Fire and smoke

Vladimir Huber > Salud > Fire and smoke

Institute of Imaginal Studies

Recovering the fire, releasing the smoke.

by Vladimir Huber March-April, 2000

I. Fire and the liberation of the baby hand

As a little kid, I used to play with matches. I was mesmerized by the light that appears after striking a match. Matches were made of wood in Chile, in those years. The power of the flame, engulfing the wooden stick, consuming everything it touched, cleaning, cleansing, and if I wasn’t careful enough, giving excruciating pain. Fire was something I not only liked, but also deeply respected.
My parents were not too happy to see me playing with matches. Not only because I could get hurt, but the consequences of children playing with matches were all too well known to my father. He was a volunteer fireman, so he had to deal with an endless number of cases of children starting fires, and even worse, children burnt by their playful inclinations. No, it wasn’t something my parents enjoyed, to see me playing with matches.
As time went by, staring at a fireplace, with the flames consuming the logs, going up into the chimney, searching for a way out, reaching for the gods, showing us the way to the heavens, has kept my interest in fire alive, as I have gone into other meanings, other attractions given by fire, since I no longer play with matches.
I have seen fire as the executor of the necessary death of the old, of the things sometimes we don’t want to let go, of those aspects in our life we cling to, like a baby unsure of where his mother is, tightening his hand to somebody else’s hand, because that’s the only resemblance of his mother being around. So, the fire pushes us into opening our hands, into letting go, not because we want to, but because we have no choice, after having battled to keep that and those we love, with us. Embracing in a way that leaves no room for escape, embracing so tightly, it hurts, yet it helps us feel safe, as if that person or that aspect helps us be whole, at peace, in love. And so, we walk into the purifying fire that consumes it all, and we are free. Liberation has engulfed us, the sword of fire has touched us on the forehead, letting us know that no matter how tight the hand might be, the baby in us has to let go. It’s not a matter of choice, it’s a matter of life and death, of day and night, of opening and closing, as if they were different. Yet, with the liberation comes the synthesis, and we embrace the communion of the polarities, the joining of the extremes, the matrimony of those who were supposed to be apart. And so, we see the light of a new path, the light of fire.
II. Natural information on fire
The Unabridged Random House Dictionary says that fire is,
«1. a state, process, or instance of combustion in which fuel or other material is ignited and combined with oxygen, giving off light, heat, and flame… 3. the destructive burning of a building, town, forest, etc.; conflagration. 4. heat used for cooking, esp. the lighted burner of a stove. 5. See Greek fire. 6. flashing light; luminous appearance. 7. brilliance, as of a gem. 8. burning passion; excitement or enthusiasm; ardor. 9. liveliness of imagination. 10. fever or inflammation. 11. severe trial or trouble; ordeal. 12. exposure to fire as a means of torture or ordeal. 13. strength, as of an alcoholic beverage…18. Literary: a luminous object, as a star: heavenly fires… 23. go through fire and water, to brave any danger or endure any trial…»1
And for Greek fire, it tells us… «1. an incendiary mixture of unknown composition, used in warfare in medieval times by Byzantine Greeks.»2
In early Greek mythology, fire is present, as in the cave where Zeus was born, which was considered a secret, as told by Carl Kerényi in Dionysos.
«Only what could not be denied—the great fiery glow emerging from the cave—was openly avowed, indeed, recorded on the calendar. In a purely formal sense, the situation is the same as in the Mysteries of Eleusis; there too the fire could not be kept secret. In Crete a mythological explanation, consecrated in the calendar, was given for the cult fire, whose glow emerged from the cave: namely, that at exactly that time the blood that had been preserved in the cave after the birth of Zeus ‘overflowed’ or ‘attained the point of fermentation.’ This latter translation is provided by the fact that zein also means to ferment.»3
Fermentation is a process that requires a certain temperature, some for the different chemical components to gradually change to a desired component with a certain color, taste, and aroma, among other characteristics. In terms of color, the poets talk about getting the blues, which has become a whole musical genre, or the colors of the rainbow, with the pot of gold at its end. For taste, as we reach for our goals, and they get closer and closer, we can say that life is becoming sweeter. When, after a long ordeal with all kinds of obstacles, we are finally arriving at the other side of the tortuous river, we can sense that the scent of spring is with us.
Fermentation is a slow and sometimes painstaking process. It requires knowledge of the process, determination, courage, love of life, wisdom, willingness to endure any obstacle, acceptance that we may have to start again in a whole different direction, and many other qualities like these ones. Still, one stands out above the rest, and it is called, patience. Without it, all the other ones lose all meaning. They become worthless. And the funny thing is that with patience—which somehow could be defined as the willingness to wait for the right moment, instead of doing it when we want to—things seem to move faster, and also, in the right direction. So, we don’t have to take the same action over and over. Somehow, since the timing and energy are appropriate, things appear to be on a special groove, on a track designed specially for us, like a taylor-made garment, with our own specifications. At that moment, we know we are travelling at the speed of life. By the way, it relates to Einstein’s theory of relativity, since we are at speed zero, in spite of going very fast, when we use, in this case, life as the comparison point. That moment, when we have embraced the fire within, we can describe it as a sweet rainbow in the middle of the spring.
The secret fire is present at the place of birth of the greatest mythological Greek God, Zeus, and then, used as a way of fighting fire with fire, when Iakchos, a divine man, was buried:
«This man may also have been a divine figure. He was said to have softened the fiery power of Sirius at its early rising and thus to have wiped out the epidemics that raged at the time. After his death he was buried in a temple tomb, and when the sacrificial rites had been completed the priests took fire from his altar and carried it about, apparently in a magic ritual directed against the destructive power of the star. Through Dionysos this fire was transformed into ‘the pure light of summer’»4
Many cultures have used fire in their medicinal practices. In Chinese medicine it considers it as one of the five elements it needs to balance in the body in order to have good health. Dionysos, in the Greek tradition, also used fire as a healing tool:
«In the figure of Iakchos, Dionysos’ connection with light and fire was preserved. ‘Fire is a Dionysian weapon,’ says Lucian. The bacchantes were capable of carrying fire in their hair. In the Antigone of Sophokles the chorus calls on Dionysos, ‘who leads the round of the fire-spraying stars,’ to cure the sick city of Thebes.»5
Hair is a sexual ornament, a part of the body that must be covered, according to some cultures and religions, especially by women, in order not to tempt men. Yet, men, traditionally, they have also used hats as a way of not showing their hair, while keeping it short and flat with all kinds of hair lotions. In the military, it is the first thing men are stripped off, as a way of taking away their individuality, their power, as happened to Samson, who lost his power when he lost his hair. And that power of hair is healing, since it carries the fire, the inner power, the sexual energy that so many fear, yet so few know in depth, as it is used in some cultures as a spiritual path, a healing force.
