The power of seclusion and conversation
I would never recommend smoking cigarettes to anyone. It is an unhealthy, expensive and smelly habit I picked up at 16. There is nothing fun about standing outside in the cold alone while your friends are inside playing board games…but I’m just saying that most of the best conversations I have had came while sharing a cigarette. Take my new friend Mike for example; He has been working maintenance here for over 10 years and we both found ourselves in the smoking area one afternoon, a chance timing, and an hour and a half later we had discussed politics, life, love, health and the impending apocalypse.
From this chance meeting over a couple of cigarettes, I am now going to help him build from scratch new wooden stairs to the compost toilet in my camping village. Two strangers just having a conversation. I’ve always wondered what makes a good conversation and how different people find it easier or harder with different people. And this is where I mention that this week, I also had a good conversation with a tree.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov is a name I have heard a lot but knew little about. An old Hassidic Rabbi from the 18th century and great grandson of the Bal Shem Tov. His religious philosophy was based around speaking with God in normal conversation as you would with a friend. The concept of “hitbodedut” (self-seclusion) is a practice of going into the woods and starting to talk out loud in conversation until you have nothing more to say. And once you reach that point you keep talking because it is at that moment that you will be the most honest with your thoughts. So off to the woods we went for some hitbodedut practice. We were tasked to walk out into the forest and speak to “whoever” and about “whatever” we wanted for 20 mins.
I’m not going to lie, this task was met with a lot of cynicism and that same cynicism continued throughout the whole 20 minutes but in for a penny, in for a pound as they say.
I walked up to the most beautiful tree I could find, her bark looked worn and scratched, leaves looked ruffled and browning and her roots were showing just the slightest out of the ground. “You can do this, just go talk to her man,” I whispered to myself as I approached. My palms were sweating, knees weak arms were heavy, I stepped closer and closer until I plucked up the courage and asked out loud the first thought that came to my mind … “Ah, So, what do you think about the cultural appropriation of talking trees in Lord of the Rings Two Towers?”
Wow, pretty good question I thought, but she just looked at me with a lifeless expression. No response, maybe they don’t speak English? Or maybe she doesn’t want to talk, or just maybe trees don’t speak! Knowing full well I wasn’t going to get a response, I continued the conversation anyway. “You know what really grinds my gears? When people hang live, love, laugh signs up in their houses.” Again, that blank lifeless look on her bark, maybe because those signs are made from wood. I was having fun so I kept going and once I ran out of cynical jokes and comments I may have slipped in a few genuine thoughts.
It was a unique experience and one I won’t forget for some time to come because I don’t know if I will ever be able to say again that I had a 20 minute non-reciprocal conversation with a tree in the forest. It was my first attempt at hitbodedut and I can actually understand the value of that self-seclusion. As I slipped in the more genuine thoughts and feelings I did find that there were things I had been thinking that I had never fully vocalised.
I didn’t come away with an epiphany or spiritual enlightenment but what I actually learnt was a lesson in listening. While I was talking the tree did nothing but listen, she couldn’t understand what I was saying but she was there to listen non the less. I learnt a lesson in listening by talking straight for 20 minutes, I want to be more like the tree, rooted in the ground with such perspective on time and purpose that she will even indulge my stupidity and cynicism.
This week I had a nice long conversation with Mike, it was insightful, respectful and genuine. I also had a conversation with a tree, both were real and both were memorable. Both required listening and hearing to be able to converse and share. The only sad part is, I never caught her name.
See you next week,