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. 

Simplicity

Simplicity

Wisdom for tumultuous times

I am happy to announce the publication of my new book, Simplicity. It is available at Amazon.com in ebook (Kindle) or paperback (either with color photos or in black and white).

This is the first volume of a planned trilogy called The Three Mountains: Simplicity, Compassion, and Hope.

The book includes insights from the world’s wisdom traditions, along with photographs from my wandering in Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada, the Alps, and the Andes.

“Things change. They always have. They always will. One day we are born. We build, create, and dream. And then one day we die. For a short while, we are privileged to explore existence with grace, kindness, and fearless acceptance.”  
Excerpt from Simplicity

Available in Three Formats

Kindle Ebook

Color Paperback

Black and White

Compassion, Simplicity, and Patience during Quarantine

Tao Simplicity Compassion Patience

Fresno Bee, March 20, 2020

In times of crisis it is natural to reassess and reprioritize. Once the initial panic subsides, let’s use our time sheltering in place as an opportunity to seek wisdom.

First and foremost, let’s learn compassion. The sick and suffering need our support, as do the isolated and afraid. This is always true. While COVID-19 clogs the headlines, cancer and other diseases have not gone away. Loneliness, depression, and other maladies may be exacerbated by C-19 restrictions. Compassion brings us together in our distress. It takes us beyond narrow self-interest. It helps us grow as we give it away.

Let’s also learn simplicity. We must find joy in living a bit closer to the ground. This is an involuntary sabbath, a sabbatical from consumer culture. A sabbatical is a time of renewal and regeneration. Let’s use this is an opportunity to learn to live a life that is simple, plain and true. Life is good, even without the chaos of consumer society.

Finally, we must learn patience. We are all anxious to get back to our lives. But anxiety undermines well-being. Let’s urge on the scientists and doctors. But a vaccine will take some time. We have to wait for the disease to run its course. While we wait, let’s cultivate the virtue of patience. We’ve lived for too long in a world of instant downloads and fast food. Patience is the ability to defer gratification and endure hardship. This is a life skill. It is closely connected to courage, perseverance, and even to love.

Compassion, simplicity, and patience were celebrated as the “three treasures” of Taoism. This ancient Chinese philosophy is useful in times of crisis. The wisdom of Taoism teaches us to be yielding, flexible, and resilient. One translation of the three jewels calls them mercy, moderation, and humility. Another translation speaks of love, unpretentiousness, and modesty.

Whatever we call them, these three virtues are essential in a time of crisis. And even in ordinary times, it is wise to be merciful, mellow, and moderate.

Without compassion, we end up isolated and alone. In a crisis, there is a tendency to think that it is “every man for himself.” But this only makes things worse by increasing loneliness, conflict, and fear. Compassion is the root of human connection. Others need our support just as we need theirs. We are all in this together.

If we do not value simplicity, we will bristle at the restrictions imposed upon us in this crisis. Anger and resentment are not helpful. Even in times of crisis, plain and primary goods can be found. Without simplicity, we fail to find contentment in what we have. Right now we can enjoy humor and friendship, natural beauty and art, music and knowledge.

Finally, patience allows us to endure hardship without losing hope. Without patience, we act rashly and without foresight. In a crisis, quick decisions are important. But quick action must not lose sight of the long run. Panicked reactions make things worse. Fortitude, persistence, and hope makes things better.

These three treasures are always valuable. But they are easily forgotten in the frantic pace of what we call ordinary life. Our culture encourages individualism at the expense of solidarity. It glorifies consumption and wealth. It teaches us to be intolerant and unkind.

Let’s learn from the present crisis to live better when things get back to normal. Or better yet, let’s imagine a new normal. For a while now, it has seemed that our way of life has been unbalanced. For too long, we have lived at a furious pace. The planet is groaning under the weight of human consumption. Our social lives have become fragmented. Our political life is polarized. The truth has been lost under blizzards of bull. Our physical and mental health suffers from a life out of balance.

This mandatory pause in ordinary life—our viral sabbatical—is an opportunity to re-balance things and build better habits. Let’s learn to enjoy simple goods and reduce over-consumption. Let’s work to develop patience and forbearance. Let’s learn to care better for the sick and the suffering. And let’s view this crisis as an opportunity to unearth the treasures of wisdom.

