During winter, the holly shrub really comes into its own. As most of the neighbouring trees and plants have shed their leaves and petals, embarking upon hibernation until spring, holly, being an evergreen shrub, becomes a striking feature amidst an often barren, winter landscape. It grows in abundance and can be found populating most towns and villages. We all know of its uses in making festive floral displays and wreathes, and that they make fine hibernation homes for the animals of the wild, but how can the humble, prickly holly shrub guide us on a metaphorical level, throughout the winter season?
One of the most distinguished features of holly is its prickly, glossy green leaves. Depending on the risk of the surrounding environment, the same holly tree can grow variations of leaves. The leaves nearer the top of the shrub and out of reach of danger tend to grow blunter, and less aggressive. But nearer the bottom, where the holly is more at risk of being eaten by wild animals or damaged by human intervention, the leaves grow pointed and sharp, safeguarding the shrub from harm.
Just like the trees and shrubs of nature, we too develop coping skills and methods of protection depending on our upbringing, life experiences, and the environment in which we live. As humans, we have a tendency to be dominated by our conscious, thinking mind, or ego. Our ego contains every thought, memory, and feeling we have ever experienced, the good and the bad, and it is from this sense of ego that we shield ourselves from both real and perceived harm. To keep us safe our ego generates a fear-based mentality which becomes the driving force behind many of our actions – and defensive behaviour inevitably follows.
How many of us behave aggressively when we feel that we are under attack? Perhaps our ideas and ethics are questioned, or our conduct is challenged? How often do we label ourselves and become deeply entrenched in our views and morality? We might feel that we always have to be right and justified, to feel superior. We have an expanded sense of the self that we must protect under any circumstances. And just like the sharp edges of the prickly holly leaf, our own methods of protection can leave a painful imprint on others.
The opposite of ego is humility, and we see humility represented in the red berries, the heart of the holly. The berries tend to grow nearer the top of the holly bush, away from environmental harm. Here they grow amongst the gentler leaves in a nurturing space where it is safe to be exposed and vulnerable. It can be hard for us to reach into our own softer nature. Most of us are raised within environments that are dominated by fear and the ego self. We are taught to be led by negative emotions of jealousy and pride, leading us to become reactive and overly defensive. We move through life in competition with others, pointing out their flaws, bringing people down to elevate our own position within our family and social group. It takes high self-esteem and self-confidence to rectify this learned behaviour, to break down our walls, and move towards a more humble existence. To cultivate the kind of love and compassion towards ourselves and others that is needed to build the foundation of a more peaceful mindset, and in time, a healthier and gentler form of protection.
To learn to nurture ourselves with kindness and compassion is one of the greatest challenges to overcome, but we need to acquire a safe and loving environment within ourselves before we are ready to journey life’s obstacles in an open and less reactive state. Through a secure foundation of self-love we can build our confidence and overcome fear, and the negative and destructive thought cycles that accompany it.
So next time you stumble across the prickly holly shrub, ask yourself about the truth of your own methods of protection. Have you built up walls over the years that safeguard you from pain? Do you project your own misgivings onto others? When people criticize you are you overly sensitive, sharp-tongued, and often volatile in your reproach?
If the answer is yes, consider the heart of the holly, visualise the soft scarlet berries and come home to your own space of vulnerability; your heart center. It is from this space that you can find your inner strength and confidence to begin a discovery of a more wholesome form of protection, an awareness where you respond to events rather than react.
Learn to take a moment to step back from what you are feeling and witness the truth of any given situation and in time you’ll come to realise that there is no longer a need to guard yourself with your own jagged, leaves of protection because the gentle, humble heart of the holly is within all of us brave enough to set aside our ego.
About the Author:
Jemma Louise Hunt is a poetic writer from South Wales, UK. She guides others in the art of Nature Connection, using the power of descriptive storytelling, poetry, and mindful invitations. Connect with her on Instagram @tales_fromawildwoman and share your own experiences using the exercises in this column