Mindfulness practice through training trees

My 10-year old daughter continues to astound me. And to offer insights for our daily practice of mindfulness. Yesterday we were reading about the ancient oriental art of bonsai, the Japanese word for ‘tray planting’. The book – Reader’s Digest Crafts & Hobbies (1989) – described bonsai as an ‘elaborate set of techniques for artificially dwarfing trees’.

Like mindfulness practice, training a bonsai tree is high-risk artistry that requires our daily attention. Artful contemplation offers a simple approach to daily mindfulness. Image of bonsai tree thanks to Unsplash.

I remarked that the trees were trained to grow small and compact. My daughter – in her usual direct and insightful manner – responded that if this were true, then the trees might also have thoughts and feel pain. Her comment gave me pause. It revealed an intrinsic understanding of the connections between empathy, entrainment and the power of art. Support for these connections is currently generating an increased interest in art therapy and mindfulness through art. My daughter’s comment also revealed a recognition of the many tongues in which the world speaks.

Because nature does not always communicate in the language that modern human beings are most used to – the language of words, icons and signs – it has become possible for many to believe that nature does not speak at all. The ancient orientals understood differently.

These dwarfed plants represented the spirit of nature in miniature, and so became objects of veneration and meditation.

Reader’s Digest Crafts & Hobbies , 1989

Dwarfed and deformed trees grow naturally on the windswept cliffs in China and Japan. Under the harsh conditions of their natural environment, these trees are often gnarled and twisted, their roots exposed, and barely reach more than knee-height. When viewed in their natural habitat, this appearance speaks of their capacity to flourish. They have adopted a form that is aligned and resilient, and that makes the most of what they have been granted. This precarious balancing act is what makes nature so dynamic, inspirational and worthy of contemplation.

High-risk artistry

In order to capture the intrinsic beauty of the weathered trees as they appear on the rocky crags of Japan, bonsai artists spend hours of effort, precise crafting and sustained nurturing on a single tree. It is a high-risk artistry requiring daily attention.

This is what raising a child has felt like to me – high-risk artistry which more often than not has meant supporting the individual’s organic shaping through personal daily attention. And I believe that for many adults, this high-risk artistry is often what the process of mindfulness practice feels like. Burdened as we are with a history of happenings, dramatic events and emotional identifications, the simple art of paying attention to what is immediately available and presently unfolding for us can seem riddled with challenges.

Attention is the key to transformation – and full attention also implies acceptance.

Eckhart tolle

The ever-present paradox of full attention is that as we come to accept that what we have perceived as contorted is intrinsically beautiful, we may also be called on to contemplate that what we have perceived as beautiful is far from ideal. When we appreciate what we have come to label as bent, contorted, twisted and gnarled about ourselves, then everything is perfect. Because nothing can be perfect. A daily practice of mindfulness calls on us to contemplate the deep reality that things (whether these be emotions, people, objects, thoughts) are always mutually arising with other things.

Love is not the opposite of hate. Love is the absence of opposites.

intuitive artist, lanon carl prigge

A special kind of doing

Returning to the ancient art of bonsai, it is good to remember that the artistic representation of inspirational nature through the art of training trees requires daily doing over many years. Mindfulness practice, too, can be viewed as an artistic representation of our true nature – and requires daily doing over an extended period of time. But this should not be too daunting when we contemplate that art is a special kind of doing – one that is best approached in a non-competitive spirit, in a state of curiosity and contemplation, with senses attuned, and heart wide-open. Bonsai artists nurture and guide their trees rather than controlling them. Through the artistic process, tree and trainer are mutually entrained. This synchronous relationship is true of mindfulness.

Like yoga, mindfulness has become a trendy word to use, and is quite often likened to a good habit to cultivate. This perception is not altogether problematic, although it is perhaps a little skewed. I have come across explanations, quotations or descriptions of mindfulness that use this, or a similar, phrasing: “20 benefits of mindfulness…Mindfulness promotes…Mindfulness does…Mindfulness increases…”. In other words, the”Done correctly, mindfulness will allow you to live a less/more [fill in the missing adjective] life”.

We carry mindfulness with us always. It resides within us.