Choose the simple life

Living in harmony with the Earth is a matter of simplicity

Fresno Bee, April 21, 2017

 

The recipe for living in harmony with the Earth is simple. We should reduce consumption and minimize our impact on the ecosystem. This is not easy to do in a culture of mass consumption.

We enjoy fast cars and air travel. We fill our large houses with manufactured goods. We have closets full of clothes, garages full of toys and an appetite for imported foods. We like comfort and pleasure.

Consumer culture is fun. Our economy is based upon the expectation of continued growth. New gadgets and gizmos create needs we didn’t know we had before. Marketing and promotion manufacture desires and leave us wanting more. It is hard to say no to consumption when everyone else is enjoying the goods of consumer society.

It is counter-cultural to talk about decreasing consumption. But simplicity has long been advocated by prophets and philosophers as a pathway to liberation. As an added bonus, a simple life is also good for the environment.

MARKETING AND PROMOTION MANUFACTURE DESIRES AND LEAVE US WANTING MORE.
IT IS HARD TO SAY NO TO CONSUMPTION
WHEN EVERYONE ELSE IS ENJOYING THE GOODS OF CONSUMER SOCIETY.

Thoreau and simplicity

In the American tradition, Henry David Thoreau is the great advocate of simplicity. Thoreau thought that enlightenment grew from simplification. He claimed that civilized people would “leave off eating animals.” He said, “water is the only drink for a wise man.” He thought that we often live like ants, our lives being “frittered away by details.” The solution is simplicity – a word that he repeated as a mantra in his book “Walden.”

It turns out that the vegetarian diet that Thoreau advocated is also environmentally friendly. Reduced meat consumption decreases the size of your carbon footprint. The same is true with regard to other exotic foods. Coffee, alcohol and imported foods have ecological costs.

Thoreau was not in favor of eating as a recreational activity. We eat more than we need to survive. Extravagant variety makes for delicious dining. But this is not healthy for us or for the planet. Obesity, diabetes and heart disease are problems, as well as climate change.

The solution is to realize that what’s good for the body is also what’s good for the planet and for society. Simple foods – raw and local fruits and vegetables – are nutritious. Vegetarian cuisine can be delicious – and fun.

There is adventure in experimenting with the variety of meatless foods. Sharing with others can spice up our lives. Happy dining has less to do with what you eat than with who you eat it with.

Walking or biking

Another Earth-friendly step is to drive less. Driving is easier and often more convenient. But there is adventure in riding the bus, including an opportunity to have more intimate contact with people in your community.

A walk or bike ride is good for the heart and the mind. Walking and biking show you the the world from a different perspective and a different pace. Broaden your horizons by leaving your car at home.

We can also reduce our use of consumer goods. Big homes inspire us to fill them. Big-box stores encourage mass consumption. And big cars are perfectly constructed to carry all of that stuff back home.

A WALK OR BIKE RIDE IS GOOD FOR THE HEART AND THE MIND.
WALKING AND BIKING SHOW YOU THE THE WORLD FROM A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE AND A DIFFERENT PACE. BROADEN YOUR HORIZONS BY LEAVING YOUR CAR AT HOME.

But there are activities other than shopping that can provide satisfaction. Have a picnic or visit a park. Join a sports league. Participate with a political group. Or visit a library. You’ll make new friends, learn new things and see the world in a different way. You will also save money.

Consumer capitalism provides pleasure. But it does not produce lasting happiness or a good life. Technological innovation makes some things easier. But there are diminishing returns. Cars are great. But traffic soon becomes a problem. Email is great, until we experience inbox overload. Easy access to delicious food is wonderful. But obesity and diabetes are dangerous. And so it goes.

Inner peace and spiritual growth cannot be generated by external means. This is the common teaching of the world’s philosophical and religious traditions. Simplicity was taught by ancient Greek philosophers, Asian sages and Christian ascetics.

Our consumer culture is not sustainable in the long run. There will be 8.5 billion people on Earth by 2030. We can’t all live as mass consumers. But we would be happier if we would reduce consumption. And the Earth would benefit if we would learn to find satisfaction in simple things.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article145900294.html