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Tending to the Tree

A marathon runner once told me she only ever notices her body is hurting when the pain ceases; it is the relief she experiences that alerts her to something being wrong in the first place.

In the same sense, I would like to gently bring to your attention an ache of yours that until this very moment, you probably haven’t even realised you’ve been ignoring.  I want to take you from there to a healing and rejuvenating place, where you can tune into the difference between pain and relief, and decide which you prefer.  So, if you’d care to indulge me, take a breath, relax into your seat, and allow me to escort you there (it’s not an unpleasant ride, by the way, but if you’re feeling unsure, just take this at your own pace anyhow).

Long before becoming this person reading my words now, long before you even arrived at the maelstrom that is your adult life, you were once a very small child.  And, though you may have forgotten it to be true, you weren’t really all that complicated to begin with.  You ate when you hungered, you laughed and you played, you sought cuddles when you needed them (in fact you were exceptionally adept at this), you were blissfully unfazed by your own nude body or its display in public, you made loud noises when you were happy, and even louder ones when you hurt, and you just about always tried to get your own way.

You didn’t stay that way for very long.  Growing up had its way with you, and you learned to notice and mind your nakedness, to use your inside voice, to ask politely for what you wanted.  With each step you advanced towards adulthood, you left behind more of your rudimentary beginnings, until the very characteristics that defined you as a child were all but lost within the shapely features of your ever-maturing personality.

What on earth happened to those formative qualities of yours?  Once upon a time, your effervescent silliness, your curiosity and wonder, your defiance and boldness, your selflessness and shamelessness, were just about all there was to you – so, where did you go?

I don’t believe ‘you’ went anywhere.  Underneath an intricate webbing of social rules, adult experiences, convoluted motives, poignant memories, mundane repetition, a cacophony of conflicting modern pressures, and a million other factors, there lies a person in you who remains fundamentally unchanged from your earliest beginnings.  To say that this person is gone is a bit like looking at a big tree and asking where the seed disappeared to; what you’re seeing is the promise of the seed fulfilled.

If you’ve ever watched a completely unselfconscious child, laughing contagiously or asking earnestly or languishing on the floor in an inspired protest against your latest boundary, then you know exactly what I mean when I say that when we are children we are at our most potent, our most undiluted.  A child is the might of the great oak tree, folded into but a seed.  A child is, in a very literal sense, our essence.  So when you look in the mirror now, your essence hasn’t disappeared, it’s just harder to recognise now that it’s stretched out a bit.  ‘You’ haven’t gone, you’ve grown.

So, why am I bothering you with this rather obvious statement?  Bear with me.

When we look at a big, sturdy tree towering stories above us, we see only its broad trunk and mature bark and dense foliage; we typically don’t think about how it was once little more than a supple stem and a scribble of fledgling leaves.  It was once so small that it could barely offer adequate shade to an ant, and so fragile that its very survival hinged upon the mercy of its surroundings.  It’s not that the tree you see in its place now is indestructible or impervious, rather, its vulnerability has become less apparent.  Deprive even a leviathan tree of water, nutrients, air, or sunlight, or expose it to toxins, and it still withers.

I’ve observed that in this same way, through attainment of adulthood we seem to have hoodwinked ourselves about our own sensitivities.  We endure or even inflict a level of neglect and suffering which most of us would never abide in another, least of all a child.  By blinding ourselves to our own tenderness, our own preciousness, we mistreat the most treasured thing about us.

Incidentally, the part of my job that I cherish the most is that I am afforded glimpses into this most exquisite part of us all the time.  Buried in each of us is someone who once spoke all day of their favourite animal, who once surrounded themselves with their favourite colour, who once entertained fantastical thoughts about the future, who burst into song without invitation, whose precious dreams were shouted for anyone to hear instead of whispered to an audience of one.  When a person dares to talk about their longings, their deepest hurts, their regrets, their improbable aspirations, it is their essence that shows up in the room, unchanged and unsullied by literally a lifetime of experiences.

I once saw a man in his early forties for help with quite severe depression*.  Although not without his flaws, he was a good man; an involved father, a responsible citizen, a hard worker, a loyal partner, a caring friend.  And despite all of these admirable qualities, and countless more, it would not be overstating matters to say that he thought of himself as devoid of all value, and treated himself accordingly.  For many months I had been chipping away with him at this notion that he held himself to standards he would never, ever impose on others.  So high were his demands of himself that he could of course never meet them, and as a result he regarded himself with only criticism, at times even cruelty and abuse.

