Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Wisdom of Trees

Summer time is a good time to go outside. There’s nothing like a walk in the woods to clear away the debris of worry and woe. Sometimes the best teachers are the ones who say the least, and in the silence of their presence we feel innate wisdom welling up through the cracks of our own lives. The best teachers might be trees.

Feeling stuck? Feeling sad? Feeling nothing at all? Find a winding path through a canopy of trees, leave your worried mind behind and let the voices of the wind lead you deep into this present moment. As your awareness begins to shift, you will notice, gradually at first and then suddenly, that trees are silent teachers and the lessons they offer would change our lives if we had the patience and courage to learn them.

Here is what trees know.

Grow where you’re planted. We do not choose our parents, our families, our birthplace, our century, our genes or any of the other accidents that inexorably shape our lives. Like trees, we must learn to accept the things we cannot change and thrive where we are. As a tree grows from a tiny seed and rises up through the challenges of its environment, adapting adversities into advantages, wisdom begins with acceptance and self-knowledge and ends with ascension and transcendence.

The invisible is the source of visible. Unseen beneath the surface, roots grow deep giving trees the stability to stand tall and reach for the light. Trees instinctively know this, and put far more energy into root growth than branch and trunk growth in the early stages of their lives. Only when the roots are firmly established do the upper branches and leaves unfurl. We too should attend first to our inner growth before we get top-heavy with adornments and accessories.

Young and old have different needs and different gifts. A tiny sapling is weak and tender and needs protection from hungry mouths and trampling feet. The same tree, many years later, is able to provide protection, shelter and sustenance for others. Our roles change as well as we age and grow. But no matter what our stage of development, strength comes out of our own nature, not our busy efforts. Stand in the truth of who you are at this moment in time. Accept help when you need it, but don’t stay helpless and dependent forever. Allow yourself to grow so big that others take refuge in you.

Strength comes from struggle. Twenty years ago when scientists built Biosphere 2, a vast, enclosed ecosystem in the mountains of Arizona, they planted, among other things, trees. The trees inside the sealed enclosure grew more rapidly than their wild cousins outside. But they were thin and weak with underdeveloped root systems. Some even fell over from their own weight. At first scientists were mystified. Why would trees not thrive in this “perfect” environment? Then they realized that the trees were weakened by the absence of the one thing not included in Biosphere 2: wind. In the wild, trees must withstand strong wind and as a result develop what botanists call stress wood – strong, fibrous wood that vastly improves the quality of life for a tree. In our own lives, it is hardship and struggle that spurs our growth and strengthens our core. As we work hard to overcome the difficult people and challenging situations that threaten our serenity and steal our comfort, a toughness develops within us that informs everything we do. In light of this truth, gratitude, not resentment, is the wisest response to the forces that oppose us.

Nature is more cooperative than competitive. Survival of the fittest is true up to a point. Life begins with self interest. Inevitably, however, organisms, both within and between species, realize that their own survival is deeply intertwined with the survival of others. We’re much stronger together than we are apart. The well being of others becomes our own well being. The lie of individuality is laid bare by the truth of interconnectedness. Just as the cells of your own body work together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts, we too are cells in a wider ecosystem utterly void of boundaries. Life is one vast phenomenon – conscious, aware, perceptive, intelligent, creative, adaptive – systems nested within systems without beginning or end. As individuals, if you can even call us that, we are simply one momentary expression of the vast field of consciousness that expresses itself as stars and dandelions and blue whales. To not know this is to remain deeply ignorant of your essential nature.

Nothing is wasted, everything has value. In nature, there is no such thing as trash. Last year’s leaves become next year’s soil. Every individual form arises out of material left behind by previous organisms. There is no new matter. At the molecular level, matter simply reforms and recombines into new aggregates and arrangements. Nothing is ever lost. In the forest, there is a thin, diaphanous veil between birth and dying. Consciousness moves through the veil like the in and out breath of a sleeping god. In our own brief lives we too are formed from the materials of those who went before us, just as the things we cast off are re-embodied. Nothing is ever thrown away. There is no such place as “away”.

