The Willow, the Tortoise, and The Master: The Use of Symbolism in Positive Psychology, Mindfulness, and Self-Help


As Desdemona is preparing for bed on the night she will be murdered, she sings a song about a willow tree. In Hamlet we learn that the prince’s love, Ophelia, falls from a willow tree into a brook where she drowns. Shakespeare may have understood the willow as a symbol of loss and grief, and he was not alone. The willow tree figures prominently in mythology and literature as a symbol of both grief and healing, but also everlasting life. The willow’s regenerative properties, associated with everlasting life, probably stem from the ability of a new tree to grow from a twig pushed into moist soil. The Christian connection between rebirth, water, and the willow is thought to originate with Psalm 137, which refers to the willow as growing along the banks of the rivers in Babylon.

The pain-relieving properties of salicylic acid were documented in Greek literature as early as 500 BC, and Native Americans chewed willow bark to relieve pain, fever, rheumatism and inflammation. The willow is even featured in children’s literature by Hans Christian Andersen’s “Under the Willow Tree” and Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows.” References to the willow tree are found in Celtic Traditions that speaks to its flexibility and perseverance. The willow prefers to bend rather than to resist; a powerful metaphor for those who have learned to adapt to the changing winds of life. In the Far East, the willow is seen as a source of ancient wisdom and adaptableness. The message of the willow is to adjust with life, rather than against it, to surrender the belief in control.

In Chinese symbolism, the tortoise represents longevity and wisdom, while in Indian mythology, the tortoise is the first living creature, attributing to it both longevity and adaptability. To the Native peoples of North America, the turtle is the oldest symbol known to depict the planet Earth. In modern depiction, the tortoise has been promoted as a character of infinite patience, of profound wisdom, and of longevity. In the DreamWorks series Kung Fu Panda, the master of the Jade Temple is Oogway, the thoughtful Tai Chi master who happens to be a tortoise. The Cantonese word for Tortoise is Wugwai, which is, not surprisingly pronounced Oogway.

In mindfulness, the conscious mind is not full, but empty of all but the present. In a way, the focus is mindful of the current moment. This is most easily attained through a focus of the consciousness on the breath. Breathing is an aspect of the autonomic nervous system, which is we do not have to think about breathing, it just happens. When we move the breath from the autonomic to the intentional, and concentrate on the active breathing, we are in the moment. This sounds much easier that it actually is. We live in a world with Constant intrusions from both the past and the future, those being events, thoughts, or feelings about things in the past.

Our thoughts are also intruded upon by perceived events resulting in similar thoughts or feelings about the future. If we carefully consider the emotional aspects of these intrusions, we find that they elicit too possible responses: regret, in the form of depression, or trepidation, in the form of anxiety. The benefit of focusing on the present moment is that it is virtually impossible, with practice, for these intrusions to occur. Allow me to repeat that: with practice. The practice of mindfulness meditation, the focus on each breath, and living within the moment has the enormous health benefits that we will explore. The Willow, the Tortoise, and the Master, are all symbols of adaptability, of thoughtful consideration, and above all, of patience. These are learned skills, ones that anyone can benefit from with practice.

The reality is that these skills can be obtained with practice, and one need not become a Tai Chi Master or spend years sitting in solitude to discover these skills. One need not even be a Willow tree or even a Tortoise.

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