Be a Tree

Trees have somehow become central in my life experience these days. I’m in the woods far more during COVID-times than I used to be. But more than that, trees seem to be in the news a lot now, from forests burning down to critiques of a 75-foot Norway Spruce being chopped down to bring ‘cheer’ and a refugee owl to Rockefeller Center.

Even last week’s quotation from the Center for Spirituality in Nature was tree-themed:

“Trees are sanctuaries.
Whoever knows how to speak to them,
whoever knows how to listen to them,
can learn the truth.
They do not preach learning and precepts,
they preach, undeterred by particulars,
the ancient law of life.”

—Hermann Hesse

Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m reading The Overstory for our next book discussion, where trees are literally communicating with the main characters. But fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately?) that hasn’t happened to me. Maybe trees are so much in the news and the collective culture because people have started to sense that one day soon they might be gone. I imagine the last few trees on Easter Island got a newfound respect too. I just hope in our case, it’s not ‘too little, too late.’

But this isn’t an exploration of the ills of deforestation or climate change. No, it’s a walk-through of one of my favorite forms of meditation: being a tree.

Our Middletown forest meditation group did this meditation a few weeks back, and the 25 minutes fell away faster than the last lingering leaves on a blustery autumn day. Just as with their namesakes, there is countless diversity in ways to do a tree meditation, so I’ll first focus on the basics, and then share some variations.

The Heartwood

The heartwood of this meditation is simply ‘being a tree.’ Stand tall, preferably in or even facing the sun, and absorbing the sun’s energy. Feel that solar energy warming and nourishing you. Root yourself deep into the earth. Spread your toes and grip the soil with them—done also in karate to stabilize your stance (you can do this even with shoes and socks on, though remove them if you feel up to it). Feel yourself connecting deep into the ground. Stand in a strong posture, feet facing each other rather than splayed out, and glutes tightened to pull your back into alignment. Don’t lock your knees though, which can cause you to faint.

Breathe deep into your abdomen, actually about two inches below your navel (a spot understood to be the center of breath and life energy in many cultures) and focus on feeling rooted (literally and figuratively). On being strong and unmoving. On being unperturbed by anything going on around you. Curious humans looking at you standing, with your eyes closed in the woods; the dog running off-leash; the rustling of leaves; the annoying hum of the leaf blower—none of those concern you, you’re a tree.*

Just absorb the sun’s energy. Draw it in through your leaves and take that energy into your body. And simply breathe, draw in the sun’s energy, and let your thoughts go. Exist at the scale of a tree. No monkey mind with your thoughts jumping and jumping. Simply breathe in, stay rooted, and extend yourself up to the sky. The wild ups and downs of humans are no more concerning than the flurry of activity of squirrels as they scurry through your branches, chasing each other, calling to each other, hiding their caches of treasure. Just let it all go, breathing in and breathing out.

The Overstory

While you’re meditating, attend to different elements of life as a tree. Don’t just focus on drawing in solar energy, but drawing water and nutrients up from the ground. With your rooted feet, draw these up, and send energy back down into the ground, sharing it with others. (It’s nice to find a spot near other trees, who you can be in community with as you do this meditation, but where you can still share the sun.)

Feel yourself part of the forest, both drawing from and sharing nutrients with your brother and sister trees.

Or turn your focus to the ecosystem that exists on your body. The insects, the birds, the squirrels, the moss, lichen, fungi, and bacteria. You are a world unto yourself, in balance, and yet also part of something much greater. A forest. An ecosystem. Gaia.

And now add in a life cycle element to your meditation. This meditation, unlike sitting meditations, takes more energy—it’s more active. If you’ve extended your arms like branches, your arms will tire, your legs too, perhaps (especially with some of the variations below). So allow yourself to grow, arms moving up, as well as age. Arms coming down. Limbs falling. New ones growing. Slowly, slowly. All in tree time. Imagine, even, the end of your life cycle. As a standing dead tree, or a snag. Even allowing yourself to come down. To die.

Towards the end of your meditation, let yourself gently fall (or lie) down. Become a fallen tree, returning to the forest and seeding new life. Like a yogic corpse pose, feel your body resting heavy on the grass or forest floor. Life making a home of you and returning your energy to the forest and to Gaia. Finally, if you don’t feel like you’re done meditating, let the cycle begin again. Rise again as a new tree. Grow your trunk, your branches, extend them out, populate them with leaves, and perhaps even die again. This meditation welcomes lots of playful experimentation.

The Understory

There are even more ways to make this meditation more active and energetic. How we position our legs and feet, for example. Trunks vary infinitely in the way they grow. Position your legs in a variety of ways: Yoga positions like the tree pose (one legged with one foot resting on your other leg above or below the knee—but never on the knee); the crane pose, one leg wrapped around the other; or even the chair pose, squatting a bit to strengthen your legs (which as your tree grows and your legs tire can stretch out). You can stand in mountain pose or even find a stump and sit if you want a bit less strenuous meditation.

Allow your arms to extend out in a thousand different ways.

The arms, too, can vary significantly. Arms reaching upward or arms parallel to the ground, perhaps with the forearms heading to the sky. Arms even reaching downward, with forearms shooting up like new growth.

I wrote this reflection in a way that suggests this meditation is best on a sunny day. But trees endure all types of weather: wind, rain, snow (yes, yes, not all trees), the dark of night. Try this meditation in the rain. Feel the droplets running down your trunk and quenching your thirst. Try this meditation in the dark. How does it differ? Where does your focus bring you?

Branching Out

One tree meditation I listened to included a point to “listen to the tree inside you” at difficult moments in your life. That’s a good point to conclude with. You might not want to be a tree everywhere—people would worry, for example if you rooted yourself in the middle of a street or even the parking lot**—but to momentarily stretch your arms overhead, close your eyes and breathe in and drink in the warmth of the sun, you can redirect your mind to a longer perspective and take a moment to once again root yourself and connect to the larger community, ecosystem, and living planet you’re part of.

*However, if you hear the deep growl of a really big dog, stop being a tree for a moment in case you need to get behind or scramble up a tree!

**Though I do encourage you to try this meditation near a heavily-asphalted spot—how does this make you feel? Does it bring you compassion for street trees?

How does it feel to be an urban street tree? Different than living as a tree in a forest?
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