Be only who you are. Cedars don’t come from apple seeds. Have the courage and humility to surrender to your own nature. Don’t waste time trying to be something you are not. Without pretense or guile trees effortlessly express their own nature. They make it look easy. But it is not. For us, a thousand threads of desire, envy and illusion tug at our hearts and pull us away from the simplicity of our essential core. It takes discipline and humility to learn how to distinguish between the authentic energy of our own nature expanding and the inauthentic egoic cravings and desires rooted in fear, anxiety and ill-founded feelings of inadequacy. Do you want to become a singer because singing is your authentic calling or do you want to become a singer to salve a wound caused by feelings of inadequacy? If the latter is true, no amount of fame and glory will ever heal that wound. If the former is true, the music itself will fill you with satisfaction. In other words, is singing rooted in your authentic nature, and end in itself, or is singing a means to an end, namely self-aggrandizement? Before you embark on any strenuous journey, be it a career in the arts, a marriage or any other attempt to craft a life of joy and meaning, deep soul-searching is needed to sort this out. Spend some time under a big, shady tree. Life isn’t long enough for a thousand wrong turns.

Don’t be afraid to grow. Trees never apologize for growing new leaves and branches. They don’t intentionally stay small in a misguided effort to appear humble. You don’t do anyone any favors by shrinking, holding back or hiding your gifts. Let what is trying to emerge through you emerge. Become a channel through which the creative energy of the universe can sing one more song. But go slow. A tree never hurries, and every movement is in keeping with its current strengths and abilities. There is no need to struggle and strain. Natural effortlessness is far more effective than hurried grasping.

Chances are there are woods not far from your home. The forest is lush, green and full of secrets. Take a day and walk alone through shafts of light and fragrant breezes. There is so much to learn from the wisdom of trees.

Friday, June 10, 2011

California College Commencement Address

The following commencement address was given at Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park, San Diego, California on June 9, 2011

Good afternoon graduates.

I am very aware that as a commencement speaker I am the one thing standing between you and a well-deserved evening of fun and celebration.

But as a teacher I also realize that, even though you have been sitting still and listening to teachers your whole life, this might be the last time you sit still and listen to a teacher, and I feel a certain obligation to not let this moment pass by without one last attempt to say something important, or try to.

I am a philosophy teacher.

I have spent my life trying to understand what wisdom is.

Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Wisdom is not something you know – wisdom is something you do.

You don’t attain wisdom by simply agreeing with all of the right theories.

Wisdom is not something you get only after you’ve read all the right books.

Wisdom does not even mean having an answer for everything.

Instead, wisdom is a way of being in the world.

Wisdom is the accumulated depth within you, born of ten thousand choices and actions made in the course of a thoughtful, deliberate life – and if your life is anything like mine, a life full of missteps and mistakes and damage sometimes so profound it can’t be fixed – we can only walk away from the wreckage saying, “well, I won’t do that again.”

And wisdom is not just an intellectual event; it is the child of many mothers, the most important of which is action.

If you are tired of the way fear interferes with your life, if you’re tired of the way fear holds you back from achieving the goals your soul is asking for, if you’re tired of the way fear robs you like a thief of your happiness, and you want to become more courageous, how do you do that? What does wisdom suggest?

Wisdom suggests that if you want to be more courageous you simply have to act more courageously. You have to ask yourself, the next time you feel afraid, “what would a courageous person do right now” and then do that.

If you want to be more compassionate, act more compassionately. Ask yourself, “what would a compassionate person do right now” and then do that.

If you want more self-discipline in your life, and you’re tired of the way laziness and procrastination and runaway cravings get the best of you, simply ask yourself, “what would a disciplined person do right now” and then do that.

Wise people know that we become what we do. Personal transformation is not mysterious. Our lives are the sum of our choices and actions. We are responsible for the consciousness that we bring into every situation. What at first sounds like an accusation or a condemnation is actually heard, with the ears of wisdom, as a call to freedom – that no matter what is going on around us, we are free. With every breath we are free to choose our responses to the events around us. And with freedom comes responsibility. We are responsible for our responses.

Our thoughts shape our words, our words give rise to our actions, our actions repeated become habit and our habit constructs character. Our lives are the sum total of our thoughts, words, choices and actions.

We become what we do. And this is how wisdom begins to emerge.

Choose your thoughts and your words and your actions wisely, in the fully awakened awareness that when you choose your thoughts, your words, your actions, you are in fact choosing yourself, inventing yourself, creating yourself out of the raw materials your ancestors gave you.

Every one of us is free today – free to begin living the life we so richly deserve. Commencement means beginning – and today each of us begins again, unhindered by the past. Every day of our lives is a commencement. Yes, our past choices and actions got us here, but in this next moment, we are utterly and completely free. Wayne Dyer puts it this way, “The wake does not drive the boat.”