This healing force creates a spiritual transformation, promoting all kinds of processes in our body, many of which were considered a part of the mystery of life and its evolution. As time went by, fire was considered at the basis of any human activity of any significance, since it changed civilizations by cooking foods, forging metal, making dwellings warmer. Erich Neumann describes it in The Great Mother, by mentioning that,
«the experiences of hunger and satiety, thirst and the appeasement, refreshment, and pleasure that come of quenching it, are indeed more commonplace than the experiences of intoxicants, poison, and medicine; but they form the foundation of the mystery experience of transformation by food, which underlies all these phenomena. To this sphere belong also the modification of natural food by fire and corresponding processes of boiling, baking, roasting, and so on. They are all crucial cultural achievements of mankind; indeed they are the presupposition of all human culture.»6
Referring to the Great Mother, Neumann mentions the polarity of fire, the two versions of the same element, the positive and the negative, before we accept the unifying force of the elements in life. The polarity is our every day existence, as it is taught to us, as we repeat that lesson to others, to the younger generations, to our relatives and neighbors, as the obvious true of life, without pondering if there’s a unifying aspect to it. It is not a consideration that we usually accept in our awareness of our inner and outer surroundings. This is the polarity Neumann mentions when he explains that,
«the goddess is not merely the vessel of the Great Round; she is also the dynamic of the life contained in it. In Egypt as in India and in alchemy this dynamic is manifested as fire and heat. This fire can be consuming and destructive, but it can also be the positive fire of transformation.»7
The polarity of one element, with characteristics that could lead to a unifying view if we would allow it. This symbolism does not take the same shape in every land, culture, worldview, like in Egypt, where…
«Fire symbolism is usually associated with another form of the Great Goddess, the cat-bodied or cat-headed Bast, and the lion goddess Sekmet. The lion goddess symbolizes the devouring, negative aspect of the sun-desert-fire, the solar eye that burns and judges; while Bast, although she is a goddess of the east, is goddess not of the sun but of the moon. For the moon as well as the sun is born in the east and dies in the west.»8
The polarity is unified when two people come together, as in the sexual act, as in the carnal union, as in two souls melting each other by the obvious connection of their material expressions, their body, yet, with a lot more to offer at other levels if we allow ourselves to delve into other fields, as sexuality is viewed in other cultures. So, of course, sexuality could not be out of the picture. Without it, as we know it, we wouldn’t be on this earth. And on this planet we have a patriarchal system in place, which was not always the ruling factor. Women and fire have been together for ages, even if our culture has forgotten about it. Oh, how easily we forget! So, when the matriarchal aspect comes into the picture, fire has its place.
«This matriarchal symbolism of the heavens survived in Egypt for thousands of years after the patriarchal solar theology had become the official world view. We find a corresponding situation in Mexico, where the celestial pole was looked upon as the ‘hole’ in which the drill is inserted in firemaking.»9
According to Einstein, change is the only permanent thing, which at first might sound like a contradiction, but it gradually starts to make sense as we gradually accept change in our lives, as we see that movement doesn’t have to be disconcerting, it could actually be something we could look forward to. Still, studies show that change is a stressor in most people’s lives, since we want to hold on to the familiar, therefore, avoiding change, sometimes at any cost. It’s a losing proposition, since change is inevitable. We are fighting against life. A bit too much ego for our own good. The mountain might look weak, yet if we keep on banging our head against it, most likely our head will end up with damage. The mountain will not be moved in terms of spatial displacement. It might be moved emotionally, as Native Americans would consider Nature having feelings. So, unless we accept change, no progress, healing, joy can be received. The inner transformation produced by fire, may also be represented in very concrete terms, as Neumann tells that,
«With the use of fire as the symbol and instrument of transformation, the vessel, too, is transformed; this is the origin of ceramics. And now begins to be improved by frying, roasting, and boiling. A later development is the bake oven, intimately bound up with the mysteries of agriculture: grain and bread. Thus the Feminine becomes the repository of transformation and in the primordial mysteries lays the foundations of human culture, which is transformed nature.»10
When we work or play with clay, the figures, pots, or any other object we make have certain strength, durability, allowing us to do certain activities with these pieces. Still, they are not very durable, unless we place them in the kiln and cook them. Fire will turn those fragile pieces into stronger containers. Their message is, «Allow yourself to get into the fire of transformation, ‘cause you will be stronger.» Nothing remains the same after their encounter with fire. Again in sexuality, the male enters the kiln of the woman. The fire is already there, resting, getting ignited by the encounter.
«The luminous male principle is experienced by woman in two forms, as fire and as higher light. In this connection the fire that is everywhere tended by woman is lower fire, earth fire and fire contained in the woman, which the male need only ‘drill’ out of her. The libido that flames up in sexuality, the inner fire that leads to orgasm, and which has its higher correspondence in the orgasm of ecstasy, is in this sense a fire resting ‘in’ the Feminine, which need only set in motion by the Masculine.»11
The sexual act is compared to the making of fire, which may have two outcomes for the male.
«This association is probably as old as the making of fire, which is often interpreted as a sexual act, with the fire arising, or rather being born in the feminine wood. For primitive mankind, friction does not ‘make’ fire, but merely calls it forth. Thus archetypally, the ‘heat,’ the ‘ardor,’ of the woman can also appear as a ruinous diabolical power that burns the male.»12
The divine son is interpreted as the light, the fire, or related to the divinity, in various cultures, just like fire was present in the cave where Zeus was born. And sexuality is related to the divine in some cultures, so, fire and the divine walk hand in hand. Something that to most people in the Western Hemisphere might sound strange, since the divinity is usually associated with celibacy, to the point of sexuality becoming something that should be hidden, and hopefully, avoided.
«Agni, the Indian fire god, is called ‘he who swells in the mother (the fire board).’ And everywhere the meaning of light and fire is attributed to the divine son, down to Christ, who says: ‘He that is near to me is near the fire’ and ‘Cleave the wood and I am there.’»13
Fire and fecundity symbolize the sexual union.
«Over and over again, the darkness of the nocturnal Feminine is kindled and fecundated by fire and light; and even when the luminous embrace means a marriage of death for the woman, it is a death transfigured in new birth.»14
In terms of addiction, fire appears in various version of its meaning, depending on what type of addiction we are talking about. First of all, if I may be arrogant enough, I disagree with the great Fyodor Dostoevsky, when he says, «Without suffering, happiness cannot be understood. The ideal passes through suffering like gold through fire. The heavenly kingdom is attained through effort.»15 I see it as a Judeo-Christian addiction to suffering in all of its forms. Yes, we may learn from suffering, yet I don’t see it as a requirement for a full, rich life, with happiness as one of its ingredients. Yet, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that we will find suffering, aplenty, if we have considered it as a prerequisite to happiness. It will come, and as with any obsession, we will not be satisfied until we find it, and once we have found it, we will not let it go. It’s an addiction to pain, until we go through some other types of fire, the ones that might help us liberate ourselves from such obsessions as pain and suffering, if that moment of liberation does come, or if we are willing to look for it. And when it comes, if we are willing to accept it, embrace it, incorporate into our life. Many ifs waiting for our decision to let go of the addiction to pain, as we get used to more joyful inner and outer surroundings. In spite of first impressions, a really hard task to accomplish, since the emotional homeostasis will push us back to the known environments of pain, victimhood, old wounds, and all what has kept us there, down there, somehow remaining in the womb, years after birth.
So, the hand, the friendly hand shows up, bringing us up and out of the womb. We have been reborn, we have found the light, life is with us, joy is all over. Familiar? It’s what we usually call falling in love. An interesting choice of words. Many authors have written about them, and poets as well. It relates to addiction, and it appears of a different kind, yet the dependency is there. We have to discriminate here, since not all relationships are addictive, yet we might recognize certain aspects that sound familiar from our life, or people we know. The couple mentioned here is famous, so you’ll have no problem recognizing them.
The longing and the passion expressed by lovers in certain cases can be an addictive quality, and it relates to the fire of passion. Linda Schierse Leonard tells the story of a pair of famous lovers in relation to addiction, by saying that,
«The musical prelude of Tristan and Isolde expresses one single emotion—endless insatiable longing. This longing is the longing of addiction. The longing almost has a drugged quality, being based in the love potion that seals their passion, which Tristan and Isolde at first try to control. From the beginning their love is impossible; that impossibility—once they have delivered themselves to it—continues their addiction. The love philtre is the symbol of the fire of passion and the inextinguishable longing through which addictive lovers are possessed.»16
Love can also have a different quality, a creative one, the one that redeems the spirit in a song of liberation from the chains we have created around our life, the art of enchaining ourselves in order to justify paralysis, so we may have something to show since at a deeper level we feel we have nothing to show. The divine creative fire of love melts the chains, purifies the smoke and residual pain and agony left from a life, many lives (?) of wounds in our soul, individual and collective, so with this fire the wound is healed, the heart is fresh like the morning dew, with all its drops of water staring at the early sun, reflecting the inner true self, answering the questions the gods have been asking without getting any answer. Now, the answers are all there because they were always there. It’s just that the wounds blur our vision, crippling our walk, muffling our talk, leaving us on the side of the road, as if life meant nothing, just because from that place life means nothing.
