My eyes see the palm tree in this picture, but what my mind registers instead is this:
I must admit. I love dates.
The date fruit is insidiously sweet. I recall picking up ripe dates from the ground and devouring them during my evening walks in Saudi Arabia many years ago. They had ripened and dropped on the ground from overly generous palm trees. There were so many of them on the ground that we couldn’t avoid stepping on them. I recall how abundant they were but their delectable sweetness is not just a memory. It is a taste that still lingers.
The date palm has a tough life. It survives arid conditions all through its life – extremely hot temperatures, dry air, scarce water and plentiful dust storms. It not only survives them but actually grows, reproduces, declines and finally dies – leading a full life in these life-forbidding conditions. In doing so, it teaches a powerful lesson. A lesson not just of simply living but of life itself.
I learned from a biologist friend that a hormone called auxin coordinates and controls the growth, development and behavioral patterns of plants. It is present in all plants. But my sense is it is present in a special way in the date palm.
There are many fruits that are sweet. And there are many types of desert plants that grow in the arid climate of a desert. But the sweetness of the date fruit is unique.
Once pollination occurs and a seed begins to form, a covering grows around it. In its essential objective, the protection and nourishment this covering gives to the seed is not very different from what a mother’s womb gives to the fetus. Sure, a seed is not a fetus. But it is very much a living thing nevertheless. As the seed grows in size, the covering around it grows too changing its nutritional content to facilitate the growth of the seed which is its primary objective.
The covering is what I term as the fruit. In the date palm the fruit goes through four development stages.
Even when unripe, the date fruit tastes sweet. That is, it starts with a residual sweetness. It becomes more and more sweet as it progress through crunchy, soft and ripe and then fully ripe stages. It does all this in the face of a difficult and challenging living environment. And it does all this with the sole objective of protecting and nurturing the seed. But the seed has the same fruit latent in it, doesn’t it? The sweetness of the fruit is in the seed also. To protect and nurture its own sweetness then, the fruit grows in sweetness. It does this in an arid climate, in the face of difficulties and extreme challenges to its life.
Herein lies my lesson from the date palm:
- I must protect and nurture the prompt of prema (selfless love) within me by being more and more loving during my life. More loving in thought, in speech and in action. This basic tenet of sanatana dharma – nourish love and be nourished by it, dharmo rakshati rakshitah – is taught by the date palm.
- I must do this undaunted even in the face of trying circumstances in life.
I go through four stages in my life just as the date fruit goes through four stages in its life-span. I’m unripe in childhood, a bit “crunchy” in youth, ripe during middle-age and fully ripe during old age. Just as the date fruit starts with a residual sweetness in its unripe stage, as a child I start with a bundle of sweetness and share my love freely. But then instead of becoming more loving with age, as the date fruit does, I grow up becoming less loving. My sweetness – constructive thoughts, consoling words, compassionate actions – decreases substantially in inverse proportion to the increase in my selfishness.
The date palm has a tough life. But, undaunted, it makes it a sweet one by growing its own sweetness and sharing it.
I must learn from the date palm. I must nourish my sweetness with loving conduct. This way I can become less selfish and more loving in spite of the successes and setbacks in life.
I resolve to do this as I take the last sip from a tall cup of delicious date shake in the midst of California desert. The taste of the date shake in that scorching desert heat took me to the world of the date palm itself and taught me a cool lesson.
When I’m open to it, the universe indeed becomes the university that it really is.