Lessons From a Coconut Tree
What can I learn from a coconut tree? That is a question I asked as I gazed upon a giant tree during my morning sit time on a recent trip to Mexico.
I have been learning about and pursuing mindfulness, the practice of intentionally being fully present and fully aware. So communing with a tree is becoming very natural. Often associated with meditation in many spiritual traditions, mindfulness is possibly even more essential as over-stimulated moderns attempt to navigate an ever-increasing complex and connected world.
As humans—and especially Westerners—we tend to think in overdrive, continually living in our heads, either reminiscing about the past or stressing about the future. Mindfulness is the opposite; it’s letting go of our headspace and learning how to occupy the moment, attending to our senses, emptying ourselves, and being responsive to what is now.
Gazing on that tree, I reflected on how all of nature is connected. I’m alive. The coconut tree is alive. We are all part of the complex and amazing planet we call home. It is impossible to live in isolation, whether humans–many of whom overly value individualism–believe it or not. The coconut tree depends on nutrients in the soil, rain from the heavens, and the life-giving daily dose of sunshine. It is a seed-propagated plant that also depends on winds, bees, and other insects to pollinate it. So too, we are dependent on nature and each other to sustain us.
I noticed some of the fronds (branches) on my coconut tree were turning brown and ready to fall or be cut off. The parts that once served the tree well were done and no longer needed. This is not unlike us. We tend to think that if something was true and helpful for us a few years ago, it must still be true and helpful. But that is not necessarily true, especially as we get free from old mindsets and systems that limited our perceptions. There are things I used to believe and behaviors I used to engage in that are no longer helpful. Certain concepts and opinions don’t do it anymore. Just because something was true for me THEN doesn’t mean it’s true and worthwhile NOW. Like the tree that keeps growing, I accept that if I’m growing, it’s OK to let go of the fronds that are no longer relevant. In order for a coconut tree to make new fronds, it has to let go of the old ones.
Then I reflected on the coconuts themselves; they grow in clusters. In fact, a healthy tree has several clusters. They are not unlike us as we’re meant to grow in groups. If we are growing, we are connecting with others, valuing relationships, and building community. If we are truly alive and growing, we are connected to the tree and to each other. Coconuts that get disconnected from the tree fall off and die.
This helps explain why Covid lockdowns are so hard on us. We thrive when we are connected and get weird when we are isolated. I think this is true of the West in general; individualism, taken to extremes, just makes everyone strange, prisoners of our own obsessions.
Coconut trees thrive where they are planted or self-propagated—in places that are good for them. It would be foolish of me to plant a coconut tree in the mountains where I live, but doing so in the tropics will likely ensure success. They thrive in specific climates where they are dependent on the right conditions to give them all they need to grow. We, though, as humans, get to choose, to some extent, how we are nourished. This past year I developed a new practice of asking myself—especially in the evenings when I’ve completed my daily tasks—what do I need right now? Do I need to watch a comedy and laugh? Do I need to learn something? Do I need to be absorbed in a drama?
Like the rest of the plant and animal world, coconut trees appear to only be concerned about what they need to grow and produce fruit. They are involved in complex systems above and below ground that contribute to their growth, but they are not concerned about other things. They don’t stress about politics or bad news or all the troubles in the world. They exist and flourish where they are planted. We might do well to ask ourselves if the threats on the news are an immediate threat to me are right now. (The answer is usually no!)
This brings up another principle. Coconut trees just are, they’ve got nothing to prove; they are not trying to be another kind of tree. I doubt they engage in silly comparison games.
Coconut trees have branches that grow in all directions. They “see” the world all around them, not just from one perspective. So too, we must try to see the big picture of the world around us and not be prisoners of one mindset. They do not live in echo chambers that confirm their own biases and limit their viewpoints. Expand your information sources and expand your world!
I’m no arborist, but I suspect coconut trees do not fret about uncertainty. Unlike most humans who seem to have Ph.D.s in worry, trees just are. We might learn a thing or two from them.
Photographs by Debra Buenting