Archive for March, 2012

Zen Gardens

March 25, 2012

by Janet Nicol

Observe the curving lines of raked gravel, the simple and precise arrangement of rocks, and the sound of a waterfall in a Zen garden. Breathe deeply and let go of worries. Meditation in a Zen garden will clear the clutter from your mind and nourish the spirit.

Cancer patients are often encouraged to meditate as a way to reduce stress and strengthen the mind-body connection. Meditating in a Zen garden as a complementary therapy enhances this experience.

The uniquely calming oasis invites awareness of an environment beyond the self and helps patients regain a sense of perspective and control. Just being “present” provides an opportunity to embrace the healing impact of nature.


Buddhist monks in Kyoto, the garden city of Japan, have welcomed visitors over the last five centuries to their Zen garden at the Ryoanji Temple. Monks sit on benches to contemplate the carefully arranged vegetation, rocks, and water elements. Beds of gravel are raked in patterns suggesting rippling water, symbolizing the sea.

Japanese gardens are also located across Canada (see end of article). The arrangement, colours, and content of the garden evoke tranquility. The garden design is minimalist. As well, the palette of garden colours is deliberately limited so visitors’ senses are soothed, not overstimulated. Researchers note Zen gardens instill a sense of harmony and foundation among visitors.


Meditation in a Zen garden can simply mean relaxing quietly. Practising mindful meditation may be even more beneficial. Of all the meditation methods available, Australian researcher Ainslie Meares found cultivating emptiness—the “absence of discriminative thought”—to be the most powerful type of meditation for healing. Meares suggests clearing the mind is, in fact, more powerful than thought-filled meditation such as positive thinking or guided imagery.

The BC Cancer Clinic offers an introduction to mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) meditation and basic yoga in an eight-week program offered throughout the year. Participants are asked to commit to a daily practice of approximately 45 minutes for optimal benefit. This practice has helped cancer patients to lower pain levels, reduce anxiety, and increase their sense of well-being.

Therapeutic healing gardens, including Zen gardens, are becoming more accessible to cancer patients as researchers continue to study their positive impact. Some gardens also provide horticultural therapy as a component of their stress-reduction therapies for clients diagnosed with cancer.

Stress reduction

Japanese gardens offer unique healing properties to vulnerable populations, according to a study conducted by Rutgers University. Researchers reported that patients who sit in these gardens experience reduced stress and enhanced well-being.

Some treatment facilities have designed Zen gardens with the needs of cancer patients in mind. Features include pathways that are symbolic of the cancer journey, with stepping stones and large boulders resembling challenges patients and their families may face along the way.


A cancer treatment centre at a community hospital in Oregon has designed an innovative garden setting. Patients receive treatment while sitting in ergonomic chairs, looking out through floor-to-ceiling windows at a Japanese garden containing waterfalls and a pond filled with koi. Japanese gardens emphasize natural patterns and human health, making them well suited for relaxation therapy and holistic cancer treatment.

Karen Wallace, a Vancouver Island art therapist, encourages her clients to create their own Zen garden. “The act of raking motion is meant to have a calming and centring effect on the person raking,” she explains. “Playing with the patterns can be a way to open or close a therapy session.”


Master gardener Yoshihiro Kawasaki was trained in Kyoto and has a landscaping business in Vancouver called Zen Gardens. “Zen gardens have a beautiful aesthetic,” Kawasaki says in an interview with alive, “and they are also contemplative.”

Several clients have requested Zen gardens after raising children, says Dorothy Kennedy, Kawasaki’s wife and business partner. “They want to replace the basketball court with a peaceful garden. But our clients could be from any age group.”

“Beginning my day by walking through an orderly, structured garden is the perfect antidote to the random chaos of everyday life,” says homeowner Michele Davidson, whose garden was created by Kawasaki.

“I have come to see the landscape of my Zen garden as a metaphor for the emotional landscape of my life,” she says, “with its pathways, hints of the hidden, hard surfaces and soft surfaces, greenery, blossoms, and shadows.”

Kawasaki adds, “These gardens have a calming effect, a healing power.”


Create a Zen garden

Do-it-yourself gardening books offer people an opportunity to create a Zen garden in their own backyard or on an apartment balcony.

