There’s a tree that existed before the woods,
in age twice as old.
Its roots suffered as the valley changed,
its leaves deformed by wind and frost.
People all laugh at its withered aspect,
caring nothing about the core’s beauty.
When the bark is all stripped off,
only essence remains.
Trans. by Tony Barnstone
This morning I was introduced to Lillie. While the name might sound like a new app or clothing line, Lillie is something more rare—she is a lithe, 101-year old woman. A tiny fraction of one percent of the world population is centenarian. The wrinkled face and hands give a hint of a century of living, but like most her age, she doesn’t dwell on the hardships of epidemics and wars, or unrealized aspirations.
In tree years, Lillie would be a sapling among some species. For example, a spruce in Sweden is recorded to have lived about 9,550 years. Even as sapling, Lillie’s demeanor and attitude reflect the generosity of trees. She loves caring for her daughter and son-in-law, not because they house her, but because she has a tree-like nature. There is a continual offering of strength, stillness, protection, nourishment, stability, refuge, receptivity, giving, and serenity.
Trees have long served as symbols of lasting wisdom. Most world cultures have tales of sacred trees. For example, in the ficus family: the pipal or bodhi (F. religiosa) repre- sents happiness, longevity, and prosperity; the banyan (F. bengalensis), eternal life; and the sycamore (F. sycomorus), infinite connectivity between life and death. There are references to trees of life, knowledge, and perfection. And, there are promises that whoever knows the tree will be the knower of all truth. Their verticality is a reminder of our own rootedness in the earth, upright trunk and crown reaching toward the heavens.
As I read this poem by Hanshan, a 9th century poet- hermit, I felt as though I was near an ancient elder. Hanshan reaches across time and gathers together universal stories of our shared roots and lasting, spiritual nature. His imagery of a valley is symbolic of life itself as fertile and transitory. And, of the tree itself, it conveys a timeless essence, full of beauty and free of all rivalry and to amass more than is needed. I feel as though if I look carefully, I can find this or a similarly seasoned tree nearby. When I do, I will sit near its roots and simply listen.
This practice supports awareness of living essence in all realms.
- Standing, gently shake out your arms, wrists and hands.
- Still standing, close your eyes (if comfortable). In your mind’s eye, imagine being able to see beyond the immediate space where you are to the surrounding landscape in all directions. For example, there may be hills on the distant horizon in one direction, and vast open grasslands in every other direction. Imagine that landscape within your heart. Pause for a moment and seal in the memory of that landscape before opening your eyes.
- Then, settle into a comfortable seated position. If you are on a chair or bench, allow the soles of your feet to rest on the floor.
- Imagine you are a tree, and the earth is receiving your roots. Your roots are nourished by the water, the soil, and all the micro-nutrients. Feel your roots deepening and growing in all directions.
- Momentarily recall that wherever you are on the planet you are part of the full story of the Earth along with countless other living beings. Invite an appreciation of the Earth lovingly offering courage and strength to you through your roots.
- With continued awareness of the embrace of the soil, close your eyes (if comfortable) and return to the sense of the landscape abiding within your heart. Notice the spaciousness of the landscape. Pause for a moment, bathing in a sense of inner and outer spaciousness. Open your eyes, if they were closed.
- Shift your awareness back to the part of your touching and rooting into the Earth. Become aware of the part of you rising up from the surface of the soil, e.g., the trunk of your body. Imagine within the landscape surrounding you there is a forest of trees – all with firm, steady trunks. Appreciate all life nourished by the Earth and the spaciousness. Pause here and breathe with that awareness.
- Slowly become aware of the crown of your head, and the spaciousness not only in all horizontal directions but infinitely stretching above you. Imagine you have invisible limbs reaching into this upper spaciousness and receiving the warmth and light of the sun. Pause here and breathe with that awareness of being rooted, growing upward, and spreading in all directions.
- Once again, close your eyes and remember the landscape in your heart – all beings including you abide there in the expanse of life. Appreciate that you are the body of the whole, you are wholeness.
Transition Back into Your Day—
- Sit quietly for several minutes. Rest the backs of your hands rest on your thighs, palms upward.
- When you feel complete, return to your day.
This poem appears in Mala of Love: 108 Luminous Poems, page 111, edited by Ravi Nathwani and Kate Vogt and published by New World Library. The reflection is an excerpt from “Our Inherited Wisdom: 54 Inspirations from Nature and Poetry” by Kate Vogt, page 38-40. HEARTH is posted each new and full moon. KateVogt©2022.