If you have an altar or a shrine in your home, you know that sitting down in front of it—or even glancing at it throughout your day—can make a difference in your state of mind. While the weather is nice, consider creating a shrine outside, and specifically under a tree. Trees and forests have a long association with spiritual practice. Perhaps most famously, the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment while seated beneath the heart-shaped leaves of a fig tree. Before going on his way, he spent a week gazing at the tree in gratitude.
Tree shrines are common in India, says David Haberman, an Indiana University professor who recently completed a book about them. They typically feature a large tree contained within a kind of planter or even within a temple. Statues of gods and goddesses are often placed at its base. People bring offerings of fruits, flowers, incense, and, of course, water. “In addition to being great spots for yoga and meditation, trees are places for seeking life blessings, anything from good health to a long life to a happy marriage,” Haberman says. It’s not unusual for people to physically interact with trees, hugging, kissing, or massaging them.
In addition to being great spots for yoga and meditation, trees are places for seeking life blessings, anything from good health to a long life to a happy marriage.
Such displays of affection raise eyebrows in the West, where religious scholars and anthropologists have painted anthropomorphism—attributing human characteristics to a non-human being—as primitive. But “biologists have made it very clear that we share a great deal with other species, and if that’s the case, then anthropomorphism is not wrong,” says Haberman, who is also a forest protection activist. “There are trees that we share 70 percent of our DNA with.”
Honoring trees is “a way of seeing something you cannot see otherwise,” he adds. “When you love a being, it reveals itself to you. It’s that connection that opens up a whole world of perception and knowledge.”