Psychology, Design and Talking to Trees
I took one psychology class in college. I have dim memories of theories of behavior and experiments with mice and dogs . . . the subject didn’t move me. Funny, because as it turns out, psychology is now one of the subjects that fascinates me the most.
Professionally, I am a designer and visual communicator, and have loved this discipline for over 25 years now. I love investigating symbolic language and how communication works on a level behind words. I love creating beauty and clarity. I love working with clients who have an idea and a passion that they want to bring into the world, listening deeply to them in order to “feel into” what they’re trying to manifest, then trusting the Mystery to maneuver my design skills to give their business or organization a visual form that will communicate accurately to others.
In order to do this well, I learned through experience to intuitively understand a fascinating aspect of human psychology: How do human beings make sense of visual information? Why do forms and symbols communicate so powerfully to us? What makes something beautiful?
I find that inspired design requires a certain subtle type of attention, a particular kind of listening. I found I could only do good work for people and organizations that I cared about, that I’m intimately involved in the psychological equation (a quantum mechanic reality!). Often what I design seems to not come from “me.” The creative act involves something beyond human thinking; a kind of Grace. In teaching the fundamentals of design, I have investigated these questions along with my students and find there really is no bottom to the questions of design, human psychology and the mystery of the design solution.
Seven years ago, I noticed a restless inside of me that steadily grew until it erupted and dismembered a life and identity that I’d grown rather attached to. It became a matter of survival to understand what was happening to me. Psychology, as the ancient Greek root of the word tells us, is the study of the human soul and all its associated behaviors. Suddenly, the study of my own soul took on a new urgency. As my heart broke open, I cried for my own personal losses—a dear marriage, innocence, the familiar sense of who I thought I was—and I also felt a deep grief for the collective. I began to really see the suffering of others in a way I’d never seen before.
I also felt the suffering of the planet. I understood more viscerally that things die, there is always pain, nothing stays the same. I began to feel in my bones the reality that we human beings are choking the earth and her systems.
One of the many vehicles I found to facilitate my healing and “re-memberedment” was a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology with a concentration in Ecopsycology, a distance learning degree from Naropa University out of Boulder, Colorado. It was here, in the first year’s summer intensive that I talked to a tree.
Our class was given one afternoon to do a medicine walk—a sacred walk in nature, being drawn to whatever wanted to speak to us as we held a question of our choosing in our hearts. I was drawn to the mountain, to the First Flatiron, one of three striking walls of flat quartzite that grew imposingly out of the mountain range surrounding Boulder. About 20 feet above the ground, I saw a gigantic Pinion Pine growing straight out of the rock. It seemed to beckon, so I climbed up low angle boulders and then out on the face of the more vertical rock face to meet this tree, and sat in its lap . . . with a great sweep of reddish quartzite below and above me.
Safe in the arms of the old Pinion, I suddenly remembered being a kid.
I had several tree friends back then; most notably Max, who lived on the grassy hill on the southwest corner of the Gardner Music Hall on the campus of the University of Utah. Max had a knobby trunk, easy to climb, his branches spread out comfortably all at once, and he had big leaves in summer so that I would be hidden from people walking on the sidewalk below. Now, facing this ancient-feeling Pinion, I realized I’d not really talked to a tree since that time in my life. That afternoon, I had one grown-up moment when I told myself “you’re making this up, Kinde.” Then I jettisoned my doubts and poured out my heart to this old being. And again, as I tuned into this tree, listened to its response after my gut-wrenching tear filled stories, I was astounded by its quiet and very compassionate response. It didn’t talk a great deal, but seemed to get to the very root (so to speak) of my issues and would speak only a single sentence here and there that communicated both a deep understanding of me, as well as showed me where I was kidding myself. Tough love, sort of. I felt deeply heard and as a result, more space for healing opened up inside of me. It was both wierd, and quite normal all at once.
From that Great Re-membering, my winding path of evolutionary awakening began. I often encourage people to talk to trees now. If we pay the right kind of attention, we may have the ears to hear a great wisdom beyond our personal understanding. Like symbolic communication, a conversation with a tree is a kind of communication behind words. For me, it yields a wisdom that belongs to the Life Collective and a wisdom that we dearly need now in this time of Great Turning.