But if you look closely at the way that this is worded, you will see a sly contradiction creeping in. Mindfulness is now an object of desire outside of us, an ultimate goal ahead of us, something that we do not have, that needs to be attained and achieved. And when we start paying so much attention to what we do not yet have to achieve this blissful state, we will in all likelihood increase the chasm to our destination. Since the destination is also the point of origin.

The spaciousness of mindfulness

We carry mindfulness with us, always. It resides within. It is the ground from which our mental activity arises. And it is the ground to which our mental activity returns in deep sleep. It is not that mindfulness reduces anxiety, but rather that mindfulness IS reduced anxiety. It is not that mindfulness reduces overthinking, or provides pain relief, but rather that mindfulness IS reduced overthinking, IS the relief of pain. Perhaps this sounds too simple to be true, or too obvious to be useful. But if we can settle into this sensation of envelopment, this feeling of expansion, then the spaciousness of mindfulness as a state that we already inhabit can be experienced.

…mindfulness practice doesn’t stop us from thinking, but instead offers us a new way of relating to our thoughts.

Wendy Ann Greenhalg

Like the weathered trees on rocky crags that grow directly where they are planted, emerging from dynamic and less than ideal conditions, daily mindfulness can be practiced at any time and in any environment, and in alignment with whatever resources are presently available. Mindfulness practice does not require a special chair, a special place, a special prayer, a special face.

At the centre of the turning world

That is not to say that for each of us, there are not certain doings that are organically harmonious, that evoke a smooth and fluid transition from a state in which we feel busy, overwrought, anxious, uncertain or fearful to a state of easy attention and expanded awareness. Some of these doings may include: a walk in untamed nature, writing poetry, doodling, painting, listening to music, gardening, cooking, yoga, swimming (the list is endless). We may be intensely involved in an activity – and remain mindful. We may be sitting still and quiet, but remain mind-full – full of fear, full of anxiety, full of guilt, full of regret, full of predictions. A sitting practice of mindfulness is, for many, beneficial and useful. But stillness of body is not the defining feature of mindfulness – rather it is our capacity to touch the stillness and silence that resides at the centre of each of us. Which reminds me of the words from The Four Quartets written by T. S. Eliot:

"At the still point of the turning world. 
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards;
at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only dance."

It is this dance, which is ‘neither arrest nor movement’, that becomes potential through Artful Contemplation. The bonsai artist of old, and the intuitive or visionary artist of today, are not different in that each speaks through a language other than that of words, signs and icons. Various terms have been used throughout the centuries to try and capture the way in which artists are able to access, translate and communicate the paradoxical, synchronous and interwoven nature of this transcendental dance: impressionism, surrealism, dadaism, cubism, expressionism. Through repetitive use and systems of formal education, these terms have stuck and become confused as aesthetic goals or outcomes.

When the intuitive artist returns to the ground of sensory impression and existential color, and their artwork becomes an offering for others to join the dance of mindfulness.

But when the artist returns to the ground of sensory impression and existential color and rhythm from which these styles arose, then labels and categories fall away – and the artist attains mindfulness in the midst of activity, presence with productivity, and their artwork becomes an offering for others to join the dance.

I find this work allows me to handle metaphor and symbol in ways that, at least for me, are direct and visceral. It is not as if I have an idea or theme or metaphor to begin with, that I then try to capture. Rather, these arise as I work. The works are not metaphoric, they are the metaphors themselves, they are not symbolic, they are the symbols themselves. The works do not represent anything except themselves. Is this making any sense? It’s so hard to explain in words. Its like each work is an entity unto itself. They are their own beginning and ending. And if I had to describe what it is like to create them, I would have to say it feels like dancing.

intuitive artist, lanon carl prigge

Bonsai has been described as an ‘elaborate set of techniques for artificially dwarfing trees’. Art, like mindfulness, like life can also be described as ‘an elaborate set of techniques’. But I believe that in practice, bonsai artists found a more simple and direct route of communication to capture and venerate the spirit of nature. And I believe that in practice, mindfulness is also a simple and direct communion by each one of us with what already IS.

How do you practice mindfulness on a daily basis? Leave a comment: we would love to hear your views.

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