From last year’s bright cold spring to this year’s winter of clouds we have met on the Heath every single day to share our practice of tai chi and qi kong. At first helicopters juddered suspiciously overhead and the police gathered on the edges to scrutinise our social distancing but as quickly as they came they disappeared, leaving us with a respectful absence.
We met first in deep grass in a wide open sunlit space but as the hot summer drew on and the winter came we moved to a grove of venerable red oak trees. At the entrance to the grove was a huge, gnarled beech tree welcoming us into the circle. And there we made a mandala of tree branches, leaves, flowers, herbs, acorns, pebbles. And in the middle we placed a Buddha. Over the year many hands have raked the ground and kept the mandala flourishing with nature’s offerings.
The trees have embraced us. Day after day, from one season to the next, they shelter us from wind and rain, delighting us in the summer with a cool emerald canopy and in the autumn with yellow gold, russet red and burnt ochre. Oaks hold onto their leaves until they are dry veined, releasing them like moths to join the forest floor. We are feet deep, leaf deep in silver brown and raw umber. Now we look up to a raft of branches above our heads, that occasionally allows the sun to send shafts of light through the dome, sometimes rain, sometimes bone-chilling gusts of cold air.
And then we start. We stand beneath the trees, in silent meditation, rooted, breathing, acknowledging our presence on the earth and our shared experience of being truly alive. Gradually the parakeets high up in the branches stop their raucous chatter, walkers on the edges skirt us curiously, dogs scamper through, leaping across our mandala or joining in with doggy enthusiasm. Monty sits quietly at Rodney’s feet, as aware as we are of this special place.
The trees are listening. Underneath us is the wood wide web of fungi, a network of communication spreading from tree to tree, underground across the Heath. In rhythm their qi flows into our qi and our qi into theirs. And in this sacred place we dare to ride the tiger, to still the monkey mind, to step out of thinking into moving, flowing from breath to breath, from formlessness to form and back to formlessness. We face our vulnerabilities and feel our power. We move differently to break and let go of habits and patterns. We seek the present moment, the place of wu wei, of non-doing, of being; easy amongst those gentle, non-judgemental trees. We silently declare our intentions, and perhaps there, in that magic place, we even find our higher purpose.
And as we sing the healing sounds, the vibrations are picked up in the air around us, passing through the wu space between the branches, channeling down within the core of each tree trunk, and sinking through the earth and into the roots, to radiate across that hidden web. The trees never stop listening. As we offer them our dark side, our shadow, they respond with their own ancient, slow impeccability. With their protective holding we can transform our anger and frustration, our fear and sorrow into wisdom and vitality; into deep awareness. In their presence, tree presence, on the earth and under the sky, in moments of shared joy and suffering we become whole and connect with them to a universal consciousness.
As the seasons pass the trees change visibly, shedding their leaves, revealing the gashes in their trunks, the wounds in their branches, gently reminding us of the changing nature of impermanence; that one day we will return to merge with the forest floor. The trees know about death, our deaths. They were witnesses when we honoured the passing of friends and family, members of our little sangha. They listened to our prayers, our poems and our dedications. Maybe, in their way they wept with us.
In return we can offer them the four colours of our hearts, the immeasurable qualities of our humanity; the loving kindness of metta, gold as sunlight, the forgiveness of karuna, blue as the sky above the trees, the leaf green empathy of mudita and the open hearted equanimity of ubekkha, red as autumn leaves. Our voices quietly touch the space, reverberating up through the trees as the movement of our arms harmonises with the movement of the branches in the dome above us. Together we can touch the source.
At the end of the year the bright planets of Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction. Even the trees have their role to play as the oak is ruled by Jupiter, expression and movement and the beech by Saturn, structure. The Spring Equinox, Beltane, Midsummer, Winter Solstice, Birthdays, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, World Covid Memorial Day have been and gone. We marked them under the trees with dancing, with chanting and silence; with wei qi, shibashi and tien xiao; with poetry, song and prayer; with long form, short form and woman’s form; with fire, water, earth and air. Imbolc comes in February when we will plant seeds and set intentions for the coming year.
I am immensely grateful to have experienced the magic of that space both as a giver and receiver of the practice. It has been a profound part of my spiritual journey and a lifeline in times of great sadness and uncertainty. I have felt loved and supported and I know it has been the same for all of us who have been there.
So, when the time is ripe, come and join us. Come and embrace us in fearlessness and unconditional love. Come and dance the tai chi with us. The trees will still be there. The trees will still be listening.
In gratitude to Rodney, Ana, Trisha, Gill, Brent, Karen, Hayley, Dominika, Janie and Jahque, our teachers, and all who have contributed, kept the practice going and turned up day after day. Everybody has been a teacher and everybody has benefited.
And always in gratitude to Tew who set me on the journey.