In The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Father Zossima is a spiritual figure of great wisdom, after having gone through the agony of the deepest sorrows, he mentions different steps to take in order to overcome the dark forces of life, yet without avoiding the forces of darkness. This is a beautiful reminder of shadow work, since when we avoid the shadow, the shadow takes control over our life. As long as we acknowledge the shadow, there is hope of overcoming it. The opposite is denial of our reality, it’s falling into codependency, the path to addiction. In order to overcome the shadow, we must go face to face with it, no matter what the price we must pay for freeing ourselves from its control over our life. By avoiding it, we have sold our soul to it, only going deeper and deeper into addiction, however addiction manifests in our life.
In terms of the steps, they resemble the 12-step program of AA. Leonard tells that,
«Zossima teaches about the ‘steps’ of the soul’s ascent on the spiritual ladder of God. These steps, like the twelve steps, require acceptance of suffering, humility, surrender, faith in a higher power, taking responsibility for our own sins and for all humans, confession, forgiveness, prayer and meditation, and the gift of love for others. These steps are the way to redemption and to rapture. In their enactment one experiences ecstasy and the gifts of creation. Zossima’s transformation from addiction into creativity is one that regenerates the earth, redeeming the missing mother and the abused feminine and uniting all beings from the mysterious center of the human heart, which is guided by the divine creative fire of love.»17
The 12 steps of Alcoholic Anonymous have a humble approach, by admitting that as people, as mortals we are not able to handle the issue ourselves, so we surrender to a higher power. And it works for many people. Still, I just wonder if recovery forever—since somebody who has had the alcohol or drug addiction will never be cured, according to AA— is not a decision promoting that person to never be free. In other words, by saying that somebody will never be free of addiction, isn’t that person making a self-fulfilling prophecy of permanent enslavement to the addictive process? I know it’s a tricky subject, since so many people could not function in life until they found the support of the program and the people who volunteer at AA activities, which are respectful and loving, yet I also wonder if it doesn’t contradict what Einstein said about change being the only constant. AA is saying that people might get sober, yet they’ll always be addicted. That sounds like people don’t change, therefore change can’t be the only constant. It is a tricky dilemma.
And talking about users of tricks, the trickster is both a demonic and healing figure, which has been forgotten by what Jung calls the «so-called civilized man,» and in acting this denial, the Trickster controls us, since we pretend it doesn’t exist. We may do it in several ways, and the most popular one in terms of chemical substances is alcohol. Jack London talks about it in his book, John Barleycorn, when he says that, «It’s a trick of John Barleycorn to turn the smile to a sneer without an instant’s warning.»18
As quoted by Leonard, Jack London continues with his tale of John Barleycorn and the tricks he played on him, by depleting his energy, quieting the passion of his soul, the energy to search for his inner truth, since London was the one with the fire, the desire to go deeper:
«It is these good fellows that he gets—the fellows with the fire and the go in them, who have bigness and warmness, and the best of human weaknesses. And John Barleycorn puts out the fire, and soddens the agility, and, when does not more immediately kills them or make maniacs of them, he coarsens and grossens them, twists and malforms them out of the original goodness and fineness of their natures.»19
In a way, the life of the addict is a life that experiences the deepest pains and joys in life. An adventure plagued by extreme sensations and emotions, the ones most people try to avoid. It’s an unstoppable roller coaster built many years ago, so, how do we know it is safe? In many cases it is not, and the cars just fly out of the rails, landing in some distant field, maybe without having the ability of returning to the tracks. Yet, the flying that ends with a painful landing might be the wake-up call the addict needed to come out of the daze. Still, they might fight it hard, pulled by the physical and emotional homeostasis telling them that it is not a safe and known place where they are now, so it is better, no matter how painful, to return to known territory, meaning, daze, smoke, addiction. So, they bring themselves back to the so-called safety zone, drowning feelings and emotions, no matter the consequences.
Fire is consuming every aspect of that recovery. First, when the soul is on fire, yet the addict attempts to put it out of the fire by practicing the addiction, and then, when the recovery starts, they are going through hell. Yes, it is a painful process, since the ones with the addiction are being witnesses to the fire of the real self, of what was efficiently denied, of having a clear picture of themselves, inside and out.
So, of the Russian writer Leonard tells that,
«The story of Dostoevsky’s life—his flight and fall into addiction and the gift of his spiritual recovery and creativity—shows a soul on fire. Through the transformation of his own addictive patterns into creativity, Dostoevsky was, like all recovering addicts, a ‘witness to the fire.’ He was ‘possessed’ by the energies of both the Demon Lover and the Creative Daimon. Many of the archetypal figures in addiction are portrayed in the various characters in his novels. From him, we can learn in depth not only the powerful machinations of the mind of the addict, but also the transforming and redemptive path of recovery and creativity.»20
The Demon Lover is the one we give ourselves in addiction through its different forms, by seducing us, to finally enslaving us. The Creative Daimon is an inner force, a spirit within bringing energy, promoting the creative aspect within us to express itself. The Creative Daimon will help us to let go of the addiction, will help us to be free.
Denial of our inner reality is burnt by what Leonard calls trial by fire. Life, God, the Universe, or however we might want to call it, can’t take it anymore, so we are pushed into a situation in which we finally face our stark and painful reality. This not only goes for chemical addicts, but for anybody who doesn’t want to face their reality, using whatever method or combination of methods available to practice the denial.
In The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky, Fyodor is the father who abuses his children, addicted to alcohol, who gets killed. Of the brothers, Dimitri is the oldest and the one who is the most like his father. Dimitri is the one who most openly expresses his hatred and contempt for his father. Maybe he sees too clearly the reflection on the mirror that his father represents to him, besides the wound and pain at having been abandoned by his father at early age. Dimitri follows his father’s path into addiction, so he waited, as the norm in addictive behavior is, to be overcome by Life, after a lifetime of denial. Leonard mentions that,
«Like many addicts, Dimitri was unable to see his life clearly until he was struck by thunderbolt. He had to be taken hostage and imprisoned before he could acknowledge the depths to which he had fallen. But once he underwent the public accusation and humiliation and his inner trial by fire, he understood not only his own suffering, but the suffering of all humans. And in accepting that suffering he was able to open up his heart to others.»21
Dostoevsky was starting to write the sequel to The Brothers Karamazov in 1881 when he died.
«He was buried in the graveyard of the Alexander Nevsky monastery, where rest many of the most famous composers, artists and writers of Russia. Thirty thousand people attended his funeral, at which there were fifteen choirs and seventy-two wreath-bearing delegations. Dostoevsky’s death was mourned on every level. He was to become one of the greatest figures in world literature. He was truly a person who passed from the bondage of the Demon Lover to the service of the Creative Daimon, and he left a great gift. His soul was on fire with the flame of divine creation. And, like the legendary firebird of ancient Russia, he consciously sacrificed himself, leaving the brilliant plumage of his writing to water the earth and to shine with the transcendent beauty and love and hope for those who look to see it.»22
Austin Powers, the International Man of Mystery created by Mike Myers keeps Dr. Evil in check, so in order to diminish Powers’ abilities, the Dr. takes away the mojo from Powers, this being the fire, without which the special Powers is an ordinary man. Powers has to get it back, since he knows he has lost it. He doesn’t have the energy, the special powers to defeat Dr. Evil, unless he recovers what is essentially his. Dr. Evil fights hard to keep Powers from recovering his fire. The doctor knows that without it the superagent can’t do much. Finally, the man of mystery gets it back, and justice is reestablished on earth.
