Fire has a way of getting people’s attention. Some years back, during a period of change in my life, I made arrangements to stay at a friend’s cabin in the interior. Driving up the Coquihalla Highway, we were surprised to see columns of ash in the distance, rising into the sky. We hadn’t intentionally planned to travel toward one of the greatest wildfires in provincial history, but we carried on anyway, like moths to a flame.
Our destination was a cabin perched on a cliffside in Westbank. On arrival at this idyllic spot, I pulled a text from a bookshelf for bathroom reading. I opened Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology to a random spot and my eyes fell on this passage:
“All things, O priests,” said the Buddha in his famous Fire Sermon, “are on fire. And what, O priests, are all these things which are on fire? The eye, O priests, is on fire; forms are on fire; eye-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the eye are on fire; and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent, originates in dependence on impressions received by the eye, that also is on fire.”
It’s all going up in smoke, according to Buddha: “The tongue is on fire; tastes are on fire; …the body is on fire; things tangible are on fire; …the mind is on fire; ideas are on fire; …mind-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the mind are on fire.”
I dropped the book in my lap and thought, with the scent of smoke hanging in the air, “that’s interesting.”
As twilight fell, my host and I had ringside seats overlooking Kelowna and the inferno building at the town’s outskirts. Dust scattered the remaining sunlight, turning the sky a technicolour purple. Pyroclastic clouds boiled thousands of feet into the air and if that weren’t enough, lightning bolts flashed vertically from cloud to cloud in a scene worthy of some fifties’ biblical blockbuster.
That night, I could make out flames in the distance, but it seemed as if my eyes were playing tricks on me. Given the height of the buildings in the foreground, the flames must have been up to 60 feet in height. That couldn’t be right, I thought. I later heard a similar estimate from firefighters who had never fought a blaze of this scale before.
The two of us were witnessing something sublime: literally, a “terrible beauty” expressing nature’s primal force. We were momentarily safe at our vantage point, but Kelowna residents, evacuated from their homes to local school gymnasiums, were terrified of losing everything. Some did. Luckily, the winds died down and the day-long inferno failed to spread into the town centre.
I didn’t get the Fire Sermon at first; it seemed to me like a piece of eastern wisdom lost in translation. I understand it better now. In mythological terms, fire has been a perennial motif for transformation, of turning one thing into something else while radiating light in the process. In Buddha’s Fire Sermon, human existence is bundled with “the fire of hatred, with the fire of infatuation; with birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair.” (I would add joy, laughter and pleasure to the list of inflammable items.
Western thinkers in the Ancient Near East had a few ideas on these matters, too. Heraclitus of Ephesus, like his predecessor Anaximander, believed the only constant was change. “All is flux,” Heraclitus said, insisting the goal of philosophy was to understand transformations from the local to cosmic level. The Stoic philosopher Zeno introduced the related notion of ekpyrosis, meaning “out of fire,” to describe how the cosmos starts and finishes with a massive conflagration (This has more than passing resemblance to the contemporary scientific theory of a ‘cyclic universe’ that expands and collapses into a fireball and ultimately a space-time crunching singularity).
“There will ultimately occur a conflagration of the whole world,” wrote the Roman thinker Cicero. “Nothing will remain but fire, by which, as a living being and a god, once again a new world may be created and the ordered universe restored as before.”‘
On a more immediate level, Wikipedia defines fire as “the rapid oxidation of a material in the exothermic chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light and various reaction products.” All you need is heat, fuel and oxygen and there’s no shortage of that on planet Earth, which is perpetually on the edge of conflagration. Oxygen, a highly reactive gas, constitutes 21 percent of the atmosphere. If the concentration were even slightly higher, a global firestorm would result. (The probability of a forest fire being ignited increases by as much as 70 percent for every one percent increase in the percentage of atmospheric oxygen, notes Michael Denton in Nature’s Destiny.) In fact, a number of the scientists working on the atomic bomb at the top-secret Manhattan Project were seriously concerned that the first nuclear detonation at Alamogordo, New Mexico would set the entire atmosphere ablaze. Fortunately for humanity, their fears didn’t pan out, but there was no way they or their colleagues could have known for sure until they lit the nuclear match.
