Seeing The Crooked Tree As Straight

We often try to change other people to be the person we expect them to be. Although it might be out of concern for the other person, trying to change them might ruin our relationship with them. Sometimes we are so fixated on changing other people that we forget to check on ourselves instead.

Gregg Krech shares a Zen story about the importance of accepting other people the way they are: seeing the crooked tree as straight.

Nick: I want to touch on something you mentioned in your course on the website, That's seeing the crooked tree as straight. It's about how we try and solve our problems by fixing other people.

You have this metaphor or this example of seeing the crooked tree as straight. So would you like to explain that?

Gregg: Yeah, I'll see if I can do the condensed version, it comes from a  Zen story about Zen monk named Ikkyu. He was travelling through a province in Japan and the governor of that province had put up a sign in front of this very gnarly, crooked large tree that was growing.

It's the kind of tree if you've ever seen; trees that are on the coast by the water that has been sculpted by the winds and the rains. It was just an incredibly sculpted and crooked tree.

He put up a sign saying that anybody who can see this tree as straight, will win a prize. All these people would see the sign and they would look at the tree and they walk around it to try to look at it from a different angle, they would think there must be someplace where you can stand where you can see that this tree is straight.

Some people would lay down under the tree, one person actually went home and brought a ladder back to try to climb up to the crown of the tree and look down on it. But when Ikkyu came by, he was a Zen monk, he looked at the tree.

In a moment he left and he went right to the governor's mansion. And he said: "I need to see the governor because I have the answer to the riddle, and I'm here for my prize." The Governor was a little sceptical and he said, "Well , tell me. How did you see the crooked tree as straight?"

 And Ikkyu looked at him and just said "It's crooked." And that's the answer to the riddle. So what does that mean? In the piece that I wrote, I talked about what that means in terms of our human relationships with others.

When we see people, everybody looks crooked in the sense that everybody's got their faults, everybody's got their problems and limitations and there are all these people in our lives and we see how they're living and we think, why don't they just get their act together? Why don't they just, you know, do this or do that? We don't understand why they just can't get their act together and live a good life like I am; like we are.

So we see all these people as crooked, and we put a lot of energy into trying to straighten them out. We do that by talking to them and telling them what they need to do. We counsel them uninvited, we send them emails about it.

So we put a lot of our energy into trying to fix and straighten up other people who we see as crooked. Of course, they're doing the same thing with other people. What we don't realize is that everybody who's in my little forest around me, they see me as crooked.

So we're all trying to straighten each other out. Ikkyu's response of how you see the tree as straight, is by just saying, seeing that it's crooked, is a way of basically just accepting the crookedness of the tree in the sense that there's nothing to be fixed.

This is the nature of the tree. This is how it is, there's nothing to fix about it. It's fine the way it is and as I say fixed, but often we're trying to fix people in a way that we are trying to be compassionate.

We love these people, we want them to have better lives. We want to rescue them from some of the suffering that they're going through, which we feel is unnecessary because they didn't make good decisions.

If we could just stop trying to fix people, stop trying to rescue them from their nature and we could accept them. It would create all of this now freed up space for us to just love them. 

I had this experience with my mother, she passed away about five years ago, but my mother spent a lot of time complaining about everything. I remember being in the car with her once, she lived in Chicago and I was visiting her. We were driving back.

She loved horse races and thoroughbred racing at the racetrack. So I had gone with her when we were driving back, and the whole ride back it was just one complaint after another.

Finally, I looked at her and I said "You know, mom, you complain a lot." And she looked at me, she gave me this look out of her eyes and couldn't put it into words. And she said, "Maybe I like complaining."

I had this little lightbulb go off, this little epiphany that her complaining wasn't a problem for her. It was my problem and I didn't need to fix her complaining. It wasn't my job to get her to be a non-complaining human being.

She was very comfortable being who she was -- so she was a crooked tree, she was very comfortable with her crookedness. The problem was, I needed to be able to be comfortable with her crookedness.

That little moment helped me do that. It helped me drop a lot of my efforts, not all of them, but a lot of my efforts to try to get her to change in the way that I thought would be good for her.

And as a result, when I stopped trying to fix her, we had a much better relationship. It improved significantly, in terms of just being able to concentrate on what I can do to be a loving son towards my mom.

So that was a wonderful gift at that particular moment. It was very much in line with what I think Ikkyu was saying in this story.