Fire Wisdom

Smokey Sunset

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. 

Passion, Heat, and Nirvana

When passions heat, learn to spiritually stop, drop and roll

Fresno Bee, August 29, 2014

We live in a flammable world.  Wildfires scorch the countryside. Anger boils over in the streets. Proverbial powder kegs are hidden everywhere.IMG_2402

Stability and peace are temporary in a world ruled by heat and fire.

Our language is full of fiery imagery. Plagues, protests, wars and ideas can “spread like wildfire.” Fads catch fire and take off. An interest is sparked. A torch is passed. People and ideas burn out.

Ancient civilizations viewed fire as elemental. Some Greek philosophers described the world as an eternal, living fire. The Stoics taught that the universe was periodically consumed in a cosmic conflagration.

In the Bible, God is described as a burning bush and a consuming fire. Jesus said that he had come to set fire to the earth. Christians still speak of being set ablaze by the Holy Spirit and the fire of faith. But fire is also associated with the devil. This indicates our ambivalence about fire. It is both good and evil.

The Buddhist tradition warns against playing with fire. The Buddha once said that all things are on fire: the world, the body and the mind. Liberation is found in taming passion and its pyrotechnics. Nirvana can be understood as blowing out a flame, while leaving its light.

Fire and passion can enliven and destroy. We are both masters of fire and its victims. Passion is the energy of life. But it can disrupt peace. Jealousy, resentment, infatuation and greed can smolder and burst into flames. But ambition and the “fire in the belly” give meaning and purpose to life.

Civilization is a process of domesticating both fire and passion. Homo erectus used fire more than half a million years ago. But homo sapiens used it to take over the earth. We burned forests to clear land for farms. We captured fire and controlled it, eventually learning to burn coal, gas and oil. These combustibles fueled the industrial revolution.

But dangers remain. Famous fires burned down Rome, London and San Francisco. Inflamed passions continue to spark conflict and disorder. And every fire leaves behind smoke and ash. The fires of the industrial revolution produced a smoldering climate. Passionate violence has left smoldering ruins across the world.

Fire prevention and management can provide a guide for living. Put out little fires before they blaze into raging infernos. Clear away the junk and undergrowth that can feed the flames. Prevent sparks from flying when possible. Keep a tight lid on your really flammable stuff. Make sure you know where the fire extinguisher is. And when passion flares up, take a deep breath and spiritually stop, drop and roll.

Once a fire is blazing ethical questions arise. We might attempt to fight fire with fire, as the saying goes, lighting backfires, bringing in the big guns, and unleashing awesome firepower. You may have to destroy some things in order to save others. But that is not always just or wise. Escalation is a worry, as is blowback.

Sometimes it is wise to let fires burn themselves out. A small controlled fire can consume the fuel that could cause a larger conflagration. Just as fever helps cure disease, outbursts of furious rage can burn up emotional energy.

There is some wisdom in those traditions that fear the flames of passion. But the fire in the belly is not always bad. The key is to harness our spiritual energies, just as we do with the controlled explosions of the internal combustion engine. Ambition, pride and the desire for justice need a productive outlet.

Fire and life have co-evolved. The burning sun is the source of life. And every human birth begins in hot-blooded desire. Our passion makes life interesting and worth living.

The giant sequoias provide a lesson. Their thick resilient skin keeps them standing through centuries of forest fire. Their seeds need fire to germinate. Like the sequoia, fire and passion can make us stronger and help us give birth to new growth that emerges from the flames.

Some dream of a calm, cool world. But icy equanimity can’t sustain life. We inhabit a flammable planet. Our bodies and souls are combustible. Wisdom lies in knowing when to light a flame and when to blow one out.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/08/29/4095153_ethics-when-passions-heat-learn.html?sp=/99/1355/&rh=1#storylink=cpy