Honoring a Tree

The other day as a friend and I were walking Dante through the neighborhood, we paused in the corner of a nearby park to marvel at the trees. One tree in particular, low with wide-stretching branches and abundant shade, has stayed in my mind. I didn’t tell my friend, but I had to stop myself from climbing up into this particular tree to rest for a moment on the longest and sturdiest branch.

When I think on the Exodus encounter between Moses and God on Mount Horeb, I imagine the burning bush to be something like the tree in the park that Dante, my friend, and I couldn’t ignore. My friend spontaneously embraced the tree as if she were greeting a long lost family member. (I guess this means I have a friend who is, literally, a tree hugger!)

Just before passing by the tree we had been talking about difficulties in life but in that moment when she gently drew the tree to her breast as if it were an infant or a grandparent, thoughts of sadness, suffering, failings, and discontentment vanished from my mind and I couldn’t help but smile. Only a smile could express what I experienced in that moment thanks to my friend — words and thoughts were of no use to me or the tree.

For his part, Dante marked the tree as if he, too, were honoring it. No one will remember that I stood for a moment in awe before the Horeb-like tree, but the dogs, the squirrels, the birds, and the insects will know that Dante was there. I would have it no other way, truth be told, since it was a mongrel dog who gave me a reason to continue my journey when I wanted to give up on myself. He taught me that the true place of favor is wherever we find ourselves in the present moment, that the auspicious moment is always now. Hic et nunc — here and now — is all we have and all we need. Dogs understand this better than you and I do.

The trees, the insects, and the birds were here before our kind stood up tall to begin our journey and they will likely be around long after our kind has disappeared. How amazing that, for a brief moment, we walk among them accompanied by friends and dogs,  beings who love us always, who protect us in moments of trial, who teach us best with a smile or a nuzzle. The world would be a better place if each of us were more like the friend and the dog — strong and faithful, never abandoning those we love, united like a family that endures suffering and survives death.

Had I journeyed through the park yesterday without a friend and a dog, I might never have stopped before that one particular tree to behold something of the mystery that great spiritual teachers like Moses, the Buddha, and Jesus discovered long before I came into this world. What they experienced directly and personally, I experienced only faintly and at a distance, as if in a dream.

One day no one will remember that you and I passed through this world, but human beings will always remember the world’s great spiritual teachers and heroic spiritual friends. When, at last, we travel to distant corners of the Universe, we will carry the memory of our teachers and friends with us.

~BT Waldbillig
May 22, 2017

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Broken Bowls and Shattered Cups

My friend Sarah has moved house and consolidated households a few times in recent years. As a consequence, she has a box of broken items. Just recently she told me that she’s decided to try her hand at kintsugi — the Japanese art of repairing broken items in such a way as both to recall the brokenness of the item and honor its beauty. Usually this is done with bowls and cups, but you can do it with just about anything that’s broken.

The practice of kintsugi is inspired by the philosophical aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which acknowledges that all things in the world are impermanent and imperfect, including beautiful things. Far from denigrating beauty, wabi-sabi finds beauty in places that many of us would overlook. Even in broken bowls and shattered cups.

Wabi-sabi has a special significance to people like Sarah and me. You see, my friend and I have both experienced the brokenness of serious mental illness among close friends and even family members. In my case, it’s a mother with schizoaffective disorder.

Serious mental illness is brutal. It’s ugly. It’s painful. Yet behind the outward displays of the illness, there is always a human being, someone’s child or parent or spouse or sibling or neighbor or friend. To a child, a mother is always beautiful; to a parent, a child is beautiful; and there’s nothing in the world more beautiful than a beloved friend. Even a friend with mental illness.

I often express pride in my home state of Iowa, but lately something unsettling has happened. Over the past couple of years, a number of important mental health facilities have closed down. Most recently it happened in Oskaloosa, though not long ago it was Mount Pleasant and Independence. My mother was absent from my high school graduation because ten days prior to the event she had been admitted, against her will, to the mental health facility at Independence, Iowa. I was sad at the time, but my mother got the help and care she needed in that moment and that’s something to be thankful for, maybe even something to celebrate.

Surely fiscal responsibility is important and necessary but every budget that’s slashed and every mental health facility that’s closed will bear consequence in the lives of actual, living human beings. There’s nothing theoretical, abstract, or impersonal about it.

The poor, the sick, the suffering, the rejected, the useless, the unloved, the aged, the mentally ill — these people are every bit as important as you and me. And they’re beautiful, too. If only we could see that.

~BT Waldbillig
March 23, 2017

From Afar and From Within

On the Arising and Return of the Spiritual Impulse
The religions, spiritual traditions, and transformative social movements of our world begin with historical events that unfold in the lives of actual human beings.

Inspired men and women understand their experience in uncommon and extraordinary ways that remain mysterious to most of us.

They inspire their brothers and sisters to live life with previously unimaginable purpose, meaning, beauty, kindness, joy, mercy, compassion, and love; this is no insignificant reality.

We who experience life at a distance from the events that transformed those greatest of human beings have no choice but to use the words, images, and ideas the arise from own understanding and experience of the world.

We do this in our attempt to make sense of our own lives while communicating something that is at heart difficult to communicate or even beyond human words altogether.

The custodians of religions, spiritual paths, and transformative social movements often get lost in their endeavor and lose sight of the actual, original source of inspiration.

They create systems, institutions, schools of thought, spiritual rules, canons of sacred writings, etc. as useful tools, though at times even the most useful of human tools can become burdensome hindrances.

Mystics, spiritual weirdos, heroes, Titans, prophets, gurus, enlightened beings, saints, and the like create their own paths and often leave the rest of us behind.

Perhaps we, in our day, will find new, concrete ways of understanding those ancient sources of inspiration and make them useful to the challenges of this present moment.

We needn’t jettison that which came before this present moment, but we do ourselves no good service if we make the past our graven idol.

On Spiritual Family
A spiritual family is entirely capable of accomplishing even the most impossible of tasks.

Normal human modes of judgment — around good and evil, the sacred and the impure, the one and the many, the self and the other — will, at unforeseen times of extreme crisis, both serve us and hinder us.

A spiritual family, to the mind of the ancient ones, embraces both the mighty and weak, the noble and ignoble, the just and the unjust, the worthy and the unworthy.

Every member of a spiritual family is dedicated to the true purpose from which the family arose.

On the Tree
In ancient times, a grove of trees was considered sacred not because each and every tree was holy, but because of the presence of a single noble Tree; such is the power of a worthy tree.

It is said that the many ordinary, common, and profane trees serve to hide, protect, and honor the one Tree whose life and presence make sacred the entire grove.

Let us, then, love the Tree as it manifests itself through leaves, shoots, seeds, roots, branches, bark, sap, shade, might, beauty, immovability, agility, life-giving power, wisdom, and self-sacrifice.

The Tree ascends to the highest heavens and descends to the darkest pits, embracing the sky above, the Earth we wander, and also the underworld.

The Tree is our sign of enduring hope, for every time it is destroyed and annihilated, it is again reborn, living, and life-giving, just like the mythic Phoenix or like the Awakened One.

When our ancestral family fell from the heights and safety  of a tree, it carried trees to the cave, and later built weapons, tools, homes, and great ships from trees; so long as our family exists in some form, the Tree will live and give life.

~BT Waldbillig
January 13, 2017