How a Master Helped Me See the Fruit of Pain
Time for clarity and direction. Time for a walk in the woods.
A cardinal called over the dry crunch of gravel as I pulled into the wide, empty lot. I locked the car and slammed the door harder then I intended. Cell phone abandoned on the passenger’s seat, I slung my day-pack over a shoulder and began to walk. A familiar trail-head guided me through reclaimed farm land and fields. The fields soon gave way to young, sapling forest as I turned down the smaller trails, seeking the distant, older forest beyond the range of casual walks.
I fumed through the fields, anger and hurt rumbling in my heart as the swish and sway of sapling limbs and reaching branches whispered calmly to me.
I love the forest. Another world, calm and patient, waits beneath the cool canopy. Shadows and filtered day fill the space beneath thick limbs and sunlight hungry foliage. It’s a world comfortable with the play of living grays and sprinkled light.
Step by step calm filled me. I took it in, breath by breath, until the logjam of emotion began to clear.
Disappointment, failure and loss had blinded me, burdened me and crushed me with its emotional weight. I couldn’t see beyond the walls of that pain or remember who I was free of its prison.
My eyes adjusted, discerning a thousand shifting shades of gray moving with the wind and slow breath of the forest. Moving through perfumes of fallen leaves, moss and moist dirt, I followed footpaths to their eternal source.
And I started to remember me.
The miles stripped away pain and bleeding emotion from me, leaving me strangely empty and alone. I had accommodated my pain, embraced it and welcomed it into my heart. How much had I relied on the pain as a crutch, a shield, an excuse?
I didn’t like what I was becoming, what I let the pain make me, bitter and paralyzed. It smelled of death.
Finally, almost unexpectedly, I arrived.
A Black Walnut tree rose like a rough-skinned ogre from the forest floor, wide and dark. Cloaked in an air of brooding power, it ruled the forest before it. Roots, hard as stone, held the earth tireless and sure. Its long twisted limbs, knotted and arthritic from centuries of disease and raging storms held a thick, distant canopy of fresh, flickering leaves.
And the burls. The old walnut was afflicted and long suffering, covered in dozens of large, angry burls like bark-covered medicine balls bulging from its stout trunk.
In the fork of two high roots, I sat with my back to the old tree and drank from my canteen, thinking about the tree.
Black walnut is valued for its strength, color and grain. Burled walnut is a treasure. Every scar, knot and burl leaves its mark in the wood, adding natural strokes of color. Beautiful, organic patterns in cocoa browns, dark reds and buttery hues sweep, turn and flow through the old, hard wood.
All that beautiful wood shaped through centuries of suffering. Looking up at the tree, the gnarled mass of knots and open wounds, I felt as if I was seeing the mirror of my emotions.
I knew my pain wasn’t special. Life has always been hard. Pain, loss and suffering have always shadowed our days and hovered in the darkness of our nights.
Why? Why is this our lot I wondered for a long time beneath the walnut tree.
The wind picked up, I heard it move through the forest until the old giant creaked behind me.
Some of the finest furniture in the world is made with burled walnut. The dark old giant is worth a small fortune because it has stood naked to centuries, making it’s heart a wealth of warm, rich beauty. Beauty born of adversity.
Life is a risky enterprise, the child of conflict. The good is defined by the bad. Joy is wedded to sorrow and life is the sister of death. The place between existence and annihilation, is the torn, blood-soaked ground of life. From that unlikely ground grows transcendent beauty.
Simple beauty is fragile, untouched and unmarred. It exists sheltered in memory or in a thin slice of time. It is the illusion of a moment. But transcendent beauty is something else.
Transcendent beauty is the beauty of scars and broken bones, of hardship endured, challenges faced, and taking another step after love is lost and dreams are crushed. It is the best part of us digging deep, tapping eternal strength and struggling on. It is shaped by time and adversity like marble of hidden wonders before the sculptor.
Transcendent beauty spans a lifetime and beyond. The attributes of endurance, the virtues of standing and pulling through settle in your soul. As weakness and illusion fall away, you are left with strength and the kind of beauty that carries you and defines you.
Soon I smell a change on the wind. The forest moans as the clouds roll in and the shifting stars of sunlight on the forest floor dim. In moments the canopy shudders under the first drops of rain.
The sum of your character, your soul, is the one thing, the lasting treasure in your possession. No matter what you face in life, what losses of fortune, social standing or love you suffer, your soul can grow in strength, depth and beauty – transcendent and eternal. That part of you will make its mark on the universe and carry forth in the greater ecologies of mind beyond the confines of this life.
I dug my jacket from the pack, stood and planted a palm on the walnut’s thick, rough bark to say good bye. Above me, limbs stirred the sky and the wind played a symphony of leaves. As lightning flashed through the clouds, I felt the old tree vibrate and move–alive under my hand.
How many storms had it faced in its long life? How much disease, how many insects eating its heart, how many storms and long winters had it endured?
I felt a sudden, deep connection to the tree, a bond of struggle and perseverance. A bond of life. The wonder of that moment illuminated the wonder of living, the wonder of my life.
I was done with the anger, done with the pain. It was time to heal and push through.
I looked up into its massive branches and distant leaves dancing in the storm until the rain poured into my eyes.
What a beautiful thing it had become.
I sat back down between the walnut’s roots, sheltered in transcendence and smiling.
We would face this storm together.