Lives and Trees and Stars
Forests and trees. There is a very special relationship between forests and trees.
Sometimes we say we can’t see the forest for the trees, and when we do, we mean that, nose on bark, we’ve gotten so lost in minutia and details, minds so focused on what and when that we’ve forgotten why and how. Forgotten that there are all these other simultaneous trees out there telling a story no single tree could ever tell alone.
And yet without each tree, there is no forest, no story at all.
The forest is the sum of its trees, and each tree gives itself to the forest, creates the forest, simply by existing where it stands. Is forest greater than tree? Vice versa? Should we remain focused on individual trees or let our eyes relax over a sea of green canopy?
I remember years ago buying an astronomy computer program that allowed me to plot a point anywhere in the solar system and from that vantage spin around looking out in any direction as if I’d flown there in a pressurized craft. I flew to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. I spent several hours looking for the perfect spot from which to see all the planets and their moons aligned or spread out like a fistful of world-sized balloons suddenly let go among the stars. But whatever I tried and from wherever I looked, the view was always pretty much the same—a disappointing field of stars with just one planet or moon close by.
And then it hit me…that I had completely missed an obvious point. That distances in space are so great, you can never be close to more than one thing at a time—that once you draw close to one thing, every other thing is necessarily shrunken to a featureless point of light by those unimaginable distances. Hard to appreciate a forest like that: where you can only be close to one tree at a time…all other trees just points on a white-noise backdrop.
Lives and moments have a very special relationship too.
A life is the sum of its moments, and each moment gives itself to a life, creates that life, simply by existing where it stands. We don’t normally say that we can’t see our lives for our moments, but we tend to live that way. We tend to think that full attention to individual moments, nose on bark, is small-thinking and short-sighted. Unambitious. Irresponsible. We tend to focus on the long term, the broad plan written across the green canopy of our collective moments as imagined from thirty thousand feet above.
But if we’re conscious about living, if we live long enough consciously, a truth begins to emerge: that we can never see all our moments gathered together like balloons on strings or a forest from an airplane, that we can never ever be close to more than one moment at a time. This moment right now, the one in which you’re reading this word—the word right here—is the only moment you’ll ever see. The only moment that exists. All other moments, the ones you remember living, wish you had lived, hope to live, or imagine others living exist only as points of light, electrical pulses in the field of your mind.
Every life is lived and experienced and known as just one moment, one tree. A forest doesn’t exist apart from its trees; a life has no meaning apart from its moments. We imagine our lives as a whole, a forest of moments, when in reality there is only this one single, world-sized moment standing in stark relief against a field of stars. Getting to this realization, accepting and making friends with this reality is the crux of any spiritual or even philosophical journey. It’s the ticket through the door of the contentment, serenity, connection, and any other experience we say we want out of life.
To begin to see that a forest is experienced only as the one tree you’re climbing, the universe as the one planet you’re orbiting, your life as this one moment you’re living, brings us home to the only home we’ll ever know. To stop trying to imagine all the other trees, looking for views of all the other planets, living moments that exist only in our minds, finally grants us permission to let this moment be enough—the entirety of our lives it actually is.
Life is just one moment with changing circumstances. Eternal life is also just one moment, this same moment, eternally alive and astonishing. What must we do to obtain eternal life? Jesus says sell all we possess, all the notions that life exists anywhere apart from here and now, and hug this tree as if it’s the entire forest.
Of course our minds understand that the existence of other trees defines the forest, other planets the solar system, and remembered moments the entirety of our lives. But our spiritual wisdom rests on overcoming the mind’s grip on that collective understanding and coming to rest in the reality that even in the midst of the forest of our lives, the entirety of our experience of life is just one moment wide.
And giving ourselves entirely to this one moment is living our lives entirely.