|The Hoop and The Tree
Chris Hoffman – ecopsychology, poetry, sustainability
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The Shape of All Shapes
We human beings are story-telling animals. We venture into the world--the outer world of science and facts and data and ineffable mysteries, or the inner world of feelings and thoughts and dreams and ineffable mysteries--and return to tell each other about it. None of our stories is "The Truth." There is an old Zuni Indian saying that there are no truths, only stories. The truth is beyond stories. But stories teach us and help us to live this precious life we have been given. We tell each other what we have learned about planting corn, about the best way to program a computer, bake bread, or handle a wrench. We also tell each other about ways to navigate the emotional and spiritual rapids of life: birth, initiation, marriage, fruitfulness, loss, success, death. These are the stories we live by. They come from science, history, literature, and the great spiritual traditions of the world. The stories we live by have the power to shape our destiny.
This book is about a robust story, one that has been told in many versions and tongues over the years. It is a story about what we all desire: to lead lives of balance and fulfillment. It offers an image of the deep structure of health and wholeness, both in the universe and in the human psyche and soul, an image of the beauty at the heart of everything.
I first encountered this image many years ago. I didn't pay a lot of attention to it then, but it lodged in me like a seed in the ground. Over the years, as I've tried to help my counseling and consulting clients and to make sense of my own life, the seed has sprouted and grown to the extent that it helps me enormously in my efforts to be a useful and loving human being.
The image first revealed itself to me in a story of the Oglala Lakota.
In the summer of 1873, a band of Lakota was slowly making its way across the high plains of North America toward the Rocky Mountains. One evening in camp, a nine-year-old boy was eating with a friend, an older man, when the boy suddenly heard a voice saying to him, "It is time; now they are calling you." So loud and so real was this voice that the boy stood up and followed it out of the teepee. As he went out, both of his thighs began hurting him, and as he tells it, "it was like waking from a dream, and there wasn't any voice." The older man was amazed and concerned by the boy's behavior, for the man had heard nothing.
The next day the boy went riding with some other boys. When he got off his horse to get a drink from a creek, his legs suddenly crumpled under him. He couldn't walk. The other boys had to help him back to camp. The following day the boy had to travel in a pony drag; his arms, legs, and face were so swollen he couldn't move. That evening as he was lying in his family teepee, he saw through the doorway two men coming down from the clouds, headfirst like arrows slanting down. When they landed they called to him, "Hurry! Come! Your Grandfathers are calling you!" Then they turned and shot back up into the sky.
When the boy got up to follow them, his legs no longer hurt. He went outside the teepee where a little cloud came down and carried him up into the sky. There the spirit beings filled him with an extraordinary series of experiences. When he returned to human consciousness he found he had been gone twelve days. Although his body was still swollen, he felt healed and joyful. Soon his body too was well.
It took the boy many years to accept his vision. He spoke not a word of it to anyone until he was seventeen. When he finally confided in a respected medicine man, the elder told him he must enact his vision for the whole tribe. The ceremony was a great pageant, involving many people and sixteen horses- four each of the colors of the four directions: black, white, sorrels, and buckskins.
After this ceremony the boy lost the fear that had been troubling him for so many years, everyone in the community felt happy, and many people who had been sick were now well again. Even the horses seemed to have become healthier and happier.
The boy's name was Black Elk. The vision he received at nine years of age guided him to become a wise and respected elder who helped his people all his life. Much of what he saw in his vision was beyond the power of words to say. Yet he was able to tell of his glimpse of the breathtaking wholeness of the universe. As poetically summarized by John Neihardt, Black Elk's interviewer, Black Elk saw that he was
...standing on the highest mountain of them all and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw, for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy. (1,2,3)
Black Elk was touched and healed by what might be called the deep structure of wholeness in the universe. It appeared to him through the image or visual metaphor of the Hoop and the Tree. This image of the Hoop and the Tree is not accidental. In the years since reading about Black Elk, I have discovered that the image appears not only in Lakota mythology but also throughout the great wisdom traditions of the world--and indeed in modern psychology and systems science--as an image of the deep structure of wholeness and health, both in the universe and in the human psyche and soul.
Moreover, the wisdom traditions teach that this pattern of wholeness lies latent within each of us, waiting as a seed waits underground ready to bring forth flowers and fruit.
The Hoop and the Tree could be said to represent two "dimensions of the soul" that must be fully developed and in balance with each other for the soul to be whole. The Hoop-and-Tree image also acts as a skeleton key that can open the door to the great variety of spiritual and mythological ways of the world without depreciating or diminishing our magnificent human diversity.
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The Shape of the Model
To see how the Hoop-and-Tree model depicts wholeness, it will help to understand what these two "dimensions" represent.
All the great wisdom traditions teach the importance of aspiring toward some state of connection with the Divine or some state of wisdom or enlightenment that is ultimately unutterable. All the traditions also teach about the importance of relationship. These two types of teachings meet in the image of the Hoop and the Tree.
