More than thirty years ago, my daughter and I were moving into our little house, in a Himalayan valley. Our landlady, who was welcoming us that night, put down her lantern and looked me right in the eyes.
“In these mountains,” she said, “we have a saying. ‘When the flood comes, it leaves something, when the landslide comes it leaves something. But when the fire comes, it leaves nothing.’ Please be careful of fire.”
I’ve heard her saying this inside me, many times over the years. It revealed a lot about why fire, in all cultures, has been a symbol for genuine transformation. In those days, young, naive and passionate as I was, I thought I knew what transformation was, and how to go about it. I threw myself into years of intense practice, without understanding anything about awakening and how to actually live it.
My arrogance has been worn down, and transformed into something I could not have imagined when I was young. It’s been a pretty rough road. I would never have chosen most of what has happened. And now there is immense gratitude for all of it, more and more—even the helplessness, the feeling of utter defeat. Transformation is a fire because we can’t control it, we can’t have it on our own terms, we can’t make it happen. But we can be willing.
I’m not even sure why this willingness suddenly blooms in us, like a seed that just found water, after lying quietly for a long time. This happened to me recently. I found a willingness to sit in the fire of transformation that felt new and unknown to me. It was almost like a longing, although if I had known what it would actually be like, I probably wouldn’t have been so willing. Women often say this after giving birth. But I was willing, and I’ll never be able to say where this willingness came from. Sometimes it felt like sheer desperation sometimes like grace.
Somehow this longing to sit in the fire arose in me, and didn’t go away. It felt intimately connected with what I called ‘radical truth telling.’ This truth telling was about my own experience, what was really going on with me, moment by moment, before I dressed it up in my mind. I wanted to stay in contact with the raw, naked nature of my own being. To discover what is here, before I describe it to myself.
The fire also required a kind of growing up, a clarity that took responsibility for my experience, over and over again. This clarity cannot make anyone else responsible for my life. It’s a fierce clarity. A friend of mine just spoke of this fierce clarity on the phone. I love how this wisdom keeps appearing. It doesn’t belong to anyone--it lives in all of us.
None of this was new to me-I had been working in this way, with myself, my clients and students, for years. And I had been amazed at how easily we can think something, and how difficult it is to live it. In the moment when I say, “Of course I am responsible for my own experience, nobody else makes me suffer, “ it feels so obvious. What is not obvious is that I can forget that completely in the next moment. So completely that I act as if I never heard such a thing.
This forgetfulness is so strong. It’s like a trance that takes us over. It is something we can rail against at times. And it seems to be how we are, as human beings. Until we grow up a lot more. So it was this I wanted to offer into the fire of transformation. I prayed about this, I asked for help from the universe. And from my own heart, from the awakeness I recognized inside myself.
It was difficult, almost impossible to speak to anyone about this at the time. When I put it into words the whole thing became tamed and diluted. I felt very alone sometimes, and longed for company, longed for distraction. And there was nowhere to go.
What actually burns up in the fire of transformation are our self images, our ideas of who we are, so many and so varied. All the images we have accumulated over a lifetime. And perhaps ones that we were born with. To really let these go is not so easy. Our whole identity is organized around these core images. In this fire, I have to be willing not to know who I am, for more than just a moment.
The symbol for this kind of awakening in the tarot is the hanged man/woman. He or she hangs upside down, with one knee bent and crossed over the other leg. If I let the power of this image descend from the mind into the body, it communicates a lot. When I let go of who I think I am, who I think you are, what I think life is, I have no more solid ground on which to stand. I’m left hanging, swinging in the wide openness.
The longer I spent, just sitting here, the clearer it became that the nature of this fire is so simple-it’s just awareness, presence, the direct contact with what is, in every moment.
It is unnerving, disorienting and profoundly disturbing to sit in this fire. I wish it was easier. I wish I could shout out an invitation, “Come on in, the fire’s fine!” I do know that we can learn to appreciate the vulnerability, and intense discomfort that we find in this place. This was my discovery, during the last few months. There’s a strange kind of joy in this fire.
And there’s an even deeper joy when we can support each other to be in this fire together. I have been blessed with this experience over the last few years. To know people or to ‘un-know’ people in this way is amazing. We can finally meet, with nothing in the way.
A couple I was working with a while ago had reached this point. The man looked at this wife, in total bewilderment, and said, “I just realized I don’t know you. I really don’t know anything about you. I’m so sorry, I’ve been a fool.”
His wife began to weep, as she said, “Oh yes. I’ve been waiting for you to say this to me for more than twenty years.”
All the true vows
are secret vows
the ones we speak out loud
are the ones we break.
There is only one life
you can call your own
and a thousand others
you can call by any name you want.
.. Out of the silence
you can make a promise
it will kill you to break,
that way you’ll find
what is real and what is not. (David Whyte)
Thank you for taking the time to read this Lifeletter.
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