In the same manner, the gods are sometimes very cautious about delivering the fire. The hero has to trick the gods, in order to be able to recover the fire. It’s the path of the addict, or of anyone willing to transcend the ordinary existence mentioned by Hermann Hesse in his works, The Steppenwolf and Demian, special beings, different from the rest. In a related tale, Joseph Campbell tells the story of a Polynesian hero who tricked the god guarding the fire, in order to recover this gift, and return it to mankind. At first, the battle was in favor of the fire guardian, yet…
«Maui of Polynesia went against Mahu-ika, the guardian of fire, to wring from him his treasure and transport it back to mankind. ‘Clear away the brush from this level field of ours so that we may contend together in friendly rivalry.’ Maui, it must be told, was a great hero and a master of devices.»23
So, they battled by tossing each other in the air, until it looked like Maui had lost the battle, but in a quick turn of events, he started tossing Mahu-ika up.
«Mahu-ika turned over and over in the air and commenced to fall back; and when he had nearly reached the ground Maui called out these magic words: ‘That man up there—may he fall right on his head!’
«Mahu-ika fell down; his neck was completely telescoped together, and so Mahu-ika died. At once the hero Maui took hold of the giant Mahu-ika’s head and cut it off, then he possessed himself of the treasure of the flame, which he bestowed upon the world.»24

III. Mythologies of fire

Myths suffer transformations of all sorts due to various reasons. One of them is that usually the stories were transmitted orally, so each storyteller would add or subtract a few words or interpretations. In time, the story would change considerably, by conscious and unconscious actions.
One of these cases is the story of Jason trapped in the belly of a whale. And Joseph Campbell explains that,
«In the Eskimo story of Raven in the belly of the whale, the motif of the fire sticks has suffered a dislocation and subsequent rationalization. The archetype of the hero in the belly of the whale is widely known. The principal deed of the adventurer is usually to make fire with his fire sticks in the interior of the monster, thus bringing about the whale’s death and his own release. Fire making in this manner is symbolic to the sex act. The two sticks—socket-stick and spindle—are known respectively as the female and the male; the flame is the newly generated life. The hero making fire in the whale is a variant of the sacred marriage.»25
Yet, the Eskimo story follows a different path:
«The female principle was personified in the beautiful girl whom Raven encountered in the great room within the animal; meanwhile the conjunction of male and female was symbolized separately in the flow of the oil from the pipe into the burning lamp. Raven’s tasting of this oil was his participation in the act. The resultant cataclysm represented the typical crisis of the nadir, the termination of the old eon and initiation of the new. Raven’s emergence then symbolized the miracle of rebirth. Thus, the original fire sticks having become superfluous, a clever and amusing epilogue was invented to give them a function in the plot. Having left the fire sticks in the belly of the whale, Raven was able to interpret their rediscovery as an ill-luck omen, frighten the people away, and enjoy the blubber feast alone. This epilogue is an excellent example of secondary elaboration. It plays on the trickster character of the hero but it is not an element of the basic story.»26
There’s a repetition in the cycles of life, like the seasons of the year, after the fourth completes its term, the first one starts again. Something that is not considered by European cultures is the end of the present period of the world by fire. Campbell expresses that,
«The cosmogonic cycle is normally represented as repeating itself, world without end. During each great round, lesser dissolutions are commonly included, as the cycle of sleeping and waking resolves throughout a lifetime. According to an Aztec version, each of the four elements—water, earth, air, and fire—terminates a period of the world: the eon of the waters ended in deluge, that of the earth with an earthquake, that of air with a wind, and the present eon will be destroyed by flame.»27
Just like with the Aztecs, in the Native-American tradition fire has an important role. Mad Bear, a medicine man of the Bear Clan of the Six-Nation Iroquois Confederacy of the U.S. and Canada, once brought a lamp that imitated fire to a group of young warriors who were playing music and singing with him. Mad Bear had quite a sense of humor and a special way of looking at people and life. Doug Boyd, a writer who tells the story, who I met about a year ago, was present, as well as a medical student from an Ivy-League school in the Northeast, who was interested in Mad Bear’s work.
«We all carried chairs into the adjoining garage. With the bed hoisted up and the car out in the yard, this was a larger space than the three small rooms in the house. Mad Bear carried a bowl of chips and a plate of cookies from the kitchen. We arranged our chairs in a circle, and a large washtub was turned upside down in the center. It appeared as though these visitors were accustomed to this ritual: With the three of them pounding out the rhythm as they sang, we were treated to an assortment of ‘social songs,’ with Mad Bear joining in from time to time. ‘Oh, I almost didn’t think of it!’ he exclaimed, snapping his fingers and jumping up from his chair. ‘I’ve got just the thing for this occasion. I think you guys may not have seen this—I had it put away, and I ran into it and dug it out the other day.’
When he returned, he was carrying a strange-looking contraption and an extension cord. ‘Lemme just set this up here. This’s something really exquisite here.’
‘Oh, my God, save us!’ groaned one of the kids.
Mad Bear placed the thing on the floor and turned it on. It began to creak and clatter as the little electric motor churned inside. It was an artificial ‘campfire’ arrangement of plastic ‘logs’ with some red cellophane and tinsel rotating around a light bulb inside. Mad Bear watched it contemplatively, trying to look serious.
‘That’s totally ridiculous!’ another complained.
‘This s’posed to be a fire pit, or what» Looks like something some white folks would dream up…’ He looked at us. ‘Oh, ‘scuse me, sorry.’
‘Well, it’s not exactly a sacred fire,’ Mad Bear conceded, holding back a chuckle. ‘But then we’re singing social songs in the cement garage, anyways. You’ve got to admit it. It’s kinda stunning in a way—if you look at it just right.’
His three young friends were eventually able to ignore the thing enough to resume their drumming and singing—though the little grinding motor and the crinkling of the cellophane produced an incongruous background. They had a lengthy repertoire of songs, and they repeated a few of their favorites more than once. We had sat for nearly two hours when Mad Bear suggested it was time to retire.
‘This fire thing is pretty silly at that,’ he remarked, when they had gone. ‘You would have thought they were a little bit put out—but, actually, I think they got a kick out of it, to tell you the truth. These reservation kids, it’s sure not easy for ‘em. They are raised in a somewhat traditional way but, with school and TV and all, they have to figure how to fit in and how to deal with their identity. Well, it’s pretty rugged for everyone these days, I guess. Just how to be—it’s not too clear anymore. And there’s not enough support for people. But you can’t take yourself too serious, you know, no matter who you are or what you’re going to be. Otherwise, it gets too heavy. Main thing is, you gotta stay lighthearted if you wanna be good-hearted.»28
Which is the real fire, the real passion for truth and healing, the path to the real recovery of all the possibilities? Mad Bear seems to show the way of not taking oneself too seriously due to the danger of an inflated ego. Yet, the path becomes more difficult for those riding two horses, the Native one, as the young warriors who disapproved of Mad Bear’s lamp, while riding the other horse of the White culture that completely surrounds them. Which one is the right one for them, and for all those that ride two horses, as myself?
I feel the pull from two sides. I feel the longing for the traditional ways of my people, while accepting the new ways I’ve come to get used to in the Northern lands. So, do I go south or remain in the North? Where does my heart go, in order to stay at ease, at peace, warm and knowing of being wanted, accepted? Or is it a lost cause, like the one the young warriors are facing with their two horses ready to take them away, yet in different directions?
