Category Archives: tree analogy

But then I remember

Amidst all the conflicts going on — the mental illness that leads to massacre, the fear that leads to hate, the anger that leads to violence, the centuries old ill will between whole groups of peoples, the bristling at even listening to the views of the ‘other side’ — how are we to find even a smidgen of happiness? And is that even something we should care about at times like these? Are we like small children crying for lack of something fun to do when the whole house is burning down around us?

After a difficult night’s sleep, this morning I woke to just that sense of despair. So much sorrow, so much injustice, so much hopelessness in the world. And I felt disdain for my feeble attempts at personal happiness when the world is crumbling around me.

But then I remembered.

I remembered that I can’t help anyone else if I am drowning. So it’s not just okay but imperative that I be sure I keep my head above water, able to breathe.

Ah the breath. Yes. I come back to the breath, just noticing, but also appreciating that it is still there, still breathing me, that it is my greatest support. Gratitude arises. Appreciation. Deeper noticing. I find my footing. I feel grounded. I’m not drowning in despair.

Just like that, I land fully in this experience of life. This here right now is all I have to work with for whatever I want or need to do. This moment, this breath, this sense of connection: This is my personal point of power. I am anchored by the breath the way a tree is anchored by its roots — supported in all the ways it grows. I grow where I am planted, branching out in all directions, responding with the wisest intention and wisest effort I can manifest to the ever-changing causes and conditions of life.

In what other ways can I learn from the trees? Just like the tree, sometimes our greatest offerings are hard for us to see. Does the tree know that it offers a way for the squirrels and birds to navigate, feel safe and nest? Does it know it provides shade for the weary wanderer to rest?

What do each of us offer the world around us that we aren’t even aware of providing?


My brother John and me under a tree

I think about that in relationship to my brother this week in particular, as the days lead up to his life celebration and I will briefly speak about him. What will I say? How will I say it? What will help those gathered? What is better left unsaid? We are all so tender in our own grief. But we also need each other at this difficult time of shared loss.

The moon is getting so full, and my heart with it. The clear night bright light keeps me awake. But in my sleeplessness, trying to wend my way back into dreams, I find myself instead re-inhabiting those last difficult days of his life, and how helpless I felt to save him as he slipped away before our eyes. I think about what I might have done differently, but nothing would have made a difference in the outcome. And I think about his life, what a difference he made every day in the lives of those who knew him. Like most of us, his life at times took dead end roads and contained some actions with painful consequences. Yet he died surrounded by loving family and life-long friends who have gone on to create beautiful memorials for him. He touched so many lives in so many wonderful ways, just by being his kind funny generous self. 

They say there are no failures, but that’s not true. There’s the failure to understand our own intrinsic value and the value of every being we encounter in our lives. We can take lessons from the trees. We can stay present, stay rooted, keep growing, keep providing for ourselves and others whatever it is in our nature to offer when we release our fear and rest in awareness and compassion.

Swinging Limb
for my brother John Culler, 1942 – 2017

Out beyond the field
that edged our neighborhood:
A tree we kids called
Swinging Limb.
Upon it we would climb
to laze the summer days away,
at rest in its dip and rise.

— Stephanie Noble

Coping with what life gives us

The tenth Paramita* is Equanimity, the ability to hold all that is going on in our lives in an easeful way. In the past I have used the analogy of being like the sky, holding fluffy white clouds, rainbows, storms and lightning bolts all at once.

Many years ago a woman in our sangha out at Spirit Rock asked how was it possible for her to attend her daughter’s wedding with true joyousness of spirit when her dearest friend was dying in the hospital. This question has always stayed with me as an example of what is asked of us in life, and how equanimity serves us. The answer to the question is to stay as present in the moment as we can and to be compassionate with ourselves when we find that our awareness of joy is shot through with a thread of sorrow. So we can be fully where we are (at the daughter’s wedding) and be fully who we are (a caring friend and mother). One does not negate the other.

In fact, these kinds of contrasts are often the richest moments in our lives. I remember at the memorial we gave for my father in his home on his birthday the week after he died. I remember the beauty of the cherry blossoms that completely surrounded his deck and how much he loved them, and how sorry he felt that his beloved wife was no longer there to enjoy them. And I remember how I came upon my son changing the diapers of his month-old daughter on my father’s bed where just the week before, Dad and I had watched Wheel of Fortune and I had begged him to let me spend the night on the couch, sensing the end was near. One week apart, two sets of fathers and daughters: one set at the end of life, the other set at the beginning. To be able to hold the beauty of that is a great gift of equanimity.

