Recently I wrote about how a book on personality types I read at the age of 18 used the central metaphor of a tree to describe my “type.” In those days I had no idea a symbol could have important meaning for me. But what I have learned since convinces me that whether the author’s choice to use this symbol was random or deliberate, it was perfect for one whose driving force is the search for meaning and purpose.
The tree has meant many things to many people throughout history, but the theme that runs through them all is humanity’s psycho-spiritual journey from ignorance to consciousness. With roots that reach deep into the earth, arms that reach up to heaven, and trunks that connect the space in between, trees mediate between heaven and earth, thus symbolizing the soul’s journey through the manifest world in both its sacred and mundane aspects.
A major theme related to this is centrality. The Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge grow in Paradise. The Tree of Life is at the center and signifies regeneration, the return to the primordial state of perfection. The Tree of Knowledge is dualistic and associated with humanity’s fall from the innocent paradisal state. Conversely, it represents our potential for a Great Awakening into an enlightened Wisdom in which all dualities are overcome, as in Buddha’s Bo Tree which represents his essence as a Sacred Center. Similarly, the Kabbala’s Sephirotic Tree has a right and left-hand column representing duality and a middle column that balances the others and restores unity. And the Islamic Tree of Blessing which is neither East nor West and therefore central represents blessing and illumination.
Another theme is life. In Scandinavian mythology the Yggdrasil or ash is the Tree of Life. In Greek mythology Athena’s olive tree symbolized the intellectual life of mental strength and wisdom. The Shamanistic birch is the Tree of Life with seven branches representing the seven planets and heavens. And of course, Jesus, like all Dying Gods, loses his life on a tree.
The Herder Symbol Dictionary says, “Psychoanalysis sees in the tree a symbolic reference to the mother, to spiritual and intellectual development, or to death and rebirth.” It also notes that the fruit, shade, and protective nature of trees have caused them to be seen as feminine or maternal symbols; yet, at the same time, the erect trunk is a phallic symbol. Perhaps this is why, for Carl Jung, the tree symbolized the Self, androgyny (integration and equality between the masculine and feminine principles), and individuation.
The psycho-spiritual journey begins and ends in a tree. As a symbol of the maternal matrix in which we spend our early years the tree represents our unconscious conformity to conventional thinking. Later, as we meet the challenge to become integrated and authentic it becomes a symbol of spiritual development, rebirth, individuation and androgyny.
I had two epiphanies in late adolescence, the traditional time of mother-leaving, and both featured trees. Perhaps this is mere coincidence, but from then on my internal compass was set on the search for meaning, purpose and enlightenment. I haven’t “arrived” anywhere and don’t expect to, but my travels have brought me closer to my sacred center and enriched my life beyond measure. Taking the symbols that show up in my waking and dreaming life seriously has been central to that search. Next time I’ll share how the tree symbolizes the struggle to leave our early innocence and dependence behind. What symbols have directed your life’s journey?