Tami Simon: You’re listening to “Insights at the Edge.” Today my guest is Jean Shinoda Bolen. Jean Shinoda Bolen is a Jungian analyst and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. She’s an internationally renowned lecturer, workshop leader, and author who draws from spiritual, feminist, Jungian, medical, and personal wellsprings of experience.
Jean is the author of Goddesses in Every Woman and The Tao of Psychology, and her latest audio book from Sounds True is called Like a Tree: How Trees, Women, and Tree People Can Save the Planet, where she invites us to explore our sacred relationship with trees, and to uncover the hidden wisdom they have to offer.
In this episode of “Insights at the Edge,” Jean and I spoke about the characteristics of tree people, and the wisdom that is held in ancient trees. We also talked about what it might mean to circumambulate the Self, and how that circumambulation might have something in common with circumambulating around a tree, and finally about what it might mean to know one’s own assignment in the world. Here’s a very heartfelt and inspiring conversation with Jean Shinoda Bolen.
Jean, in your new book, you talk about something called “tree people.” What are the characteristics of someone who might be a tree person?
Jean Shinoda Bolen: Well, I started to call people “tree people” versus “not tree people” when the issue was a tree that was in my front yard, and that belonged to the homeowners’ association of which my house and I are part, and when it came time to vote about taking down this tree that was in its prime, a Monterey pine tree that I saw and was drawn to even before I walked across the entry deck into the house.
I lived where there were lots of trees, in Noe Valley, which made me assume that people who lived in Noe Valley were tree people, that they liked trees and were drawn to them, when to my surprise, a homeowner close by wanted the tree down—for view purposes, mainly—and other people supported it. I began to see the difference between [these people and] those of us who felt that this was a living, wonderful tree, and why would people want to cut it down?
Somehow, in thinking about what we were talking about, what they were talking about, what our feelings were, it was clear that there’s a difference, that for us, the tree people— Oh, and I summarized it in two famous sayings. The tree person versus a nontree person, the difference is between Joyce Kilmer, who said, “I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree,” and that statement by Ronald Reagan, “You’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all!” For one, it’s a living, spiritual relationship. For the other, it’s just a thing, a thing that you own.
TS: Tell me a little bit more about the journey that you went through with this tree that you came to have a relationship with, this tree in front of your home.
JSB: Well, it turned out to be a lost cause. It was a saga that went on for about a year and a half or longer. I did get a couple of reprieves. I also got a lawyer. I also had choices to make myself, about whether I would, say, have a demonstration in front of my house or not.
I did all that I could, short of the demonstration, and then it was scheduled to be cut down when I was away. And I happened to be away at the United Nations for the meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women. At that point, I could really see how, when you treat living things—living people, living trees, animals—as things and as property, that you have the right to do whatever you have the power to do with [them], that there is something about that which makes how women and girls were being treated in lots of places in the world, and how the attitude toward trees also is like that. You know, you look at a tree: “How many board feet of lumber is an ancient, old-growth redwood?” for example, versus, “Amazing what this tree is!”
When I was at the UN—it’s been two strings, really. One was the awareness of the political consequences of treating this planet as a resource to be used, versus a part of us. Essentially, that we live here, and what happens to all life here in some way affects us. And then there’s what I came to through the loss of this tree, which was to learn about trees, and how wonderful they truly are, and what they do for us. I ended up feeling that this planet, humanity, and the beauty that we have here could be all gone if we continue [this way], and end up with not enough trees and too many people.
That was part of my saga, for sure. And then there was Gloria Steinem’s comment when I told her what was going on, in that when I went home, the tree would be down. She said, “Remember, Jean, you’re a writer, and writers can have the last word.” That was in the back of my mind, and out of that seed experience of the loss of my tree, I came to many realizations. And then I wanted to share what I had learned, and so I wrote Like a Tree: How Trees, Women, and Tree People Can Save the Planet.
TS: Now, as a tree person, Jean, I’m going to ask you a question here that may sound a little far-out. Did you have any sense that the tree that was cut down in front of your home had a perspective, if you will, on everything that was happening, that you were in relationship with it like another living being, that it suffered a loss in some way? You know, indigenous people will sometimes say, “The tree is looking back at you when you look at it.” Did you have any experience like that in this relationship you had with this tree and its loss?
JSB: I had a close sense of related—I mean, I was related to the tree. I still am related to the tree! It’s not, like some people I know, who actually heard a voice from the tree or something like that. But I had a definite sense that we lived together side by side, so to speak. I also had a sense that trees, especially older trees, have a wisdom, and that there’s a kind of mutual caretaking: that if the tree needed what I could do for it, I would [do whatever it was], and meanwhile it was doing an amazing [thing], just by standing there.
You know, I had to learn, after it was cut down, about the whole ecology that one tree causes around it. I didn’t know, for example, that pine needles are particularly suited for where this tree lived. The tree lived on the side of the hillside, with the ocean a couple of hills over, so morning fog was something that we have. And I didn’t realize it, but those pine needles are like distilleries. They distill, they take the fog, and they turn the fog into drops of water, and the tree then waters everything underneath it! I would go out on my entry deck some mornings and I thought it had rained overnight, because it was that wet. And so consequently, when the tree was cut down, the shade-loving plants that were related to it, over which it shaded and provided water, now I’d have to water them. I really got a lesson in the interrelatedness of everything in nature.
TS: Now you said, as part of this loss of the tree, and then the writing of the book Like a Tree, you studied all about trees and learned some remarkable things. I’m curious what some of the things you learned about trees were that really changed you in some way, that really woke you up to something that you didn’t know.
JSB: Well, there was one thing that most of us do know, and I didn’t, which was that we breathe out carbon dioxide, and the tree uses it, and transforms what we breathe out into oxygen that we breathe in. Consequently, we are in this relationship of mutual interdependency. I didn’t realize that each leaf takes sunlight, or photons of light, and transforms the light into sugars, which then feed the tree itself.
I would speak metaphorically as well: We speak about being illuminated, about enlightenment, about spiritual light, and how spiritual light, or light, can be transformed by us into actions. And here’s this tree that’s taking light, real light, and transforming it into food for the whole tree and everything that lives within it and through it, and it’s a world!
From the leaf, it then brings food to the trunk and channels that go up and down the growing edge of each tree, and then the rootlets that have these mycelia and these relationships to the soil that transforms and brings nutrients and water up.
One of the lovely things of learning about such things is that the fluids come up the tree and are transpired up into the atmosphere so that, when there are forests—such as the arboreal forests of British Columbia or Northern California or Canada, or the Amazon rain forest—all of them are rain forests, because the trees transpire, or draw up from the ground, into the sky all of this water that then becomes clouds that come down again.
I was reading about this, and I have this image of water in the Amazon coming up through those trees and creating the clouds, so that rain forests always have clouds over them. And the clouds are created, in part, by what goes up the tree, through the leaves, up into the clouds. and then the clouds water the trees, and water the minerals off of them, and bring them to the earth. And the image of the Amazon was that those trees bring up green waves that go up and down an average of six times before they hit the Andes, and then they hit the Andes and create the largest river in the world, the Amazon. This is what we’re cutting down, these rain forests that are the lungs of the planet.
So I got very caught in the marvel and wonder of what trees do for us, and how trees also created an earth through which evolution would lead to us. But for the trees, we wouldn’t be here! Two hundred and ninety million years ago, when trees evolved out of the huge, tree-ferned forests, the ferns and the trees cleared the carbon out of the air, and the methane and the various noxious kinds of things, and allowed the sunlight to come down. The combination of making the air breathable and allowing the sun to come down so that all of vegetation could grow, makes it possible for us and all living things to be here. I mean, we are indebted, or should be, but we seem to be unconscious of what trees have done for us, and why we need them now.
TS: So when you say that an old tree, especially, has a certain wisdom about it, do you mean that we can tune in to a type of collective wisdom that’s available when we’re near an old tree, because we can be connected to a more ancient sense of time? Or what exactly do you mean by that statement?
