How to Be Less Harsh with Yourself (and Others): Ram Dass on the Spiritual Lessons of Trees
Hermann Hesse believed that trees are our greatest spiritual teachers. Walt Whitman cherished them as paragons of authenticity amid a world of mere appearances. Remembering his most beloved friend, he wrote that she was “true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free — is a tree.” I too consider the people I most love my human trees — people firmly rooted in a foundation of moral beauty, relentlessly reaching for the light, bent into their particular beloved shape by the demands and traumas of their particular lives.
A century after Whitman, Ram Dass (April 6, 1931–December 22, 2019) drew on the human-tree analogy in a soulful invitation to treat ourselves — and each other — with the same nonjudgmental spaciousness with which we regard trees. Answering a question about how we can judge ourselves less harshly, he writes:
Part of it is observing oneself more impersonally… When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.
The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, “You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.
When a tree is very small we protect it by surrounding it with a fence so that animals do not step on it. Later when the tree is bigger it no longer needs the fence. Then it can give shelter to many.
Our spiritual growth, Ram Dass observes, follows a similar pattern. The fence is the community of support, sangha in the Buddhist tradition: the kindred spirits with whom we surround ourselves when we are still vulnerable, still finding our rootedness — a lovely reminder of that mycelial connection that binds us to each other, just like the mycorrhizal network undergirds the forest with its web of communication and nutrition.
Complement with Paul Klee on how an artist is like a tree and artist Art Young’s wondrous century-old silhouettes of trees at night as a lens on human experience, then revisit Ram Dass on love.