How to Be Less Harsh with Yourself (and Others): Ram Dass on the Spiritual Lessons of Trees


Maria Popova | The Marginalian – TRANSCEND Media Service

A simple perspective shift that reorients the roots of being.

Hermann Hesse believed that trees are our greatest spiritual teachers. Walt Whitman cherished them as paragons of authenticity amid a world of mere appearances. Remembering his most beloved friend, he wrote that she was “true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free — is a tree.” I too consider the people I most love my human trees — people firmly rooted in a foundation of moral beauty, relentlessly reaching for the light, bent into their particular beloved shape by the demands and traumas of their particular lives.

Ram Dass

A century after Whitman, Ram Dass (April 6, 1931–December 22, 2019) drew on the human-tree analogy in a soulful invitation to treat ourselves — and each other — with the same nonjudgmental spaciousness with which we regard trees. Answering a question about how we can judge ourselves less harshly, he writes:

Part of it is observing oneself more impersonally… When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.

The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, “You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.

Art by Corinna Luyken from The Tree in Me

In his landmark 1971 book Be Here Now (public library), he leans on trees for a different metaphor in considering the stages of our spiritual development:

When a tree is very small we protect it by surrounding it with a fence so that animals do not step on it. Later when the tree is bigger it no longer needs the fence. Then it can give shelter to many.

Our spiritual growth, Ram Dass observes, follows a similar pattern. The fence is the community of support, sangha in the Buddhist tradition: the kindred spirits with whom we surround ourselves when we are still vulnerable, still finding our rootedness — a lovely reminder of that mycelial connection that binds us to each other, just like the mycorrhizal network undergirds the forest with its web of communication and nutrition.

Complement with Paul Klee on how an artist is like a tree and artist Art Young’s wondrous century-old silhouettes of trees at night as a lens on human experience, then revisit Ram Dass on love.


My name is Maria Popova — a reader, a wonderer, and a lover of reality who makes sense of the world and herself through the essential inner dialogue that is the act of writing. The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first 15 years) is my one-woman labor of love, exploring what it means to live a decent, inspired, substantive life of purpose and gladness. Founded in 2006 as a weekly email to seven friends, eventually brought online and now included in the Library of Congress permanent web archive, it is a record of my own becoming as a person — intellectually, creatively, spiritually, poetically — drawn from my extended marginalia on the search for meaning across literature, science, art, philosophy, and the various other tendrils of human thought and feeling. A private inquiry irradiated by the ultimate question, the great quickening of wonderment that binds us all: What is all this? (More…)

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