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Treasures in the Shadow

Branches of a neighbor's pine tree lean over my fence and create artistic patterns.
Shadows on fence

A tall wooden fence separates my back yard from my neighbors' yard. In their back yard grows a majestic, towering pine tree that drapes some of its branches over the fence. They provide shade for flowers that grow in my back yard.

 

Every morning the branches create a shadow design on the fence. They form especially artistic patterns between 8 and 9 a.m. If I wait until late in the morning to observe them, the shadows have become too big to create much of a contrast with the fence.

 

When I watch those shadows, I sometimes think they are a bit like the shadow within us. "Our shadow is made up of the thoughts, emotions, and impulses that we find too painful, embarrassing, or distasteful to accept," said the late self-help author, coach, lecturer and teacher Debbie Ford. She believed our shadow is one of the most valuable gifts available to us. Ford is perhaps best known for her New York Times best selling book, The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. In it she shows readers how to use spiritual practices and modern psychology to deal in a healthy way with their shadow.

 

Ford explained more about our shadow in The Shadow Effect, the book she co-wrote with Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson. "We have all hidden away and repressed pain-filled, shame-filled moments, and, over time, these emotions harden into our shadow," she wrote. "These are the unexpressed fears, the horrifying shame, the gnawing guilt. These are the issues of the past that we have never faced."

 

In the mornings, I enjoy looking at the shadows the pine tree forms on my side of the fence. If I want to see the shadows at their most visible, I have to do it at the right time. Noon will be too late. In the afternoon, everything is in shadow without any patterns at all. I must deliberately choose mornings to see the display of light and shadow on the fence.

 

In the same way, if we want to examine the painful shadow within us, we must do it in a deliberate way. "You have to confront the very parts of yourself that you fear most to find what you have been looking for, because the mechanism that drives you to conceal the darkness is the same mechanism that has you hide your light. What you've been hiding from can actually give you what you've been trying hard to achieve," Ford wrote in The Shadow Effect.

 

Our shadow contains both fear and potential healing. It isn't easy to face what's in our shadow, especially what we fear most. But it is well worth the effort if we want to heal the pain and shame we've experienced in the past.

 

I am constantly amazed by how the simple act of observing nature can lead to thoughts that provide me with an opportunity to heal. No matter how old or wise we get, we will always be on a journey toward continued healing. I am thankful for trees and for Debbie Ford and many other wonderful teachers who help us find a way back to wholeness.

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How to Help Yourself Thrive

Watering through a hole in the center of a juniper stump helps branches growing from it stay healthy.
Hole in juniper stump waters branches

A juniper tree in my front yard has an interesting shape. Its main trunk died sometime before I bought the property. I had the trunk cut down to a stump. The tree remains alive, because two large branches grow out of one side of the stump. Those branches thrive. They stand tall, as though they are another tree.

 

A couple of years ago, the tree branches started looking sick. Some of their needles turned brown. I couldn't figure out why, because they got plenty of water. I hosed water all around the base of the stump, especially on the side that supported the two branches. In spite of getting that water, the branches didn't improve.

 

One day I decided to pour water into the hole in the center of the stump. That stump guzzled the water. No matter how much water I poured into that hole, it wanted more. Eventually, water reached the top of the stump hole and began to spill over. Its thirst had finally been quenched.

 

After watering the juniper that way for a few days, the branches began to look healthier. The needles grew green again. The tree began to thrive. Ever since then, I have watered that tree through the hole in the middle of its stump. The tree continues to thrive!

 

That experience with the juniper made me wonder how often we think we are nurturing ourselves when maybe we're not. Are we giving ourselves what we really need, or are we missing what will help us thrive? Whatever that missing thing is, when we find it and provide ourselves with more of it, we start feeling better. Fun, adventure and delight return to us.

 

What does it take to find that special thing that will return enthusiasm to us? I suspect it will be unique for each of us. To find it, pay attention to what you long for. It could be something quite simple, or it might be more complex.

 

The key is to pay attention to how you feel, what you wish for, what you miss. When you find whatever that hole in the stump is for you, give it more of whatever it is you've been wishing for, needing, or wanting. Do it consistently, and you may find yourself thriving just like my juniper tree.

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Meditating among Trees When You Face Troubling Times

Cottonwood grows near irrigation ditch bank
Cottonwood tree

If you are struggling with an issue in your life that weighs you down or stresses you almost beyond your ability to cope, take time to visit the trees you have come to appreciate. Many of them may be in your yard or around your neighborhood.

