Are You Watering the Fruit Tree?

The Practice

Tend to the causes.


Let's say you want to get apples from a tree of your own. So you go to a nursery and pick a good sapling, bring it home, and plant it carefully with lots of fertilizer in rich soil. Then you water it regularly, pick the bugs off, and prune it. If you keep tending to your tree, in a few years it will likely give you lots of delicious apples.

But can you make it produce apples? Nope, you can't. All you can do is tend to the causes - but you can't control the results. No one can. The most powerful person in the world can't make a tree hand over an apple!

Similarly, a teacher cannot make his students learn long division, a business owner can't make her employees invent great new products, and no one can make another person love him or her. All we can do is to nourish the causes that promote the results we want.

This truth has two implications, one that is tough-minded, and one that is peaceful:

  • You are responsible for the causes you can tend to. If you are not getting the results you want in your life, ask yourself: Am I truly doing everything I reasonably can to promote the causes of those results?
  • You can relax attachment to results. When you understand that much of what determines whether they happen or not is just out of your hands, you worry less about whether they'll happen, and you suffer less if they don't.

Paradoxically, focusing less on results and more on causes improves the odds of getting the results you want: you zero in on creating the factors (i.e., causes and conditions) that naturally lead to success, and you aren't worn down by stressing over the outcome.


Do what you can to lift your well-being and overall functioning. This is a global factor that will turbocharge all the other causes you tend to.

So ask yourself: what makes the most difference here? It could be something that seems little; for me, one of the biggest factors is when I get to bed, since that sets up whether I can get up to meditate in the morning, which transforms my whole day. It could also mean dropping something negative that brings you way down, like needless arguments with other people.

Pick one thing that will really lift you, and focus on that this week.

  • Also consider a key area in your life where you are not getting the results you want. (Work? Love? Health? Fun? Spirituality?) In that area, identify one cause that has big effects.

For example, in a logjam, there's usually a "key log" that will free up the whole mess if you get it to move. Similarly, if you want to fill a bucket, put the biggest rock in first.

Making this real: if you want to lose weight, make sure you are exercising; if you want a mate, make sure you're meeting new, "qualified prospects"; if you want your kids to cooperate, make sure you've established parental authority; if you want a better job, make sure you're actively looking for one; if you want more peace of mind, make sure you're routinely relaxing and calming your body.

Get after that one cause this week, and stick with it.

  • Tell the truth to yourself about causes and results: Are you pursuing the right causes? For example, you may be pulling really hard on a rope (a cause) but it's just not attached to the load you're trying to move (the result you want).

Maybe you need to tend to other causes - perhaps ones at a deeper level, like your own well-being. Or maybe the result you want is out of your power, and you just have to accept that.

  • Let the results be what they are, learn from them, and then turn your attention back to causes. Don't get so caught up in your apples that you forget to water their tree!

©2010, Rick Hanson

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As they say in Tibet, if you take care of the minutes,
the years will take care of themselves.

Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha's Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom with Rick Mendius and Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA who received his doctorate from the Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA, he founded the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, edits the Wise Brain Bulletin, and writes a blog for as well as a weekly newsletter called Just One Thing; his articles have also appeared in Tricycle Magazine, Insight Journal, Inquiring Mind, and Buddhist Geeks on-line magazine. He teaches regularly at universities and meditation centers in Europe, Australia, and North America, and has audio programs with Sounds True. Rick began meditating in 1974 and has practiced in several traditions; he was a board member at Spirit Rock Meditation Center for nine years and is a graduate of its Community Dharma Leaders program. He leads a regular meditation gathering in San Rafael, CA. Currently a Trustee of Saybrook University, he was also President of the Board of FamilyWorks, a non-profit agency. He and his wife have two adult children.

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