The Poisoned Tree

Jack Kornfield

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Awakin FeatureThe maturity we can develop in approaching our difficulties is illustrated by the traditional story of a poisoned tree. On first discovering a poisoned tree, some people see only its danger. Their immediate reaction is, "Let's cut this down before we are hurt. Let's cut it down before anyone else eats the poisoned fruit." This resembles our initial response to the difficulties that arise in our lives, when we encounter aggression, depression, or sorrow in ourselves and others. Our initial response is to avoid them, saying, "These poisons afflict us. Let us uproot them; let us be rid of them. Let us cut them down." 

Other people, who have journeyed further along the spiritual path, discover this poisoned tree and do not meet it with aversion. They have realized that to open to life requires a deep and heartfelt compassion for all that is around us. Knowing the poisoned tree is somehow a part of us, they say, "Let us not cut it down. Instead, let's have compassion for the tree as well." So out of kindness they build a fence around the tree so that others may not be poisoned and the tree may also have its life. This second approach shows a profound shift of relationship from judgment and fear to compassion.

A third type of person, who has traveled yet deeper in spiritual life, sees this same tree. This person, who has gained much vision, looks and says, "Oh, a poisoned tree. Perfect! Just what I was looking for." This individual picks the poisoned fruit, investigates its properties, mixes with other ingredients, and uses the poison as a great medicine to heal the sick and transform the ills of the world. Through respect and understanding, this person sees in a way opposite to most people and finds value in the most difficult circumstances.

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In each and every aspect of life, the chance to turn the straw we find into gold is there in our hearts. All that is asked is our respectful attention, our willingness to learn from difficulty. Instead of fighting, when we see with eyes of wisdom, difficulties can become our good fortune. 

When our body is sick, instead of fighting the disease, we can listen to the information it has to tell us and use it to heal. When our children whine or complain, instead of shutting them out, we can listen to what is their deeper need. When we have difficulty with some aspect of our lover or partner, we might inquire how we treat that part in ourselves. Difficulties or weaknesses often lead us to the very thing we need to learn.

Excerpted from A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield.

Seed questions for reflection: How do you relate to finding value in the most difficult circumstances through respect and understanding? Can you share a personal story of a time you were able to turn the straw you found into gold? What helps you learn from difficulties?

Add Your Reflection:

18 Previous Reflections:

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    On Jul 9, 2019 click here wrote:
    I simply stumbled upon your blog and desired to say that I possess really enjoyed browsing your current posts. keep doing your great job and always gain my support. cheers for sharing this beautiful article.

    Post Your Reply
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    On May 2, 2019 Deepak wrote:
    There are times in one's life , to become aware of this poison and reflect for it is a wake up call for bringing about a transformation about the self . That is my own experience in life and it led to believing in my own self and bringing about the necessary changes in my own life . In my own context I am grateful to that wake up call till today .

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    On Apr 30, 2019 Merv Martin wrote:
    The tree is not poison, it's strong medicine, not to be used as food. It tells us this quite plainly. Listen...

    1 reply: Liz | Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 30, 2019 Komal Desai wrote:
    I would like to share a very personal story about difficulty and growth. My father was an alcoholic and as expected I grew up in a household where every night we did not know what we would encounter . Luckily my grandparents were like guardian angels for my mother, brother and myself trying their best to shield us from the chaos and dysfunction. My only thoughts while going through this difficult times were number one what I could do to make all my grandparent’s efforts worthwhile and secondly how I could become capable of not only supporting myself independently but also helping others. I put all my energy into studying which was the only thing that was in my control at that vulnerable age and by God’s Grace got into Medical College which became the turning point of my life . My childhood was full of fear, anger, shame, worry, sadness due to the incessant havoc alcohol and my father created in our lives but looking back I don’t have any bitterness or complaints about... [View Full Comment] I would like to share a very personal story about difficulty and growth. My father was an alcoholic and as expected I grew up in a household where every night we did not know what we would encounter . Luckily my grandparents were like guardian angels for my mother, brother and myself trying their best to shield us from the chaos and dysfunction. My only thoughts while going through this difficult times were number one what I could do to make all my grandparent’s efforts worthwhile and secondly how I could become capable of not only supporting myself independently but also helping others. I put all my energy into studying which was the only thing that was in my control at that vulnerable age and by God’s Grace got into Medical College which became the turning point of my life .
    My childhood was full of fear, anger, shame, worry, sadness due to the incessant havoc alcohol and my father created in our lives but looking back I don’t have any bitterness or complaints about it because in my heart I know that I would probably not be where I am today without those very experiences. They gave me the drive, motivation, purpose to do push myself single mindedly to achieve my goal of being a physician. It was a poison that became a potion of success for me !
    [Hide Full Comment]

