Summertime is a good time to go outside. There’s nothing like a walk in the woods to clear away the debris of worry and woe. Sometimes the best teachers are the ones who say the least, and in the silence of their presence we feel innate wisdom welling up through the cracks of our own lives. The best teachers might be trees.
Feeling stuck? Feeling sad? Feeling nothing at all? Find a winding path through a canopy of trees, leave your worried mind behind, and let the voices of the wind lead you deep into this present moment. As your awareness begins to shift, you will notice, gradually at first and then suddenly, that trees are silent teachers and the lessons they offer would change our lives if we had the patience and courage to learn from them.
Here is what trees know.
Grow where you’re planted. We do not choose our parents, our families, our birthplace, our century, our genes, or any of the other accidents that inexorably shape our lives. Like trees, we must learn to accept the things we cannot change and thrive where we are. As a tree grows from a tiny seed and rises up through the challenges of its environment, adapting adversities into advantages, wisdom begins with acceptance and self-knowledge and ends with ascension and transcendence.
The invisible is the source of visible. Unseen beneath the surface roots grow deep, giving trees the stability to stand tall and reach for the light. Trees instinctively know this and put far more energy into root growth than branch and trunk growth in the early stages of their lives. Only when the roots are firmly established do the upper branches and leaves unfurl. We too should attend first to our inner growth before we get top-heavy with adornments and accessories.
Young and old have different needs and different gifts. A tiny sapling is weak and tender and needs protection from hungry mouths and trampling feet. The same tree, many years later, is able to provide protection, shelter, and sustenance for others. Our roles change as well as we age and grow. But no matter what our stage of development, strength comes out of our own nature, not our busy efforts. Stand in the truth of who you are at this moment in time. Accept help when you need it, but don’t stay helpless and dependent forever. Allow yourself to grow so big that others take refuge in you.
Strength comes from struggle. Twenty years ago when scientists built Biosphere 2, a vast enclosed ecosystem in the mountains of Arizona, they planted, among other things, trees. The trees inside the sealed enclosure grew more rapidly than their wild cousins outside. But they were thin and weak with underdeveloped root systems. Some even fell over from their own weight. At first scientists were mystified. Why would trees not thrive in this “perfect” environment? Then they realized that the trees were weakened by the absence of the one thing not included in Biosphere 2: wind. In the wild, trees must withstand strong wind and as a result develop what botanists call stress wood – strong, fibrous wood that vastly improves the quality of life for a tree. In our own lives, it is hardship and struggle that spurs our growth and strengthens our core. As we work hard to overcome the difficult people and challenging situations that threaten our serenity and steal our comfort, a toughness develops within us that informs everything we do. In light of this truth, gratitude, not resentment, is the wisest response to the forces that oppose us.
Nature is more cooperative than competitive. Survival of the fittest is true up to a point. Life begins with self interest. Inevitably, however, organisms, both within and between species, realize that their own survival is deeply intertwined with the survival of others. We’re much stronger together than we are apart. The well being of others becomes our own well being. The lie of individuality is laid bare by the truth of interconnectedness. Just as the cells of your own body work together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts, we too are cells in a wider ecosystem utterly void of boundaries. Life is one vast phenomenon – conscious, aware, perceptive, intelligent, creative, adaptive – systems nested within systems without beginning or end. As individuals, if you can even call us that, we are simply one momentary expression of the vast field of consciousness that expresses itself as stars and dandelions and blue whales. To not know this is to remain deeply ignorant of your essential nature.
Nothing is wasted, everything has value. In nature, there is no such thing as trash. Last year’s leaves become next year’s soil. Every individual form arises out of material left behind by previous organisms. There is no new matter. At the molecular level, matter simply reforms and recombines into new aggregates and arrangements. Nothing is ever lost. In the forest, there is a thin, diaphanous veil between birth and dying. Consciousness moves through the veil like the in and out breath of a sleeping god. In our own brief lives we too are formed from the materials of those who went before us, just as the things we cast off are re-embodied. Nothing is ever thrown away. There is no such place as “away.”
Be only who you are. Cedars don’t come from apple seeds. Have the courage and humility to surrender to your own nature. Don’t waste time trying to be something you are not. Without pretense or guile trees effortlessly express their own nature. They make it look easy. But it is not. For us, a thousand threads of desire, envy, and illusion tug at our hearts and pull us away from the simplicity of our essential core. It takes discipline and humility to learn how to distinguish between the authentic energy of our own nature expanding and the inauthentic egoic cravings and desires rooted in fear, anxiety and ill-founded feelings of inadequacy. Do you want to become a singer because singing is your authentic calling or do you want to become a singer to salve a wound caused by feelings of inadequacy? If the latter is true, no amount of fame and glory will ever heal that wound. If the former is true, the music itself will fill you with satisfaction. In other words, is singing rooted in your authentic nature and end in itself, or is singing a means to an end, namely self-aggrandizement? Before you embark on any strenuous journey, be it a career in the arts, a marriage or any other attempt to craft a life of joy and meaning, deep soul-searching is needed to sort this out. Spend some time under a big, shady tree. Life isn’t long enough for a thousand wrong turns.
Don’t be afraid to grow. Trees never apologize for growing new leaves and branches. They don’t intentionally stay small in a misguided effort to appear humble. You don’t do anyone any favors by shrinking, holding back or hiding your gifts. Let what is trying to emerge through you emerge. Become a channel through which the creative energy of the universe can sing one more song. But go slow. A tree never hurries; every movement is in keeping with its current strengths and abilities. There is no need to struggle and strain. Natural effortlessness is far more effective than hurried grasping.
Chances are there are woods not far from your home. The forest is lush, green, and full of secrets. Take a day and walk alone through shafts of light and fragrant breezes. There is so much to learn from the wisdom of trees.
Peter Bolland is a professor at Southwestern College where he teaches eastern and western philosophy, ethics, world religions, and mythology. Off campus he is a writer, speaker, and singer-songwriter. You can find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/peter.bolland.page or write to him at email@example.com