Notes on a wildfire

May 1st, 2008

“Diligently practice the Way as though putting a fire out on top of your head.”

There is engaging language in my spiritual tradition, in the old writing and the poetic phrases. It’s easy to take the language as inspiration or as metaphor, inclined as we are to analyze everything for deep meaning and exalted purpose. This is what religious scholars do, what intellectuals do, and it’s obvious why. We can almost never believe that things are simple or straightforward, that they are what they are. What do we use our brains for if not figuring things out? Everything has to mean something else.

I’ve heard a phrase more or less like the one above many times and thought it conveyed urgency and desperation. It does. But then I saw with my own eyes this week the startling science of extinguishing fires. How you put out a fire is exactly how you should practice. How you put out a fire on the ground is exactly how you put out the fire on your head – your insane, compulsively anxious, fearful ego mind.

Like you, I wish practice was merely a matter of writing this post, or reading a book, or making a list, or thinking positive thoughts, or losing five pounds. But I’ve seen the firefighters, and how they practice. They do not waste a moment to theory, philosophy, inspiration or appearances.

This is what I learned:

The best fire prevention is fire. When an area burns fully it does not burn again. To extinguish the fire of ego, you must burn the concept of self completely. Then it does not re-ignite or flare up in trouble spots. Have no more inflaming thoughts of yourself: what you want, what you need, what you wish, what you think, what you feel, what you don’t have, what you don’t like, your dramas and intrigues, the world according to you. It is not enough to comprehend this, though. You actually have to burn the brush away, and let the fire rouse you from the bed you sleep in tonight.

A fire isn’t out until the roots are upended. When a mountain catches fire and the flames soar from a vertical surface, the battle begins from the air. Water and fire retardant are dropped over and over. It’s impressive. It buys time, but it doesn’t finish the job. To finish the job, they send in the ground crews. Foot solders, who scale the blackened slope with picks and shovels to turn up the smoldering roots. The roots of burned vegetation can hold a fire for months, I’m told, like the roots of ego attachment, ageless embers of ignorance and anger, all the delusive ways in which you hold fast to the idea of yourself.

Fire erupts from conditions, an inextricable set of causal conditions including heat, dryness, fuel and a spark. Unfavorable conditions sustain a fire, no matter how valiant the strategy. When conditions change, the wind turns, humidity climbs and the temperatures drop, the fire goes out. Like that, it goes out.

To practice the Way is to change the conditions of your personal suffering. Like that, it goes out.

Written in haste, while clear and fresh, and with apologies to those who have no interest in these matters.


  1. Karen, that is an excellent post. One I will refer back to often. And it’s true. It’s all true.

    Comment by Kristin H. — May 1, 2008 @ 10:47 am

  2. I fear you’re absolutely correct. What a lesson God has been trying to beat into my head for years now.

    Comment by Emily — May 1, 2008 @ 1:35 pm

  3. Your words land like water on this insane, attached, frazzled, anxious, busy fire-mind. Thanks for writing in haste. I so need the reminder to make it real, do away with the meaning, the metaphor, the brain-figuring-out. It is only then that I’m suddenly extinguished, and actually here. xo J

    Comment by Jena Strong — May 1, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

  4. Fascinating story, thanks. I’ll have to watch carefully the next time I notice a fire around here.


    Comment by Chris Austin-Lane — May 1, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

  5. Many things are best when fresh and not re-edited and re-thought and re-viewed.

    And who could have no interest in these matters?


    Comment by denise — May 1, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

  6. well thats just awesome! Thank you 🙂

    Comment by Ashlea — May 1, 2008 @ 6:47 pm

  7. beautiful post with powerful words…an excellent reminder that lessons are to be learned in everything…

    Comment by Phyllis Sommer — May 2, 2008 @ 2:19 am

  8. I get this: change the conditions of your personal suffering and it will go out. Thanks!

    Comment by Mary Ann — May 3, 2008 @ 2:44 am

  9. wow! i feel as though i read this just in time.

    Comment by jessamyn — May 3, 2008 @ 8:28 pm

  10. I do have interest in it. Excellent post. One I will try to take to heart.

    Comment by Shelli — May 4, 2008 @ 8:07 pm

  11. Yes. This is the sort of post I wish I could print out and then roll around on the floor on top of.

    Comment by nyjlm — May 5, 2008 @ 7:09 pm

  12. Conditions igniting recent fire in our home: too much inside time, not enough running around, crying baby, distracted mommy, large balls bouncing inside the house.

    Conditions change: mommy yells, stomps to bedroom and closes door, quiets body, quiets mind, comes out, hugs.

    Like that, it goes out.

    Glad your fire went out. RM

    Comment by RocketMom — May 6, 2008 @ 4:21 am

  13. a-ha moment.

    Comment by mb — May 19, 2008 @ 4:02 am

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