The past has no power in this present moment. Only our thoughts about the past have power. And we can choose new thoughts.

And as I look out at all these graduates today, I am looking at a group of people who knows that everything I just said is true. You don’t need guys like me to tell you this stuff. Wisdom is not something anyone can give you. It is discovered within; it wells up through the cracks of our everyday lives. You have let go of the past. You have chosen and acted wisely. You have decided to feel the fear and do it anyway. You have decided that you are worth it. And you have freely chosen to open yourself up to the possibility that life holds for us even bigger dreams than we dared to dream for ourselves.

Now, teachers have been asking you to do stuff for decades. And I ask you today to do one more thing for me. I ask that you stay humble.

You have every right to be proud of your accomplishments. Feel proud. What you have done is no small thing. All of us here know that. But never forget that the professional skills you have mastered do not make you better than anyone else. Each of us is a being of infinite value, even the least among us, and you and I are no better than anyone else, no matter what our accomplishments. Nor are we beneath anyone else. Never believe for a moment that anyone is better than you. Everyone you will ever meet is a being of infinite value, and we walk alongside our sisters and brothers, not before them, not behind them, and every single one of us brings a unique and vitally important set of gifts to the world.

If anything, your hard-earned professional skills enable you to be of greater service to your fellow human beings. And that is why we come to college, and work so hard. Not just to make more money or to prove that burned out high school counselor who told us we’d never amount to anything wrong, or for some other egotistical reason.

We don’t go to college to heal old wounds of inadequacy or to feel superior to others.

The real reason our soul wanted to go to college was because our soul knows us better than we do – our soul knows that what we really want is to be a part of the healing of the world. And we come to college to gain the knowledge and the skills and the wisdom to more ably be of service to a world that so desperately needs us, that so desperately needs us to show up strong, brave, masterful, aware, willing, compassionate and committed to something bigger than ourselves.

And wisdom also knows that the old dichotomy between self-interest and altruism is a lie. We do not have to choose between serving ourselves and serving others. In the depths of our wisdom we already know that giving and receiving are two names for one circle, and that the best way to increase our own happiness is to cultivate the happiness of those around us.

We receive only what we give.

We thrive only when those around us thrive.

So as you go forth on this beautiful summer day and begin your life as professionals, please remember that all work is service. Cleaning bathrooms, balancing account ledgers, changing diapers, managing teams of people, writing computer code, mastering the minutia of lab protocols, caring for the grievously ill and dying, helping our new neighbor carry a couch upstairs – all of it is service. With each act of work you are bringing order out of chaos. You are binding the wounds of the world together with your love and your skill and your kindness and your presence. Walk into every situation with the awareness that there is no other place, no other time – there is only here and now, and this moment is where we have our best shot, our only shot at bringing the ideal of heaven down into this now moment, into these real lives we share with each other.

This is it. No more rehearsal. No more what ifs. No more some days.

It all matters. It’s all important – every meeting, every email, every moment. Now you can step proudly into the life you have worked so long and hard to create, knowing that with every thought and word and deed you are shaping yourself and shaping the world around you.

Finally, I believe the fruit of wisdom is happiness. That’s what we’re all in it for. And happiness is never a private affair. Our happiness is forever bound up in the happiness of those around us. So make your work a sacred offering. Look the people you meet in the eye, and really see them. Let them know, not by your clever words or practiced gestures but by your open heart that you really care. Slow down. Be the presence of healing in this world, no matter what your chosen profession is.

And once in a while – promise me this – once in a while, stop. Just stop. And feel the joy of the work sink in.

Graduates, and all the people gathered here who love them, remember this moment. Remember this perfect June evening when you took the time out of your busy lives to join together in a ritual honoring all that is best in us. Take this honor and this dignity with you and into all of the struggles and dark nights of the soul that lie ahead, and know that the world needs you only to be exactly who you are, nothing less and nothing more.

Thank you for this opportunity to be a part of your celebration this afternoon. I’m proud of you, and I’m inspired by you, and I’m deeply honored to witness this beautiful wave of humanity rolling out into the world. It’s staggering really to contemplate how many lives will be changed for the better by meeting you, by the love and the mastery and the service that you will bring to everything you do, everyday, for the rest of your lives. It’s overwhelming, and I know you feel it too.

And I know I speak for all teachers when I say, that we have learned as much from you or more than you have learned from us. And for that we are forever grateful.

Thank you.