It wasn’t a big thing. It was a banal thing. A common everyday thing. Something seen by everyone on a regular basis. It was a tree.
One I glanced at while walking in my neighborhood. A section of the bare tree trunk, foliage above, some more below, and, below that, a wooden fence. An unremarkable thing. Yet the impact left upon me was anything but banal.
The sight of the dark tree against the dimming evening sky filled me with vague memories. I was left with an uncharacteristic hope and an energetic interest. Curious how such a simple sight can trigger so much longing.
For the life of me, I’ve not been able to recall what my casual glance reminded me of. In my youth, my siblings and I were always playing in the woods. We climbed trees, built unsightly treehouses and log cabin forts, hiked, and camped in the woods. Our family regularly went on camping trips.
I’ve hiked and camped ever since that time. In 2000, I spent three months hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Three months! The southern portion of the trail is called the “green tunnel,” you’re hiking under the canopies of an endless stream of trees. There are occasional views, but mostly you’re sheltered within the green tunnel.
Why and how did that tree trigger such longing in me? Nothing specific has emerged from my fussing over the questions, but still, I’ve assembled some ideas.
The impression the tree made on me was one of hope, curiosity, longing, and nostalgia. At a certain age, everything becomes nostalgic, doesn’t it? There was a purity evoked in me I’ve not known since childhood.
I’m getting older. The simplicity of the sight before me has left me longing for something “other,” something simpler, purer, something permanent perhaps? The Buddha claimed that reality was unreliable because of its ever-changing nature. He wasn’t the only philosopher that understood this, but he is my favorite. The sight of that tree has left a longing in me for something remembered but not forthcoming when I pry at the vault of memory.
The image of that tree (which I’m embarrassed to say, I am not even sure which one it was in my neighborhood, this is how reliable memory is) has become my meditation. An endless “What is this?” Zen koan, which is as vexing as it is unanswerable. I will persist with the exercise. I like the way engaging with the image and my memory leaves me buoyed in some inexplicable way.
What is this!? It’s a valuable exercise when (if) you give yourself over to it.
I’ve walked past, climbed, and marveled at thousands upon thousands of trees in my life. Even now, as a sixty-one-year-old man, I am fascinated by the negative spaces encompassed by the right trees. I see that space and I want to build and live in a treehouse within those spaces. A place of my own. A place to hide away from the world. It would seem I’m as much a twelve-year-old as an older man barreling recklessly into the final phase of my life.
What is this?
What is this memory I’m trying to recollect? Why won’t it leave me alone? I’m plagued by the idea that I’ve forgotten something of value. Misplaced some precious trinket or family heirloom. A part of me is convinced that if I could resolve my vague interest and longing for what’s on the other end of this, I will finally (!) be happy. That which is retrieved will be reunited with me and we shall never again be divided.
Perception is nearly as curious a phenomenon as memory.
I learned this about memory. Every time you remember something, you aren’t just recalling it. When you remember something, you both pull it from your memory and then re-remember it. To me, this is a paradigm shifting perspective. If you weren’t born with an eidetic memory, your recall is never perfect. It is always less than, more than, or different from your original perception.
And perception is something I find fascinating the older I get. The idea of Zen koan is to rest with yet fully engage in some query that is otherwise unanswerable with your rational mind. Within the past decade of further degradation to my eyesight, I’ve stumbled upon another form of koan practice. Often in the morning, before I’ve put my glasses on, I will perceive some fuzzy yet familiar object on my nightstand or a shelf or elsewhere. I won’t recognize it immediately. My mind seeks the label that I associate with that item (its ‘name’), but not be able to find it.
My visual-koan practice is this: to just rest with the “not knowing” mind. I could easily put on my glasses and identify the item, but I’ve found I like the “not knowing.” I know I will eventually recognize the blurry bit and collapse the query, but in the interim, the mind enters a temporary mode of “don’t know” mind. I sit comfortably with the question. I don’t reach for my glasses or the fuzzy item – both actions would complete the circuit and close the question at hand. And that is not the point of the exercise. Not at all. The point of this exercise (to the degree there is one) is to establish comfort with uncertainty.
What is this? What is that thing I see, but don’t recognize because my failing vision doesn’t provide my brain with enough visual input to answer the question? The state entered during this brief exercise is a delicate affair; one that could be undone by even squinting and changing the visual perception slightly. Or pressing too hard. If I try to remember what items I stacked on my nightstand the previous night, I might recall what the object is, but that would be cheating. The point of the exercise isn’t to identify the object. The aim is to rest with uncertainty, to make it a friend, something of interest.
Whatever my mind has associated with the perception of that specific tree is somewhat like this practice.
The tree, with its black and gray striated bark, sat near a house, between a full bush and a brown fence. Only one corner of the house roof, littered with pine needles, was visible tucked between the bush below and more foliage above. When I first beheld the provocative tree, it still had some of its leaves, but the lower few branches which jutted horizontally out to the right, pointing westward, were bare. I could see the dimming sky through them. The space pulled me forward and I fell headfirst into this philosophical easter-egg hunt. Even now, I know if I am too persistent, I might recall the thing my mind seeks: the source of all my interest. But then where would I be? I would be without this question. What is this?
It might not even be a single incident from my past that lies on the other end. It might be an amalgamation of different experiences and incidents involving trees I’ve seen. But the impression my mind got when I first looked at the tree, at its negative spaces, through the lowermost branches on the right side of the tree was one of supreme innocence, hope, and promise suffused by a purity that I’ve not known since childhood.
Here is a clue. The tree or trees in question aren’t any I’ve perceived as an adult. The genesis for all this pontificating is something from my childhood.
Maybe I will never unravel this visual koan. I’m okay with that. But for now, I’m okay with that. The memory of the blue-gray sky through the branches, the foliage above, the fence, perhaps every element in that single glance fills me with a longing that invites me to sit with the uncertainty and repeatedly ask the unanswerable question: “What is this?”