Geoff Thompson 9 min read

13 Life Lessons from a Tree of Life

Philosophy alain de botton geoff thompson

the tree of life
the tree of life

Do you know what you should do if you ever find yourself in a dilemma and need some concise answers to probing and challenging life questions?

Ask a tree of course!

That’s what I did.

My wife Sharon said to me (a little exasperated), “You’re not hugging trees now are you?”

“Don’t be silly…” I insisted. “We were just talking.”

Well, maybe I hugged it once, or twice (who’s counting). But that is between me and the oak.

It was worth the embarrassment.

I took a lot of wisdom from my conversation with the tree. “All” the answers can be found in nature.

How many times have you heard that?

Well, it is hackneyed, and it is corny and… it’s actually true.

Everything we need to know about thriving on the planet earth can be learned by observing nature and its laws.

Once, when I was going through a particularly painful life experience (that seemed to be lasting forever), I decided immerse myself in nature to see if she could offer me escape. I found myself in 300 acres of forest, standing under a 500-year-old oak and looking up in awe.

I had to crank my neck right back to survey its full height. It was a formidable sight to behold. The roots looked like a dozen giant, sinewy legs buried deep inside the earth, its trunk was as wide as five large men and as hard as a miners boot, and its branches, like bulging arms, punched high into the sky and umbrellered out in every direction.

I was inspired.

The tree was powerful, it was deeply rooted and it seemed almost impervious to inclemency. When I compared myself to the tree, I felt tiny, inconsequential, as though my contribution to this spinning planet was hardly worth the effort.

I looked at its majesty and power, and I thought to myself, “That’s how I would like to be.”

So I sat with the tree, and I asked myself (and I asked the tree – a shamanic exercise that I had been practicing): “How can I be like the oak?”

Here are the 13 life lessons that have come to me in the days, the weeks and, the years after that first conversation:

You have great potential.

The whole schematic for the giant oak is in the acorn. A solitary acorn lying on the earth and looking up at this towering edifice might scoff at the very idea that he too might be an oak, but he could be, and if he plants himself into fertile soil, perhaps one day he will.

We are all a produce of this green earth. What is potential for one, is potential for all.

Don’t be safe.

An acorn that stays above ground, that hides in shady places and does not brave the dark uncertainty of the deep earth will always remain an acorn.

We all have potential, but we need to place ourselves into fertile soil to realize it.

Never rush.

A 500-year-old tree takes 500 years to grow. It does not try and speed things up, it does not rush, it never hurries nature, and indeed it does not try and cram a 500-year gestation period into a 100-year span.

Gestation and growth take time. Robust infrastructure, in our bodies, in our businesses and our relationships cannot happen overnight. When you try to rush the process, when you attempt get twice the results in half the time, things usually end up breaking. If you place a large trunk on small roots or sprawling branches on a skinny trunk, all you’ll get is immediate imbalance and inevitable collapse.

Have faith.

Most of the early growth of an oak happens underground. To the untrained eye looking from above, it might appear that the seed has not taken because a sprout has not immediately appeared through the soil. But just because you cannot see it does not mean that it is not growing.

We all start projects and abandon them too soon because we do not understand this law.

Know your purpose.

The tree knows its purpose, that it why it is so powerful, that is why it is sponsored by natural law. It has only one aim: to serve. Everything that it takes in through its roots, and processes through its body, it gives out through its leaves.

When its acorn fruits are grown, and its leaves are spent, it also gives them to the earth and starts the cycle all over again.

The tree knows the great secret: everything that it gives will return to it.

There is no gamble involved. It is a great act of faith in the reciprocal universe — cause and effect in action.

Copious and relentless service are its raison d’être. It is the secret of its greatness.

Weare at our best when we serve: if we want to experience abundance, we need simply to find lots of people to serve.

Keep the flow.

If you were to observe carefully the tree at its roots, you might say, “This tree is a greedy tree, it takes massively from the earth and gives nothing back.” If, however, you were to look at the tree from the perspective of its leaves, you might think, “This tree is the great philanthropist. It gives everything of itself away, even its leaves and fruit, and it asks nothing in return. And if you were to look at the tree only from the perceptive of its very grand trunk, you might be forgiven for thinking, “This tree is very wealthy, it is loaded with rich sap.”

The reason the tree is so profitable and can function for hundreds of years is because it is all of those things: it takes copiously, it gives generously and it ‘has’ in abundance. Its secret is that it never stops the flow of energy, every second of every day it takes, it processes and it gives. If each section of the tree suddenly demanded autonomy of its parts and decided to stop the flow of service, the tree would quickly die. A tree that does not serve is a dead tree (and is sacrificed back into the earth).

We make the mistake of forgetting that we are a produce of nature and, like the tree and like all living things, we must keep the flow of energy going at all times or die. In our immediate body, and in our extended bodies (business, relationships, etc.), we need to continually bring in new energy, we need to process that energy to help build, repair and maintain our own infrastructure first, and then we need to give it all away.

When we greedily think we own it all, “I did the work! Why shouldn’t I hold onto the fruits?”, we begin our own atrophy. The balance is mathematically precise, we should never take more than we can process, we should never hold more than we can safely manage and we should never give away more than we have. Luckily, if you listen to your intuition and follow your innate nature, she will make the right decisions for you.

Don’t judge.

