On my walk this morning I noticed a tree within a tree. When I looked closer I saw there was only one. One tree and a highly successful ivy plant. The darker, more abundant leaves belonged to the ivy, which had made its way up the tree trunk and spread branches of its own in order to secure the resources it needed to prolong and promote its existence. And straining to poke through the healthy-looking foliage was the skeleton of the original tree; its thin branches sparsely populated with the only leaves it could manage, given that its sources of nourishment had been so effectively plundered.
This is how it is with every one of us. We begin as a pristine organism, bursting with life, ready for a purpose for which we are perfectly suited, and an existence which allows us to fulfill our potential. And then, gradually, as we become more programmed by our environment – family, culture, society – the purity of life is tainted by our conditioning. It starts from day one with the messages we receive, the corrective influences on our behaviour and the pressure to conform. We get used to it so early that we barely notice it happening and it soon becomes part of who we are. Eventually, and so much quicker than we would like to believe, it becomes difficult to distinguish the self from the conditioning, let alone address them. (As always, awareness is the key.)
Years ago, when I still lived in Germany, she and I left my apartment one night and walked up and down my street, stripping the ivy from the trunks of the trees. It was her idea (of course), and we both delighted in liberating each tree, allowing it some respite from the the steady encroachment of an external force. We knew the ivy would grow back and that, without closer and regular attention, each tree’s fate would be a battle to the end against its incessant and creeping intruder. But for that night at least, as we returned indoors, we felt we had allowed the trees to breathe more deeply; that we had eased their struggle slightly, and made a small contribution to their existence. We didn’t care much for the ivy.
That’s all personal development is. Clearing away, again and again, the conditioning which intrudes on our existence. Granted, not all conditioning is destructive. Many of the rules we learn from an early age are designed to help us negotiate the difficult landscapes we encounter as we grow and develop. But until we identify the precise nature of our conditioning, there is nothing we can do about it. The ivy is easy to spot, but even the residents of my old street did little to disentangle their trees. One wonders how much they ever did to disentangle themselves. Maybe one or two of them saw us through the window that night and made a promise to themselves to strip away the layers which prevent life from blossoming. I like to think they did.