JSB: Well, one of the things is what I have learned from Findhorn, what I have learned from people who have had, in their ability to tune in messages from the trees—
TS: That’s fine, Jean. I’m seriously a tree person, so you’re in good company here. No worries at all!
JSB: [Laughs] OK! Well, one of the things I got in writing this book is I realized that, on one hand, it’s the most anatomical physiology of the tree, but on the other hand, it goes more mystical, and I go more mystical and more far-out than anything else I’ve ever written, as well!
I start with talking with a woman named Linda Milks, who was driving in Marin County, and she got this message. She recognized it as not being a voice in her own head. It wasn’t exactly a voice, but it was like, as she described it, a thought-form outside of her head. It was impressive enough that she pulled over to the side of the road just so that she would be able to listen, or hear, or feel, however she got the message.
It was a pretty simple message, and it was from the trees. The trees said to her, or she received from the trees, that the trees wanted to form a communicative bridge to humans. She listened, and she knew that this was something that, if she paid attention to it, it would lead to a life work that would change her.
She heard the message. She started a project, which is growing, called Nature Speaks. And she then said afterward, “I thought that the tree was specifically speaking to me. Now I realize that it was an all-points bulletin, and I was one of the receivers.” So she’s doing her thing.
Meanwhile, I’m catching up with people who do tune in to trees and get a sense of wisdom from them, sometimes very specific. Meeting Dorothy Maclean, and here I also met Eileen Caddy, who, 50 years ago, began Findhorn. Findhorn is in northern Scotland. It’s very windy, it’s chilly, it’s kind of inhospitable to a lot of lush, growing things.
When I went to Findhorn, I’d heard about the magic of Findhorn, and I didn’t know quite what I expected. But when I got there, it looked very much like California in the gardens of Findhorn. And then when I thought about how amazing it was that it looked like the gardens of California when it was in cold, blustery Scotland, I began to truly appreciate what was accomplished there.
Eileen was directed to go there, and Dorothy found that she could tune in to plants and trees, and hear from them what they needed in order to grow and thrive. She spoke of them as “tree devas” or “beings of light,” and speaks about each species having its own sort of collective deva, or collective being of light. I get the impression that the trees of a single species communicate with each other in a very psychic kind of way. I mean, we know about the species of trees in America, the aspens, that share underground one major root form, but this seems to be much more of an inter-psychic communication of particular species.
Anyway, what she found was that, whether it’s a tree or a cabbage, she could tune in and learn what it needed, if it needed something. The result was that Findhorn became famous for, among other things, growing 40-pound cabbages! So there’s something about seeing the results. I mean, if people say they tune in or they get advice, and you can see the result of it, there is something tangible that truly is a witness for this kind of communication.
That’s part of what I’ve been learning. I know that there’s also a sense that I am intuitive. I’m drawn to trees. Maybe it was because I climbed them as a kid. Maybe it was because I drew them a little bit later. You know, if you draw something, if you paint something, and you really, really look at it, and you notice it as you do this that there’s an appreciation between you and the object that you’re drawing. From that point on, esthetically, I notice trees when I drive. Some of them just draw me. Usually it’s their size, and age has something to do with it.
Beauty has something to do with it. I think when we are drawn to what is beautiful, it is a spiritual entry point. This is also the archetype of Aphrodite, who was—in ancient Greece, always love and beauty went together, so that it’s part of what we love. We see it as beautiful, but we have to be able to perceive through eyes that are loving. Again, this goes back to the difference between a tree person and a nontree person. Most of us who are tree people did, as children, have some special relationship. Did you, for example, climb trees, find sanctuary in them? Did you notice them? How is it?
TS: Of course, Jean, as you’re talking, I’m thinking of the trees I’ve loved. You know, it’s as powerful for me as thinking about old girlfriends, practically! I mean, it’s a huge love affair that I’ve had throughout my life with different trees.
