Last month, I was taking a walk through my local park in Brooklyn with a clear intention of doing nothing else but observing. Given that walking is my primary mode of transportation, to undergo a “purposeless” walk such as this felt both strange and liberating. Where was I going, how long would it take, what would I do when I got there? All unknowns—which, of course, was the whole point.
During the course of the walk, I ambled over to a grove of trees that, despite having run (yes, run—the irony wasn’t lost on me either) past it twice a week for months now, I’d never seen before. It was ablaze in shades of fire—something Ansel Adams would have painted and turned into greeting cards, puzzles, and coasters. The flighty, unstable moth I was, I flitted over to the flames and alighted onto a log that seemed to be placed by Mother Earth herself just so as the front-row seat to her splendor. As if on cue, the enormous tree before me, dressed in scarlet leaves above and below, released one of its own to the ground. Watching the leaf’s descent, I couldn’t help but well up with tears. If my purpose on this walk was to observe, then I’d accomplished it. This tree had taught me the lesson I needed most in the moment: the art of release.
I’ve endured the repercussions of many a dysfunctional yoga cue: drawing my shoulder blades down the back in urdhva hastasana resulted in vice-like rhomboids; putting myself between panes of glass in trikonasana resulted in impinged hips and a whacked-out sacroiliac joint; going deeper, deeper, deeper plucked the chords of my groin and hamstrings so those notes no longer played. But the worst offender has always been let go. As if I could, or should, “let go” of my problems, the world’s problems, the habitual tension in my body, the story of who I am, what I can eat, what work I’m meant to do in the world, whether I can or need love. Without them, I’d be like a naked tree, defenseless from the cold and unable to participate in the vital exchange between earth, sun, air, and water that keeps this whole circle of life (photosynthesis, carbon flows, stuff like that) going on repeat so all of us can stay alive.
And yet real trees, as I observed first-hand, have no problem letting go. They release their leaves willingly, with Kondo-esque ease like clothes that no longer fit or flatter; those that were born this season made their offering during the fertile days of spring and summer, and now, having bled out whatever was left of themselves into the painterly splendor of autumn, are ready to be thanked and sent on their way. There’s no drama or cajoling or denial. There’s only release, and faith in the possibility that spring will bring forth a new look—new buds, new life, new death.
The practice of aparigraha—one of the yamas, or guidelines for living in society, which comprise the first of eight limbs of ashtanga yoga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras—tells us that non-attachment is key to having good relationships with others. In other words, don’t hold grudges; don’t take it personal; don’t be greedy. As we move into the holiday season, I’m taking in this lesson from the trees as a reminder that I need a little more aparigraha in my life. When we participate in a culture of more more more, and honor traditions (well-intentioned as they may have been) that place high value on out-doing each other with impermanent displays of wealth and power, the core values of our winter celebrations—gratitude, abundance, redemption, and miracles—are occluded by the stories we tell about what love looks like. We try to squeeze more clothes in a full closet. Or attach more leaves to our branches with a glue stick of commerce without releasing any of the old ones; and if you’ve ever tried to do anything with a glue stick, you know how that story ends.
No offense to Patanjali, but I also think aparigraha (and the rest of the yamas: non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, and right use of energy) could be well-applied on ourselves, too (there’s another whole limb devoted to practices for the self, called the niyamas). When we cling to stories, identities, routines, and people, even if they served us in the past, we deny ourselves true refreshment come spring. Imagine a tree in winter wearing a coat of dead, dry, brown, and shriveled leaves—like those long-belted cardigans we all wore in the early ‘00s, neither good-looking nor practical.
Aparigraha is not easy, but the constant effort of attachment isn’t easy, either. First, we need to allow ourselves the space and clarity to see what needs to be released. When we walk through our lives with the blinders of purpose firmly affixed to our faces, we might miss the clear-as-day message of a tree on fire, ready to detach itself from its leaves. As the light of winter becomes more precious, more piercing, more crystalizing, I’m finding it easier to walk with the intention to observe where attachment might be preventing me from finding a new, simpler, more useful and pleasant path. Where letting my limbs stand bare for a season might reveal a new possibility there wouldn’t have been room for otherwise.
As I was moved to leave that fiery grove, I walked over to the tree and laid a hand on the trunk. A frission of energy pulsed through my skin, the fissures and etchings of the bark starting to tell me the story of its true nature. The gnarls of the roots under my feet made me pay a little more attention to what was here and now, reminding my legs to stand soft yet strong and receive the earth with the fullness of my whole body. Through all the seasons, the mere decoration of glamorous green springs and autumn releases, this was what would remain. Core, skin, roots, attached to what mattered most.