The process of aging well offers us one of life’s most satisfying rewards: maturity. Mature trees provide shelter to birds and small animals, breathe for our planet, and weather storms. In some Native American traditions, trees and plants are called Standing Silent Nation. Clarissa Pinkola Estes compares us to mature trees when she applauds people for “still standing” after experiencing traumatic events. Habits that support our intentions to do well by ourselves and others expand our maturity. As a negative habit transforms into a positive one, we are able to turn our gaze inward regardless of what might be going on in the world. This inward gaze signals our capacity for reflection, a sure sign of maturity. Developing this capacity, we discover and strengthen our inner balancing point, our inner core.
One of the most effective pathways to habit transformation is visualization. In the late seventies, Carl and Stephanie Simonton wrote Getting Well Again, a pioneering work on the connection between the mind and the body in cancer patients. This connection was demonstrated through a series of visualization activities that supported cancer patients in their desires to recover. My family was particularly interested in this work because in 1977 our beloved Aunt Peg had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was in recovery from a mastectomy; in fact, it was Peg who told us about the book as a way of introducing her rather unconventional – at least for the time – choice to include hypnotherapy sessions in her recovery process. As we listened to her thoughts about her “cancer visitor” and read the Simontons’ seminal work, we discovered how incredibly rich and powerful daily visualization sessions could be.
In tree life, once a seedling makes it past the vulnerable newborn stage, it is called a sapling. In human life, we call this period of time childhood and adolescence. Our new habits enter a similar period, often marked by the adolescent cockiness that suggests we can eat some fudge if we’re transforming an eating habit, or smoke a cigarette if we’re transforming into non-smokers, without consequence. It’s a dicey period because it comes with very heady energies. In actual adolescence, we often believe we can do just about anything, never mind the battle scars our friends and family members often point to as they advise us to be cautious. As adolescents, we don’t take advice readily, perhaps because we feel so empowered by the physical evidence of growing strength. So it is with our habits.
One spring when I was digging in my garden, a wise Silver Maple Tree offered an eloquent and entirely visual response to my curiosity about growing through one stage of life into another. Dripping with maple keys, this wise old Tree Being planted Herself over and over again in every corner of my garden. As I removed last year’s dead-leaf mulch and gently turned the soil to transplant a sprig of lily of the valley, I inadvertently dislodged one of these keys from its Earth home. Swollen, purple, and marked by fissures in its outer skin, it told me everything I needed to know about growth. Looking at that bursting seed I understood: in its initial stages, growth requires a period of darkness and mystery.