The Tree of Life

I am looking out my kitchen window at the tree in my neighbors’ backyard. It is October and the green leaves are turning golden/red, some beginning to fall to the ground. The coleus on their porch looks slightly less full and is fading in color. Soon the tree will be bare, and the coleus leaves will also have fallen to the yard below. This is the cycle of life, for trees, for plants, for humans. Seeds to fallen leaves, becoming one with the Earth from which they grew. Spring, summer, fall, winter. Baby, child, adult, elder. Birth, death, rebirth.

The tree of life has many branches, many experiences. If I compare myself to a tree, I can see the human life cycle playing out in the seasonal changes of the tree. We are born in spring, bloom in summer, come into our full colorful wisdom in autumn, and then gradually, gently, one by one, our leaves begin to fade and fall. The winter of our lives appears so much closer then. We can see death in the distance. Ironically, though, as we age, we also begin to see spring on the other side.

When I was a child, I feared death as an end, eternity as an empty void. As I grow older, I am beginning to sense the never-ending continuity of life and death. They are really one, these two experiences that we have been led to believe are polar opposites. The whole, seen together, is Presence, living consciousness that is eternal. If you have a spiritual background, you may see that as God or the Divine Mother; it is also what we are at the soul level. No separation—between God/dess and soul, between life and death. It is all infinite consciousness experiencing itself in a multitude of ways. Awareness, arising from the soul, expands throughout our lives until we are able to perceive the oneness fully.

Soul awareness emerges differently in each person. You may not see the divine fusion of life and death until the moment you transition. Or you may be shown it much earlier, at a time of great crisis or great love. Any profound human experience can open the doors of perception so that the light pours through. We all fear facing death alone with no sense of meaning, no light shining to show us the way. But the deeper you surrender to the mystery of life, the greater your trust grows in both meaning and light. Faith replaces fear.

I am not traditionally religious, but I do believe in a Spirit that fills the cosmos with light and beauty. I feel this Presence every day of my life when I watch the sun rise or hear birds singing; it has been with me since birth and will continue after I die. I see it in the tree outside my window and in all the living beings on Earth, plant, animal, and human. In the stones and stars as well. In my own heart. Everything and everyone is part of it, something so magnificent that words cannot encompass its gentle loving power. Our minds think death exists as an end, but it is only a transition to another beginning. If you look closely at the Tree of Life, its secrets reveal themselves, and you see the cycles of Spirit that never end and the exquisitely sweet flow of infinity itself.

Don’t Lose Heart

Life on Earth is not easy. Sometimes it feels like we’re on an endless runaway roller coaster. The polarities of love and hate are constantly playing out: Woodstock and 9/11, rainbow lights on the White House and January 6. Celebration and crisis. Elections. War and peace. It can feel overwhelming. I wonder at times how we ended up on a planet with so much conflict and duality. Then, I remember why—to experience it all and be a bridge to our next evolutionary phase. The key is not to lose heart. Because our hearts are the entry point to everything.

A heart-centered life runs on the energy of love. It leads us to places and events we are destined to experience, people we are meant to meet.  If you are walking down the street, and a stranger smiles and speaks, your spirits lift. If you see beautiful flowers in a neighbor’s garden, you can’t help but smile. When a friend is in tears from a life event that causes them pain, a hug can help you both feel better. If you can reach the point of laughing together at some passing silliness, the world seems less sad and overwhelming. This is what it means to let your heart lead the way. 

What happens when you smile or laugh out loud? Your energy changes, your heart opens. Suddenly, your entire view of life shifts. That’s why it’s called a “hearty laugh”—it’s full-out engaged with life and freely expressed. These are the moments that crack the shell of negativity or mental downswing that we are often prone to these days as the world twists and turns with change. If you can smile, even in the face of fear, conflict, or crisis, then hope is not lost. The human spirit takes a deep breath and continues. From a soul view, everything is unfolding as it’s meant to. The soul is always smiling because it sees the big picture; it sees the evolution of humanity.

We humans often get stuck in the day-to-day dramas of life. We think that’s all that exists, and when we are feeling pain or sadness, we believe it will never go away. Yet emotions are always in motion; if we allow them to flow through us, they dissipate. If we are lucky enough to have a funny friend who makes us laugh in the midst of our upset, we see how everything can suddenly lighten up when humor is introduced. This is probably why comedians play such a key role on Earth–to keep us from taking ourselves too seriously. In truth, life is a constantly shifting reflection of your inner state. What you are experiencing is very much tied to how you see the world.

