Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tree Medicine: Existential Dream Wisdom

Sometimes dreams seem to offer direct communication from the natural world—bringing guidance that reconnects us with the earth itself, and reminds us that we belong here. Our bodies are made of the same essential elements that make up all life, and we are part of the intricate and magnificent ecosystem that includes all living beings.

The Tree Is Not Afraid of Death: There’s a single row of red-cedar trees along the edge of the parking lot. A woman is clinging to one of the trees, crying. When I approach, she tells me that this one is her special friend, and they are going to cut it down. The whole place is under development. I see an arched doorway carved all the way through the trunk of the tree (like the tunnels in giant sequoias that cars could drive through—but much smaller). Since the trunk is just a couple of feet in diameter, and the doorway is about eighteen inches high and six inches wide, it’s a gaping hole, so I’m surprised that the tree seems healthy in spite of the damage. Some of the other cedars have doorways as well.

The woman begs me to protect her tree—not to let it be destroyed. I don’t know how to respond. I think that I have no authority to prevent them from cutting down the tree. Then, I think maybe they really aren’t planning to cut it down, since this row of trees was left standing when all the others were bulldozed to clear the lot. But these thoughts don’t seem particularly helpful; the woman is truly desperate.

 I put one hand on the cedar and the other hand on the woman’s back, and I tell her, in a clear, strong voice: “You know, this tree doesn’t fear death the way we do. This tree feels no separation between itself and the earth. For the tree, death is just returning to the earth, becoming earth. The tree is already part of the earth.” I’m astonished at my own apparent arrogance in speaking for the tree—but the voice just seemed to come out without my volition, as if the tree had spoken directly to the woman, through me. The woman is comforted. She knows she can trust her connection with the tree, and the tree’s connection with the earth.

It is not really surprising that the trees in our dreams might speak to us, or through us; trees and dreams are rooted in common ground. Although our human business may seem to separate us from nature and from our dream-source, nothing, not even death, can uproot us from the ground of our being.

I’m often preoccupied with the big existential questions that tend to trouble our earnest human minds. As my health is tenuous, the prospect of death has become very real to me. I know that I am finite. Sooner or later, I’m going to be cut down. So, the part of me that is clinging to life, the part that thinks it’s special, the part that is uniquely “me,” the part that will die—thatpart of me is worried. I’m attached to being me.

Many people say that they’re not afraid of death, they’re only concerned about what the dying process will be like… Will it be painful? Will it be undignified? But, for me, the dying seems no different from what we’re doing all the time—sometimes it’s painful and undignified, sometimes it’s not—it’s just living. When I get close to death, I’ll still be living, in one way or another, I’ll still be me. I’m curious about the dying process. But dying always ends in death. And death is the end of me. At least, death is the end of the part of me that worries about me. Death is the end of my familiar, human business.

Still, the trees remind me, there’s more to my life than this identity, which is always “under development.” When I had cancer in my thirties, I was too ill to worry so much about dying or death. I relaxed into the larger life of the natural world around me. I noticed the slow-growing trees whose business was just absorbing sunlight, drawing water from the soil, making leaves and losing leaves, sheltering birds, animals, insects, and reaching toward the sky. Looking at the old ones—the big oaks and cedars and beeches and redwoods—I felt peaceful knowing that they might go on living long after my death. The trees reassured me: being dead would be like life expanded to include everything, with no business to get done and no place else to be.

All this lovely philosophy was helpful then, but now it’s not so easy. I’ve seen too much death in recent years. I’m tired and I feel the limitations of my body and my small, restless, anxious human mind, yet I’ve got a pretty strong attachment to being ME—and staying this way forever, if I can manage to hold on. Of course, I can’t. Even long-lived trees don’t live forever, let alone busy, ephemeral human beings. So, my dreams remind me of the tree-medicine within me, the tree-medicine I can offer to the part of myself that suffers the fear of loss, the fear of death.

In a previous post [“Pity the Poor Ego”] I wrote: “If you want to find the Ego in a dream, look for the one who’s suffering, because the Ego always suffers when reality doesn’t conform to what the Ego believes is important.” By this definition, the Ego in this particular dream is the woman who clings to her special tree and cannot bear to let go. The “I” character in the dream—the one I’m most identified with—has a more complex role that matches the role I find myself holding at this threshold in my waking life. While part of me tries to solve the problem that the suffering Ego would love to have me solve, another part of me holds her ground between that Ego and a deeper wisdom—making the connection between them.

My Ego (the woman in the dream) needs to save her tree, to save herself; she needs to find a way to prevent death from cutting in and bulldozing everything she loves. I ponder her problem, and feel her desperation. But I don’t have a solution. Instead, I place a hand on her back and a hand on the tree, and I bring them together. The tree-medicine flows through me. The three of us cannot be separated, and all the other living cedars in a row, and all the ghost-trees that once made up a forest here, all of us are rooted in the earth together, letting life rise up in us like sap.

As I explored this dream, I began to trust myself more—trusting the connection between myself and the fundamental, immortal essence of all living beings. At first, I didn’t think much of those doorways through some of the tree trunks. I thought of them as ugly wounds, imposed upon the trees by the heedless human business of development and destruction. After all, those thousand-year-old giant “tunnel trees” in the great redwood forests eventually died because people had cut out their hearts to run roads through. But a doorway through a dream tree does no harm: the tree is healthy, in spite of the gaping hole. In fact, the more I look at that doorway now, the more I see it as an opening, a portal through which I can reach the other side.

Paradoxically, our destructive human business, the plans and projects we devise to avert loss and fear, can sometimes open our hearts. We can come to understand the selfishness and neediness that leads us all to try to control and subdue the natural world, just as we would like to control and subdue death. And if we can see through our own motivations, our vision expands. That hole is indeed a doorway, an invitation to stoop down and step through. In a dream, the doorway doesn’t have to be big enough to accommodate me—you know, my dream-ego can get smaller, crossing that threshold. Can yours? Let’s try it. Maybe we can step through that doorway, through the tree’s heartwood… And maybe there’s a flourishing forest on the other side.

10 Comments

  1. Kirsten, this went right to the core of me. Mysteriously wonderful how you touched, with words and dreams, everything deep and important. Very helpful, very moving to me.

  2. I found this posting touching. I have a close friend who has only a short time remaining, and death feels very present. It’s easy to forget that , at least our physical body, returns to the earth.
    I’m not so sure about your comment about the trees with holes that people can drive through dying any sooner. The living part of a tree is the layer just underneath the bark, not the heartwood.

    • Thank you, Ronald! The big trees did die from the tunnels (usually after some years)—not because of the heartwood, but because wounds like that leave the trees much more vulnerable to infections and insects. Maybe that’s true to the metaphor, since our openness does make us more vulnerable to harm, even though the opening is not dangerous in itself.

      • That makes sense. And, if you haven’t read Peter Wohleben’s wonderful book “Hidden Life of Trees”, it’s an amazing exploration of the “Sentient” nature of trees.g

    • Yes! A fascinating book. I really appreciate your comments, thanks!

  3. Kirsten, I loved how, in the dream, you placed one hand on the tree, the other on the woman’s back, and allowed the Divine voice to speak through you. That was so beautiful and powerful. I felt it viscerally. Thank you for sharing your journey with us!

  4. Dearest Kirsten, you will always be you. The you that gradually became conscious and matured into a woman is the you that is invisible but real, in dream, in life, and in the next plane of existence. Plus. . . all the memories we leave behind . . .

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