The Kindness of Trees
Spring is the season ruled by the Wood Element in Chinese philosophy, so it’s a good time to talk about the lessons and challenges this element presents. In The Obstacle Course, I wrote about Wood’s quality of flexibility and how this virtue can enable us to grow around the obstacles we encounter. This is especially important in the context of our life plan, since the Wood Element governs our vision and the ability to plan. When Wood is balanced and healthy in us, we have a clear vision of where we’re headed, which forms the basis of our plan.
As a side note, we don’t necessarily need to figure out and manipulate all the material details that will get us from point A to point B. The most important part is that we never lose sight of point B, and that we continue to proceed, to the best of our ability, in the general direction of this goal. As I discussed last month, there is plenty that can happen between point A and point B, and these obstacles are apt to provoke frustration and anger in us. But without obstacles, we wouldn’t grow nearly as much; nor would we learn the virtue of flexibility.
This month I’m going to introduce you to the broader, overarching virtue of Wood, called Ren, which means benevolence or kindness. Some people are just born with healthy Wood qualities, and this benevolence comes naturally; for others, it is a virtue that develops over time as we successfully overcome the challenges the Wood Element presents. It is part of my mission as a healer to remind people of their connection to nature; to wake people up to the ways the dynamics of the natural world parallel our own human struggles and achievements. Each of the qualities of the Five Elements in this philosophical system has been revealed by the substance and workings of nature. So, what is the origin of the concept of benevolence in the plant world?
Author Lonny Jarrett writes of benevolence as the quality that arises when we have the perspective (another of Wood’s virtues) to understand that our plan and others’ plans can coexist harmoniously. We become like a tall tree looking out over the forest, not threatened by the other trees. We see that ours is not the only plan, and that no one needs to fail in order for us to succeed. Our vision is clear, we are flexible and unattached, thus, we can encourage the plans of all others, knowing that they need not infringe on our own.
Among the many natural expressions of this quality, one of my favorites is the way very tall tress support the wildlife below. The tallest trees, such as redwoods, tower into low clouds and fog. The water that comprises these clouds condenses on their leaves and drips down to the ground. In this way, the tree not only waters itself, it effectively drops up to four inches of “rain” each night, supporting the surrounding vegetation and animal life.
Kindness neutralizes the sense of competitiveness from which so much anger emanates. We can all have what we want, especially if our vision is broad enough. Chapter 66 of the 2500 year old Daoist text, Dao De Jing, says:
The Master is above the people,
and no one feels oppressed.
She goes ahead of the people,
and no one feels manipulated.
The whole world is grateful to her.
Because she competes with no one,
no one can compete with her.
The majority of our competing occurs entirely within us. Our own self-criticism, and the many ways in which we try to control our life journey amount to more encroachment than anyone else’s plan does. Be benevolent to the person whose life you’re living.
As with many philosophies, Five Element philosophy can be understood at different levels by different people, and in different ways at different points in our life. Regarding kindness, for instance, there is “garden variety” kindness, and then there is profound benevolence – a rarer quality. Garden variety kindness is nothing to scoff at. There are plenty of reasons to practice it, perhaps the most obvious being that it feels good to both the giver and the receiver. It only takes a little perspective to foresee the likely impact of our actions and words on others; kindness is always worthwhile. If we all made it a priority to be more kind, the world would be a very different place.
The quintessence of this virtue, what I referred to as profound benevolence, goes far beyond being nice to people. It is a matter of how we hold ourselves and the world in our minds. It is born from perspective both broad enough and deep enough to know what real freedom entails. The ultimate kindness is allowing ourselves the freedom to be however we are, and allowing the world the freedom to be however it is. In fact, no individual can experience complete freedom without also freeing the rest of the world.
It doesn’t matter that we can’t truly restrict the world from doing things we disapprove of – disliking us, for instance, or having political corruption, or religious extremism, or telemarketers. The restriction occurs inside us – and we are the ones whose freedom is compromised by denying the validity of all the plans we disapprove of. I don’t mean to imply that we’re not entitled to preferences. I just mean to propose that the world lives as much within us as it does outside of us, and the way we treat it is ultimately the way we are treating ourselves. Thus, when we attempt to confine a disliked part of reality, we end up confining ourselves. If we don’t set the world free, we don’t set ourselves free. When we free the world, we become like the tall, wise tree in the forest, promoting the coexistence of all plans. This kindness is always worthwhile.