The combination of two backgrounds, of two forms of fire is enriching, yet many warriors will find insulting, awkward, and just plain ugly to be presented with something that doesn’t have the spirit of the real—to them—fire. Maybe, with the passing of time, as in the case of Mad Bear, we get to appreciate the beauty in the fakeness of imitations of life. It’s a different version of the fire of life, yet an attempt at relating with it, and there might be where its value resides, in that reaching out, in that longing for the original fire.
Another version of fire can be accomplished in a simple trash can in the middle of a parking lot, when the elders, as in the case of elder Rolling Thunder, decide that it’s OK for a ceremony. Fire being the central ingredient, the unifying force of the ritual of coming together for a healing purpose. Healing being the expression in different ways of the oneness of all beings in whatever celebratory version that expression may take. And fire is at the center of this celebration, as a symbol of life, of Spirit, of the life force.
Two cultures came together for a common purpose when a group of young Navajo Indians built a ceremonial fire where a ritual took place. One of the participants was sensei (master) Jison, a Japanese monk. After the ceremony was done, a young warrior stayed behind, waiting for the fire to die down, so the ashes could be collected. This troubled Jison, who didn’t understand why the young warrior had to stay alone, while everybody went ahead, so he volunteered to help.
«’All right, I can get the ashes for you,’ Jison said, as he walked back toward the fire. He stepped out of his clogs and, stooping over, pulled off his gloved white socks and lay them over his clogs. Barefoot, he stepped into the fire, holding his robes away from the flames. The fire was burning low and almost out, but the coals were glowing bright red. The coals crunched under his bare feet as he stomped on them. Sparks flew. This was not ordinary ‘fire walking’: Jison stayed long in the fire, pulverizing the coals into small pieces, grinding them to ashes by twisting his feet, and then standing on them until they were smothered and cool enough for him to scoop up into his hands. He held out his cupped hands and said something in Japanese.
«’May we put the ashes in the jar?’ Hiro translated.»29
The ashes are what was left of the fire. They are the memories of creation, of life gone to rest. Ashes signal the new day is coming, after the old fire has completed its cycle. The ashes are still a bit warm from the day before, yet ready for a new fire to get started. It’s when hair gets gray, and then, white, coming into the silver years, when one is preparing to leave room for the new fires coming to take our place. Jison could navigate the fire and ashes, he was comfortable in both worlds, since he had learned about life.
Seeing the other, the one that looks different than us, the one that does things differently, or has an accent when they speak, can be a scary experience, a source of inspiration, or a deep sense of anger and hatred, usually based on fear and sometimes memories of old wounds that time hasn’t healed. Arnold Mindell refers to all of these emotions and the situations they inspire, in his book, Sitting in the Fire, Large group transformation using conflict and diversity, in which he explains Worldwork, the system he uses to promote healing among communities of diverse racial and social backgrounds. It has a lot of similarities with what we, at the Institute of Imaginal Studies, call reflexive pathologizing. The difference is that the people participating in Worldwork belong to various racial and ethnic communities, something that unfortunately doesn’t happen at our school. Also, the people participating with Mindell, in some cases meet once and they might never meet again, a great difference from our program, which lasts from two to four years, and during all this time the same group shares all of the experiences of the learning and healing process, which I find enriching and supportive of each person’s process.
At the beginning of his book, he describes working with diversity, saying that,
«Creating freedom, community and viable relationships has its price. It costs time and courage to learn how to sit in the fire of diversity. It means staying centered in the heat of trouble.»30
I’m going through incredibly transforming changes at our school, which are evolving my life in ways I hadn’t imagine, and I’m thankful for that, yet I have a tremendous longing for diversity in all of its forms at our school, especially in the case of racial and ethnic diversity, which shine by their absence. I see the absence of students of different colors and worldviews, as the result of fearing what Mindell calls the fire of diversity. The geographical location doesn’t help much, either, since our school is far from a big city, the usual place of residence for most minorities. I feel isolated when I express my view of various events. I see myself as having a view that would be understood in other places, by other people, yet at school I’m the odd one thinking and feeling the way I do. I have opted for silence, yet it is not an easy alternative to me, since I enjoy expressing my views, sometimes more than what it is convenient in certain circles. I get in trouble, and I see that happening often within my cohort at school, since I am talking in a whole different cultural language, while I get blank stares of not knowing what I’m trying to say, of what’s in my heart, or the way I could be heard in order to capture my message. Just like we talk about the generation gap, in this case there’s a tremendous cultural gap, both sides not knowing how to translate what the other one is saying.
According to Mindell, Worldwork offers a number of new perspectives, such as Chaos—similar to what we promote in our cohort—, Learning, Open Heart, Self-knowledge, and The Unknown. In relation to Open Heart, Mindell mentions that «Worldwork relies on heartfulness in order to sit in the fire of conflict and not be burned. Worldwork uses the fire’s heat to create community.»31
In terms of The Unknown, he expresses that, «Worldwork acknowledges that sustainable community has always been based on respect for the unknown.»32
The Unknown perspective clashes head-on with the Western perspective of asserting that science is the answer to all the quandaries in life, which leaves no room to the acceptance of the unknown, to accepting the mystery of life, which would create a space for myth and symbolism to flourish, the field of philosophers, mystics, and poets, and in a somehow apparently contradicting, yet encompassing embrace of the wholeness of it all, the scientist would also join this category, since when science is not treated with dogma, specifically the Newtonian perspective of science, then it leaves enough room to roam along the prairie of knowledge unencumbered by the limitations of materialistic science as it is usually taught at schools all over the world. That approach to science is starting to die a slow death, leaving space for the fluid science, the all-accepting perspective of unifying opposites, the vision that polarities have a place where they can join each other in a unified field, in a togetherness of the elements, in a conjunction of the once former enemies, in a Yin-Yang of science, the final reunion that so much fear inspires in believers and non-believers alike, and for a good and powerful reason. No, in this case, it is not paranoia. It’s a reality-based fear of the opposites collapsing due to the pressure exerted by the forces of inclusion, something that very few are willing to accept within or without the domain of science.
In The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, Jung mentions the fire of the alchemists related to the word «idea,» and connected to the vital force that connects us all. All of this is hard to grasp within the materialistic notion of Newtonian science, which becomes quite reductionist in its theory as well as its application, not accepting more than what it can measure, a typical Newtonian concept. Positivism at its best. So, fire and collective unconscious? «Very well, let’s measure it, if you think it’s so real and scientific,» the positivist would tell us. Then again, maybe there is more than one approach to science. There might also be a more expansive one, one that in political science would be called the politics of inclusion, the big tent, which is, by the way, a constant debate within the Republican Party in the U.S. They keep on asking themselves, «should we include in our party, gays, women, and minorities?» A tough question when some religious interpretations given by some of the members of the party tell us that those people shouldn’t have much of a say in any event. Sounds extreme? I would agree.
And where does fire fit in all of this? Well, let’s see what Dr. Jung has to say. I have put three periods, «…» when I couldn’t reproduce the words used by Jung. I believe he’s using the Greek alphabet in these cases.