The Hoop dimension has to do with relationship in all its aspects. When people gather for family meals, or to sing songs, or to sit at the knee of a storyteller, they spontaneously form the shape of a Hoop. This may be why images of the Hoop, and objects or qualities that are like hoops, are familiar metaphors for relationship. We speak of our inner "circle" or our family "circle." Native Americans honor all their relations through Hoop-shaped medicine wheels and sweat lodges. Taoists use the well-known Hoop of the yin-yang symbol to represent being and flowing in right relationship with the way of nature. Psychologists heal within the "sacred circle" of the therapeutic relationship.
The Hoop of the mandala (Sanskrit for "magic circle") appears in all cultures and times as a way to represent wholeness. Mandala symbolism includes concentrically arranged figures, radial or spherical designs, and circles with a central point. Common examples are the sun disc and various types of wheels, including medicine wheels and the wheel of rebirth. There are even danced mandalas such as traditional round dances, the Dances of Universal Peace, developed by Murshid Samuel Lewis, and the meditative martial art of Chinese T'ai Chi Ch'uan. (4,5)
Although the typical mandala is a Hoop, wheel, or circle of some kind, there are other cognates or analogs of the "magic circle" that serve the same function, though they don't look round. The square, the equilateral horizontal cross, and the image of fourfoldness or quaternity are all Hoop cognates.(6) We use the fourfoldness of the four directions--North, South, East, and West--in order to describe the Hoop of the whole horizon. Other examples of fourfoldness include the four seasons, the four elements, the four archangels, and the four evangelists.
The Tree dimension has to do with aspiration and deepening for individual growth. We acknowledge this correspondence between individual growth and the Tree in our everyday language when we quote old proverbs like "Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined" and "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
The Tree dimension is a vertical dimension. Traditional wisdom and contemporary spiritual and psychological practice also associate with this dimension imagery of tree cognates, such as mountains, ladders, and pillars. Tree cognates all carry the Tree sense of verticality, while emphasizing some particular attribute of the Tree. The mountain emphasizes being central and rooted or grounded; the ladder emphasizes the route of ascent and descent; the pillar, a connection between above and below. We ascend the Tree or Tree cognate for development that at its highest reaches is spiritual development.
The Tree also involves descent for development of the soul. Images of descent along the Tree dimension have to do with exploring one's "roots," both in terms of ancestors ("the family tree"), and in terms of the subterranean explorations of depth psychology. A tree can grow tall only if it has sturdy and far-reaching roots.
Imagine a vertical axis running through the center of your being, from deep in the ground up to your highest aspiration or to your image of the Divine. Recall a time when you felt especially grounded or rooted. Think of your highest aspiration and what it feels like to be stretching toward that goal. This is the Tree, which roots you, centers you, and offers you a way to ascend to the light of your highest aspiration, and a way to be fruitful. Imagine also the Tree encircled by a Hoop on a horizontal plane, with the center of the Hoop pierced by the trunk of the Tree. Remember your family or some other group that encircles you with love. Recall being surrounded by the beauty of nature. The Hoop brings you into relationship with the rest of the universe. Together the Hoop-and-Tree image is a pattern or model for wholeness in the universe and in you. In this simplest abstract form it resembles a gyroscope.
A gyroscope is a little hoop spinning on a vertical axle that keeps itself balanced and upright no matter what. You can feel this almost miraculous stability yourself by experimenting with a toy gyroscope. Gyroscopes are so steady in fact that advanced gyroscopes are used as the heart of navigational instruments for aircraft and ships. A hoop of relationship around a vertical growing core of individuality makes this same shape. Our ancestors visualized this shape as a Hoop around a Tree. And these two dimensions of the soul do form an internal gyrocompass for one's life. Having the Hoop and the Tree developed and in balance can keep you steady, balanced, and "on course."
"There are no truths, only stories": the Hoop and the Tree are metaphors, just as the gyroscope is a metaphor. They are not "things" but together represent a fundamental pattern of energy in the universe. It is impossible to be entirely precise about what each of them "means," because they are both patterns of infinite subtlety. But it is possible to suggest the realm over which each holds sway.
One might summarize by saying that the Tree is the autonomous aspect of the whole self and has to do with deepening and ascending for growth, while the Hoop is the affiliative aspect and has to do with widening for growth. The vector of the Tree is aspirational and the vector of the Hoop is relational. Neither of these two dimensions of wholeness is complete in and of itself; neither is "better" than the other. They are different, and complementary.
Psychology teaches that the psyche of every person--man or woman--has both a female aspect and a male aspect. The Hoop is associated with the female aspect of the psyche and with behaviors such as inclusion and cooperation. The Tree is associated with the male aspect and with behaviors such as self- assertion. In poetic terms we could say that the Hoop has a female tone, the Tree a male tone. Both are needed, together and in balance, for a person, or a society, to become whole.
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A Hoop Story
A few years ago on a train trip from Boston to New York City, I happened to be sitting next to a young woman from India. After some preliminary conversation, she told me a story about her grandmother. It seems her grandmother had died and, as was the Hindu custom, her family was preparing to cremate her. Lovingly they had placed her body on the top of the pile of wood and incense. Just as the pyre was about to be lit, the grandmother sat up, fully alive.
