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. 

Wisdom and Courage, Hygiene and Hope

Fresno Bee, August 16, 2020

This is a frustrating fall.

The back-to-school season is usually an optimistic time full of new ideas, new projects and new friends. But this year students are stuck at home. Football is canceled. There is unemployment and social unrest. Our leaders fail to inspire. And the pandemic rages on.

We need courage and wisdom to persevere. In times of crisis, philosophical insight provides consolation. The world’s wisdom traditions share a common message of moderation and self-control.

It helps to have a realistic view of the universe and our place within it. The Buddha taught that life is full of suffering. The Greeks said, “all men are mortal.” This means we should abandon wishful thinking. There is no miracle cure for the human condition. Even the best of us has feet of clay. Great empires collapse. Life includes loss. And nothing lasts forever.

Our current troubles are not unique. History shows that corruption and incompetence are commonplace. Thousands of years ago, Plato described the social and political world as a ship of fools. Selfish and ignorant people struggle for power. Virtuous people are thrown overboard. This has always been true. Our present struggles are par for the course.

But some stability can be found, even in a storm. Hygiene provides a key. The word “hygiene” comes from a Greek word linked to health, harmony, and balance.

The pandemic has given us a simple recipe for staying healthy. Keep your hands clean. Keep your face covered. And stay away from other people. This routine is also a useful metaphor for living well.

Physical health matters. Wash your hands, get some exercise, and eat a balanced diet. But “keeping your hands clean” is also a moral idea. The Bible links cleans hands to a pure heart. The Stoics said that it’s better to have clean hands than full ones.

Masking is another moral metaphor. A mask is a sign of modesty. Modest people keep themselves appropriately concealed. It is especially important to cover your mouth. Don’t chew with your mouth open. Don’t let your lips flap and your tongue wag. In fact, it is best to keep your mouth shut most of the time. In the Taoist tradition, a sage is pictured as someone who speaks without moving her lips.

Social distancing is also healthy and wise. A virus can infect you. But so too can dumb ideas and bad habits. Solitude is a source of enlightenment. Solitude is not loneliness. Lonely people remain obsessed with other people. But you are not alone when you are one with the universe. You don’t have to be a monk to understand that it is often better to mind your own business.

Wisdom involves knowing who and what to ignore. It also demands that we pay attention. Compassion, love, and justice are crucial. But human beings have limited capacities and even love must be balanced with self-preservation. Be kind to strangers. But you can’t save everyone. And the world won’t change overnight.

Sometimes, when things are really going badly, it is wise to abandon ship. Loyalty is important. But it can be an anchor that holds you down.

Speaking of anchors, another lesson must be considered — the lesson of hope. Anchors are symbols of hope. Wisdom reminds us that the present crisis won’t last forever. But it’s not clear that we’ll ever return to “normal.” Hope is not an anchor that preserves the normal. It is also a sail that leads beyond the horizon.

A wise hope recognizes that the future is up to us. There are no utopias. But you can improve your own life. The Stoics teach you to focus on mastering your own attitude and effort. Progress depends upon energy and intention. No one else can live your life. To excel at anything, you have to practice. So stop blaming others and cursing the wind. In order to get anywhere you have to get to work.

These kinds of lessons are not taught in the formal school curriculum. But these are the kinds of lessons we need these days. The crisis in our republic is real. The ship of fools is foundering. We all need wisdom to help us ride this storm.

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

Seeking wisdom in dark times

Fresno Bee, January 5, 2020

This past year, things got foggy. We were confused by fake news and conspiracy theories. We had a hard time seeing beyond partisan division. A kind of spiritual darkness – racism, hate, greed, and anger – lurked in the shadows. Let’s hope that in 2020, we can see more clearly and spread more light.

The goal of the Western philosophical tradition is enlightenment. Immanuel Kant, the great German thinker, said that we should “dare to be wise.” Enlightenment requires us to have the courage to think for ourselves.

Enlightenment is not simply another word for knowledge. Knowledge grew in amazing ways during the past decade. But it is not clear that we are more enlightened.

We have probed into deep space and into the subatomic realm. We know how to edit DNA and make clones. We have discovered planets orbiting distant suns. Human spacecraft visited Pluto and left the solar system. We have learned more about evolution and the history of life. We also understand the perilous impact of human development on the climate and our planet’s ecosystem.

SEEKING WISDOM

But what good is all of this knowledge without a moral compass and an engaged wisdom? Wisdom situates knowledge within a larger context. Ethical insight leads us to do good with our knowledge.

Philosophers have long worried about knowledge that lacks ethics and wisdom. Bertrand Russell, one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, warned that knowledge without “comprehensive vision” is dangerous. Knowledge of atomic energy created the threat of nuclear weapons. Knowledge of power and propaganda creates the threat of authoritarian politics.

Russell defined wisdom as emancipation from the tyranny of here and now. This gives us a clue about how wisdom is to be found. To be wise is to look up, look around, and look within.

For two and a half millennia, philosophers have called upon us to seek wisdom by seeing things more clearly. Plato suggested that most people are slaves to darkness. We sit in dark caves, he said, looking at flickering images. These images confuse us about reality. We don’t know how to distinguish right from wrong or how to live well. If we could leave the darkness of the cave and see the light, Plato said, we would be good and happy, just and wise.

