My Olive Tree Teacher

A talented gardener friend showed me how to prune an olive tree last year. And it was amazing. You see, gardeners see trees differently from the rest of us. While we see a tree as it is, they see it as it could be. They decide the shape and function they want a tree to take… and then intervene to make it become a reality. They don’t have to move the tree, or change it (into an apple tree, say)… they work with the tree as it is, then simply prune the branches that don’t support their objective. Obviously they want the tree to grow more fruit (in this case, olives). They want to stop the tree from growing fast shoots, which drain the tree of light. They know that if the branches overlap, their shadows will block out sunlight. In Umbria, they want the tree to grow into a bowl, with lots of sun reaching inside. They want to keep them short, so they can harvest the olives without a ladder.

It looks like they’re only making small cuts, but over time… these small interventions make a huge difference in the way the tree develops. It’s like watching a slow-motion magician, changing a tree’s destiny.

This is because, in the end, a gardener sees a tree not as a material thing, but as an energy field. His job is not to make it grow – he has no such delusions of grandeur – but to work with its energy. As my friend wisely said, “The life force is always moving upwards. It will not be stopped; it can only be directed.”

And this reminded me of the spiritual path, in which we deliberately prune away certain habits that don’t bear fruit. Often we move away from large cities, in order to lose our tendency to seek constant pleasure. We prune that part away. We start to take charge of our tree.

We might start meditating, pruning away our tendency to let the world tell us how to grow. We try to get in touch with that energy, and learn to respect it.

We begin to see how certain of our tendencies interfere with our long-term goals – throwing shade on them, so to speak.

And we no longer see the “fruits” as just short-term moments of happiness – which quickly become bitter. We seek out, instead, long-term relationships and that sense of inner joy which make the fruit so much sweeter. In a sense, my friend was developing the quality of the olive, and not just the quantity.

It’s like we’re a general in charge of an army. The soldiers in our keep, the cells inside our bodies, the thoughts in our minds, are waiting to be guided. Will they be guided by desire, left to grow willy-nilly? Or will they be guided by higher ideals? We are the gardeners of our lives, the life-force is always there… it’s up to us to decide which form our tree will take.

So let’s get out those hedge clippers!

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