There are other ways to describe equanimity. One is to find your center of gravity, that way of being in your body and in your life that you are sufficiently grounded that nothing throws you. Recently I heard a zen teacher from Nova Scotia talking about equanimity. He shared how his teacher had demonstrated it. He stood up and held his body rigid and told two men to try to knock him over. It was easy. Then he changed his stance, relaxing, going limp, being rooted in place with the release of tension. And when the men tried to move him, they couldn’t do it.
My students, all female, did not feel very inspired by this image. Is the real goal in life to be unmoved?  But they responded with more enthusiasm when I suggested that trees are grounded in this way.

Here’s a poem I recently wrote that captures some of that feeling:

Oak Sisters

Three oaks entwine on the hillside:
Minoan snake goddesses with burl breasts.

I, with the good fortune to sit below them,
rarely bow in gratitude,

while they bow to the wind, the rain,
the sun and the moon.

I am footloose, but rarely dance,
while they, despite earthly constraints,

sway together in ecstasy.
I imagine underground a mirror dance

of roots rollicking round rock,
deeper and deeper into the soil of being.


Of course, California live oaks are beautiful trees but not necessarily the best example to aspire to when we want to remain upright come what may. In a severe storm or even in the middle of a drought, an oak will occasionally crack and fall to the forest floor. We might choose instead a more supple tree for our role model! But you get the idea.

So now we have two ways of seeing equanimity:

  • Being spacious like the sky to hold whatever arises
  • Being like a supple tree, rooted and able to dance in the winds of life, resilient

Both of those views are helpful. Some others less so. For example, when we think of balancing, we might picture a tightrope walker on a highwire. Life might feel like that at times, but it’s a worldview that is bound to create fear and tension. If you find yourself in that position, let go! Discover that life will support you.

Another image that comes up is the art of balancing stones. Perhaps you’ve seen the results, or have watched in fascination as the artist gives his or her full attention to setting the stones, and perhaps you have even tried it yourself. At Spirit Rock on retreat I have walked up the hill to an area that was full of stones that were fun to stack. They weren’t the more challenging rounded stones the artists use, but the process still required my full attention. It’s a lovely meditative process.

That view of equanimity reminds us to be fully present, to sink into full awareness and a sense of connection with whatever we are doing. But the image could backfire if we are attached to the stones staying stacked! It could easily bring out perfectionist tendencies and the fear of things falling apart and personal failure.

In my ‘Oak Sisters’ poem there was a quality of dancing, and I am reminded of how for many years I did Nia, a dance exercise class that develops a supple grace in the body. I had no idea how stiff and ungraceful I was until I started that class! But over time I softened in my movements and gained greater balance. I felt centered and joyous. We worked from our core, just as you do in Pilates or yoga, and were trained to not overextend our limbs. What a good lesson for life that is! Where in life are you feeling overextended?

Part of the reason we overextend is that we are trying to please or impress someone else. So we are seeing ourselves from the outside, the way we think others see us. This is ‘object mode’. This is a good way to get way off balance! We need to be the subject of our own lives, the center of our own universe. This is not selfish. This is growing where we were planted. Remember that when we send metta (lovingkindness) we always begin with ourselves before sending it out to others and ultimately to all beings. Because we can’t give what we don’t have.

In meditation we find that when we go rigid we get easily distracted, and getting caught up in thinking and emotion will cause tension in the body. But when we relax our muscles and find a balanced posture, we are able to sustain a seated practice for quite sometime. And as our mind relaxes that spacious quality of sky is able to arise and fill the whole of our awareness.

And then when we go about our lives, perhaps we can develop a greater sense of ease and natural grace, able to carry whatever challenges life has given us. We may even find that what we have held as burdens will gently reveal their gifts.

May we be dancers on this earth, sensing into the music of life.

So these are all ways of looking at equanimity. What resonates with you? What questions does it bring up? What is your experience of equanimity? Please comment below.

*Paramita or parami is a state of quality of Buddha mind that we are cultivating. Equanimity (Upekkha) is the last of the ten paramitas we have been studying. See the rest in earlier posts. You can type ‘paramita’ in the search bar in the right-hand column.

Shallow Rooted ‘Should’ – our exploration continues

I have used this image of the tree and its roots system sinking deep into the nourishing soil to discuss finding balance in life. And it is an appropriate image to use again in our current discussion of words like should, shouldn’t, must, ought — the kind of words that may get us to accomplish something, but in the long run are ineffective and disruptive.

