Roots and Branches
“I don’t know,” I said, when it came time for me to speak, “I guess I feel like I’m kind of drifting – as if my practice is lacking in direction or something...” My gaze left Ginny’s face and refocused on the tree branches outside the window just behind where she was sitting with a small group of us. It was the third residential retreat that I’d done with her since the breakup of my marriage and she was probably in a better position than anybody else to know what I’d been going through. “Whenever I’ve been here in the past,” I continued, “I’ve felt so much more focused. Maybe it’s kind of like that tree out there. It used to be that I was like the roots – going deeper and deeper, pushing through the soil, making my way down to where the water is… But now I feel like that branch – just hanging there out in the open, not really doing anything…” My eyes refocused on Ginny’s. There was nothing more that I could say to describe what I was feeling.
“It sounds like peace,” Ginny replied with a slight nod.
Now, having been trained in counseling psychology, I was familiar with the reframe – taking the proverbial lemon and pointing out the potential for great lemonade. I was also familiar with how an inappropriate reframe can come off as shallow, treacly and dismissive of the underlying emotion. Such a reframe can make or break a counseling relationship – either demonstrating that the counselor has a clear grasp of the client’s situation or revealing that he or she is uncomfortable with difficult emotion and wants to move the conversation into Happy Land as quickly as possible.
“Hmmph,” I grunted in acknowledgment, and over the course of the grunt’s inception somewhere deep inside my belly and its release into the room I came to recognize the truth that Ginny had just revealed to me. I held my hands together in gassho and bowed.
We often describe things in terms of peaks and valleys, but I think that meditation practice can also be described in terms of roots and branches. At various times either the pain of the sitting itself, or the busyness of our minds, or the difficulty of the emotions with which we are sitting become the soil in which our practice takes root. Almost palpable, these phenomena provide soil against which our effort and intention might push in order to nudge our way deeper and deeper. A little adversity can be good in this regard. It ultimately gives our practice stability – like a tree rooting itself deeply and solidly into the earth.
But let’s not lose track of the other activity of the tree – holding out its branches, swaying in the breeze, feeling the gentle rains and the warmth of the sun… Let’s not get so caught up in ourselves and the activity of putting down roots that we mistake these feelings of peace and wellbeing for a lack of focus or direction.
Yes, there is a time for the reassessment of “where our practice is going,” either because we’ve gotten complacent or because we’ve wandered away from our truest intention. But let’s also consider yet another option: that we might just be at peace!
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off. There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization. – from Dogen’s Genjokoan, as translated in Okumura (2010)
For other recollections of Ginny Morgan, please see May Their Compassion Embrace Us.
Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing genjokoan: The key to Dogen’s shobogenzo. Wisdom Publications. p.2. (Original work published 1233)
Tree of Life image courtesy of VisibleMind via:
Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank