When we speak of people and their lives there is always a beginning to our story. It is not the moment when we are first born that our life begins or even when the sperm first met the egg. Without even realizing we are doing so, we recognize subliminally that life for us began in spirit form, our soul existing without memory, without body. We have all heard it and many of us have said it, “when you were just a twinkle in your mama’s eye;” but what if we were not speaking of mankind? What if instead we were talking about some other type of noun: a person, a place or a thing? Might it too have a beginning, a point at which its very existence began despite our inability to witness it with our eyes, hear it with our ears or touch it with our fingertips? Might the spontaneous glimpse or idea in our mind’s eye of a magnificent ship be the beginning of its existence before the inventor has put his pen to paper and began to sketch, before the champagne bottle is crushed against the hull and she is dubbed The Titanic? I think so. I think that everything has a beginning and I am not sure about whether anything has an end, a death. I certainly believe we have a soul and find it difficult to not speculate that we live or experience multiple incarnations (as I would define life, life-after-death, et cetera).
It is September 2014 and I am 45 years old, single and going through a serious mid-life crisis. Last Tuesday the question was posed to the group of us in attendance: “What is the metaphor of your life?” At first it seemed a ridiculous question and we all avoided thinking about it. We fluttered about topic-to-topic as a butterfly flutters about a cluster of blooms. Yet, silently in the back of my head I heard the questioning whispers: “I am all for flower power but when did I sign up for Hippy Camp? What is this New Age mumbo-jumbo she’s got us doing now? What a stupid question, can’t we just get out the glue and scissors and do a little art?” That’s what I like: nice, easy, clean play that does not delve so directly into my fears, ripping them up and out from my insides and splashing them onto the table for everyone to dig and wade through. “Why did I even come today? Oh, yeah, because I chose to come. And the reason I chose to come is because I need to be here.” And I know she is wise and knows how to take my hand and guide me safely through the scary places that I need to go in order to heal my heart, my soul, my life.
And so I sit here thinking of my life: How I began, what I have learned, and where I am going forward from this moment. Looking back at Tuesday and how once we each became more comfortable with the question how quickly those metaphors rolled off our tongues as though we’d lived with them and knew them intimately since our beginnings: a pinball machine, a coin, a stuffed animal, a snow globe. which am I, you ask? I am none of those. Despite our sameness, we are all individuals and I was born of the seed from the Banyan Tree.
Such Specificity! I am and was astonished by the fact that I knew so much about my life as a non-human. The problem was even though I could tell you all about it, I really am not a person who is fond of flora and so I I didn’t know the name of the tree for which I was referring to. But that wise woman sitting beside me, she called it as she saw it, “Do you mean the Banyan tree?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I suppose. If that is the one that grows down into the earth and sprouts all the trees of the forest around itself, feeding them, watering them and keeping them alive and well.” I called it the Mother Tree because that is how I saw the tree, a nurturer sacrificing of itself for all of those she loved around her. From above the surface of the dirt it looks like each plant is an individual tree yet in reality, just beneath the surface, each and every one of those trees is connected, they are all part of the same root system! And so the individual tree is never alone and never without purpose, but after a while this Mother Tree spreads her love so wide and so thin that she begins to lose her own inner strengths and sees only the needs of those around her. That was me. That IS me.
After class, I came home feeling quite tired yet somehow less burdened. I had some food. I took a nap. And I didn’t think much more about it. However, the next day the idea came to me again and I shared it with my mother. Again, I could not remember what species of tree I viewed myself as and it was important, because like people, not all trees are the same. And, apparently, once again, I described myself as this metaphor well enough for another person to understand what I was saying, and she said, “Oh, you mean the Banyan tree! It’s very interesting you should look it up and read about it.” And so I did. What I learned was eerily accurate to how I have viewed my life experience.
It has always seemed to me that from the very moment I became a twinkle in my mama’s eye I have had a singular purpose: to love. When I look back at my childhood: the play, the dreams, the fantasies and the memories that remain strongest with me, I can see that everything revolved around love, sex, marriage and babies in a baby carriage. My entire adult life has continued with the passion and drive that my purpose was to marry and make babies to raise and nurture into healthy, kind, well-meaning, righteous individuals who would continue to spread love and nurturing and joy throughout the world. And the truth is, I was right. I was born with a purpose and the purpose was indeed to love.
