Category Archives: fire

Fire! Fear and Meditation

Image result for california fires 2015

Last night a swirl of smoke moved in from the east where forest fires are burning uncontained in multiple areas here in Northern California. The brown cloud covered the sun, turning it bright red. My mind filled with scenes of tinderbox forests and golden hillsides in towering flames as valiant firefighters work endless hours to protect whatever they can. I send them metta, loving- kindness: May they be well. May they be free from harm. I feel a welling up of gratitude for their efforts. Then I look out at the forest where we Iive and feel the fear I always feel in this dry season, but especially now after years of drought. I don’t want to think about the devastation that could happen before my eyes, taking away our home, our neighborhood, the glorious little eco-system on this hill, the restful green beauty that soothes me, but every time I hear sirens, I feel tension in my body as fear leaps into the foreground of my awareness.

What is the benefit of the regular practice of meditation, you might reasonably ask, if you still experience this kind of fear and worry? Shouldn’t I, a long-time practitioner and a teacher of meditation, be all blissed out? I remember Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman and his goofy grin saying ‘What me worry?’ I think of Janis Joplin singing ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ This is why theoretically monks have a better chance at a bliss state: They have given up all material incumbrances. But the human mind is funny. It quite naturally builds ‘something’ even out of what some might call nothing. And then it protects that something fiercely. Remember the Tassajara fire where Buddhist monks risked their lives to defend the monastery? Brave. Foolish. Those two words are so often entwined.

People who have lost their homes to tornados always thank God that the family survived. Their house and all those mementos now destroyed and scattered for miles will be missed, of course, but that force of nature that tore through the neighborhood left behind a harsh but valuable lesson on what really matters.

Whatever we lose we can always imagine something worse. That is the nature of the human mind. And when that worse thing happens — because we do lose family members, don’t we? — we amazingly find some way to live with that. 

It is the nature of the human mind to care, and I for one appreciate that. We care deeply! Meditation practice doesn’t cause us not to care. It is not a drug to bring a state of oblivion. Instead it creates a compassionate spacious ease where we can see more clearly the activity of the mind and how we are in relationship to all aspects of our lives and the world around us. We can see how we cause ourselves and others suffering through grasping, clinging and pushing away.

Meditation can’t stop the fires, of course. But the awareness that arises in meditation allows me to notice the tension in my body and the fear that causes it. I can pause and breathe into the tension, relaxing and releasing it to whatever degree is possible in this moment. I can see how my childhood fears of fire are easily activated. I see that little girl I was being terrified by a TV movie about children trapped in an elevator with the orphanage on fire, and how my mother, knowing how fearful I was, always made sure my bedroom in all the homes we lived in had a fire escape. And how that fear also made me the most qualified candidate in my elementary school to be Fire Chief. I used to get to decide when we would have a fire drill, and I and my four (boy) deputies would stay in the building to monitor the drill and then go around and give reports to all the classrooms. All of these memories live inside me and contribute to what is happening here and now. I don’t need to get lost in them, but mindfulness practice helps me see not just what’s going on but its source as well.

As long as I know our emergency evacuation plan, I have no reason to live in future thoughts. I can practice being present in this moment with all that is happening here and now — the cool air coming in the screen door, the sunlight on the mountain, the sounds of birds, traffic, my husband doing Tai Chi on the deck, the feel of being supported by my seat, my fingers on the keyboard, my breath rising and falling. For many years  I have been training my mind to come home to this moment. This moment fully sensed can hold all my fears and worries, acknowledged with compassion. This mindfulness practice is so spacious that the worries are like little threads traveling through. They haven’t disappeared, but I see them in context. I am not tangled up in them. They are not choking me. Quieting down and cultivating compassion and ease allows me to live with the vagaries of life and still fully experience the sweet gift of this moment.

We’re All Fired Up!

In the First Foundation of Mindfulness the Buddha taught about the elements — earth, air, fire, water — in a way that helped his students understand their own nature.


