What the "Fires" in Your Life Can Teach You

Fire and heat and impermanence are on the minds of many folks right now. In the last two weeks, wildfires in Northern California have burned over 140,000 acres combined. While the fires are becoming increasingly contained, they are still burning as I write this. I have been thinking a lot about the people, animals, trees and land impacted by these fires. I know at least one person who lost her home, and I have been moved by the courageous and pragmatic way that she is meeting her experience abrupt change and unexpected loss.

These fires also have me thinking about the 2008 Basin Complex fire that nearly consumed Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. I was no longer living there at the time, but I followed news of the fire closely, and learned that five monks stayed behind to meet the fire and protect Tassajara. They didn't stay behind to "fight" the fire, but to "meet" it ~ an intentional, important distinction that one of the monks, Abbot Myogen Steve Stuckey, made about what they were doing.

Abbot Steve passed away nearly two years ago. In his last dharma talk, he compared his experience with meeting pancreatic cancer to his experience with the fire: "It's an engagement, and there are certain things that I can do to take care of this side, and the fire or the cancer will do what it does, and it's a matter of paying close attention and keeping attentive and responsive, with the thought of being the most helpful to taking care of what's most immediate. And so I'm learning fast, and a lot."

Although I didn't know Abbot Steve very well, I have listened to his talks and read what he said about meeting the fire and navigating cancer, and his teachings have had a significant impact on me, particularly in terms of self-compassion and how to meet challenging circumstances. What he seems to be talking about in the quote above is seeing the fire, or cancer (or whatever unexpected/uninvited situation you might be facing in yourself and your life) as something to be met and related to with curiosity and attentive presence, as you do is needed to care for your life.

I see this attitude in the woman I know who lost her home to the recent fire in Lake County. She has written that she has felt heartbroken. Yet, she is also grateful to have her dog and grateful to be alive. And she is doing what needs to be done to meet her circumstances and tend to her life as it is now.

Those of us who haven't met an actual fire still have experiences with meeting circumstances in our lives that felt fire-like. Maybe it was an unexpected illness or accident, a friend or family member who passed away without warning, the loss of a job or business, or a painful breakup or divorce. Or maybe it's a part of ourselves that seems unmanageable: an inner critic or a procrastinator, or a perfectionist. We all have had an experience of something happening that we didn't want, that caught us by surprise, and which we felt powerless to control.

How can we best meet situations like this? For most people, the initial range of feelings that arise include fear, anger, frustration, grief, and sadness. We can also become critical of ourselves or others: looking for someone to blame; some way to regain control, even if it's just through thinking that "if only I/they had done __________________ differently, this wouldn't have happened."

Once the initial reactivity has subsided, perhaps there's room to consider another way to meet these fires. In the Mindful Self-Compassion training, one of the most salient points for me has been the teaching that we don't practice self-compassion as a technique to manipulate or change our experience so that we feel better. We practice self-compassion because we suffer. It is simply the appropriate response to suffering. If something is painful, we tend to it.

David Zimmerman, another monk who met the Basin Fire at Tassajara said, "When you meet the fire, you meet yourself." So, the question of "How can we best meet situations like this?" can also be understood as: "How can we best meet ourselves?" In each moment, we can consider how to meet what's happening and how to meet ourselves. We can be curious, present and responsive to what we discover.

One of the things that the fires in our lives offer is a clearer view of what is most important. Often, what a fire teaches us is that how we respond to our circumstances is as important as what we are experiencing. Regardless of what is happening, we can do our best to respond with compassion. Knowing that how we respond to the fire, is how we respond to ourselves.

If you want to learn more about the story of the monks who met the Basin Complex Fire, you can read Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire by Colleen Morton Busch. Also, you can click here to listen to Abbot Steve's first dharma talk about the fire.