What I think is so interesting about your work and the book and the audio of Like a Tree is it starts to unpack for people all of the different reasons why we might be people who have had love affairs—whether they were short ones, whether they only lasted half an hour on a particular hike one day in a part of the world that was unfamiliar to us, or a tree from our neighborhood from when we were a child. And you talking about this idea of something like a spirit or a deva in the tree, or just the beauty of a tree, is helping me perhaps give some reasons for why there might be that great love. That’s really what I’m listening for as you’re talking. It’s, “Hmm, I’ve never understood it; I’ve never understood the love. I’ve just known it.”
JSB: It’s also that the tree has been sacred to humans forever, maybe in that it’s an archetype, and it comes up in dreams, and it’s a symbol. Being a Jungian analyst, I can truly appreciate how a tree, as a symbol, then resonates on a soul level with us. I mean, if you have a dream of a special tree—and lots of people do, actually. Jung himself did, and wrote about it in the recent book that came out, The Red Book,after it had been held by the Jung family in a vault, because he wrote about his active imagination, his dream life, his psychic life, and his being on the edge between the worlds of ordinary reality and that which he’d plunged into, not knowing whether he would come back with his sanity!
In being awake, when you enter that active imagination world, it’s like being in a very powerful waking dream, and knowing that this is not real, but it is real. So that people do this and think that they might be going crazy or such, and how they can discern [what is happening]. And what you realize is just an amazing human ability to tune in beyond our measurable and rational five senses, into the visible, liminal world, where such things as symbols come to life. Because symbols really are symbols, rather than signs, because they resonate at a soul level in us.
And so you see a tree, and have a sense of awe at one that soars, say, 385 feet into the sky—which ancient, old-growth redwoods do—and you feel like it has been around for thousands of years, and it’s been a witness. It’s been there; it’s been part of this planet for all these years. And the people who are psychic about trees say that it’s not the same to, say, reforest the land with young trees where all of them are essentially young adults or adolescents. They do not do something for the the planet and for life on this earth like the ancient ones.
People do go to ancient trees, and if they are attuned to trees, there is a sense of awe and beauty and wonder, and a sense of being in the presence of something that is alive and has its own spiritual [life], or whatever it is! I mean, there’s so much in this world that we tune in to and are touched by, and we can’t really explain it. But we need to trust what that heart-soul connection tells us about what is real, whether the scientists will prove or disprove it. We limit ourselves so much by only using half of our perceptive system and half of our thought system, which is one-half of the brain, while the other half really can tune in and accept and receive a whole lot more.
I’m kind of drifting off with your question, so please get me back to what it was that we started on in this riff!
TS: Yes, well, actually I think you’re right on, which is just our mysterious love of trees and what that is activating inside of us.
You know, one of the things you offer in Like a Tree is some clues for people to do a tree meditation. You were talking about Jung’s active imagination with a tree. I’m curious if you could perhaps offer us some hints about what a tree meditation might be like.
JSB: Well, I do guided meditations in my workshops, and I often start out with— Well, first of all, everybody does meditation. You need to be receptive by relaxing into it. As I, in a sense, lead people into meditation, I often say, “If your psyche is willing, and you want to.” Because there is always a part of the person that needs to feel that there is the freedom to go, or not go, with what someone is suggesting.
I’ve found that starting out with entering a place in nature in which one has a sense of peace and beauty, that was a good place for people to start the journey. Then I would suggest that they would see a special tree at the edge of where they are, and be drawn to it. It might be a tree that they are seeing for the first time, or it could be a tree that they recognize as a very special tree from some place in their past. People could do this!
I also would have them, just to learn about active or guided meditation, that you can become the tree if you want to. You can reach for the tree; you can merge with it. You can find yourself like a tree, with roots going into the ground and drawing up nourishment from the ground, and having a 360-degree view of things, and drawing sunlight into yourself. And also to consider that a tree survives many years, some of them lean, some of them with droughts, and they get struck by lightning, and maybe this tree had an infestation, but it still is here, and it is still growing. And that’s what we all are. So I had people at some point, in the beginning of a guided meditation, become that tree. And it’s easy for people to do that, which says something about this image, and how we have an affinity [with it].