«68 Take, for instance, the word ‘idea.’ It goes back to the …. concept of Plato, and the eternal ideas are primordial images stored up … (in a supracelestial place) as eternal, transcendent forms. The eye of the seer perceives them as ‘imagines et lares,’ or as images in dreams and revelatory visions. Or let us take the concept of energy, which is an interpretation of physical events. In earlier times it was the secret fire of the alchemists, or phlogiston, or the heat-force inherent in matter, like the ‘primal warmth’ of the Stoics, or the Heraclitean … (ever-living fire), which borders on the primitive notion of an all-pervading vital force, a power of growth and magic healing that is generally called mana.»33
One of the dilemmas that throughout history humans have had to deal with is how to determine who’s sane and who is crazy, to use a lay, politically incorrect term. Once we label somebody as such, as insane in some manner, ostracism is the usual response we take next with those ones who think differently than the majority of society. And we act the whole process with the backing of the scientific community. Some people, who think or have thought in a manner opposing the state’s design for good thoughts and behavior, have been sent to psychiatric wards throughout history in a harsh and obvious way, and it is still done today around the world with a more sophisticated style. So, thinking differently might be detrimental not only to your mental health, but also to your physical health. As I remember One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which once patients were placed in the psychiatric ward, they would have a hard time coming out. The response of the Native American man was quite interesting, to pretend that he was deaf-mute, creating a shell around his life as a way of protecting himself from an otherwise unattainable situation.
Jung mentions the story of a man who had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. Jung met him in 1906, before he had been acquainted with mythology and archeology, as he states it. The man, when the young Dr. Jung went to visit him, asked him to wag his head and blink his eyes as he was doing. He told Jung that he would be able to see the sun’s penis, and he added that from that penis the wind was created. Jung describes the fire as the sun-god. Four years later, as Jung started to study mythology and archeology, he found a book by the philologist Albretch Dieterich, in which he writes of a Greek papyrus. It comes from the Alexandrian school of mysticism, showing remarkable similarities with the story the patient had told Jung some years before. In relation to Dieterich’s work, Jung says that…
«106 It is obviously the author’s intention to enable the reader to experience the vision which he had, or which at least he believes in. The reader is to be initiated into the inner religious experience either of the author, or—what seems more likely—of one of those mystic communities of which Philo Judaeus gives contemporary accounts. The fire- or sun-god here invoked is a figure which has close historical parallels, for instance with the Christ-figure of the Apocalypse. It is therefore a ‘représentation collective,’ as are also the ritual actions described, such as the imitating of animal noises, etc. The vision embedded in a religious context of a distinctly ecstatic nature and describes a kind of initiation into mystic experience of the Deity.»34
Jung talks about the archetype of the old tiny man as the unconscious and also, the sun, the greatest fire, comparing the smallness of the figure of small man to the power of the atomic world in physics. Besides, sometimes in life the smallest detail may hold the clue that resolves the whole puzzle. I was surprised by Jung’s interest in physics, yet what could be considered the most material of sciences is reaching into what many would label the spiritual or mystical world, specially with the quantum version of physics, the study of smallest particles in the Universe, the ones Jung refers to.
So, Jung keeps on mentioning the sun, fire, and firebrand, in this case, in their relation to fairytales.
«409 In certain primitive fairytales, the illuminating quality of our archetype is expressed by the fact that the old man is identified with the sun. He brings a firebrand with him which he uses for roasting a pumpkin. After he has eaten, he takes the fire away again, which causes mankind to steal it from him. In a North American Indian tale, the old man is a witch-doctor who owns the fire. Spirit too has a fiery aspect, as we know from the language of the Old Testament and from the story of the Pentecostal miracle.»35
Fire and sexuality are connected, as we saw it before. This connection came up in a session when Jung, who sometimes used drawings when working with his patients, was using a particular drawing, labeled Picture 4, which depicts a sexual symbolism. He’ll use this description to make a connection, later, between emotions and fire. He describes the picture by saying…
«557 The serpent in our picture represents not so much the spermatozoon but, more accurately, the phallus. Leone Ebreo, in his Dialoghi d’amore, calls the planet Mercury the membrum virile of heaven, that is, of the macrocosm conceived as the homo maximus. The spermatozoon seems, rather, to correspond to the golden substance which the snake is injecting into the invaginated ectoderm of the nucleus. The two silver petals (?) probably represent the receptive vessel, the moonbowl in which the sun’s seed (gold) is destined to rest. Underneath the flower is a small violet circle inside the ovary, indicating by its colour that it is a ‘united double nature,’ spirit and body (blue and red). The snake has a pale yellow halo, which is meant to represent its numinosity.»36
Relating emotions to fire, Jung continues working with Picture 4, this time when he shows the picture to one of his patients. He expresses how the danger of the snake is viewed differently by men and women:
«559 As to the context of Picture 4, Miss X emphasized that what disturbed her most was the band of quicksilver in Picture 3. She felt the silvery substance ought to be ‘inside,’ the black lines of force remaining outside to form a black snake. This would now encircle the sphere. She felt the snake at first as a ‘terrible danger,’ as something threatening the ‘integrity of the sphere.’ At the point where the snake penetrates the nuclear membrane, fire breaks out (emotion). Her conscious mind interpreted this conflagration as a defensive reaction on the part of the sphere, and accordingly she tried to depict the attack as having been repulsed. But this attempt failed to satisfy the ‘eyes,’ though she showed me a pencil sketch of it. She was obviously in a dilemma: she could not accept the snake, because its sexual significance was only too clear to her without any assistance from me. I merely remarked to her: ‘This is a well-known process which you can safely accept,’ and showed her from my collection a similar picture, done by a man, of a floating sphere being penetrated from below by a black phallus-like object. Later she said: ‘I suddenly understood the whole process in a more impersonal way.’ It was the realization of a law of life to which life is subordinated. ‘The ego was not the centre, but, following a universal law, I circled round a sun.’ Thereupon she was able to accept the snake ‘as a necessary part of the process of growth’ and finish the picture quickly and satisfactorily. Only one thing continued to give difficulty: she had to put the snake, she said, ‘One hundred per cent at the top, in the middle, in order to satisfy the eyes.’ Evidently the unconscious would only be satisfied with the most important position at the top and in the middle—in direct contrast to the picture I had previously shown her. This, as I said, was done by a man and showed the menacing black symbol entering the mandala from below. For a woman, the typical danger emanating from the unconscious comes from above, from the ‘spiritual’ sphere personified by the animus, whereas for a man it comes from the chthonic realm of the ‘world and woman,’ i.e., the anima projected on to the world.»37
Continuing with drawings, Jung mentions the mandala, a figure used for contemplation in some eastern traditions. Of the three circles that some of them have, painted in dark colors, like blue or black, the outer one is made out of fire, also known as the fire of concupiscentia, a Latin term referring to sexual desire, lust. This fire relates to the torments of hell, due to the desires.
«The horrors of the burial ground are generally depicted on the outer rim. Inside this is a padma, ‘lotus-flower.’ Then comes a kind of monastery courtyard with four gates. It signifies sacred seclusion and concentration. Inside this courtyard there are as a rule the four basic colours, red, green, white, yellow, which represent the four directions and also the psychic functions, as the Tibetan Book of the Dead shows. Then, usually marked off by another magic circle, comes the centre as the essential object or goal of contemplation.»38
Fire as a gatherer of souls, as a center of dialogue, of getting to know the other, the one that resides in ourselves, the reflection of our soul on the personification across the fire. The light between you and me, the fire separating —or is it uniting?— two souls willing to reach for one another. It’s the warmth we long for, the tenderness missing in our daily lives, the comforting embrace of the friend, the lover. So, the fire is there to show us the way towards that warmth, that sparkle in life inviting us to give more, so we may become aware of what we have. Are we reluctant? You bet, yet the fire is modeling for us the way, like a gentle father supporting us while we are learning to give our first steps. And so, we tentatively hold on to his hands, hoping he’ll remain with us, ‘cause safety is only a concept, valid as long as we think it will last. The transitory condition of something we are holding onto, hoping it will not be a fleeting reality. As time goes by, the fire has helped us getting closer, as we gradually lower the guard, the tense muscles loosening up a bit, as we redesign the way we hold onto the body, accepting that we have one, so, why resist it so much? The connection with the other is becoming more comfortable, less painful, as we accept the body we have been rejecting for so long.