That may sound simplistic, but it actually plays out in a very real way. If you consciously shift your viewpoint, your experience of events changes too. And smiling and laughing with each other can be catalysts for that shift. Countless popular songs are written about smiling, laughing, or “singing in the rain.” Poets and wise teachers remind us that facing life’s challenges together, hearts linked, keeps our perspective lighter and more positive. So, no matter what is happening in your life or in the world, remember that your gentle heart is the wisest guide you could possibly have; keep it wide open and you will not lose your way.

“Stay gentle, keep the eyes of a child
Don’t harden your heart or your hands
Know to find joy in the darkness is wise
Although they will think you don’t understand…
Stay gentle, stay gentle
The most powerful thing you can do
Oh, gentle, unbreakable you”
—Brandi Carlile

Without a Word

I usually arise around 4 or 5 in the morning when there is predominantly silence everywhere. I sit in the darkness and rest in the stillness, soothed by the absence of noise or traffic outside. Soon the birds begin to sing, and the light of the sun fills the world. There are no voices or conversations interrupting the peace I feel at this time. I am absorbing the experience of morning without a word. Through my ears and eyes; through my cells. Presence.

So much of our lives is based in language, spoken or heard, filling our brains with thoughts. What would it be like to experience the world without mentally describing it to ourselves? Can you see a tree or bird without naming it as such? A person without mentally categorizing gender, age, race? Even beyond that, can you see anything without language, just experiencing it without a word? We humans have learned to divide the world with the words we have created to describe it. Often we aren’t even seeing what we see; instead we perceive a mental image of a word designation we have come to associate with something. We all do this. What if we tried to shift our awareness into just experiencing with no perceptual parameters? Life arising and falling away with no attempts on our part to capture it in words. Like the silence at dawn.

I’m a writer so this can seem like quite a challenge to me at times. Yet when I am walking in Nature or sitting in the silence of sunrise, it frees my mind to just experience the world from my heart, wordlessly. I practice seeing without naming as I walk among the trees, bushes, and flowers of the natural world. I can always write about it later, but in the experience itself I prefer to be and receive the full wonder of what is before me. I grew up an only child on five acres in the Illinois countryside, so I spent a lot of time alone during those years.  I had friends at school, but at home I enjoyed the solitude and silence of Nature. Somehow this has carried over to my adult life. I feel most at home in wordless Presence.

A number of years ago, when I was taking part in traditional fire ceremonies with Maya elders in Guatemala, I experienced this same kind of deep Presence. Even though words in the Maya language were spoken within the ceremony, somehow there was a profound silence that pervaded everything. No conversation, just inner quiet and receptivity. The stillness of Spirit linked our hearts and souls and also brought Nature’s magic beyond human language close to us. Bees circled in the air above the fire before the ceremony at Tikal, and birds swooped through the lingering smoke afterward. It was as if they were weaving the energy of the ceremony into the greater world. And none of us spoke at these times; to be wordlessly present was enough.

Of course, it’s not necessary or realistic to live like this all the time. Our friendships, family, and community arise out of communicating verbally and sharing life experiences, thoughts, and feelings with words. Yet, to step back at times and just be silent is deeply soothing. Your breathing slows, and your whole body relaxes. Space opens up within you for the soul to expand into present-moment awareness. Those who meditate or take long quiet walks experience this. I feel it in the stillness before the day begins. If we each found our way to including such experiences in our daily lives, perhaps we would be less busy and stressed. Sometimes the most profound moments of life occur without a word.

Make of Your Life a Song

In one of her most frequently quoted poems, Mary Oliver asks what we each plan to do with our “one wild and precious life.” A question that touches the depths of the soul—and the heart of all life on Earth. We were given our human lives by a universal intelligence beyond naming. Within that act of grace is infinite possibility and expression as well as a world of incredibly diverse experiences. Each day presents a kaleidoscope of wonders to us. When we are children, we see those wonders clearly, our eyes sparkling with delight. As adults, we begin to take them for granted. Our vision may become clouded with habit, loss, or misfortune. Life, of course, can be challenging as well as wondrous. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to continue to experience wonder no matter how your life unfolds.