This last time, Like a Tree had come out recently. April 22 was Earth Day and the book’s official pub date, or its birthday. I scheduled a couple of workshops, and for the first time did a completely tree meditation, and didn’t just use it as the beginning to a guided meditation. In this one, it was much the same, going through the tree and becoming part of the tree. And then I suggested that it’s possible, if they want to—again, always, if their psyche is willing and they want to#8212;that they could stand near the tree and observe that there were people or animals that will be ringing the tree. These are those important people or important symbols that have been in their lives. Some of them may be still living, and some of them may have gone over to the other side, but it’s up to the psyche to now draw into this picture those important people.
As they walk around the tree, they have a moment to be in touch with each of these personages. Sometimes I suggest, and I did this time, that if there’s any unfinished business with any of them, that this is an opportunity or a time that they can hear something or say something from the heart. And then when they’re ready, move on and go around the tree.
I could tell from the silence during the guided meditation—and when I suggested that people come out of it and then sit, or write it down, or whatever they wanted to do—because it is like a dream—and take it in, and go over it, and remember who showed up and how they felt, that this group just stayed seated. It was like I’d suggested that those that wanted to stay and think about their experience could do so, but for the others, this is break time and they could leave. Nobody left! For the next 15 or 20 minutes or so, it was clear that they were revisiting, remembering.
This is such an important part of life in general, to pause, especially after important experiences in which our heart was touched or our soul was touched, to reflect on it, to take it in, to remember, to metabolize. It’s important always to have experiences that resonate at a soul level, but it’s also important to take them in, and develop further what that experience was.
TS: Now Jean, one of the things that I’m reflecting on as we’re having this conversation is how many different levels or perspectives you have on what it means to be like a tree, and what it means to be a lover of trees, meaning there’s just the aspect of beauty of trees, there’s trees as symbols, or what they might evoke in us in the kind of active imagination like you just described. In the book, you also offer a lot of evolutionary information about trees, scientific information. There’s a very strong social activist theme that runs throughout the entire book, and I want to talk more about that during this conversation. But I’m just curious, for you, what was it like to hold all of these different dimensions of being with trees?
JSB: It was easy, because there’s something about the form of the writing that resembles—for those folks that are familiar with Carl Jung, he uses the words “circumambulation of the Self,” with the Self being large S. The Self then becomes shorthand for that which is sacred, divinity, God, God as Tao, the Great Mystery, higher power, all that is. It’s that which the ego, as an observer, can tune in to, but never can fully grasp.
Consequently, to relate to the archetype of the Self, which Jung also describes as the archetype of meaning, it means that, for something to have meaning for us at a soul level, we also equate it with having those qualities of the Great Mystery or divinity. We can’t take the totality of it in. We can just sort of walk or go around it and get, in different times and places in our lives, a partial sense of this.
And so I really ended up writing and absorbing knowledge and experiences and my own intuition and past history of trees as if walking around the subject. The chapter headings are such things as “Standing Like a Tree,” “Giving Like a Tree,” “Surviving Like a Tree,” “Sacred Like a Tree,” “Symbolic Like a Tree,” “Wise Like a Tree,” where “tree” is all of those dimensions that you mentioned.
I’m thinking you asked me a while back—and I sort of went on a circumambulation away from the question you asked, and what I haven’t gotten back to was the symbol of the tree as the center of the people. That the tree, in dreams, and related to when each of the tribal people, say in Europe, which was majorly treed, that there would be for them one special tree that was the center of the world. In Latin, the tree is the axis mundi, the axle of the world, around which everything goes.
I could do that. I could look at this subject and see this piece of it and that piece of it, and know that I am walking around the subject of tree. I was hoping that my readers would also have the same experience, which I think is also the way people talk about meaningful things. I mean, we’re having what I’d call a very circumambulatory conversation!
TS: And interestingly, in the guided meditation that you described, we were circumambulating a tree with whoever showed up to walk around the tree with us.
