Saturday, August 24, 2013

To Understand Your Mind, Understand A Tree

I currently understand both the physical structure of my brain, and the experience of my mind as similar to the the structure of a tree's core.

Oddly, this insight came to me while staring "mindlessly" at one of the pre-canned wallpapers available for iPad, which is basically the cross section of a tree's trunk. I noticed for the first time in staring at the image, that there were flaws in the rings. There was a crack or scar that extended radial outward from the core. I began to wonder what trauma had struck the tree to cause such a scar, and what the surface of the tree, the bark, looked like as it grew out over the years.

Before I get to my point, a few memories of tree-like scars.

The first house I ever owned was built on an old farm tract. In fact, the name of the development was "Scofield Farms." In the front yard of the small track-home were a couple hackberry trees. Hackberries are not very lovely trees. Their bark is gnarled, rough, and painful to hold in any way. The leaves are week and have jagged edging. They grow often in multi-trunk clusters and in a formation that is almost painful to see. Sort of like a large scrub-bush than a tree. It is not a noble tree. It is not a pleasant tree. But, it is a tenacious tree, and for that reason I respect them and enjoy them. It is certainly a Texas tree (long live the Great Republic).

A few years into owning this home graced by hackberries, one of the trees fell ill. It was even more hideous in its death throughs, adding grey dead branches to the otherwise gnarled expression. I decided to cut it down. As I became more intimate with the tree in order to fell it and cut it into pieces, I found a never-before-noticed scar at about eye-heigth. It was a piece of barbed wire that pierced right through the core of the tree, or nearly so.

Seeing this odd mix of historic technology and tree, set me puzzling over the history that produced it. I have since notice hackberries used on the fence line of many properties in Texas as I have driven around. I wonder if the trees are grown intentionally on fence lines to help emphasize the border, like so many skinny orcs set to threaten any would-be trespassers, or whether the trees are on the property in more general dispersion, and get trimmed back by the land owner, leaving just those on the property line standing as they are not "in the way."

Which ever way it is, hackberries and Texas fence lines often co-mingle, and there is where we find barbed wire, and perhaps the genesis of the scar I found in my front yard.

I can well imagine that the fence pre-existed the tree, and then a hackberry berry fell in an unfortunate location, and the sapling grew up into the wire. It did not divert left or right, but through some chance of alignment, or sheer "will" of the tree, it grew straight up into the wire, incorporated the wire in its flesh, and with no apparent ill-effect on its ability to grow, kept growing.

I probably should have kept that section of wood when I felled the tree. My memory of it is easier to store, though and came quickly to mind as I wondered about the scar in the wood in the iPad wallpaper. That, and a pear.

A few hundred more words could tell you about my favorite high school English teacher, Dixie Lee Shannon/Hinton/Marmalejo. A wonderful woman who rescued me from the hell of Houston suburbia in so many ways. She collected broadsides and had one based on a poem by John Updike called "A Pear Like A Potato" that hung in the kitchen of her guest house that I would visit occasionally.

The basic story behind the Updike poem was musings on the scars observed on a pear that had perverted its normal grocery-store-based image from that of a green skinned standard lightbulb to that of a green skinned potato. Updike saw similarities in the pear's history and the history of his (of our) lives. The scars make us who we are, they record our history, and perhaps most significantly to my beginning thoughts, they remain as we continue to grow.

Now back to my point.

The flesh of tree's trunk is not, as you know, of uniform nature. It is ringed, and each ring records, in some way, the events for each year in the trees life. I can see the seasons march as I scan from the center outward. When there was more rain. When the warm season was longer. Etcetera. But rings are not perfect circles. You can see the impact of larger, or perhaps more physical, effect on the tree recorded in how the rings waver and clump on one side or another.

And here is the observation that hints towards my main point. The position and structure of all the outer rings depends on the position and structure of all the inner rings. The later experiences of the tree give a shape to the tree that entirely depends on its previous experiences. This is dependent origination. The tree does not start fresh each year with a clean slate of a trunk. It must build on what has happened in the past.

A tree cannot instantly straighten a course sent leftward by some obstacle or injury last year. A tree cannot make past years more prosperous so it can have a greater diameter to build on this year. A tree cannot eject the barbed wire it has grown around for the the last few years so it can start afresh without memory of it.

But likewise, a tree is not entirely static. Every patient arboreal expert knows that every crooked tree can be straighten. It takes careful planning, and the right support, and it cannot be accomplished in one season, but it can be done. In many cases it can be done so well the the requisite braces and ropes and supports can eventually be removed so that the tree is growing straight on its own.

But even in the case of a straightening a troubling curve, the history of the curve remains forever in the body of the tree. It is not "removed", it is not "forgotten", but it is accommodated. Its impact is respected, and carefully adjusted to.

I imagine the metaphorical extension of these tree notions to the mind is pretty obvious. I think these ideas and lessons hold true for how I experience my life. The optimistic, and often masochistic, retort of "just get over it" is a physiological impossibility, I think.

In some way, I believe the brain lays down memories by altering physical structure in the brain. Neurons connect in some specific way to result in what I experience as "me." Trauma's in my past are probably particularly hard-codded. This make evolutionary / survival sense. It is more beneficial to me if I remember things that threatened me that those that were neutral or pleasant.

The slings and arrows I endured as a child are the early rings in my 'self' as realized in my neural connections. As I have aged, and worked on seeing, understanding, and healing those wounds, it is a process like the addition of rings to a tree. I can't erase the scars of past years that are trapped in my grey and white matter, but I may be able to "set things straighter" with the correct study, and support.

Likewise, I think the evolution of the human mind in a physical sense follows the same metaphor. Our brains (the structure through which I realize and experience my 'self'), was not realized afresh for our current modern human structure. Instead, like the rings of a tree, the human brains capabilities are layers of adaption and survival. My brain contains structure that is purely "functional" and has no functional "self" left over from the species history when we were more animal than human. Then, through the chance of beneficial mutation, brain "layers" developed that give rise to consciousness, and the sense of self.

The importance in this is that I must accept there are aspects to my self expression (by which I mean how "I" present to you in the world, as a whole, not just my verbal expressions.... my whole functional expression as a human) that are old, and "crude", and out of reach of my conscious control, and perhaps often very necessary to my current continued survival.

Thus I should not feel shame because I cannot eradicate anger, or fear, or loneliness-in-a-crowd from my personality profile. These things may be arising from more primitive structural brain "rings" that are there, and will remain forever there, as part of my expression.

However, that does not mean I must always be someone who shouts when angry or cowers when fearful or isolates myself when feeling out-of-the-crowd. I can both pick the next physical, and perhaps even mental, action when these feelings arise, and perhaps even retrain myself, with proper care, support, wisdom, etc... and awareness of how these "lower rings" operate, to experience the same stimuli differently in the future.

This brings me back to my favored metaphore also that my mind is like a man, stuck riding often unaware, on the back of an ox, and wondering why him setting his mind to a task does not end up heading in the desired direction. I must accept many of my brain-rings are ox-like. I can train them with repetition and patiences, and probably kindness, but I can't expect them to modify just because I "will it so" in this instant.

To change myself, perhaps I should first find an crooked tree and learn to change its course to straight. I will probably be more successful when it comes to me.

To accept myself, I should do so with the same relaxed certainty I would a crooked tree - it is that way because of its history, its karma, its dependent origination, not because it has weak will.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad