In the Christian West, the imagery of fire has often been used to describe eternal torment. In the East, it is Buddhism that begins with the first noble truth: life is suffering. Lately I have witnessed a lot of suffering among friends dealing with life’s difficulties – some of them all at once. But who among us hasn’t been though pain and anguish of some variety, be it heartbreak, loneliness, anxiety, worry, anger, resentment, and the self disappointment that always seems to accompany them? Anyone who has felt that unyielding pit in their stomach would be hard pressed not to relate it to the ravaging and consuming physical correlate of burning in fire.
Suffering has been the target of religions since there were religions. Nearly 3,000 years ago, the Zoroastrians always prayed in the presence of fire in their Fire Temples (and do today). Their influence was huge. Zoroastrianism’s dualistic cosmology cast the world into a struggle between Good and Evil – one of many concepts that would become a precursor to the Abrahamic Faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And so on this course much of the Western perspective was set, which can still be found in our popular conceptions today.
Just a few years ago many people were moved by a new artist whose music, like so many passionate successful musicians before her, was a personal statement of her own painful experiences, chiefly romantic. One of her songs, Set Fire to the Rain, begins with a medium tempo building to a wall of sound that seems to embody the very rhythm of a burning flame. This is accompanied by Adele’s powerful yet melodic wails that are reminiscent of the painful cries of someone on fire. In her live performance at the Royal Albert Hall, for which she was awarded a Grammy, one can literally see her eyes squinting and her hands flinching as if being singed with the memory of the painful moments that inspired her work. In the video of this presentation we can see fans reaching their arms out, no doubt with first-hand knowledge of how it feels.
Buddhism’s Pali Canon includes the Ādittapariyāya Sutta, or “Fire Sermon”. Here suffering is described as “burning” with passion, aversion, and delusion. We seek love from others, validation, acceptance, support, etc. Looking for something outside ourselves for salvation. This results in the feeling we’re caught in this web of relationships pulling us to and fro. These external events beyond our control all come collapsing into us and we feel lost as we struggle to find ourselves and find happiness. In the sermon, Buddha tells an audience of a thousand monks, “all is burning”.
The question is what to do about it. Adele’s solution is the same as another song about fire in pop culture. In the famous musical episode of the hit show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Once More, with Feeling, 2001), Buffy (and the rest of the cast) sing a song about an opposite kind of problem that comes after so much suffering (“Walk Through the Fire”). In her case it is a lack of feeling anything. This is not to be confused with a genuine state of equanimity and enlightened non-attachment, but is instead a remote and dead reaction that kicks in as a defense mechanism. She longs to feel that burn again, to be fully alive. As the characters commit to walking through the fire to face the pain, the final line of the song matches Adele’s exactly: “let it burn”.
The only way out of the fire is through it.
We learn by experience, we learn about ourselves, the world, and about others. We learn what roads lead to where. And, for future wanderings off course, we grow a thicker, if charred, skin. And, rarely can anyone tell us any different until we have gathered the same scars as they.
But there are drawbacks to this brute-force approach, taken alone. Surely, much of this is unavoidable – it’s the price of wisdom, and it’s generally how most get by and “go on living”. But it is a path fraught with a great deal of pain and suffering. It may or may not get one to a place of equanimity. Sometimes the scars can even result in a death of feeling and a withdraw from living life to its fullest, as in the latter case above.
There is another artist who, many years before Adele, sang of fire and rain. James Taylor’s iconic hit by that name tells of his pains through the loss of a friend to suicide, his struggles with addiction, and then on to better times. But while Adele’s song is delivered with the immediacy of the painful moment, Taylor’s is delivered with a contemplative peaceful tone – the contentment of older age and more balance, even if colored by the solemnity of having been through Hell and back. His melodic soothing delivery is as if to say with arms out to all those who are suffering, there is a peace to be found on the other side of this my friend, if you will just keep walking.
It is fitting that both Taylor and Adele chose to couple fire and rain. The Zoroastrians held both to be symbols of purification. Water later served as a symbol of rebirth in Christianity – that thing they do once, but that Buddhists say we do a million times. And in this comes another view of fire.
Heraclitus said that the universe moves as like the kindling on a fire – ever transforming. The Stoics held this Divine Fire to be the soul of the cosmos – the active principle moving all things. Here fire is the source of warmth, illumination, energy, and the core of life and creation. In the book of Exodus is another fire as well – the burning bush as the vehicle of God’s word, and in the book of Revelations Christ’s eyes and limbs (his vision and actions?) are described as pillars of fire.
A few weeks ago, I attended Burning Flipside. It is a burn festival of sorts, similar to the well known Burning Man event held in the desert, except it is smaller (about 3,000 people) and held in the forest. On the last night is a traditional burning of a large effigy; an artistically built structure that is set afire as all of the people gather around to witness. At one point the people fall into a quiet. While some are joking and jovial, others go into a solemn state of contemplation and emotion as they watch the effigy burn. It is not uncommon to see tears. Then it culminates into a joyful cheer as the structure falls. It is clear something profound is happening and if you attend a burn and are open to it, you can feel it too. Many of these archetypal meanings within the fire are playing a role. For many it is a time of renewal in their lives or reminding about what the ‘real world’ is actually about.
But it is this very Divine Fire moving throughout an ever-changing universe that is also the root of our suffering. That is, impermanence, combined with our attachments to that which is impermanent. As long as we suffer from the delusion of thinking that which is impermanent is permanent (health, wealth, relationships, reputation, etc). Sure, we claim to know this – but the problem is that we don’t truly know it. We merely think it. And so, like a booby trap slowly growing around us, we ensnare ourselves until the trap, inevitably, is sprung. To avoid this requires purification.