JSB: Yes! That is what we do. Our life is not linear; it’s a spiral journey, so that we find ourselves going through, say, difficult times that have a certain resemblance to other difficult times, and that our choice of how we’re going to respond this time comes up over and over with each turn of the spiral.
So that if you have a problem with a certain kind of person, going back probably to your family, there is the repeated opportunity of, here that kind of person comes again, and here is this opportunity to learn from it, to choose not to enter it this time, or to once more try to change what was a pattern that you came into in your family, and that you are now trying to learn from as you grow older. We do circumambulate in our life path. It isn’t straight; it isn’t a straight line at all! It is circular, and we keep going around those times when, for example, certain things were important to us.
People remember and reconnect sometimes with synchronistic events that bring us there, too. I think it’s always interesting for me to pay attention to unexpected meetings and events. When they start being tied together, I have a sense of “Oh! That which is in me which is drawn to my path, which is spiral, is coming around again. And here we are, and these people or this opportunity is meeting me. I can do something with this now!”
So if it’s the tree that comes down in my front yard, I can react in many different ways. I certainly was feeling oppressed. It felt like having a feminine aspect of relatedness discounted by a patriarchal attitude of property owners, for example. It touches on an activism in me! When I hear about how girls and women are treated, and raped or sold or trafficked, when I hear about how a little girl might be sold for four dollars at some place in the world, and used, now my heart hurts, for one thing, but I am outraged as well!
To respond from that place of anger is certainly a choice. And there is the other [choice], which you don’t just do naturally, but whether you stay open to the kind of experience you just had, and have a sense of “What is it? How will I deal with this loss?” Because that’s what we’re always arguing with.
It seems like—and this is also part of what I draw from in so many of my writings—I think about how we are spiritual beings on a human path, rather than human beings who may or may not be on a particular spiritual path. And it really comes from knowing that human beings, in general, come into this world having a sense of having a soul.
And once you accept that premise, this is a very interesting experience we’re having: An immortal soul comes into this dysfunctional world, beginning with a particular dysfunctional family—because hardly anybody has, I don’t know anybody who has a perfect family, so you have your own variation of a dysfunctional family. And you are here at a particular time in history, and you are here of a certain gender, and you have your certain talents. And then life is so short! And there’s joy, there’s suffering, there’s so much that could go on in this short period of time!
What on earth could our immortal souls come here to do? Might there be choices that we make here that are tremendously significant at a soul level? I mean, it does have to do with meaning, and my activism actually rose out of a sense of being here at this particular time, being a woman in this particular time, being privileged by having the Women’s Movement affect my life. And all women since then that I’ve come in touch with, in some way have been empowered with possibilities that women have never had before.
I keep thinking that because we are women, we have certain physiological kinds of ways of responding to stress, we have certain ways of connecting that are much more like nature. The sense of how a community of women talk to each other and share and learn from each other, it’s a much more natural, nature-like thing than having hierarchy and dominance from the top.
TS: What you’re saying is reminding me of something in the book Like a Tree. You quote the Dalai Lama from a 2009 conference, saying that “The world will be saved by Western women.” I’m curious what that means to you, that sentence. It seems like that’s something that intuitively feels right to you: “The world will be saved by Western women.”
JSB: Well, I think that we may have just a couple of decades for the direction that humanity and the planet are going in, to either continue what can be a really downhill course in which we turn this beautiful planet into a wasteland, either by a combination of cutting down all the trees and having too many people, like Easter Island, or doing it fast with the proliferation of nuclear arms and the continuation of conflict and war, all the stuff that’s going on in the Middle East, that we will be forever involved in terrorism. It has to do with looking at this particular time, which is crucial, because for all the lack of development and faults of humanity, we also have such gifts of soul and intelligence, and the ability to reinvent. Humanity is amazing, and we have made and done so many new things even in our lifetimes!
So we have that. We have the possibility of destroying ourselves, and then we have the possibility of evolving, and bringing out a potential that we can almost imagine, that we can get glimpses of. We have both the intellectual left brain that has become so well developed, but also the right brain, where we have those qualities that are more psychic and healing and connecting and being part of everything.