The grandmother told her astounded family what she had experienced. After she had died, she had been greeted by a pair of devas (good spirits) who had guided her on a long journey by foot. After a while they came to a desert of burning sands. The grandmother, who was barefoot, was unable to cross the sands because they were too hot. The devas asked her, "Have you ever helped the poor?" The grandmother remembered that once she had given a fine pair of her own shoes to a beggar. No sooner had she remembered this than the very same pair of shoes appeared before her feet. She was able to put them on and cross the hot sands without difficulty. A little while later they came to a stream, a stream far too swift and deep for the aged woman to cross. The devas asked her, "In your life, have you venerated the cow?" The grandmother recalled that as a good Hindu she had always honored the cow. No sooner had she remembered this than a strong and kindly cow appeared and carried the grandmother on its back across the raging stream.
Eventually the devas led the grandmother into the presence of a deity, who told her that it was not yet time for her to die. She was to live for seven more years. The next thing the grandmother knew she was awakening on top of a funeral pyre. My train companion told me that it had been less than seven years since this had happened, and that her grandmother was still alive and healthy, and that everyone who met her felt blessed in some way. The grandmother's practice of goodness in this life returned, Hooplike, to help her in her near-death experience.
This story illustrates many Hoop qualities. For one, it points out the importance of what the Hindus call ahimsa, or respect and consideration for all life, and fellow feeling with all living beings.
Whatever you're doing, you're always in the center of a sacred circle. You cannot survive--physically, psychologically, or spiritually-without this Hoop. The question is, How do you relate to the Hoop? Are you centered in a mandala of good relationships with family, with society, with all living beings, with the ecosystem and with the immanent Divine? Are you in relationship fully enough to be in the flow, in the Tao? Is your Hoop wide and inclusive? Is your Hoop whole?
The broadest Hoop sees that we are all in this together, and that "we" includes the realms of mineral, vegetable, animal, spirit, and all the peoples of the earth, regardless of race, color, religion, or anything else. The symbolism of the Hoop is the symbolism of the wedding ring: we are all related.
Ultimately the Hoop is the image by which the self talks to the self about the Greater Self in whom we are all connected. It is through the Hoop that we connect with other living beings, with the rocks, the soil, the air, the green and growing things, the dying and the dead that fertilize new life, the person we once were and the person we shall be. The Hoop has to do with hearing the beat, getting with the rhythm, feeling the music of what is, and skillfully entering in with just the right amount of effort. Because in some way we are all Hoops, we admire well- rounded people, and we do wish that "the circle be unbroken.' The Hoop is oneself as the process of relating.
All of us yearn to feel related and accepted, to be in harmony, to feel ourselves at home in the universe and with each other. And this is our birthright, for we are all part of the Hoop. We have only to stop, perceive, and be. If you allow yourself to connect with the Hoop, you are home.
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A Tree Story
In the days when music was sweeter, fire was hotter, and ice was colder, there lived a king of the Celts named Bran, son of Febal. One day King Bran was walking alone on the shore when an enchanting melody came to his ears from some unknown place and lulled him into deepest sleep. When he awoke he found lying beside him the branch of a tree, formed of silver, with white blossoms on it. Full of wonder, he took this branch back to his royal hall and summoned his advisors for counsel.
In the midst of their considerations there appeared before them a woman of extraordinary loveliness dressed in rich clothing. She addressed King Bran with sumptuous descriptions of a land of perfection, her own land, that lay westward across the sea. In this land there was no sickness, grief or death, but wealth, treasures of every hue, a beauty of freshness, sweet music, companionship and happiness unending. Her last words before vanishing were these: "King Bran," said she, "I do not make my invitation to every man, though every man may hear these words. May you both hear and understand."
All this so stirred King Bran that he ordered a fine ship prepared, and with certain chosen companions, he embarked for the land of perfection. His great voyage lead into dangers and to an encounter with Manannan the son of the Sea, and finally to the land of perfection where Bran was welcomed into the lovely woman's bed, and each of his companions also found a perfect mate.
Though our own aspirations may not be as magical as the vision of King Bran, if we "both hear and understand," we are each drawn into growth as individuals by the call of our dreams for the future. What helps us realize these dreams are our roots. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s work toward his dream of civil rights probably would not have succeeded as it did were it not for his having been raised in a healthy and loving family and for his profound soul searching during his years in training for the ministry.
This axis, between our roots and our aspirations, between where we've come from and where we're headed, is the essence of the Tree. Like the Hoop, the Tree is a metaphor, intended to carry beyond. Metaphors carry meaning beyond their literal meaning in order to carry us beyond our literal consciousness or everyday state of mind. Just as the Hoop helps us expand our sense of relationship from our inner circle outward through the far reaches of the universe, the Tree helps us establish our individuality: our uniqueness, our roots, and our central core.