I have led a truly unique life, but how my life began wasn’t too unique. Average boy meets average girl. Boy and girl fall in love. And then the boy marries the girl. But then the story starts shifting off-kilter. It turns out the girl isn’t so average after all. There is more going on within her than was apparent to those around her. She suffers from a mental illness as did her father before her. The average boy is, however, still average. He tried rescuing her from her father, but he is powerless to rescue her from her personal demons. He loves her desperately, but her illness and his inability to help her is making him sick with anger and hatred towards himself. He cannot save her, so he chooses to save himself. They separate, he joins the military and she remains in his mother’s care. But she still needs something to fix herself. She believes she needs a baby. A baby that will love her and accept her and make her feel fulfilled and complete, a total human being. I had suddenly become the twinkle in my mama’s eye that to her meant survival and, because he loved her, he gave her the going away present of me, a baby for my mom to have and to hold and be her very own. A baby that he too hoped would save her life. There was no mistake about it, they were getting divorced and they would have a baby too. And that is how I began my first breath, with a job… save my mother’s life. Unfortunately for me, this was a woman who would become even sicker with time and should not have had the burden or privilege to raise a child. And although most parents can love their children unconditionally, a child never loves unconditionally and so our mother-daughter relationship would never be one of healing. My parents were too young and naive to understand that rescuing my mother was a purpose and a task that I could never successfully accomplish.
And so it seems too that the Banyan seed has a purpose even before it falls from the beak of a bird soaring in mid-flight above the forest canopy. The seed that lands upon the dirt will never germinate and become a tree. It will shrivel up and dry out, dying before it gets the chance to grow, let alone thrive, creating a forest of its own surrounding. But I am not that seed, the one that hit the dirt and shriveled up having failed my purpose even before taking my first breath of air. I have accomplished my first task: I have landed upon a branch, a leaf, a tree trunk or a thatched roof and taken up root in my mother’s womb. And in doing so I will live, be born, breathe and nurture all of those around me as fully and completely as I possibly can.
As I said earlier, I am forty-five years old and was born loving other people. It was expected and even demanded of me from the time I took my first breath of oxygen. I just didn’t know my story; I only knew how I felt. I always believed I was giving my love to people of free choice because it made me feel happy. I nurtured myself by nurturing others. But perhaps I couldn’t see the forest for the trees! Perhaps I was giving away my nutrients, my strengths, my dreams and my desires in the subconscious hope of accomplishing that unattainable purpose my mother burdened me with even before the sperm met the egg that eventually became the woman I am today. What I do know is that I stand now a hollow trunk in a forest surrounded by trees I once nurtured and cared for, but I feel completely alone in the wilderness and as absent from myself as I ever have. I have no nutrients left to give others and I have barely any to even feed myself. But I was born of the seed of the Banyan tree and that is great news!
The Banyan tree is sacred and it is thought of as perfectly symbolizing eternal life. As I have said, I don’t know about death, whether or not life truly ends or whether it simply changes from one incarnation to another. Does the caterpillar die or does it become a butterfly? The Banyan begins as a seed, becomes an epiphyte, grows into a tree and then expands to become a forest of trees with the original, enveloped tree standing with its hollow core, becoming a temporary shelter or suitable home for bunnies and birds and other forest-dwelling animals.
And that is where I go next; I will learn to be temporary shelter for those I love rather than their only means of nutrient and support. I can find happiness in knowing that I am keeping my little bunnies safe from the weather of life. And I can discover a different means of nutrients and support for myself and, in doing so, keep myself safe from the storms of life as well. I simply will have to learn what it means to be the shelter not the provider, to be the woman not the mother, to be the friend not the wife. It will take time but if I look at the Banyan forest rather than simply the trees I will see that it stretches and continues in all directions for as far as my inner soul can see. As humans we begin as an idea, a thought, a dream or a private longing and with creation we become a zygote, developing further into the fetus that will eventually develop into these amazing creatures we call people. Who is to say that death is not simply another developmental stage? Our life did not begin when we slid out of our mother’s bodies so perhaps it does not end when we slip away from this consciousness.
We all know about muscle memory, it is what allows us to walk through our houses at night with the lights turned off and not stub our toes on furniture as we head for the restroom; but what I find so fascinating is that my tongue and my mind spit out this metaphor for my life that includes spirituality and the cycle of life. Krishna said, “There is a Banyan tree which has its roots upward and its branches down, and the Vedic hymns are its leaves. One who knows this tree is the knower of the Vedas.” The Bhagavat Gita suggests that the material world is a reflection of the spiritual world and thus the material world is but a shadow of reality. Within the shadow there is no reality or substantiality however the shadow is necessary for it allows us to understand that there is substance, there is reality. It is not an either/or… they both co-exist. If you doubt it, walk over to the river, stand on its bank and look at the reflection of the trees, the branches will go downward and the roots upward. Go, look, ponder these words and you’ll come to understand.
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