    2 replies: Liz, Deepak | Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 30, 2019 Jacqueline wrote:
    I had to undergo a total hip replacement , walking had become painful. Iwas grounded during that time and feeling sorry for myself. I got out some art materials and was able to produce a dozen paintings . The paintings are being sold to benefit those who lost their homes in the California fires and some have been made into greeting cards to support orphans in Nepal.
    So my suffering turned out to be a chance to connect with my own creativity and be of service to others in the end.
    i am so gratefulto be able to walk without pain.

    2 replies: Sophia, Liz | Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 30, 2019 Simon wrote:
    I think the reason why it is difficult for me to relate to difficulties for ex. in my relationship is that these issues are unresolved in myself and hurt too
    much in my inner system. it‘s just too much to deal with it. and this too-much-ness pushes away and creates more pain in the person ‚having difficulties‘.
    step back, reflect, take back the projection and slowly deepen my understanding of my own painful parts, thats healing.
    love
    simon

    1 reply: Liz | Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 26, 2019 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
    It is not easy to accept difficultchanges and adverse circumstances happening in life. Instead of grumbling and complaining or avoiding and averting or denying I need to understand them and accept them. I have learned to look at such changes with clear eyes, open mind and open heart. Such circumstances do cause pain. They can cause fear or despair. The pain may turn into suffering. It is up to me how to relate to them. I have learned not to react to them but tokindly and compassionately pay attention to them, understand them and take constructive steps to work through them. As I am getting old I run into many kinds of difficult changes such as increasing pain in certain parts of my body, decreasing energy and not being able to have restful sleep and people whom I love passing away. These are big changes. I relate to them by accepting them gracefully. Difficulties are teachers. I have learned many lessons by keeping my mind curious and my heart open. It is how I relate to them make a bi... [View Full Comment] It is not easy to accept difficultchanges and adverse circumstances happening in life. Instead of grumbling and complaining or avoiding and averting or denying I need to understand them and accept them. I have learned to look at such changes with clear eyes, open mind and open heart. Such circumstances do cause pain. They can cause fear or despair. The pain may turn into suffering. It is up to me how to relate to them. I have learned not to react to them but tokindly and compassionately pay attention to them, understand them and take constructive steps to work through them.
    As I am getting old I run into many kinds of difficult changes such as increasing pain in certain parts of my body, decreasing energy and not being able to have restful sleep and people whom I love passing away. These are big changes. I relate to them by accepting them gracefully.
    Difficulties are teachers. I have learned many lessons by keeping my mind curious and my heart open. It is how I relate to them make a big difference. Maturity has helped me to make wise choices.
    Namaste!
    Jagdish P Dave










    accepting them mindfully. I am grateful to my loving and caring family and friends for looking after me and lovingly taking care of me.
    Difficulties are teachers.They teach me an important lesson of life. Life changes. Nothing is permanent. I have learned to accept this universal truth gracefully and live life as fully as I can.














    [Hide Full Comment]

    1 reply: Liz | Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 26, 2019 David Doane wrote:
    We have too much of a get rid of difficulties mentality and would benefit from having more of an attitude of what's this difficult circumstance about and what can I learn from it. In our druggized society, we drug feelings we don't want out of existence rather than listen to them -- they are the result of a way of being and are signaling us to examine our way of being and be different. The times I have listened to my anxiety and depression rather than drugging them into oblivion, I've learned to increase accepting and being myself. What helps me learn from difficulties is knowing that difficulties are also lessons to learn from and problems are opportunities. Those are cliches that are true. Nietszche said that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger. It helps me to know that if difficulties don't kill me or I don't kill myself, I can learn and grow from them.

    3 replies: Amy, Liz, Judith | Post Your Reply

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