Using our tree analogy, should and other such words are like artificial fertilizers applied to the surface of the soil. They cause activity in the roots, but can’t go deep enough to strengthen and balance the tree. The roots stay close to the surface, causing instability.

The ‘should’ fertilizer we keep applying in our thoughts may have the temporary effect of causing us to leaf, green up more, and be perfect specimens. “Look here! I accomplished that goal. I did what I should and I’m proud of myself and glad that’s over!”

To be effective the fertilizer has to be applied again and again. It’s an artificial construct, constantly activating us to be ‘our best.’  That ‘best’ is determined by the internalized gardener (the set of ‘should’ messages we have internalized from external sources) who has certain preferences, like having us at the perfect peak of bloom, never dormant.

This goes against nature, the cyclical quality of life itself. When we force bloom ourselves through the repeated application of this ‘should’ fertilizer, we get stressed and out of touch with our own natural rhythms.

So where did this internalized gardener come from? We learned all the inner ‘should’ gardening techniques we use from our parents, teachers, schoolmates, friends and the culture we live in, all of whom learned the same ‘should’ talk as part of the cultural norms. As there are cultural shifts in the norms over time, the shoulds just change the formula on the fertilizer, so one generation may have a different set of ‘shoulds’ to deal with. And of course the ‘shoulds’ have variations in different parts of the world.

To continue our gardening analogy, think about how trees grow in the forest without a gardener to ‘nourish’ them. For the most part they do just fine, don’t they? And we, without all the ‘should’ fertilizer, are able to do ‘our best’ without relying on these internalized external messages constantly pushing us to do so.

If this sounds scary, it’s only because we sometimes don’t know who we are without these messages we have relied on so heavily. But this is the gift of insight practice, to explore who we are when we let go of all the ‘extra’ stuff, including the ‘should’ messages that bombard us and make it difficult to simply be.

I remember at one point in my life feeling so reliant on the should messages to get me through my day that I had no sense at all of who I was. I told a work colleague that I felt ‘totally separate from myself.’ I was lost in the shuffle of trying to live by ‘should’ messages, trying to be what I thought others expected me to be. I needed most desperately to be the best I could be in order not to disappear off the face of the earth. Or so it seemed. If this resonates in any way, please take more time for yourself NOW, not at some lovely later date when things are less demanding. It may seem like the only thing that is holding you up is the long list of ‘should’ messages, but in fact there is a powerful support system already in place if you just take the time for yourself in a quiet intentional way to notice.

This is where the real value of going on a longer retreat comes in. In a pared down setting with minimal instruction and lots of space and time to be in silence, we have an amazing opportunity to notice all the clatter. If we get caught up in fighting the clatter, we just make more clatter. But if we simply notice it, observing its ways, giving it a lot of space to show itself fully and our awareness space to hold it without getting tangled up in it, then we gain great insight. The ‘shoulds’ show up and reveal themselves as voices from the past perhaps, voices we can now recognize. We can question the veracity of their statements because we are adults now and can be more discerning. We can recognize the fear in which these ‘should’ messages are steeped. Patiently and respectfully, we can have an inner dialogue and address the fears skillfully. This is the great benefit of sustained and intensive meditation practice.

In our tree analogy, we can see that the constant shallow application of artificial fertilizer stunts the roots, keeping them close to the surface, unable to withstand a strong wind. Just so, we are unable to withstand the strong winds of causes and conditions — loss of love, position, power, possessions, health, etc. — if our roots are not deeply rooted in rich soil and the underlying aquifer of  understanding our infinite connection to all that is.

So as part of your meditation, after you have developed a centering, focused awareness practice, allow time for insights to expose the ‘should’ patterns that rise up in your thoughts.

As we are able to notice the ‘shoulds,’ their hold on us lessens. We see how the sense of deeply-rooted connection inspires naturally arising loving-kindness and compassion so that we don’t need ‘should’ to know how to behave. If we sense our connection, we will be respectful toward ourselves, toward the earth and all life. Out of that connected respect comes a collaborative creative way of being in the world that no ‘should’ could ever force.

We will still be imperfect beings. ‘Perfect’ is a should-based concept that has no reality in nature. We will still have challenges and misunderstandings, but we will have the deep roots to keep us grounded, and that makes all the difference in the world.