If space is a consideration, a tabletop Zen garden consisting of a tray containing sand and stones can replicate a Japanese garden inside your home. These are available at select garden shops.


Visit a Zen garden

Japanese Garden and Pavilion, Montreal Botanical Garden
Its emerald-green stones, mined in Quebec,
represent islands within the dry landscape.

Zen Garden, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec
Built on the museum’s rooftop in 1995, its theme is Wakei No Niwa, which means to know and respect Canadian and Japanese cultures.

The Zen Garden, Harbourfront Centre, Toronto
Originally designed as a two-month exhibit, it honours the physical centre of Buddhist cosmology found at the sacred site of Mt. Kailas in western Tibet.

The David G. Porter Memorial Japanese Garden, Guelph University
Built in 1995 and dedicated to the late Dr. Porter, a professor at the university who became interested in dry landscape gardens
on a trip to Japan in 1993.

Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden, Lethbridge, Alberta
The teahouse, bell tower, azumaya shelter, gates, and bridges were built with yellow cypress wood by Japanese artisans and then shipped to Lethbridge.

Nitobe Memorial Garden, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
Located at the edge of the UBC campus, it is considered one of the top five Japanese gardens outside Japan and features a rare authentic tea garden with a ceremonial tea house.

Published in Alive magazine, March, 2012

Come from Afar – a review

March 1, 2012


Come from Afar by Gayla Reid, Cormorant Books, Toronto, 2011. 363 pp, $32 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

The Spanish Civil War was a romantic lost cause and continues to attract writers’ attention since the days of Ernest Hemingway, who drove ambulances on the rebel side, while conjuring story lines for his novel. Telling the tale from a women’s perspective is still unique all these decades later. BC writer Gayla Reid’s fills this gap admirably with her novel, ‘Come from Afar.’ Reid—originally from Australia and one of the founder’s of the Vancouver literary journal, Room magazine–has created a multi-dimensional character in Clancy Cox.

A young woman eager for adventure, Clancy travels from an Australian ghost town to work in England. She marries the brother of the man she actually loves and the couple move to a small fishing village in Catalonia, Spain. Here Clancy begins to absorb the soul of the Spanish people as the author describes: “The local women, mending the brown nets on the beach during the day, did not sing. But the women down at the inn sang. They sang in the house above the bar and in the impressive garden they tended beside and behind the inn.”

The fishing village becomes an important touchstone in Clancy’s psyche and provides a central stage for much of the hardships ahead. She is abruptly widowed and when civil war breaks out between the fascists and the rebels in 1936, she throws herself in to the ‘cause,’ volunteering as a nurse. Clancy is an ally to the male volunteers who pour in from around the world and form brigades to fight Franco’s soldiers, financed by Hitler and Mussolini. Weary from a four year European war and economic depression, the world’s democracies passively watch on.

The reader is made aware of bloody skirmishes, aerial bombings and political intrigues, but much of the war is reflected in make-shift hospitals, where Clancy labours to help the wounded and dying. She believes in her own healing powers as she faces the greater losing battle.

Clancy also meets other stoic doctors and nurses, and even the cellist Caslos, who comes to play for the patients. She describes his powerful music: ‘A melody edges on into the strangeness of things, coming at last to an open place that sounds like joy and sorrow fused, nothing less.’ At the hospital she also finds her true love, Douglas Ross, a soldier from New Westminster, BC and a member of the Canadian brigade, the Mackenzie-Papineau Brigade (the ‘Mac-Pacs’). More complications of the heart are ahead.

Actual nurses’ accounts were researched by the author, producing compelling details as Clancy describes her work: ‘The afternoon brought more stomachs, legs, arms, hands. And the worst, the head injury cases. By the end of my shift, forty-nine men had been classified.’ The author also read widely about this pivotal four year civil war, as indicated in the historical notes and bibliography.

Expect graceful storytelling, with only subtle references to historical fact. The reader is carried ‘afar’ with Clancy, embarking on valuable experiences and promise of the ‘lights of home’ at journey’s end.

Reprinted from Room magazine, 35.1 (February, 2012)