Shiso, Serendipity, and Synchronicity

It is scientific fact that there’s more going on within us and around us in any given moment than we can possibly pay attention to. And while we do have some control over where we choose to place our attention, our experience of being in the world is not unlike that of walking through a cave with a flashlight. We can only really be aware of a small portion of it at any one time.

But are “we” always in charge of where we shine the light of our attention? Do “we” decide to become aware of a certain leaf on the ground, sensation in our body, or memory percolating up from our unconscious mind? The answer is yes only if our definition of “we” includes all the unconscious processes within the totality of our organism. For us to notice a certain leaf, something about it has to register within our unconscious mind and determine it worthy of elevation into consciousness. Is it a different color or shape than all the others? Does it bring forth other associations? Is that sensation telling us to do something for the sake of comfort or safety? Does that memory constitute a warning, something to savor, or something to resolve for our overall wellbeing?

Those of you who are familiar with me and my musings know that I often ponder whether two contemporaneous occurrences have manifested in some synchronistic way, or whether my attention to them both is merely serendipitous in nature. I think of myself as a fairly rational being, but I also have a pretty broad mystical streak. I also choose not to make pronouncements about metaphysical reality. I say this in order to introduce a couple of synchronistic, or at least serendipitous, events that I experienced recently.

Shiso, or beefsteak plant
Green shiso

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I, and my brother and sister-in-law from West Virginia, enjoyed a week of hiking and rafting in and around the New River Gorge. To my delight, the first thing I noticed upon our arrival at their home was a gorgeous cluster of purple shiso growing right beside their driveway. Shiso, also known as beefsteak plant, is a mint-like annual sometimes used in Japanese cooking. I’d not seen it since I was last attending a Zen temple that I used to frequent many years ago. It was quite prolific there all around the back garden. By the way, it is considered an invasive species in many areas, so please check into recommendations for your area before cultivating it.

Now, discovering shiso again after all these years is neither synchronistic nor particularly serendipitous. However, on my first run down into the river valley after returning home, I passed a long patch of shiso growing alongside the road that I’d somehow overlooked during the dozens and dozens of times I’d run past it! Why was my attention drawn to it this time? Did my experience complimenting my brother and sister-in-law on what lovely shiso they had prime me to then, quite serendipitously, notice the shiso that I’d heretofore overlooked just down the way, or are the two incidents synchronistically linked somehow? Could it be that the sudden reappearance of shiso in my life is indicative of something the universe is trying to tell me?

On a couple of occasions while hiking the New River Gorge, I happened upon puffball mushrooms off to the side of the trail. Though they vary in size, all puffballs live up to their name as spore-filled balls that burst when the time is right to release an almost smoke-like cloud of spores upon the breeze. I don’t really know how rare puffballs are, but I don’t recall ever seeing one throughout the entirety of my adult life. In fact, the only other puffball I remember seeing was when I was a child crawling amongst the bushes out in the woods behind our house. For this reason alone I was filled with wonder once again to see them with my very own eyes.

Puffball mushroom
Puffball mushroom

But such a rare sighting is neither synchronistic nor even particularly serendipitous. That came a little bit later. Within a week of returning home, I was walking across the lawn to retrieve the newly emptied trashcan when I spied something interesting in the grass right in front of me. Yes, it was a puffball! An interesting occurrence, to be sure. But what do such observations mean?

As we go about our lives we store up memories, and we draw connections between them. We notice patterns, and we conceptualize cause and effect. We form a worldview, and it, in turn, informs how we live our lives going forward, and how we think about it in retrospect. Our karma, at least in part, is simply the unfolding of this process.

There is shiso, and there are puffballs. When and where we see them is a function of habitat, time of year, and our level of attentiveness, in general. But our previous experiences of shiso and puffballs, in particular, also play a role in what rises up into our consciousness. Everything else may simply be happenstance and coincidence. And yet there are some occurrences that are so coincidental that they rise to the level of some theorized greater meaning. Their coincidence may be telling us something. Their coincidence may result from some dynamic process that we can only guess at.

So, I can pass off these observances of shiso and puffballs as rather random, coincidental occurrences; and part of me is inclined to do just that. But I can also reflect upon what shiso and puffballs mean to me, and why they might be appearing to me now. I associate shiso with Zen practice, for obvious reasons. I associate puffballs with my wonder-filled childhood exploration of the natural world. Are these two related? Is “the world” trying to tell me something in the here and now? Is my “true self” trying to tell me something about where my future attention should be directed? Are these even questions that I should be attending to? What do you think?

Copyright 2021 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

The Teachings of Cucumbers

I’ve not tended a vegetable garden in quite some time, so perhaps my enthusiasm had me filling my newly built raised beds with a few too many plantings for optimal yield. Combine that with an abundance of rain early on in the season and I had a veritable jungle on my hands in no time. The zucchini infringed on the cucumbers so quickly that all I could do was throw up my hands. The grape tomatoes crowded out the beans with such haste that all I could harvest was a couple of handfuls before they were swallowed up completely. At least the opportunistic groundhog was able to snack on the collard greens and Brussels sprouts before they too disappeared!

Notwithstanding these “difficulties,” we’ve enjoy quite a bit of natural bounty, and learned and relearned some valuable lessons that will hold us in good stead for years to come. One such lesson came in the form of a pleasant surprise the other day. Vegetable gardeners know well such surprises, I’m sure, like when that first pepper suddenly appears big and firm, as if overnight, or when you watch a certain fruit develop gradually that you’ve only previously seen fully formed in a supermarket. In this case I was looking for zucchini amongst the vines that had spilled over the lawn with such gusto that I’ve had to stop mowing that area. Well, here’s one! But it looks kind of strange. I plucked it from its grassy nest as if I were picking up a baby rabbit. It was a cucumber!

That cucumber plant that I’d thought was long gone was actually quietly doing its important cucumber work all summer long: reaching out from behind that monolithic zucchini plant, vining through the unmown grass alongside the raised bed, blossoming in the sunlight all the way over on the other side, and producing a piece of fruit that brought us joy, a nice cucumber salad, and this blog post. It reminded me of a quote printed on a bookmark that I’d picked up at Sanshin Zen Temple many years ago, one that has been nestled between some pages on my bookshelf ever since:

“When we see emptiness, we realize there’s no hindrance, no obstacles to block our life force. It is soft and flexible, like a plant that tries to go around a big rock and continues to grow. There is always some other way to live, to grow.” Commentary on the Heart Sutra by Shohaku Okumura, Roshi

Okumura is speaking of the Buddhist concept of emptiness, sunyata in Sanskrit. All things are empty of independent and enduring selfhood. The cucumber plant entertained no fixed ideas about growing right where it was planted, or shame for yielding its space to that “bully” of a zucchini plant, or prideful attachment to manifesting its best cucumber self by producing a nice bush of its own with much fruit to show off. Because the cucumber plant had no fixed ideas about the nature of its selfhood it was free to be whatever it needed to be to go on living in the best way it could.

This so-called emptiness of all things is good to keep in mind, perhaps especially in this day and age where world events are unfolding contrary to how we think they should unfold. We (and the world) might be well-served by considering emptiness whenever we’re feeling stuck, confined, diminished, overshadowed, frustrated, or otherwise thwarted from being what we think we should be. Perhaps there is another way to be. Or perhaps we’re already being in that other way, just as that cucumber came to be in another way, but we simply haven’t grown to accept it just yet. It’s good to have goals, plans, and standards by which to live. But let’s be open to being in other ways as well. Perhaps another way is the way that will be most beneficial to us (and the world) after all!

Copyright 2021 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.