“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns,
or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”
Among the many observations of the dichotomy of roses, this summation is more articulate than most (ahem, Poison). The comparison resonates—we are all capable of deep, abiding love, though shallowness, insecurity, paranoia, or prejudice can also motivate our behavior. As much as I agree with the above sentiment, however, I consider the outsider perspective limited—meaning not representative of why said bushes have both thorns and roses.
Flowers exist for the sake of reproduction. Thorns truly exist not as illustrations of duality, but rather as guardians. Thorns exemplify the importance, indeed the necessity, of protecting something precious, something both beautiful and functional. For all the delicacy of rose petals, their stem has a opposing set of unapologetic blades.
Moreover, this protection is sophisticated enough not to obstruct pollinators. Bees, moths, butterflies, and other insects, not to mention bats, hummingbirds and more, simply transcend thorns. Practically, the latter doesn’t exist for the formers. Thorns defend against intruders, such as large, clumsy (relative to pollinators) humans.
And…so what that thorns are equally essential to a flower as petals? Apt analogy precisely because we are so often urged to ignore our justified thorny inclinations—ones similar to the actual purpose of thorns. For years I tolerated disrespect and cruelty simply because I believed exclusion was impolite and therefore inappropriate. Thorns remind me that self-protection is both natural and warranted.
I endeavor to protect myself as nonabrasively as possible, though I still encounter criticism:
“Stephanie, you’re a yogi. Aren’t you supposed to be open-minded?” (I agree the debate is important—and I like reminders.)
Another variation: “Aren’t [open-minded] yogis not supposed to dislike anyone?” Maybe the renunciates who live in caves don’t. But they hardly know anyone. The reality is more nuanced for people who live in the rest of the world.
Equating discernment with prejudice is not only inaccurate, but powerfully (yet subtly) rife for manipulation—that protection stems from close-mindedness, rather than wisdom. This perspective claims that functional discrimination is an oxymoron.
I disagree. Judgement can be functional and even compassionate. Just as thorns grow to protect something precious, so too can necessary, right protection exist.
Many wise traditions, texts, and teachers endeavor to instruct how to distinguish—with full mindfulness and precision, without attachment. The world is not wholly loving—hence the importance of knowing what is not nourishing or compassionate. We must be shrewd enough to recognize these qualities in order to perpetuate them.
This interpretation doesn’t obligate me to embrace toxic people and situations. Instead, I should hone my discernment, in the hopes of minimizing those circumstances. But love and discernment are not mutually exclusive—I can maintain respect and tolerance without subjecting myself to unloving dynamics from others. I gladly limit my exposure to people/situations/ideas I consider harmful, based on my evaluation, rather than on insecurity. For example, I specifically ignore certain news outlets if I find the discourse purely inflammatory.
In contrast to Lincoln’s example, we tend not to regard cactus thorns as yang to yin (fewer overt flowers). I know firsthand (no pun intended) the effectiveness of thorns—while hiking with a friend several years ago, I fell onto some cacti. My palm looked like a pincushion. I winced as we tweezed the dozens of tiny, fragile-looking thorns from my hand. Once finished, I reached for my backpack. Then I screamed in pain. Upon second glance, a tiny nub protruded between my thumb and index finger. Using a pocketknife, we managed to edge the thorn out, though not before inadvertently shoving it further into my palm. Screaming would have distracted my focus; I ended up gasping and trying not to feel dizzy. Finally, we withdrew a thorn as long as my palm’s width. As mentioned already, not everything is supposed to share space.
A few years later, I visited the cholla gardens in Joshua Tree National Park. History nearly repeated itself—I stepped too close to a hunk of cholla on the ground. Though my shoe barely brushed it, the thorns easily pierced the rubber, and then my foot even more easily. The puncture was shallow but nevertheless intimidating.
I first viewed the chollas through an irritated gaze. Yet almost immediately, I found them as as arresting as the rest of the park. Their tightly-clustered thorns make the cacti’s surface look fuzzy and slightly less solid. They also diffuse light, making the fuzzy surface glow. The chollas are exquisite not in spite of, but rather because of, their thorns.
I try to manifest love every day—in my spiritual practice, my work, my relationships, my creative efforts. That intention also encompasses my desire to manifest love with those who don’t reciprocate, even if they never acknowledge or appreciate my attempts. Hefty goals (I have others), and I don’t claim mastery. But I couldn’t stay inspired otherwise.
Before I allowed myself to nurture my thorns, I couldn’t consistently identify who and what belonged in my life. As a result, I was overly protective, with boundaries that impeded everyone. Now that I guard that which is sacred, functional, beautiful, I can also surrender to those aligned with it. Accordingly, I feel no hesitation (or, by extension, guilt) for limiting access for everything else.
I used to fear vulnerability—I likened it to intrusion, an invasion of something not-me. But by that rationale, pollinators trespass into flowers. Whereas in truth, the pollinators fulfill the purpose of flowers. Now I trust the right people will continue to transcend the protection I utilize, as though it’s not even there. (In my life, those people don’t necessarily make logical sense—but Br’er Rabbit belonged in the briar patch, after all.)
And so my intuition functions both as thorns and petals—the ultimate guide, both versatile and specialized. The sacred, functional, beautiful people who facilitate my highest intentions move seamlessly, effortlessly, fluently. I welcome the cross-pollination of my potential and recognize that protecting it creates another form of fierce beauty.
∞ Thanks as always to Eli Reiman, who found in his library exactly what I needed.
SK © 2012