It’s cold, but for the first time in days it’s not raining, so I bundle up and step outside to have a visit with my red cedar ally. They stand conveniently close to my patio, so I can sit on the patio furniture (after I brush off fallen leaves and Douglas fir needles) while I attempt to meditate with them.
I’m terrible at meditating. I have ADHD, anxiety, and chronic muscle pain, so sitting and paying attention to anything for more than a few minutes isn’t easy for me. But as I try to find the most comfortable position on the outdoor sofa, I remind myself that for the purposes of the Plant Spirit Ally Challenge, meditation is an exercise in attention, and that can look like a lot of different things. I don’t need to empty my mind or detach myself from anything: I just need to be here, now, with this beautiful being who I want to know better.
So I focus on looking. I gaze at the thin, rust-red bark, and the way it flows along the trunk in long vertical strips. I breathe in the scent of wet earth, moss, and the cold bricks underfoot. I can’t catch the sweet fragrance of cedar foliage in the cold air, but I can feel the freshness under the branches, and the scents I can detect seem sharper somehow. I lean back and look up into the soaring branches, watch them sweep back and forth gracefully in the breeze. Reclining like this, with my gaze lost in the moving foliage, always makes me feel almost like I’m underwater, like my whole self is floating and swaying along with the branches, even though I’m decidedly earth bound and not prone to gracefully sweeping through the air. The wind picks up, and for a moment the sound of air through the branches drowns the noise of traffic and power tools in the neighborhood. A crow swoops past and calls loudly. Somewhere, a nuthatch has a lot to say. A squirrel regards me from the neighbors yard, swishing their tail expressively. For just a moment, I’m fully in the present, fully attentive.
It doesn’t last as long as I’d like. I’m getting cold, and my phone keeps buzzing (why didn’t I leave it inside?). I linger a bit longer, though, and talk to the tree a little bit - human nonsense about how pretty they are and how much I love them, mostly - and then my shivering forces me back indoors.
I’d like to share a bunch of profound insights that came from my time with my tree friend, but not every moment spent with a plant is a peak moment. I think when we first start to attempt to connect with the world around us, we often expect to have grand epiphanies every time we’re in the company of our beloved green saints. Because we call our religion “nature spirituality” we expect nature to become, suddenly, transcendent. But I think these expectations impede our ability to develop true relationships. Land-based practices are in many ways the very opposite of exercises in transcendence. What is valuable and holy is what is real, and here, and now. And while this will sometimes result in moments of profound wonder, where we make a connection or receive insight or find some broken part of ourselves made whole, these experiences are still exceptional moments sprinkled throughout a lifetime of ordinary ones. We don’t revere the world around us because of the miraculous: we revere the common, the every day, because these beings are precious and valuable in and of themselves, regardless of how they affect us, regardless of whether or not they grant us some exceptional experience.
So I’m not disappointed that my half hour of meditation with red cedar passed uneventfully. I still had the joy of breathing the fresh air under the branches, of taking in the tree’s beauty, of feeling how being close to my tree friend made my body relax a tiny bit more, made my lungs feel more full and open, made my usually chaotic mind rest just a little bit. A visit with a good friend benefits us even if we only drink tea and stare into space together. This applies whether that friend is human or something else.
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