Mindfulness Matters

The TreeThere is no such thing as “nature” if we are part of all things. To seek nature sets us apart from the natural world. In the Tao, there is no separation.

Any separation we feel is conventional and not based upon a deep analysis of the how the material world is put together. Everything is bound by forces, always in exchange. The fact that these forces and exchanges are invisible is irrelevant.

Rilke had a suggestion in his Book of Hours, in the beautiful translation by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (2005, Riverhead Books). when he said:


If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused

We are part of the earth’s intelligence whether we realize it or not.

This Rilke quote reminds me of my own encounter with a tree after a meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS). I knew it was alive. Not just a living thing in the way that plants are alive but part of the living fabric of all things.

It had a presence, a dimensionality that I had not been able to see prior to a week of continuous silent meditation.

To see the tree, I had to set aside my knots–the entanglements of my personal stories, narratives, and desires. The meditation retreat helped me to do that. When I could see the tree with a vastly diminished sense of separation, I felt more connected. I wasn’t lonely because my place amongst all things seemed just as evident as the tree. I didn’t have to prove anything to myself with excessive thinking. I just needed to co-exist with the tree. Each of us breathing in our way.

I was no longer confused about my place in the world either.

The retreat took place in December and I was back in the area in late February teaching at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies that is next door to IMS and shares the trail system where my tree lives. I hiked through the snows to visit with the tree (pictured above). While it is an impressive looking tree, that is all that I saw–a tree. That dimensionality was gone now that I had re-entered the workaday life and spent more time in the default mode network of my brain than I did on retreat. I had lost my connection to the earth’s intelligence.

I could feel a glimmer of connection to that unified way of perceiving and I know that I could reestablish that connection with enough intensive practice. The tree hadn’t changed, obviously. After my first meeting with the tree, I wrote these lines:

Trees are born, grow old, and die.
Sometimes they get sick.
Sometimes a mean wind knocks them over.
Can trees know?
Can they know they are connected to everything else?
To the earth and to each other?

They abide without a sense of me
distinct from the others.
They swing with the breeze
Patiently breathing in the sky

Like the trees, we are born, grow old, and die.
Sometimes we get sick.
Sometimes a mean circumstance knocks us over.
We are conscious, a talent we often waste

Yet, we are also fabricated.
Not of wood and chlorophyll
but of story, memory, and anticipation.
We complexify ourselves by drawing distinctions
that the trees do not require.
We don’t see the roots that connect us
so we feel free to claim the ground as mine.

We chase illusions, mistaking
appearances for the real
We forget that a single moment
in this breathing body can realize
that we are nothing more than mobile trees
When we go into silence
this presence shows itself
and we can come to know what the trees know:


It seems like we are always engaged in the process of finding our way back to this love born of connectedness. Forgetting is an obstacle. Arrogance is an impediment. Fear is a tether that keeps us in story when the trees are breathing all around us. Mindfulness is the way back to this connected presence of love; the way out of loneliness and confusion.