 

When you get to one of those trees, stand near it. Quiet your mind as much as you can and focus on the tree. Notice the texture of its bark. Touch the bark to sense how it feels to your hands. Is it rough, smooth, lumpy? Look higher up into the tree. Trace the branches with your eyes. Notice how the twigs and any remaining leaves that have not fallen attach to the branches and spread beyond them.

 

Do you see any nests in the tree, any birds perched there, perhaps squawking at you for standing so close to the tree? Are there any other wildlife? Once I saw a porcupine perched in a tall cottonwood. Another time I saw a snake winding its way up the trunk of a tree toward a bird's nest containing, it hoped, eggs to eat.

 

Then bring your gaze back down to the base of the tree. Notice the roots, how they splay out from the tree trunk and bury themselves into the ground, forming a strong, sturdy base for the tree. Imagine what it would be like for you to let strong pillars of support flow from your feet deep into the earth, letting the planet nurture you and help you feel stronger.

 

Once you feel well grounded as you enjoy that connection you have forged with the earth, stand quietly as you feel strength flow into you. Look up into the tree again. If you feel so inclined, say a prayer of blessing, gratitude or encouragement for it.

 

As you feel calmness resting like a warm, comfortable cloak around you, listen to impressions that go beyond the sounds of branches brushing against each other in a gentle breeze, beyond the rustle of dried leaves on the ground as a squirrel passes by. In that quietness that takes you into a place deep within yourself, listen for any impressions that come to your mind.

 

You may become aware of an encouraging thought, a supportive idea, a phrase to cling to when life seems too difficult, too overwhelming, too confusing. You may feel filled with love so deep that it fills you up and overflows in tears of joy.

 

Is the thought coming from the tree? Is it coming from the greater wisdom within you, from the divine presence that always surrounds you even when you forget it's there? You don't have to figure out where it's coming from. Just notice the message, repeat it so that you don't forget it, and thank the tree for helping you find your way into a meditative state that allowed that thought to give you the strength, courage and stamina to carry on.

 

When you feel ready, say goodbye to the tree and head back to your life full of challenges. No matter what you face, remember the message, the sense of love or joy that filled you with hope and strength. Carry it like a treasure in your mind and repeat it as often as you need to. Write it down somewhere so that in the coming days, when you need it most and have a hard time recalling it, you can find it and be strengthened once again by its powerful message.

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Reduce Stress by Walking Near Trees

Trees and the sound of a peaceful river create calmness
Trees along a river

When you feel stressed, sit under a tree or walk near where there are trees. Without a doubt, in these post-election moments, we have an extra need for stress reducing activities.

 

Focus on the trees. Notice their bark, branches, needles or leaves, the way they sway in a gentle breeze. Hear the sounds they make such as rustling leaves or branches rubbing against each other. Listen to the birds as they flit from branch to branch, then race off to find a different tree or land in the grass to eat seeds, worms, and insects. Feel the smooth or rough consistency of tree bark as you run your hands along their trunks.

 

Once you've experienced all those sensory details while immersing yourself in the experience of being around trees, you may discover that you feel calmer, a little happier. Maybe you feel less stressed over what's going on in the world around you. Though you may worry about what's happening, there is seldom much you can do about it.

 

Never underestimate the healing power of your time around trees and other aspects of nature. Being surrounded by trees, bushes, flowers, and bodies of water helps to heal us. That may be one reason some of us like to garden and why we feel sad when gardening season is over.

 

Connecting with nature not only has a way of bringing healing calmness to is, but it encourages us to take care of ourselves better by walking more. Walking also helps to boost our creativity. Getting your exercise on a treadmill may be good exercise, but walking in nature does something extra to activate creative ideas. It triggers our brains to blossom with all kinds of positive impressions.

 

If you have a dog, when you need to generate new ideas, take your dog for a walk. It will benefit both of you. Your dog will love it, and you will prime your wellspring of ideas to gush like a fountain.

 

These days, as we've gone through the long season leading up to elections and are now in the post-election season with all its temporary uncertainties, we need more than ever to take time for walking. If you can walk among trees and other beautiful aspects of nature, your stress will slide away more easily. So take a walk, and let go of stress. You deserve to feel good!

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