The Whole Tree / by Shauna Fallihee

Imagine a huge tree.  Full, healthy, verdant.

There is one brown leaf on this tree.

Now imagine that someone asked you about this tree.  You began to describe, in great detail, the single decaying leaf.

Maybe you are a botanist, trained to analyze plant health. You spend all of your professional day focused on the signs of decay, the causes and implications. This is important to you.

Maybe you, yourself, are a tree.  All of your own leaves are brown. You see the single brown leaf on the other tree and identify with it. Maybe you judge it. Maybe you appreciate it.  Either way, it is important to you.

We are designed to identify safety cues to protect ourselves and others.  If anything appears amiss, our bodies and minds focus on it instantly. We recruit all of our senses to affirm that we are safe. This is the root of negativity bias, the phenomenon of asymmetrical awareness.  We look for and hone in on any indicator of disease or danger.  We barely notice the tree.

This innate biological and behavioral function translates into our actions with others. We have a concern, often well-meaning, and we seek to correct it.  Sometimes we act before asking whether someone shares the concern or wants help. The unsolicited observation could be welcome or it could be perceived as criticism and judgement.

With our friends and family, we might believe that permission to share concerns and seek solutions is implicit.  If we are educators, we may assume that anyone who has learned from us is open to learning whenever we have an impulse to teach them.

The immediate awareness of something incongruous is natural.  The stories our minds create and whether we act on them is worth examination.  

We may find ourselves rejecting what concerns us or possibly identifying with it and attaching.  A momentary lapse of balance could support a story about being uncoordinated. An out of tune note can confirm deep-seated fear of failure.  The process of quickly assessing and assimilating information into our understanding is highly complex. The same systems that scan for danger are wired to believe that failure can lead to being ostracized from the tribe.  A benign error can provoke intense feelings.

Our motivations for sharing what we observe also deserve consideration.  If we feel inundated with self-directed negativity, we might deflect that outward, applying the same scrutiny to the circumstances and people around us.  Even kind and caring observations of others might be a way of offsetting our own self-judgment.

We may not be physically evolved enough to only recognize true threats but how much consciousness can we bring to the imbalance of negative observations?  How does this play out in our practices: physical, artistic, interpersonal...

When is it necessary to bring acute awareness to a brown leaf?  When is it kind?

How can we open up our field of vision to see the whole of the tree?

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