The Sierra Nevada is blazing. Smoke chokes our lungs here in the shadow of these burning mountains. Yesterday we learned that a friend’s house burned down, another victim of the Creek Fire near Shaver Lake.
What wisdom can we learn from fire and smoke? Fire is a terrifying force of nature. It is also a metaphor. Pandemics burn. Violence flares up in the streets. Some warn that the bridges of democracy are being torched. Each day brings a new conflagration.
The ancients saw fire as a primal force. Fire cults gave birth to religion. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush. Ancient worship included burnt offerings and smoking incense.
The Greek sage Heraclitus gave voice to a fire philosophy. He said the cosmos is an “ever-living fire.” Everything changes. The eternal fire burns all things. This fiery wisdom reveals the cold, dark truth of mortality.
The Greek word for fire (πῦρ or pyr) is the root of our word “pyre.” The funeral pyre purges and purifies, returning ashes to ashes. Fire transforms mortal flesh into smoke and wind.
Fire destroys. But it also gives birth. Fire is essential to the forest’s life. It clears the undergrowth and fertilizes the soil. The seeds of the mighty sequoia only germinate after a fire. The bark of the sequoia bears the marks of prehistoric flames.
Climate change accelerates this cycle. The ponderosa pines have been destroyed by the tiny bark beetle. Drought and death have reduced these forests to kindling. The hot winds of a feverish climate fan the flames.
Wind is another metaphor and element. Wind is breath. But wind is duplicitous. It can blow flames out or encourage their growth. The same is true of breath. Breath is life and laughter. But breath gives voice to angry words and hateful curses.
Wisdom teaches us to control the breath and to inhale clear air from above the fuming haze. Watching your breath teaches patience and tenacity. Someday the winds will change.
Someday these ashes will give birth to new growth. Fire wisdom takes the long view. The life cycle of a sequoia is measured in centuries. Forests span millennia.
The big picture offers some consolation. But what about today? Wisdom teaches us to tend the fires that nourish us. Fire can be a friend. As darkness falls and the cold settles in, a campfire reassures. The hearth provides a place to gather and dwell. There is comfort in keeping the home fires burning.
But an errant spark can burn down the house. Fire is dangerous when it blazes out of control. That is why we protect our fires from the wind. Fire explodes when the wind blows uncontrolled. This is also a metaphor.
The Buddha said everything is burning. The senses are on fire, he said, as is the mind. Suffering arises when the flames of the spirit are fanned by ragged hyperventilating and breathless passion. Negative emotions burn the soul and fuel terrible explosions.
Anger and resentment grow along with violence and fear. These flames are scorching our social world today. We need to moderate our breathing and keep the sparks of hate away from the powder kegs.
These Sierra fires are flashing a warning. We have grown too fast. We live too furiously. We burn too brightly. Our breathing is shallow and feverish. Life is out of balance. The world is on fire.
The solution is containment and prevention. A forest fire cannot be quenched. It can only be contained. The same is true of pandemics and of violence. Control the burn. Keep kindling and flame safely apart. Breathe from the belly.
This is a simple lesson taught by ancient sages. Control the negative emotions that incinerate the spirit. Watch your breath. Conserve your fuel. And tend your hearth.
We should also discover the cooling balm of compassion. This fiery world contains too much mourning. Let’s comfort the grieving. And hold fast to patient hope. The winds will shift. The rains will come. The smoke will clear. And someday these ashes will give birth.