Sequoia sempervirens – Humboldt County, California
Inquiring Mind: Julia, did you have any connection to Buddhism when you began sitting in your tree?
Julia Butterfly Hill: Not much. I was raised with a traveling preacher for a father, and we lived in a 31-foot camping trailer that we pulled behind our car, going from church to church throughout the Midwest and South. In my early teens I became disgusted with what I saw as profound hypocrisies in Christianity and with a tradition that really didn’t allow me to be honored as a woman, other than the role I might play for a man.
For a while I thought I didn’t believe in God, and then I realized I was angry at God. But how can you be angry at something you don’t believe in? [Laughs.] Eventually I began to study different religious traditions, including Buddhism, and I started taking little pieces from many of them. But I didn’t really embrace any spirituality until I was up in the tree, when everything—my mind, my body, my heart, my spirit—was completely broken. At that point I started asking myself, How can I make every moment an act of meditation? That was the only thing that was going to allow me to survive. And now that’s the way I try to live my whole life.
One of my practices is to get up in the morning and sit. In my meditation space I have different sacred objects that people have given me, including a little amber bracelet from Ajahn Pasanno. While I’m sitting, I pick an intention for the day based on where I am feeling some weakness or need. So on days when my heart is hurting, I’ll choose to be focused on love. On days when I’m feeling shy and withdrawn, I’ll meditate on connecting with people. I set the intention and then try to live that day with that intention as my meditative practice.
IM: Did you make that practice up or did you read about it somewhere?
JBH: I think it came partly from my reading, partly from my life experiences, and partly from my experiences in nature. I’ve found that all faith-based traditions have a way to tap into sacred wisdom and interconnection, and one fairly common path is through nature. So after I came down from the tree, people were telling me that my spiritual practices were just like tai chi, or just like tonglen [the Tibetan practice of giving and receiving], and I thought to myself, “Wow! My tree taught me all that.”
AP: Julia, you are now out on the road a lot, trying to encourage people to focus on protecting the life of the planet. But I live in a monastery in Northern California, which is to some degree in a cultural and political bubble. From what I read and sense about the current social climate in America [in 2005], people are caught up in a lot of fear. Is that your experience?
JBH: Yes, the common language being spoken is often one of fear. So I am trying to be a holistic practitioner, and my medicine is the language of love, which creates a space where all people can sit down together. Our world is literally dying for us to become emissaries of love, and that love has to be based in every thought, every word, every action. I’ve been blessed to see real miracles happen in that space. But when I fall out of my center and begin thinking of a lot of four-letter words—none of them love—you can bet I don’t have nearly as much success.