As we look at functional MRIs in heterosexual men, what we see—and I’m sure this is in general, and more about alpha males, because I don’t know how many males really are getting functional MRIs, but that’s a pretty Western, scientific kind of study. What they’re saying is that these men have asymmetrical brains; it’s like too much one-sidedness. And that’s really what’s running the world from a patriarchal, dominator-over mentality.
Whereas women, as a gender, have symmetrical brains. And not only do we have symmetrical brains, but we have many, many more fibers called corpus callosum, that connect right and left brain. This is why we multitask. This is why we can collaborate easier. This is why we are called the “empathic gender.” We tune in, and we listen to narratives and stories, and we grow, from children on through adulthood, through conversations that help us to understand the other person’s point of view. We hear stories about disasters and relationships and all, and we’re drawn to fiction, and we’re drawn to theater. It’s women who are the ones who show up to so many courses and things.
We have, say, a gender-specific contribution that we can make to humanity, and it includes, thanks to the work done at UCLA in 1991, a specific different way of reacting to stress. And you know we are in high-stress times, personal and planetary, and men do fight-or-flight. That’s actually what we’re seeing going on all over the world, where armaments and conflicts and war is what it’s all about.
Women do something different. The response to stress, in women, is to do what has been now named “tend and befriend,” or the “oxytocin response to stress.” A woman in stress relieves that stress not by fight-or-flight, but by conversations with others who she trusts. And as she talks, the stress level goes down, and oxytocin, which is the maternal bonding hormone, goes up. Oxytocin is enhanced by estrogen, just as fight-or-flight is an adrenaline reaction that is enhanced by testosterone.
We know that the highest-ranking fraternity men or warlords have more testosterone—when it’s measured—than the underlings. The leaders of the world, the male leaders, are high-testosterone, fight-or-flight guys. And what they need is to be brought into balance with what women do much more naturally.
Which in the United Nations—which has been a truly educational experience for me, to go to the Commission on the Status of Women—is to become inspired, on the one hand, and appalled, on the other, about what happens to women. [We can be] inspired about what individual women are doing and what the UN is doing in recognition of what women can do, which is Security Council Resolution 1325, which is referred to as “the women, peace, and security resolution.” It recognizes that women have unique contributions to make in order to avoid conflict, to tamp it down as it’s going on, and afterward to be part of the peace process. It has to do with the ability to really empathize and know who needs what to settle a conflict, rather than, “I win this time and humiliate you, but boy, you’ll wait to get revenge on me,” which is what alpha male-run hierarchies do.
TS: Now Jean, I’m totally appreciating what you’re saying, but I’m just curious here, to interrupt you for one second, what a sensitive, heterosexual male, who’s a tree person, who’s still with us at this point in the conversation, might be feeling!
JSB: [Laughs] Oh! Please don’t go away, because the idea of masculine and feminine is something that is in both men and women. And this, of course, is a very Jungian perspective on things.
To get back to Western women, I’m also talking about how Western women have become Western women, in part, since the women’s movement in the late 60s and 70s. Well, from that point on, there has been a cohort of men related to women who have been influence by the women’s movement—their sons, their partners, their fathers—who have been given the space to grow into their feminine side, into being heart-and-soul oriented, into being sons, say, of Goddess, and not just of monotheistic, patriarchal God.
It is the activist in the generation of sons that is saving the Amazon, and has had a major effect on saving the arboreal forests of Canada. It’s Greenpeace, and then there are the tree people that Andy Lipkis created when he was sixteen. He started to care about the trees in summer camp, and now in midlife, he’s got an organization that is building and creating urban forests and urban woods. In California, we have Friends of the Urban Forest, which was created by a man. In fact, some of the most effective tree people are the activist younger people, men and women. But when you’re confronting loggers and things, it’s often the young, activist, idealistic men who are doing this kind of work, joined with older people that have the resources and the connections to take a demonstration and make it publicly known, and influence the politicians, and things like that.
