The Bonsai Tree

Jul 24, 2012   //   by Steve Wooding   //   A Slice of Lemon, Articles  //  2 Comments

IN SHORT: Is your life all it should be, or just a miniature of what it could be?

“Most people live, whether physically, intellectually or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make use of a very small portion of their possible consciousness, and of their soul’s resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole bodily organism, should get into a habit of using and moving only his little finger. Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed.”
[William James, 19th/20th-century American Psychologist, Philosopher & Author]

 [1145 words, estimated reading time 6-10 mins]

I was prompted to revisit some of my older articles after a couple of experiences, including catching part of a TV programme showing mothers who push their children from an early age into so-called ‘beauty pageants’ and other activities, and a conversation about people who are famous only for being famous. I found this one from 5 years ago…

For those who’ve not come across Bonsai trees before, or if you just need a gentle reminder, they are, in essence, carefully cultivated miniature versions of their much larger outdoor cousins, and they’re grown from the same seeds or nuts too, so it’s nothing to do with where you start from that makes the difference between a ‘proper’ tree and a Bonsai.

What makes a tree a Bonsai is what’s done to it as it grows.

Bonsais are planted in shallow basins, with their main root, the taproot, that normally anchors a tree into the ground, cut off so that it will fit into the basin.

As they grow, other roots and branches are cut off or pruned too, and leaves and buds pinched as they develop. Sometimes branches are trained using splints or wires to make them grow in particularly aesthetic ways – the whole point of growing a Bonsai is that it should be visually pleasing.

And they are – if you get a chance to take a good look at one, they’re quite beautiful.

However, I’d like to pose a fairly deep question here:

What is the purpose of a tree?


I know, there are a multitude of answers you could give here, some to do with the survival of the tree itself and its species, some related to its role in local and even global ecology, some to the way its wood can be used to build and create, and perhaps some a little more ethereal, about digging deep, reaching wide and growing tall.

The one I want to focus on though is related to how it all begins. Take an acorn for example. Within it lies all the genetic information and starting ingredients for a future as a great oak tree. In a nutshell (pun intended) the acorn IS an oak tree, just not yet.

Given good soil, rain, light and air, the acorn cannot help but become what it always potentially was – an oak tree. In nature, this happens all the time and there are some famous trees, the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest for example, that are anything up to 1000 years old. Others have grown and later become church doors, dining tables and chairs, house frames, boat hulls and many other useful things.

The Bonsai tree, however, serves no purpose other than to look good.

It has, through careful and regular attention, been prevented from becoming what it should have been, purely for the pleasure of its ‘owner’.

Now I’d like you to take a mental survey of the people you know – family, friends, colleagues – then out into wider circles, to those you’re aware of – celebrities and other famous people.

And then take an honest, rosy-tint-less view of yourself and your own life.

Some of the lives you’ve touched on will be authentic, lived in the process of becoming what they were always supposed to be. Others, however, will be ‘bonsai’ lives, lives which look great and fit well with the current expectations of society, culture and fashion but serve no deeper purpose than looking good or fitting in. Or, perhaps more insidiously, they’re lives that have been force-fitted by well-meaning or even abusive parents, partners, governments or religious or even educational institutions.

There will be some that are in-between, perhaps your own life the easiest to spot, with areas that are truly authentic and other areas that have been ‘bonsai’-ed, either by other people up until now, or by yourself with the splints and wires of your own limiting beliefs and conflicting values, ruthlessly pruning those roots that delved too deep and branches that reached too far towards things that you were unsure of your worth to attain, or to places you feared to go.

The paradox is that a life lived in a good environment with support and resources that allow nature to take its course cannot fail to become what it was supposed to be in an almost effortless manner; to ‘bonsai’ a life takes takes much more effort – repeated attention and restriction, usually beginning with those who looked after us or had authority over us as children (whether intentional or not, the effect is the same), and then by ourselves as we carry on their work long after those parts of their influence should have faded and been left behind.

And the sharpest tool in the bonsai kit is fear…

So to our challenge:

You’ll need a good half an hour to an hour to do this effectively, and then however long it takes you to work through what you choose to do as a result!

  • Take a good look as as many aspects of your life as you can. There will be some where you feel ‘on purpose’, which you enjoy and which you often lose yourself in, when time passes without you noticing and when all else seems less important or relevant. And there will be some where you feel that despite knowing you could or wanting to, somehow you also feel you’re holding yourself back or shying away from it and haven’t been able to grasp the success you know deep down you’re capable of, either because of something within you, or because you’re just fitting in with what you think others expect of you, despite knowing you’re capable of and wanting much more.
  • From the first category, promise yourself that you’ll make more time and space in your life for them, to let your roots delve even deeper and branches reach further and higher. Think about how you can do that and take action!
  • From the second category, pick the one area that, if you were to sort it out, would make the most difference to your life. Now promise yourself that you’ll take action on it to grow those roots and branches that should have been there all along. Perhaps you’ll need some one-to-one coaching, or a training course, or maybe just opening up and talking to someone who you trust to listen to you and advise positively (i.e. not just a shoulder to cry on!). It could, however, require more serious action, such as getting out of a situation or ending a relationship that’s causing the restrictions. Whatever it is, taking that action will be the start of a new growth spurt in your life.

A life lived just to fit in or look good or a life lived in fear has no long-term purpose at all and is ultimately small.

Me, I want to live a life that has meaning and purpose that last longer than my few years on this earth. What about you?

Delve deeper, spread wider, reach higher.

Be authentic.


  • Good article….make a way for me to link it to my facebook 🙂

  • Howdy!

    If you click on the blue ‘share & bookmark’ button at the end of the article, you’ll get a set of options that include sharing it via Facebook…


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