Putting out the fire

October 28th, 2007

Practice the Way as though saving your head from fire. –Nagarjuna

We ended the week by quite nearly putting out the fires. We also ended the week by quite nearly coming around to practice. Are they one or are they two?

Here in Southern California, each round of wildfires reminds us of the last, only worse. It can appear to others that we are ignorantly dismissive or resigned. People rail against the shortage of plans and preventions, the inadequacy of resources, the greed of land developers and the (mostly) wealthy homeowners who build and buy in the fire zone. All of those are reasonable questions. But at this time of year, this long into the eternal drought, this far into Earth’s desperate disequilibrium, none of those questions puts out the fire. When the scorching desert wind blows from the East and starts or spreads the fire, there is nothing that can stop it. As long as the gusts are blowing from the Mojave furnace, the fire always wins. There is no fighting it. There is only the ravaging wait.

When conditions change, the fire always goes out. When the wind changes directions and the moist, cool air once again flows inland from the Pacific, the fires die back, and the fighters prevail.

So it is with practice. So it is with meditation, mindfulness and Zen. Only the fire is on your head. More precisely, it is in your head. It is your chattering, egocentric, picking and choosing mind that is aflame with fear, anxiety, worry, doubt, agitation, or just plain restlessness. None of those things is a problem unless it causes you a problem, unless the flames are too close for comfort. Maybe you can’t sleep. Maybe you can’t smile. Maybe none of the tried-and-true fixes will fix you up again. And that is the siren call for practice.

Just as with the other kind of fire control, we practice by changing the conditions. We settle our bodies into one spot, we minimize sensory distractions, we bring the full force of our mental powers away from the conflagration in our mind and toward the breath – the wind – to squelch the flames and cool the inferno.

Honestly, a life of practice isn’t the life we go looking for. It isn’t easy. It isn’t familiar. It isn’t a mansion in the hills. It is a life that starts out hard and ends up sweet; starts out hot and ends up cool. But it’s the only kind of sweet that ever satisfies. It’s the only kind of cool you urgently want and need. When it’s time, you know it, and you know what to do.

In a variation on trick-or-treat, this is Grab Bag week at Cheerio Road. I’ll let your comments ignite the topic I take up each day. If there isn’t a gust from you – a question, a comment, a change in direction – we’ll just have to sit through the wait. At the end of the week, there’ll be a goodie at the bottom of the bag.


  1. You know, it is always what I need.

    I read this aloud to my husband and he laughed to me and said, yes, definitely a fire in your head. He meant that in a nice way, gently, but I know what it means to me. I suppose that is because I’m the one living in it. My head, that is.

    On one hand it is easier – it is not something outside of me, out of my control . On the other hand it is harder – since it is turning that focus inward. Nothing to blame. Not waiting for the firefighter – but being one.

    Working on it.

    Comment by denise — October 28, 2007 @ 10:01 pm

  2. Control sounds like a good topic. Parenting is such a delicate balance between letting new lives have experience with autonomy and yet having a sane & predictable life in which to flourish. Too much control and the joy leaves, no control at all and their are other problems.

    At the same time, I think parenting teaches you very quickly that *we* aren’t in control of our life, merely able to influence how we respond to the issue of the day. Whether it’s the shock of a new born dominating two giant adults, or a sudden realization that the second grader just isn’t going to have a good year unless something changes, we don’t get to pick the reality we are parenting in.

    Comment by Chris Austin-Lane — October 28, 2007 @ 11:28 pm

  3. I don’t have much in the way of inspiration for a blog topic. I just usually LOVE what you come up with. It is always so beautifully written and so inspirational.

    I’ve been so glad to hear (what little bit I hear or watch the news) that the fires are starting to subside. My heart has gone out to all of you who are there dealing with it.

    Thank you for the parallel between meditation. If you ever have time, I’d love to know more about your own practice.


    Karen Beth 🙂

    Comment by Karen Beth — October 28, 2007 @ 11:38 pm

  4. I’d love to squelch the flames and cool the inferno of FEAR. This is my suggestion for your topic of the week.
    Of course, anything you offer will surely provoke and inspire and teach. It always does. I have even come to trust it. 🙂

    Comment by bella — October 29, 2007 @ 4:59 am

  5. It is time but I’m not sure what to do…lol
    I did, however find myself winning small battles with the fear fires this weekend by saying “trust that this moment is exactly how its suppose to be…who knows what’s good or bad?” over and over.
    I’m trying to make this a habit as it seems to be the only thing I’ve found recently that works. Thank you again for your trust post.

    Comment by Shannon — October 29, 2007 @ 4:02 pm

  6. I feel like the birth of my baby and my new role as mother are the Santa Ana winds in my head. The fire has spread and intensified, and I feel in danger of being devoured by flames. I’m grappling with the balance of wants and needs: mine versus hers. Is it really this adversarial? It feels so.

    Chris’s comment resonates, especially “We don’t get to pick the reality we are parenting in.” (I realize this post isn’t about parenting. That’s just what predominates for me at the moment.)

    Comment by kathryn — October 29, 2007 @ 8:15 pm

  7. Kathryn & Friends,
    No post is a parenting post. Every post is a parenting post. We have the rare opportunity to re-parent ourselves and some of us the opportunity to parent a child. It’s all the same, all the same, all the same life no matter what occupies us for the time-being.

    Drop the subject and there is no object and there goes the adversary. So easily said; that’s the whole of practice.

    Comment by Karen — October 30, 2007 @ 2:27 am

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