One year ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It shook me to my core. Yet my actual experience of the months of treatment, in spite of any discomfort or pain, was filled with moments of connection to the Spirit of life, which carried me through the days with surprising synchronicities and inspiration. In the most profound of those moments, I felt one with everything, my own life part of a universal flow of beingness. Within that, my sense of wonder at the daily miracles of life—sunrise, birdsong, human kindness—reawakened and grew. Not that I had lost it, but so often life events get in our way. Our perception is incomplete, shaded. Until suddenly, an event or experience shines a light on each moment, showing it to be the miracle it is.

It may not be cancer that awakens this latent sense in you. It could be anything, perhaps just the course of a lifetime. Many of us, as we grow older, realize the relatively short time we have on this planet. A poignancy and appreciation fill us, an intention not to waste a moment in regret or complaint. The “one wild and precious life” we were gifted with suddenly reveals itself in all its splendor. You don’t want to miss an opportunity to meet each day with joy and gratitude.

There are countless ways to do this, as many possibilities as there are living beings on Earth. Those who have gone before us advise us to share with others our unique essence, our humanity as well as our divinity (they are inseparable) There is no one else like you, so don’t hold back. Make of your life a peaceful prayer, a poem of inspiration, a celebratory dance. Like the wood thrush and robin, make of your life a song that carries the love in your heart to all who hear it. Your soul will guide you.

This is why we were born, why we journey through challenge and crisis, to finally come to understand that each moment carries within it Heaven on Earth. The reward for living, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, is life itself. It sometimes takes an entire lifetime (or many lifetimes) to come to this realization, but each of us is destined to do so. We are currently living through an extraordinary time of transformation on this planet, one in which separation from Spirit and from one another will fall away, sometimes gradually and sometimes with a thunderous crash. We may think we are lost, but there is much more here than what our habitual perceptions show us. Our days are woven from a tapestry of miracles. Open your heart, and let it reveal to you the sweet song your life is meant to be.

Lasting Loving-Kindness

Love takes many forms: family, friends, life partners, animal companions, Nature, Spirit, humankind…the possibilities are endless. Sometimes our lives are so busy that we don’t even realize all the love that comes our way on a daily basis—or the love that we send out. In actuality, our planet is a virtual web of loving connections. Human consciousness and human experience are held together by that web of light within us and all around us. In times of crisis or challenge, that light shines brighter, and we become super-aware of how love and kindness support us in small and large ways.

Gestures of kindness sometimes go by so quickly that you may not fully take note of them: a stranger in the street smiles and says good morning, a neighbor brings you homemade soup when you are not feeling well, an old friend sends flowers for your birthday. A loved one expresses unconditional love by accepting you just as you are. These are the acts of love that help us live our lives with a positive outlook, even in times of pandemic, conflict, and loss. Every generation has faced such challenges, and yet humanity has survived. The human spirit raises its bowed head, looks into the eyes of another, and feels uplifted, able to continue living.

By consciously acknowledging these acts and then living from a similar place, we revitalize the dynamic of human interaction, not just in one place but everywhere. The energy of loving-kindness can circle the globe in a nanosecond. You may think a smile is a small gesture, but it has the power of the heart behind it. This is why we have survived as a species for thousands of years. It is the spirit of love and compassion that has carried us forward in spite of discord or disease. No matter what we have faced personally or collectively, we are still here. And in spite of everything, we are evolving.

Today, in the midst of daily news flashes about gun violence, injustice, or environmental crises, we need these positive moments of connection that touch (and open) our hearts. The evolution of humanity and the planet depend on such openings, which strengthen our commitment to possibility, to the power of the human spirit. We are a resilient species. Here we are, standing strong in the face of all that seems to lead us in the direction of defeat and pessimism. Something as intangible as a kind word and a gentle touch may be the key threads that weave the fabric of a positive future.

So don’t give up hope in troubled times. Your neighbor is right next to you. We are all in this together, we residents of Earth, sons and daughter of Gaia. Take a moment for kindness in your life, for the love that connects you to others, to life itself. It will sustain you through challenges and fill your soul with light and your life with joy. There is nothing as strong or lasting as the love that expresses itself through kindness, acceptance, and compassion.