As You Like It. “And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot; And thereby hangs a tale.”
Spirituality, philosophy and art are often pretentious but compost is mucky and basic. Hanging out with the potato peelings, apple cores and worms is simply – being in nature – and this dissolves many of life’s questions and problems peacefully. This is how to reach the heart of the world.