Purification of what?
Note how the metaphor of fire is often negative when applied to the struggles of an individual, but positive when applied to the larger cosmos. This is because we typically live in discord with Nature (or the cosmos/universe/the Tao – the nature of the ‘way things are’). Fire becomes negative when it deals with the particular desires of an individual. These desires emerge from our natural instincts (to be loved, to have resources, to be safe, to have more control over our environment, etc). But these concerns are those of our ego – they do not relate to a larger reality outside of that tiny perspective. When we are consumed by them, our higher intellects are trapped within that tiny prison. Understanding is limited and this is how ignorance and suffering are intertwined.
As our perspective expands toward larger time scales and includes others to a larger degree, the ‘seat’ of our identity begins to shift outward and upward. One major effect of this is a diminishment in the significance of our immediate circumstances as a determiner of our deeper happiness and satisfaction (whether positive or negative). Among these external circumstances are the actions and opinions of other people toward us. Feelings of offense or personal insult or rejection, etc. due to other people’s actions and opinions is a huge source of much pain and suffering.
Those who try to help will give us blunt ‘sticks and stones’ types of euphemisms. But a person in this condition cannot simply ‘tell themselves’ that the praise and blame of others doesn’t matter and, though simple willpower, refuse to let it bother them. It doesn’t work that way, and denial of our feelings is ultimately harmful.
Instead, the problem is resolved less directly and gradually over time – not by addressing that particular source of pain, but on working on our disposition to life in general. If we are engaged in a regular practice of mindfulness meditation, our ability to still our mind and focus our attention improves. This empowers us to focus on those things we ‘know but don’t know’ for deeply and consistently. Through practice (in both senses of the word), mental habits begin to form. As the Taoist philosopher, Chuang-Tzu said of a local wise-man called Yung:
“If the whole world flattered him, he would not be affected thereby, nor if the whole world blamed him would he be dissuaded from what he was doing. For Yung can distinguish between essence and superficialities…” –Chuang-Tzu
We can redirect our attention toward all beings – which includes ourselves, by the way, but not in a competitive me/them duality. Rather than fluttering about in need of love, our agenda can shift such that we become a source of love that feeds those in need. To anyone who is stuck in a state of sadness I would always prescribe taking up causes to help others. As we experience what it is like to help others in need, we get more experience under our belt that begins to make a certain truth much more concrete and real to us. That truth is the interconnectedness between the well-being of others and ourselves. This is a truth that persists even when those helped don’t appreciate it, or necessarily even know about it.
This interconnectedness is also part and parcel of a larger view of the cosmos as a whole. It is possible to take our intellectual knowledge of living in an ever-changing universe, and develop an intuitive way of reacting and responding to the world with that reality fully integrated into our way of being. In this state, disappointed, admonishing reminders to ourselves after the fact are no longer necessary. We naturally dance within a state of panta rhei (“Everything flows”). Far from loss of emotion, this is a journey of the mind and heart that is littered with monumental epiphanies of majesty and beauty. It is a love story of another kind, and only with such a ‘falling in love with the cosmos’ does this perspective become a source of grace and transcendence.
This doesn’t require us to give up all our possessions and become a missionary. It is more of an attitude and shift of focus that can manifest in whatever kind of life we are currently living, and with whomever we interact. In fact, the world needs everyday people living well in the real world – more monastics, not so much. In this state, we do not become do-gooders who are waiting for praise from others, or any kind of payback. Importantly, we are also not dependent upon the outcome of our intended actions turning out a certain way (the helped person getting better, the poor coming out of poverty, the friend becoming happier, the event being a success, etc). All of these things, praise from others and people saved from some situation, are external circumstances, and not the basis on which we act, or the value system from which we work. Instead, our mission is the goal to be a compassionate, mindful, wise, and loving being. And that is a mission, the success or failure of which, is entirely and solely within our complete control – regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen or what anyone else does or doesn’t do. This is what Chuang-Tzu meant by the difference between ‘essence and superficialities’.
In this state, we have handed over all ‘outcomes’ to the universe and all of its infinite variables we never really controlled to begin with. The opinions, deeds, and actions of others (whether they are about that little ego within which we operate or not) are not really material to our new state of being.
Again, this is not something we can come to through sheer will or intention directly. It is a way of evaluating the world and happenings that, over time, can become more deeply instilled within our character. Certainly, various actions and agendas and contemplations are how we cultivate that character. And, of course, time and patience are prerequisites.
In the meantime there will be many, many shortcomings and pitfalls – which will be accompanied by unhealthy feelings and suffering in due proportion. Mindfulness meditation is a metaphor of this entire process. As our shortcomings arise, we enlighten them first with our own unabashed gaze. Honestly facing the fire, acknowledging our state, contemplating the deep habitual value system out of which those feelings arose, and then setting them aside mindfully and refocusing on our path – again, and again, and again.
While the word ‘virtue’ is now often confused with a reward-and-punishment system of ethical rules, it originally held a meaning more akin to character traits which are consistent with the nature of humanity – what it really means to be a full human being: social, rational, wise, aware, and healthy. At harmony with the universe. The Stoics called this, walking in accord with Nature. Chuang-Tzu would say it like this…
“The man of perfect virtue cannot be burnt by fire, nor drowned by water, nor hurt by the cold of winter or the heat of summer, nor torn by bird or beast.” –Chuang Tzu, “Autumn Floods”
This is the difference between burning and walking through a fire, divine. It will likely only come in glimpses and only you can know if you’re there – but that is the only person who needs to know.
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