Timothy Leary —who I met in Los Angeles at a book signing— the great explorer of the psychedelic world, traveled all over the earth, at times, to discover different ways of thinking and the conceptualization of reality, and during more urgent travels, because he was running away from the law, due to his chemically induced practices, illegal in many lands. This time, he’s visiting India, where he goes to the house of an Englishman who had become a master within the Hindu tradition. They have been talking long about spiritual practices and rituals. Talk can go on forever, especially when the company we are in has a lot to say, and in an amusing, rich, and illuminating manner, as was the case with the Englishman. Timothy was fascinated while listening, yet the change of pace was necessary, so all would not be just words. A remembrance that the soul without a body is not something we easily recognize. The necessary conjunction of the earth and the heavens, both supporting each other, like lovers giving each other warmth in a cold autumn night. At that precise moment, the Englishman gets up and tells Timothy, «Enough talk about ritual. Let’s sit by the fire in the kitchen and cook a fine hot meal to warm our souls.»39
Hot meals warming the soul, sounds as if Roberto Assagioli was talking through the Englishman, as Timothy calls him. Assagioli, the developer of Psychosynthesis, was a psychiatrist who lived in Florence, Italy, and who spoke of two levels of development in order for the individual to reach that psychosynthesis: First, the bottom floor of the house, the personality psychosynthesis, the foundation for the second floor, the spiritual psychosynthesis. He describes a type of first things first approach to growth, so the first floor comes first, before we fly into the heavens. That’s what the Englishman was referring to when he mentioned that it was enough of ritual, and that it was time to remember the body, so a fine hot meal would warm the soul. It’s what happens to those who jump into psychedelic experiences when the ego is not strong and clear enough to handle the experience. It’s like starting to build the house from the second floor, before the first one is strong enough to support the weight of the second one. So, some people who go the chemical way into the second floor, sometimes remain there, not knowing how to come back, if they are aware that they have remained there. Of course, the question could be, why would they want to come back? Still, I see it more as a choice, since they didn’t intend to remain there in the first place. It like somebody who travels for touristic reasons, and then remains in a distant land. And if that land is enticing to the point of no return?
A bridge between the first and the second floor is made by poets. They are familiar with both levels, so they offer themselves to be the go-betweens for both dimensions. Poets are the messengers from heaven, the translators of the imaginal to us, mere mortals, living in a material world. Many poets have sung odes to the fire, as an inspiration for their trade, their sculptures of words based on passion, pain, and the celebration of life. Their songs have been of as many colors as the rainbow is willing to give us. One of these painters of the language is David Whyte, born in England, yet now residing in the U.S. where he has taken on the unusual job of bringing poetry to the big corporations. By definition, a contradiction in terms, yet he’s succeeding, getting the acceptance of engineers and accountants, MBAs and administrators that maybe life doesn’t have to be gray, full of ties, suits, dark colors, and distance between the souls that inhabit the imposing and threatening looking structures where they conduct their activities. Just maybe, yet the maybe is gradually becoming a little less threatening as they embark into trips destined to the imaginal world, the one they were never taught it even existed, at least not for serious, professional people.
So, poetry, dreams, and songs of the soul have entered Wall Street thanks to David Whyte and all the other bridge makers who are bringing back the fire of the soul to places that for a while too long thought and felt there was not such a thing. And the business community is embracing the call of the soul, many drinking from the poetic cup with a thirsty look in their eyes. Well, how else?, you may ask. Exactly. So, David is having poetry workshops between computers, statistics, diagrams, and bottom lines. Could this be the reason for the longest economic expansion in the history of this country? I would say, yes. The unidimensional perspective has regained its fire, its mojo, as Austin Powers would call it, finally embracing the multidimensionality of life, the soul in all of us and all around us.
Whyte, who I met in Seattle when I attended one of his courses, mentions that,
«We live, it seems, no matter our time, between two fires, one hot and one cold, and because real creativity has always had an undercurrent of death and resurrection to it, as poets or managers we must intuitively wonder in which element we are to eventually perish. Here is Robert Frost, earlier this century, in his intimate but understated New England voice, mulling his possibilities.
Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if I had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
«This familiar knife edge between nourishment and terror, between everything that is passionate and everything that is numb and cold, seems to lie, like the fire warming our hearts, at the center of human aspiration. Our own fiery possibilities for a passionate and creative life carry with them at all times the possibility of being burnt by failure or cast into the outer darkness of frustration. Asked to speak a creative but disturbing truth and we freeze at the prospect and hold our tongue. Better, we might think, to keep that fire hidden, a chilled destiny lived out on the level of frustration far preferable to a fulfillment that burns out before our eyes, and worse perhaps at work, before other’s eyes. We never step fully into the darkness, but neither do we step toward the flame of our most central belonging, and become the fire itself.
«The fear that our flaws may be revealed to others or that we may lose the work relationships which sustain us through risky creative action and the burning away of surface appearances has been one of the timeless underlying themes of poetry and drama, themes which still inform our everyday attempts to live out the soul’s desires at work.»40
We are taught at home, then at school, later in our new families, our jobs, by religion, the legal system, and all the other institutions and people who mold our lives, that we better follow the path. It is not necessarily what we would call our individual path, but more the path which has been placed in front of us, so we may walk on it and become who’s expected of us by the ones around, as well as by our ancestors and society’s ancestors. We know there are, maybe, harsh consequences if we don’t follow the path given to us. One of them is ostracism due to scapegoating, or even harsher ones depending on the costumes of each community. History is full of these cases, and some of us have experienced the retaliation in our own life. So, social wisdom basically tells us, Follow the path, yet the question remains, Whose path? Theirs or mine?
David Whyte talks about following our own path, which he calls…
«The Path of Fire
«In my experience, the more true we are to our own creative gifts the less there is any outer reassurance or help at the beginning. The more we are on the path, the deeper the silence in the first stages of the process. Following our path is in effect a kind of going off the path, through open country. There is a certain early stage when we are left to camp out in the wilderness, alone, with few supporting voices. Out there in the silence we must build a hearth, gather the twigs, and strike the flint for the fire ourselves.»41
The seeker is punished for the defiance to the path they were given and didn’t take. There are no rewards, in spite of good work done by the seeker. One option is to withdraw, to become absent, to avoid being part of the crowd, the scene, the communal relations. It’s self-ostracism, a high price to pay to remain true to the calling of the inner path, yet sometimes the only alternative to stay where one believes from the deepest warmth of the heart that it is the right decision, a survival option, one of sanity while remaining true to the inner call. In relation to avoiding being present, David quotes Doonesburry’s creator Garry Trudeau saying, «I am trying to cultivate a life-style that does not require my presence.»42
What happens when we don’t listen to our inner voice, to our inner fire, to the desires the soul is expressing, by pretending they are not there? We actually pay a high price, expressed in the accumulation of smoke. In many cases that smoke becomes an addiction, the only way we might have found to cope with the pain and affliction brought on by our betrayal of the soul. The pain we feel due to the betrayal is so great that numbness is the painkiller of choice. The answer seems simple, to listen to the calls of the soul, to satisfy the desires we have been craving for during a lifetime. It presents itself as a decision, as a parting of the road, as an offering of becoming adults. What will it be?
In one of his poems, David says…
«Always this energy smoulders inside
when it remains unlit
the body feels with dense smoke.
«… A reminder that refusing to open to the fire and vitality in our nature, whether it be out in the ocean or riding the crest of a stormy meeting room is not a passive process. We cannot neglect our interior fire without damaging ourselves in the process. A certain vitality smolders inside is irrespective of whether it has an outlet or not. When it remains unlit the body feels with dense smoke. I think we all live with the hope that we can put off our creative imperatives until a later time and not be any the worse for it. But refusing to give room to the fire, our bodies fill with an acrid smoke, as if we had covered the flame and starved it of oxygen. The interior of the body becomes numbed and choked with particulate matter. The toxic components of the smoke are resentment, blame, complaint, self-justification, and martyrdom.
