By Dr. Jeanette Banashak
Keep a green tree in your heart, and perhaps the singing bird will come. I must share with you a story about a particularly barren time in my life when I used a tree for a spiritual director. I learned so much that year because I listened in silence…-Sr. Macrina Wiederkehr
Because it was small I couldn’t lean on it but could only sit beside it…
Because it was silent I listened deeply…
When it got thirsty I watered it…
A soul-friend relationship never works only one way. There is a mutual giving and receiving.
I learned from my tree that being transplanted is possible. I can always put down roots again, connect with the Great Root, and grow on.
Keep a green tree in your heart, and perhaps the singing bird will come.-Chinese Proverb
Ever since my training to become a spiritual director, I have been intrigued by the possibility of having a tree as my spiritual director. I didn’t want to consume the knowledge of trees, or assume that just any tree would want to accompany me, but like a human spiritual companion, I wanted to be empowered to explore my spiritual life with a tree as guide. We know that trees communicate underground as well as above ground. They warn each other of dangerous insects and bacteria; they support each other; they share nutrients with each other; they protect their offspring. Trees are living organisms with their own special qualities.
In addition to communicating with each other, trees communicate with humans. When we focus on listening to trees by quieting our minds and getting in touch with our senses, we can hear the varied sounds that trees make. We might hear the swaying of trees, creaking of limbs, crackle of leaves. We might put our heads to the ground and listen for anything near or approaching. We might place our ear right up to the tree trunk and listen for what the tree has to say. Or perhaps we listen to our own response or reaction to the sounds we heard.
Once, while on a silent retreat, I felt compelled to be a part of group spiritual direction with trees. I didn’t know if I – or a tree – was to be the focus person/tree. I set out by asking my (human) spiritual guide at the retreat center where a good place on the land might be to do this. She directed me to an area that was like a bowl with trees all around it. I walked the perimeter, taking in the trees and ground, and I asked the big rocks to hold space for the session. On a chair that I brought, I sat and asked for permission to proceed, and then asked who was to be the focus person or focus tree? I sensed that one particular tree would be the facilitator and I would be the focus person. During the session, I heard the leaves rustle in the wind, I watched them move, and I smelled more acutely that outdoor green scent that smells like a Midwest summer. During the experience, I did not have a huge epiphany or grand answer to my inquiry, but rather, I gained strength and inner quiet by the presence and participation of the trees. When it felt complete, I extended gratitude to the trees for their constancy, resilience, and might.
How might we go about nourishing a spiritual direction relationship with trees?
- Find a spot with at least one tree, or more if doing group spiritual direction. Ask permission to approach the tree/s and if it is willing to be your spiritual guide. If granted, sit or stand facing the tree, against the tree, or in the middle of trees.
- Inhale the tree’s scent and relax.
- Allow yourself at least 50 minutes to be with trees.
- Begin with silence.
- Take in the sounds without judgment and with acceptance, attuning each of your senses to the environment.
- Begin communication with the tree/s as you would with a human guide.
- When the session feels complete for the moment, close the session with silence.
- Extend gratitude to the tree/s and natural environment and anyone who made it possible for you to have the time on the land.
- Return in one month (or more or less).
Trees become energized by our companionship. As a practice, we can send warmth and love to them every time we encounter them. May your love, appreciation, and connection continue to grow as you relate to trees in new and deep-rooted ways.
Further resources: Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard; The Hidden Life of Trees and The Heartbeat of Trees by Peter Wohllebben; Teaching the Trees by Joan Maloof; The Overstory (novel) by Richard Powers.
Dr. Jeanette Banashak is a queer and bilingual interspiritual and interreligious companion. She has a diploma in shinrin yoku (forest bathing) and guides people of all ages in nature urban immersion experiences as an act of justice, as well as is working on a piece that explores interspirituality and trees. She is the co-founder/director of The Spiritual Guidance Training Institute, an organization providing training in spiritual direction/companionship with an interfaith, interspiritual, inter-contemplative focus. Jeanette is the author of The Mindful Pilgrimage: A 40-Day Pocket Devotional for Pilgrims of Any Faith or None and a 30-Day ezine of haiga from the Camino (available on SGTI’s website). In 2018, she became a “dual pilgrim” after walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain and Kumano Kodo in Japan. Jeanette also teaches social and emotional learning and development at Erikson Institute and spiritual direction at the Graduate Theological Foundation.