It is said that he gave a whole lesson about the elements to his son Rahula when he sensed that the young man was being a little too proud of his finely formed body and how much it was like his father’s. Speaking to his son, he went through each element one at a time, saying something like, ‘If you develop meditation that is like the earth (fire, air, water), arisen agreeable and disagreeable contacts will not invade your mind and remain. Just as earth receives clean things and dirty things — excrement, urine, spittle, puss and blood — and the earth is not horrified, humiliated or disgusted by this, develop meditation that is like earth for when you develop meditation that is like the earth (fire, air, water), arisen agreeable and disagreeable contacts will not invade your mind and remain.“ Wow, was Rahula a remarkable son to patiently listen and actually learn from what his father was saying as he went through each of these elements using the same words over and over again? I don’t know about your kids, but mine would find some way early on to get out of that awkward situation of their parent talking about excrement, urine, spittle, puss and blood. Gross. I can hear mine saying, ‘I get it, Mom. Gotta go. Love ya.’ Ah well. Different times and after all, he was the Buddha. Like Rahula, we may be proud and vain about some aspect of our physical body. Like most women of our day, we have dissatisfaction about other aspects of our body, resulting in feelings of self-loathing, shame or envy of the bodily attributes of others. When we allow ourselves to simply rest in the awareness of the elemental nature of the body, how it is composed of earth, fire, air and water, we relax into a deeper understanding and acceptance of the true nature of being. This body is made up of all the elements that make up the rest of the world we live in. It is not separate. It is a natural intrinsic part of all that is. Now that’s relaxing, isn’t it? Sure we need to take good care of our bodies with good health care, nutrition, exercise, hygiene and grooming, but we can let go of any idea that this body is who we are, that it is a cause of either pride or shame. It is simply a physical manifestation, like a tree or a raindrop, made up of the same elements and from the same source. Given the cold of winter here in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s a perfect time to do a meditation on the element of fire. We experience fire most often as something outside ourselves. We enjoy the warmth and beauty of flames on a log fire or atop a candle. We use fire to heat our food. We enjoy fireworks exploding in the sky. We have a healthy respect for fire and like to keep it safely contained. Here in California we have a season of fire storms that consume forests and communities. When the first of the winter rains come, there is a visceral sense of relief in my body. That threat is lessened and I’m always surprised to feel how much I had been bracing myself against it until I felt safe again. But perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. Fear of fire is a natural animal instinct. No other creature but humans puts fire to work instead of shying away of from it. Imagine with what what trepidation early humans began to tame fire for heating and cooking. Do you remember learning to tame fire? I remember a few fiascos: trying to light an oven and getting my eyebrows singed, for example. Some of us have frightening memories of fire out of control. Some of us have been burned and may have visible scars to show for our interaction with fire. I was happy to hear that all students who were in class this week had very pleasant associations with fire — campfires, roasting marshmallows, candlelight dinners. I have those too, but also scary ones. What about you? Pause to ponder your relationship with fire. Allow memories to arise and fall away. Notice any emotional component and any physical sensation that arises with these memories and emotions. If some strong memory with physical/emotional impact comes up, take a moment to write it down. Respect whatever comes up, give it time to formulate and inform you. Is there anything in this memory that answers questions for you? It doesn’t have to be a direct memory. One student mentioned the movie Bambi as something that came up when thinking about early associations with fire. That forest fire! Poor little fawn! As young children we were very impressionable and empathetic. We ‘experienced’ in a visceral way whatever we saw happen. For example, my first real understanding of the power and danger of fire came from watching a movie about children trapped in an elevator with the orphanage on fire. I only have that image: the metal gate, the screaming children, the smoke. I have no idea what film it was or what was the outcome. But it has stayed with me and informed me at every turn. Throughout my whole childhood I was obsessed with safety from fire. My mother bought fire escape ladders for my bedroom in every house we lived in. She didn’t buy one for my brother. ‘He can jump,’ she said. This was not proof that she loved me more than him, just that she wanted to assuage my fear and let me sleep at night. She wasn’t worried that the house would burn down in the night, but she knew I did worry, and she wanted me to be able to sleep. I was so hyper-aware of the dangers of fire that I passed a fire safety test at school with 100% and became the school fire chief, in charge of four deputies (all boys!) and I was empowered to decide when we should have fire drills. I would go to the principal and tell him ‘Tuesday at 1:10’ And on Tuesday at 1:10 everyone left the building when the alarm went off. — everyone except the janitor in the basement by the alarm bell and my deputies and me in the hallways observing how the drill went and timing it. Then we would confer and divide up to go around to all the classrooms giving reports on how we did. That experience empowered me, as if I was taking charge of my fear of fire by helping to assure that the students could get out of the school in a timely fashion, away from the fire. What are your stories about fire? How did they or do they still affect you? But fire is not just an external thing. We carry fire within us. Food as fuel, burned as calories, units of energy, effort expended in fiery activity. Our brains are firing up all the time with electrical charges. Inner fire may seem harder to access in a meditation on elements. We can focus on the warmth of the body, the warmth on our skin, the warmth inside. The body generates heat constantly. Notice right now this heat, in the body. It is what indicates we are alive, this heat. Without life, the body is cold. Systems shut down and the body stops producing heat. So can we feel a deep appreciation for the fire within as we sit here, just noticing? In youth we had to learn how to strike matches, build campfires and roast marshmallows without burning them to a crisp. But hopefully we were also learning how to tame our inner fire. All that excess of youthful energy, all those raging hormones like volcanic eruptions, lightning strikes and wildfires. Sometimes they just got totally out of control, didn’t they? How often did these inner fires, in ourselves or in other kids we were with, lead to some kind of disaster? Fire and all the other elements are known for their ability to purify. Think about fire and purification, how it consumes and turns all to ash. Think of all the religious and cultural significance of fire. Ash Wednesday for Christians, for example. One of my students brought up several literary references, including the ring of fire in the Magic Flute. As we begin to recognize the fire within us, we develop ways to cope with it, some skillful, some not. An important part of our practice of meditation, explored more thoroughly in the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, is learning skillful means to tame and give purpose to the fire of our nature without dousing out the flames. We may discover the way this inner fire becomes like a radiant inner light that helps us see more clearly and helps us connect with others in real and meaningful ways. Exercise
As you sit with this fire element, notice what arises. As you go about your day, feel the energy within you as you move. Feel the force of your aliveness creating an energetic chain reaction within yourself and out into the warm community of all beings.