«The longer we neglect the fire, the more we are overcome by the smoke. But at least we have the comfort of remembering the old saying, No smoke without fire. If we are suffering the consequences of asphyxiation from the smoldering fuel inside us, we are at least aware there is a fire and fuel there to find and breathe on.»43
The smoke can also be created by overdoing activities that are considered positive by the ones who know us. This is called workaholism, an interesting addiction, since it is one that receives praise from society, until various aspects of the workaholic’s life start to fall apart, of course, usually starting with family relationships. So, when we rest, we regain consciousness of our thoughts and feelings, those we have been repressing by remaining constantly busy. In other words, workaholism is an avoidance of the self, and taking it deeper, an avoidance of the soul’s desires, of the inner fire.
David expresses it by saying that,
«Taking time for ourselves and allowing an easy rest into the body gives permission for our deeper unconscious life to stir. Images germane to our future spontaneously begin to rise to the surface. A certain inner fire begins to burn. These images have to do with the deepest and perhaps most precious desires. We intuit the tongue is close to the articulation of these images when we feel at once a strange and familiar exhilaration tinged with grief, embarrassment, and often, if they have remained unspoken, regret.»44
Then, if we let time go by, if we don’t mind living with the smoke, if others around us also are full of smoke, if it becomes normal not to listen to the persistent calls of the fire, could we even forget that there’s a fire in the first place?
A participant in one of David’s courses told her story in no uncertain terms. She surprised herself and everybody else with her own story, by the poignancy and pain of her simple message. They all felt it inside, with ownership, with a sharing that they wished hadn’t happened. «No, no, sometimes it is better not to allow your feelings to accept the sharing of an experience,» they could have been telling themselves. Yet, it was too late. She had told her story, she had spilled the milk and made a mess of everybody’s careful manicured lawns and picket fences.
«Some time ago, at AT&T, I found myself working with a roomful of particularly thoughtful managers. We were looking at the way human beings find it necessary to sacrifice their own sacred desires and personal visions on the altar of work and success. Out of this a woman wrote the following lines. She read them slowly from the back of the room, unaware how stricken we all were by the silence she created.
«Ten years ago…
I turned my face for a moment
and it became my life.»45
IV. My discoveries
The child has been forgotten, has been left alone in a foggy space, looking around, not knowing who to turn to. I am there. Suddenly, I notice it is my child, the one who used to play with matches, the one who was enthralled by the flickering of the flame, by the warmth of the fire. The adult forgot the flame and the fire, since there was not much to remember. The adult forgot the child, it just didn’t register. The adult is me.
How does a betrayed child feel? I don’t know. I would have to talk to him. It’s rather scary, even shameful. Where are you, child? Where are your matches? Are you still fascinated by the flame and the fire? Or, have you forgot them as well? Let me know if you remember them, maybe you can show me how to keep them alive.
I see how I have forgotten the fire within, the desires of the soul, and in the process I have paid a high price, the smoke filling my lungs, blurring my vision, making me numb. Feelings, intimacy, relationships, a distant reminder of years past. Poetry, yes, I’ve heard of it, a long time ago, ‘cause for too long it has been absent from my life, as I try, often very hard, to clear the smoke in front of me, behind, within. I only see smoke, yet not much else. Yes, it is suffocating. The danger is that after a while I couldn’t tell there was any smoke. Life, I felt, had smoke. That’s all. It’s funny, ‘cause my father used to be a volunteer fireman. When he would put out a fire, he would make sure that it was totally extinguished. In my case, it’s a loss from the beginning, since the fire of the soul can’t be put out, only turned into smoke.
Fire is timeless, the flame in the fire has been inspiring creativity and soul’s expression since life has been around. All generations nurture from it, yet the young seem to embrace it with more passion. They are at their prime in most aspects, and the fire raging within is at full speed. Is that why we fear the young, since it is an ugly comparison when we look at ourselves having forgotten what fire is all about? So, what are the young ones telling us, listening to? Many calls from many directions. One of them is Jewel, a poet, singer, thinker, calling on passion and desire for life and the fulfillment of the soul’s cravings for a fire alive. Kiss the Flame is an asking of no half-ass commitments to life, of a holding of the fire, of a risking getting burned, of a man who knows his heart, willing to embrace the wild within, the untamed. She’s calling on brave men, the ones open to letting go of the smoke by kissing the flame, embracing the fire.
«Kiss the Flame»
Please love let’s make no impartial vow
Let all fall away
That’s not crucial now
I want a brave love, one that makes me weak in the knees
I want a crazy, crazy love
One that makes me come undone at the seams
‘Cause I’m tired of all these pilgrims, these puritans, these thieves
Of all these unbelievers who whittle love down at the knees
Let these swift roads destroy themselves
Let the world fall into its sleep
For we shall be spared
We shall be left standing
To face what’s left of concrete and honey
Kiss the flame
Let’s run with the hunted, the untamed
Kiss the flame
Embrace the faceless, the unnamed
Kiss the flame
There are nightmares on the sidewalks
There are jokes on TV
There are people selling thoughtlessness
With such casualty
But wherefore are thou Romeo
Where have all the brave men gone
Show me one man who knows his own heart
To him I shall belong
Kiss the flame
Kiss the flame
Kiss the flame
Please love let’s make no impartial vow»46
1. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition Unabridged, Random House, Inc., p. 721.
2. Ibid, p. 837.
3. Carl Kerényi. Dionysos, archetypal image of indestructible life, Bolingen Series LXV, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, p. 33.
4. Ibid, p. 77.
5. Ibid, p. 78
6. Erich Neumann. The Great Mother, Bolingen Series XLVII, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, p. 60.
7. Ibid, p. 219.
8. Ibid, p. 220.
9. Ibid, p. 225.
10. Ibid, p. 285.
11. Ibid, p. 310.
12. Ibid, p. 310.
13. Ibid, p. 311.
14. Ibid, p. 312.
15. Linda Schierse Leonard. Witness to the fire, creativity and the veil of addiction, Shambala Publications, Inc., Boston Massachusetts, p. 258.
16. Ibid, p. 59.
17. Ibid, p. 321.
18. Ibid, p. 95.
19. Ibid, p. 100.
20. Ibid, p. 259.
21. Ibid, p. 308.
22. Ibid, p. 291.
23. Joseph Campbell. The hero with a thousand faces, Bollingen Series XVII, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, p. 182.
24. Ibid, p. 184.
25. Ibid, p. 247.
26. Ibid, p. 248.
27. Ibid, p. 261.
28. Doug Boyd. Mad Bear, Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, New York, p. 239.
29. Ibid, p. 331.
30. Arnold Mindell. Sitting in the Fire, Large group transformation using conflict and diversity, Lao Tse Press, Portland, Oregon, p. 17.
31. Ibid, p. 18.
32. Ibid, p. 18.
33. C.G. Jung. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Bollingen Series XX, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, p. 33.
34. Ibid, p. 51.
35. Ibid, p. 224.
36. Ibid, p. 314.
37. Ibid, p. 316.
38. Ibid, p. 356.
39. Timothy Leary. Flashbacks, an Autobiography. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, California, p. 219.
40. David Whyte. The Heart Aroused. A Currency Doubleday Book, New York, NY, p. 84.
41. Ibid, p. 87.
42. Ibid, p. 88.
43. Ibid, p. 91.
44. Ibid, p. 229.
45. Ibid, p. 230.
46. Jewel Kilcher. Spirit. Atlantic Records Corporation, New York, NY, song #4.