And in the brain research that I wrote about more in Urgent Message from Mother, the research that was done on functional MRIs on young boys and girls, there really wasn’t any difference between the right and left brain in boys and girls. It seemed as if the acculturation of boys made a huge difference as to what happened to the brain. Which makes sense, because we know that the brain is plastic, meaning that it grows from use and misuse. It gets shaped by [these things].
Initially, by the way, it was the fact of there being more corpus callosum fibers in women’s brains than in men’s brains, which was discovered “at post,” in autopsy. And the male people whose brains were symmetrical—that is, had equal right and left brains—were gay men. It was gay men and women that had [symmetrical brains] way back then. So I’m sure that if the MRIs were studied now, I don’t know that anybody is doing it, but I’m very sure that it would be the same, that any man, heterosexual or gay, who is interested in music and art, who has a sense of intuitive wisdom, who is not into the alpha stratification and into power over—I think that we’re creating a world that could go more and more in that direction.
Meanwhile, I got way away from your initial question, which was about the Dalai Lama! Why I think that the Dalai Lama is right is that, because of the women’s movement and the baby boomer demographic, there has never been a generation or cohort of women in the history of the world like the women now in the United States or the first world. Because of the education, because of the entry into positions of responsibility, into the workforce, into having freedom of choice to choose religion, to choose reproductive options, to live as whatever, and with medical advances, we live longer. And we have bonded with each other, thanks to the women’s movement. This is provided you have in you archetypally some Artemis or sister archetype, but this quality [is evident] in numbers. I mean, I speak to women who come to, say, a lecture that I’m giving. These are women who are curious, educated, who have economic resources to come, they’ve traveled. They could make a huge difference in the direction the world is going in.
That’s what I’m saying to them: that the Dalai Lama made it clear to a number of women that to take in the message personally, not just generically—although it is generic. Like Linda, who heard the tree message, it’s a generic message, but when it’s received as a personal one, then it gives that woman a sense that she has something to contribute in her lifetime that could make the difference. And during a time of tilt, when we are using the notion of “tipping point” or “reaching a critical mass,” each one of us matters.
I’m a bit passionate about this!
TS: Yes, and it’s that passion that we need!
Now, just one final question, Jean. In Like a Tree, you talk about people finding their “assignment,” and clearly there’s some sense of “having found your assignment” in this work Like a Tree. How can someone find and know their own assignment? What advice do you have?
JSB: First of all, a person realizes that they want to do something more with their lives. Usually it’s about giving back in some way. You recognize your own assignment by three things:
One: Is it meaningful to you? Lots of things come our way, but is this particular possibility, this particular cause, is it meaningful to you? If there’s a strong “Yes,” then it has something to do with the path of your life, that the spiral journey of your life now comes to this point, and you recognize this issue, this cause, is meaningful to you.
Second: Is it fun? I think of an example of just exactly that. Because if it is fun, it taps into your abilities, your talents, your experience, your networks, your creativity. Creativity is fun! And you are going in the same direction with other people that share your values, and they are fun to be with, because they are people as deep and as activist and as concerned for whatever it is as you are.
Third: Is it motivated by love? Yes, it can start with anger, but anger that is hostility and revenge just drains people and makes them lesser. But anger that is built on outrage because what you love is being trashed or hurt or destroyed, then it’s love for what it is that you are working to save that motivates. And the anger is just the tip of what is much deeper, which is the deep love that you hold and carry for that which motivates you.
Those are the three ways to recognize an assignment. And when you are lucky enough to (1) find it, and (2) step up and take it on, then really you will find companions, life takes on a lot of juicy qualities, and you’ll work hard—but work is good! Work is good when there’s a sense of joy in what it is you do.
TS: Very good!
I’ve been speaking with Jean Shinoda Bolen. She is the author of a new book and audio program, Like a Tree: How Trees, Women, and Tree People Can Save the World. May we all find our assignment and joyfully be on it!
Jean, thank you so much for being with here on “Insights at the Edge.”
JSB: Thank you, Tami, and thank you for getting my assignment further out into the world.
TS: SoundsTrue.com: many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.