The tree is at one with all things: it does not judge, it does not compare, it does not discriminate, it cannot be threatened, seduced or influenced. Even if you chopped it down with an angry axe, it would continue its service in one way or another. It simply and blindly gives. What it takes and processes it offers to all. Whether you are a killer or a king, a greedy banker or a starving child, a good man or a bad egg, it will feed you. And in turn, it will feed from you. Your breath is a part of its sustenance. It realizes that all things are connected, so to discriminate against one is to discriminate against all. It knows that what it gives it will receive, so, ultimately to deny the other would be to deny itself.

We tend to deny ourselves sustenance and growth by favoring one, whilst pushing away another on the basis of their status, their behavior even the color of their skin. What we breath in and what we breath out, the food we consume and the information we receive is (like the tree) ingested, processed and regurgitated back into the earth and the air over and over again, ad-infinitum. We cannot stop this process, but we can congest and hurt ourselves by trying to. If you want to flourish, give to one and give to all.

Be blind in faith, like the oak.

Everything that happens is good.

The tree is its influences. It does not see a threat in every creature that wants to use its branches or feed off its leaves. Every living creature, big or small, that touches the tree, leaves an essence of itself in the tree and becomes a part of it. Every bird that lands on the tree changes the tree is some small way. In fact, it actually becomes a part of the tree.

Every person that walks past the tree joins it with its every breath, the animals also fall into its giving and taking. That is why it does not get angry at the squirrel that uses its branches like a motorway system, or the birds that use its twigs for their nest, or the insects in their millions that feed on its bark. It knows that eventually their cycle of life will end and they will fall back into the earth and offer back all that they have borrowed.

Eventually (and likewise) the oak will also fall, and it will also hand in its borrowings.

Don’t be threatened by competition. There is no competition. Anything that is real cannot be threatened, if it can be threatened it is not real. Embrace those that want to live off you, live from you, and live with you – help them if you dare to help themselves because what they take they will also give.

Kill arrogance.

The tree knows that it is a part of something much bigger than it can even begin to imagine. It does not arrogantly think that there is nothing more out there and that the universe is only as big as his capacity to comprehend. It observes the tiniest creatures blindly at work on its bark — they are unaware that they are feeding off an oak that is so big they cannot even see it, let alone understand it.

The tree of life knows that it too is feeding on the bark of something beyond his knowing. It knows that the universe is a mysterious place and that there is too much ever to know.

Be humble.

The oak does not do pride. It may be the biggest tree in five hundred acres, but it is not haughty. It does not celebrate its place with pomp and ceremony, it does not look down on the young saplings, neither does it scoff at the summer flower that lasts only one season, gloating over the knowledge that oaks thrive for hundreds of years. It knows that in the vast eco structure, each plays it part, and none more so than any other.

The moment you lose your humility and allow yourself to believe that your life is more important than another’s because you have accrued wealth, or inherited (or earned) privilege or status, you are lost. The moment you become haughty because you think you know more, or you think you have more, or you believe that you are more and (only you) follow the righteous path, you are lost.

If you are given status, know that it is on loan, and given only in order for you to better serve. If you are privileged, know that it is a temporary position, awarded only so that you can become the steward for more people. And if you have been gifted wealth, know that you are only the caretaker, and it is proffered so that you can care take for those who cannot take care of themselves.

Eschew comfort.

The tree does not cling to its comfort. It understands that nothing grows inclement conditions and that pain accompanies every burst of new life. And so it welcomes the rain, the rain feeds it. And it greets the wind gladly, the wind tempers it, and it lauds the scorching sun like a returning king because without the sun it could not exist.

It integrates this benevolent triumvirate into its leaves, its branches, its trunk, and its roots. The tree is a master of alchemy: it can turn all things, however inclement into gold.

Do not seek comfort. Comfort kills sooner than cyanide.

Do not look for growth in comfortable places — in the business of being a person or in the business of life — comfortable places are the breeding ground for disease and death. And remember, if you encourage a broad perspective, everything good, bad, or indifferent can be turned into profit.

Nothing Dies.

Even a great tree of life will eventually follow its autumn leaves and fall. But it will not die. It cannot die, nothing can. It will simply sink into the green earth and become sustenance for the seeds it scattered in seasons past.

Science confirms that matter cannot vanish, it can only transform. We are perpetually ‘becoming’. So when this dream ends we will be re-born into a new dream, one we prepared earlier (in the current life span) with our karmic actions. If we want the next dream to be great it is important that we plant the seeds for greatness now with our actions.

Everything is everything.

The best tree spends its entire existence serving, because it knows that to serve others it to serve itself. But the tree looks after its own corner of the world. It does not worry itself unduly about life and death in the opposite field, in the forest across the water or the trees in countries beyond its own shores. If it allowed itself to think about the whole world, it would start to feel inadequate and separate and ineffectual.

What this tree has learned and what it tree knows was this: it is rooted into the ground and its branches stretch high into the sky. It is part of the planet, like we are all part of the planet, and whilst it might seem to be separate on the surface like islands in a sea, underneath, in the great deep, they (we) are all connected to everything else. We are everything else. When the oak serves one forest it serves all forests. When the tree of life processes its gold through the leaves it sends its contribution into the great quantum soup.

Sometimes we feel as though there is so much to do in the world that what ever we do as individuals, it will never be enough. But in truth, whatever you do will be enough.

You are enough.

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