Plato knew nothing of television, the internet, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. But what he said about life in the cave of ignorance is appropriate to our century. We passively consume images. Our thumbs move across screens. Our eyes flit across the page. Algorithms collect data about us, generating more images for us to consume. Our minds are washed by waves of infotainment. Our bodies grow soft. Confined within silos of information, the human spirit becomes warped. And the social world grows more divided.

One crucial solution is to clean the lenses of perception by learning to think critically about the images that surround us. But clear vision is useless if we look in the wrong direction. Sharp-sighted sociopaths and keen-eyed kleptocrats are very good at manipulating images and seeing how to hurt and take advantage.

We also need to look in the right direction. We need to look up from our screens and take a look around. Most importantly we need to look within. It is self-knowledge that helps us see how bias, prejudice and self-interest cloud good judgment and narrow our point of view.

JESUS’ PARABLE OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN

Narrowed vision is a common human problem. A hint about this is found in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Several people walked past a needy man. Either they looked at him but did not see him, or they saw him but quickly looked away. The hero of the story saw the man’s need. He did not look away. And he took action to make things better.

That’s what enlightened insight looks like. Clear vision helps us see reality as it is. But wisdom should also lead to action. To be wise is to see things clearly, to see them wholly, and to see what needs to be done.

So let’s seize the new year as an opportunity to gain wisdom and seek enlightenment. This is a challenge for this year, this decade, and for a lifetime.

Violence has no moral authority

Violence has no moral authority, discredits any cause and does no practical good

Fresno Bee, September 1, 2017

Violence will always be with us. There is something in common between the street battles in Berkeley and Charlottesville and the saber rattling over North Korea. Millions also tuned in to watch Mayweather fight McGregor.

Violence is alluring. It attracts our attention. Our fascination with fire and fury is morally problematic. When a fight breaks out on a playground, kids rush to watch. No one really cares which side they are on.

Not everyone is enamored of violence. There are more anti-hate protestors than there are haters. But a few people are always itching for a fight. Others egg them on. And the rest of us watch awestruck and spellbound.

There is a whiff of transcendence in violence. Adrenaline, pain, and the risk of death are stimulating. The heart races and the senses focus. Like sex and extreme sports, violence can elevate and inspire.

Aggression is hard-wired in brain – especially the masculine brain. Buried somewhere in the male limbic system is the evolutionary residue of the mammalian struggle for mates and dominance.

But we are not animals. The world’s moral and religious traditions demand that we control aggression and limit violence.

Socrates suggested that it is wrong to return harm for harm. Jesus told us to love our enemies. The Taoist sages advised harmonious nonaction. South Asian traditions prescribed ahimsa or nonviolence.

Unfortunately the Paleolithic brain is often immune to the counsels of civilization. Anger and aggression are subrational. Young men fight without thinking about what they do.

Some people offer justifications for violence, making exceptions to moral commandments. Some think that violence can be productive. They view it as a tool to advance a cause. Terrorists often rationalize violence in this way.

But justifications of violence are morally flawed. An immoral tool should not be used to advance a noble cause. Morality requires a unity of means and ends.

Violence infects and discredits any cause it is associated with. When a riot breaks out at a political event, the riot becomes the story. Violence undermines political agendas and destabilizes political movements.

Violence can be effective, in the short-term. Intimidation and coercion do work to change behavior. Violence runs some people off, scaring them away. It also attracts thugs. But it does nothing to persuade people to change their minds.

Violence is stupid. It stupefies, stuns and awes. But violence makes no argument and gives no reasons. Violence is not intelligent, clever, or insightful.

As brute force, violence brutalizes. Violence dehumanizes because it treats persons as objects to be manipulated through physical power. Violence does not listen or respect human needs. Instead it pushes and pulls the levers of pain, seeking dominance and control.

Violence has no moral authority. The victors are not more virtuous than those they defeat. They are only more powerful. Victory depends upon physical prowess—and often on good luck. It does not depend on moral rectitude.

Violence feeds on itself. Bloodlust is stimulated by fear and the desire for power. Those appetites and emotions overwhelm our rationality. Thus violence incites more violence.

The tit-for-tat of violence slowly simmers. Hatred and resentment fester. A careless spark can cause quick and fatal escalation. Violence is chaotic, unpredictable, and contagious. It stimulates backlash and blowback. And it tends to spread.

Violence only creates lasting change when it becomes excessive and permanent. The logic of violence thus points toward totalitarianism and final solutions that eliminate all enemies.

Violence makes no argument, utters no truth, and cherishes no value. It cannot deliver liberty, justice, or happiness. Violence tears down, destroys, and destabilizes. But it cannot transform and uplift the human spirit.

Violence cannot give birth to a child, build a community, create justice or sustain a way of life. The work of birthing, building, creating, and sustaining is nonviolent. It requires love, patience, tenacity and wisdom. Those are human values that have evolved beyond the Paleolithic brain.

The good news is that most of us understand that violence is subhuman. We know that a human world depends upon rational argument, cooperative activity, love and justice. The challenge of the future is to further discredit violence. And to find ways to further sublimate the sinister impulses of our mammalian brains.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article170511697.html