On this one day in my office, as he finally succumbed to the weight of this truth, he fell silent.  Time became viscous and slow, as I quietly watched his eyes gradually become glassy, then pink, then wet.  Tears formed, and it was as though every molecule in his crystalline irises sharpened tenfold in resolution.  They lingered on the rims of his lids, knotting his lashes where they hung, before they too relented to greater forces and scaled down his face.  In the sanctity of that moment it was easy to forget that I was sitting across from an accomplished man in his forties; for all his weariness, in his vulnerability he looked youthful.  He so rarely cried, so I asked him to put some words to those tears.  After a few attempts to compose himself, he winced, “All that caring I give…  Everything I do for other people…  I never feel any of that, do any of that, for me.  Am I really worth so little?”

In a very real way, crying over himself on this one occasion was the only generosity and compassion he’d allowed himself in decades.

Did it lead to a flood of further emotions?  Did it destabilise or weaken him somehow, as he’d always feared?  Absolutely not.  On the contrary, as he passed the next months practicing regarding himself with the same basic respect that he usually only afforded others, the transformation I witnessed was astonishing.  Like watching a brittle and bone-dry sponge suddenly flung into a pool of the sweetest water, I watched him expand and unfurl, stretching outwards in every direction in search of the edges of his full dimensions.  In seeing his own vulnerability he had found his power, and so was reborn.

This is what happens when we dare tend to our relationship with ourselves.  When we appoint ourselves guardian of our own great tree, when we acknowledge that we too thirst, that we too crave to reach out towards the light, that we too need nurturing, we start responding.  We start giving to ourselves.  And we see that doing so doesn’t lead to some catastrophe, or our demise, but to our liberation.

I look back at my life experiences, and those of my dear friends, my family, my clients, and I’m struck by our seemingly universal tendency to frequently, easily, comprehensively and decidedly abandon ourselves.  In the throes of being parents, or dedicated employees, or carers of ailing parents, or desirable partners, or of service to our community, or dependable friends, or driven careerists, we so readily neglect tending to all but the most basic needs of our essence.  There’s no safety in that for us, let alone contentment or prosperity.

All of this begs the question: What would happen to you if you turned your compassion for others inwards?  What would happen to your life if you became your own fiercest ally, if you valued yourself the way you show your value for others each time you defend a friend or protect your children?  What would happen if you promised to speak to yourself only with the same kindness, the same basic respect, you reserve for the young and the beloved?

Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

For some of us, and I’m one of them (but that’s a whole other blog!), this is such difficult territory, and to commit to honouring yourself often stirs in us deep discomfort or pain.  Even at practical levels, it can present challenges.  But, I can only encourage you to stay the course, to persevere through the obstacles that may present themselves as you do this, and to seek help if needed.  After all, as you’ll see for yourself, life agrees with us when we start bettering our relationship with ourselves.  For example – check in with how you’re going right now.  Aren’t you a bit like that marathon runner, noticing the release of tension you didn’t even know you held?  If so, you’ve already started to reap the benefits of investing in your own wellbeing.  All that’s left is to keep going.

My gift to you, to set you on your travels, is two simple strategies that have yet to fail me either personally or over the years of sharing them with my clients.  The first technique is useful for specific incidents: when giving yourself your next talking to, literally imitate the tone you would use with someone you care a lot about; keep refining your message to yourself until it would pass as something you’d be comfortable saying to a loved one.  Your overall commitment to being more respectful and kind to yourself might require a more potent motivator, and for this I recommend tracking down a picture of yourself as a young child, maybe five or six years old, and putting it somewhere you will see it very often (the corner of your bathroom mirror, a picture next to your kids in your wallet, tucked away on your dashboard, on your fridge, wherever).  I pick this age because by then you had a clearer identity and you probably still have some memories of being that age, so the person you’re looking at is easier to connect with than, say, a photo of you as an infant.  When you look at that picture, ask yourself whether your words and actions of late value and honour the best in you.  (I’ve also used this one to great success with warring couples; each individual places a childhood photo of their partner on their own bedside, which can help soften the barbs or warm the ice).

I wish you the best on your journey, and I sincerely look forward to crossing over with you again.

Jacques

© Jacques Rizk, 2013

*Without altering the meaning or context, many aspects of this exchange have been changed in order to preserve not only the identity of the client but the privacy of that moment.