A few times a year anxiety sends my mind into a death spiral. I wake in the middle of the night with my stomach clenched like an angry fist. Thoughts race from zero to catastrophe and I am convinced that social interactions will only result in total alienation. By the time I get to the meditation cushion my thoughts have run the equivalent of the Boston Marathon.
Without the clarifying observation generated by meditation I will spend the day in overwhelm, certain that my next decision will lead to my destruction. Or the incessant drumbeat of you are so not good enough will lead me to create an epic to-do list as if I could ward off anxiety with achievement. The constant onslaught of unease, fretting, catastrophic thinking, edginess, trepidation, and foreboding has defined my life.
But besides meditation I have a powerful ally; the guidance of trees. So when I awoke last July with my stomach in a knot I took my anxiety for a stroll; only the trees could show me the doorway to myself. My walk around Three Dog Farm that day began with the catalpa tree. As I strode up the driveway Zoë, my small Doberman Pinscher, ran laps around my legs before disappearing to sprint around the barn. The July heat was beginning to rise off the driveway but a cool darkness rolled down from the wooded hillside and tickled my legs.
“Heya,” I said to the tree, “looking good.” The heart-shaped leaves fluttered in response. Around her trunk lay a scattering of white orchid-shaped flowers, dropped as reverently as an offering on an altar. Zoë returned, panting from her exertion. She paced and her nails clicked on the driveway. A cool breeze brought the rich scent of moss. The tight fist in my belly released just enough so that I could take a deep inhale.
Since I was in the fourth-grade that belly clench has been my anxiety giveaway. It is as if my mind squeezes itself tight to protect my intuition. Faced with pre-teen social pressure, my spiritual knowledge broke off and lodged in my gut. It had been clenched ever since. I waved bye-bye to the tree and strode through the petals on my way past the barn.
Down the slope on the far side of the barn sits a most epic sugar maple. She guards the entrance to our woodland walk with a regal canopy and the manner of a ruling queen. I sat on our picnic table and Zoë took off again to do a few sprints around the tree. Before I could even bow to the tree Zoë had zipped back over and with a tremendous leap vaulted onto the picnic table. She panted into my face with her tongue lolled to the side. I chuckled and scratched her behind the ears while trying to avoid her dog-breath. I looked up at the vault of green leaves. I loved how the branches were orderly yet responsive; this one growing towards the sun, that one curving around storm damage to find its path.
My anxiety thoughts are more like Catastrophic Decision Tree mode. Each trifling decision yields five more “what if” questions, which must be answered before action can be taken. It is a cruel form of self-sabotage where the intellect runs rough-shod over my intuition. Where shall we eat lunch quickly devolves to but if we go there we will take the highway, is he a safe driver, should I drive, what if we get flattened by a truck, what if he chokes on his lettuce, and OMG this day could end up a total tragedy!
I hopped off the table and bowed deeply to the tree before walking forward to give her a big hug. Her nubbly bark rubbed against my cheek and my worried thoughts seemed to drain down to my toes and into the soil where they joined the intricate network of roots and fungi.
The trees were working their magic, but I still had one more to visit. We headed up the hill to my most favorite tree, a lovely silver birch which I call my Prayer Tree. Her wide arms reached over the path and saw-toothed leaves held onto the last exuberant green of spring. Here on the hill, the summer seemed to gain ground as the deep forest lay exposed to the earth’s dynamic tilt towards the sun; mosquitos buzzed and gone was the cool breeze. Zoë, finally sated, leaned against my leg.
I began to whisper all of my “what if” fears to the tree in a rolling monologue. I finally ran out of words and ended my desperation dump with a crude appeal to “help me please not be such an idiot and just to be a good part of—and work with—this glorious universe. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
It is said that birch trees are doorways that connect us both to the gods and goddesses of the woodlands and to new dimensions. If there is a Lady of the Woods who looks over our farm, then I feel sure she is still beyond my sight. Perhaps she even reclines on the mossy tree trunk that lays just behind the birch; perhaps she is bemused by my self-obsessed and navel-gazing anxiety. Perhaps one day the purity of my heart will be allowed out of the cage of anxiety and I will be worthy to meet her.
The silent wisdom of trees is the way they live with their unique signature; they are part of the physical world yet are tethered to the great cosmic unity that underlies all of creation. They simply live in full flow with all that is.
And that is where my anxiety begins to fall away—for I’m figuring out that it is not a symptom of a disorder. For me, anxiety is not to be meditated or medicated or distracted away; for it is the arrow that points me to the ground source of my being.
The clenched fist of my gut is the cue that intuition is trying to speak. The racing catastrophic thought process shows the limits of my so-called intelligence. The fear of being judged points to the futility of being anyone other than myself. I have been anxious my whole life because I’ve been trying to fix something that was never broken; me.
This sacred sangha, this community of trees, teaches me how to accept my anxiety not as a problem, but as the wisdom of my spiritual Self calling for attention. The summer heat carried the rose-like scent of peonies as Zoë and I headed home. Carrying me forward was the knowledge given to me during my walk; that no matter where we are, there are always trees ready to show us the way to our hearts.
About the Author:
Gita Brown is a wellness activist, musician, and writer. She is a certified Advanced Integral Yoga® teacher and licensed Yoga for the Special Child® practitioner. Through her “Yoga with Gita courses” and podcast, “The Gita Brown Show,” her mission is to teach her students how to adapt the traditional practices of Yoga to bring more ease, wellness, and joy into everyday life. Gita started Yoga as a teenager, when her love of Yoga grew in tandem with her career as a classical clarinetist and music therapist. For three decades, she has taught Yoga, wellness, and music courses at colleges, schools of music, community schools, private studios, public schools, and hospitals. She is currently finishing final revisions to her memoir. The story is about how she repurposed her wedding vows into a yogic vow to live love as a way of life—a pilgrimage that endured even as her husband and childhood sweetheart battled end-stage alcoholism. She offers Yoga to students of all ages and abilities through online programs and in person at her home studio at Three Dog Farm in Kingston, Massachusetts. Learn more about her services by visiting: https://www.gitabrown.com