Beyond our forestry experts and atmospheric scientists, where would our mythmakers, storytellers, singer-songwriters and poets be without fire? You could interpret Robert Frost’s twentieth century poem, Fire and Ice, as a New England plug-in to eastern software: “Some say the world will end in fire/Some say in ice/From what I’ve tasted of desire/I hold with those who favour fire…”
Beyond that, you and I are burning all the time, literally. Combustion is the prime mover of our biochemistry, in a process of carbohydrate catabolism called Krebs cycle. It’s one of the major processes that keeps us mammals moving, thinking and feeling – a slow burn that’s cousin to the oxidation that slowly yellows the pages of acid-treated books. We are literally combusting – changing irreversibly from moment to moment – from the very things that keep us attached to the wheel of existence.
In his essay “Is Life Worth Living?” American philosopher William James noted that life swings between two poles: positive and negative, pleasure and pain, good and bad. The effort to live according to the pleasure principle alone, undisturbed or unperturbed by life’s changing fortunes, negates the very polarity that gives life depth.
“It is, indeed, a remarkable fact that sufferings and hardships do not, as a rule, abate the love of life; they seem, on the contrary, usually to give it a keener zest. The sovereign source of melancholy is repletion. Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void. Not the Jews of the captivity, but those of the days of Solomon’s glory are those from whom the pessimistic utterances in our Bible come,” James wrote.
At one end of the spectrum, our trend-conscious culture embraces calmness and non-attachment as a lifestyle option. Urban hipsters outfitted with yoga mats and water bottles seek to find the stillness within that will free them – if only momentarily – from the constant buzz of mental distraction and restlessness.
At the other end of the spectrum, we pay lip service to Neil Young’s romantic rock n’ roll dictum that “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” We are mournful but not mystified when one of our culture heroes does the Promethean thing and smacks into the ground after flying too close to the sun… like Hunter S. Thompson, Heath Ledger, John Belushi, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace, Ann Sexton, Amy Winehouse, et al.
In his 1957 beat novel, On the Road, Jack Kerouac famously heralded “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…”
By the mid-sixties, Kerouac was a shambolic figure with little left to say; an alcoholic living with his mother and third wife. He died at 47 of internal haemorrhaging, brought on by a lifetime of heavy drinking. As a sometimes Buddhist, the beat author may well have come across the Tibetan notion that even heavenly pleasures have a hellish aspect. This notion is supported by contemporary brain research on addiction. For example, the pyrotechnic kick of crystal methamphetamine is said to be to 24 times more pleasurable than sexual contact. The flip side of the receptor-site rush is the dopamine drought of meth withdrawal, which sometimes results in criminal acts of incredible violence and depravity. There are some bonfires best left unlit.
The other pole has dangers of its own. Some of us cling so desperately to safe, risk-free conditions we never really experience life in its full tragicomedy. There’s no danger of getting burned; there isn’t much chance of more than a flicker, either.
Last spring, a friend living out east called with some bad news. He had inoperable cancer, but was adamant he would beat it. My friend, in his late fifties – I’ll call him Simon – believed in the power of the mind to alter reality down to the cellular level. I knew the odds against fourth-stage lung cancer were slim to none, but I wasn’t about to share my thoughts; that would have been callous. We talked about alternative therapies to supplement any hospital treatments and I offered to send some meditation/relaxation CDs his way, which he appreciated greatly.
We were more casual friends than anything else so I never got a fix on the fine details of Simon’s life. But I always enjoyed our conversations, which we renewed once or twice a year when he was in town. We met back in the nineties, when he commissioned me to do a T-shirt design. A sensitive man with a good sense of humour, he had an impressive talent for high-end web design. From what I know, Simon only nailed down a handful of high-paying clients for his services. He wasn’t great at self-promotion – a common character trait of creative people – and felt ambivalent about working for big corporations.
Simon had been single for most of the time I had known him and had only recently began a long-distance relationship with a woman in the States. He never seemed to be one for an excessive lifestyle, although I remember he once mentioned moving away from LA because of the drug scene in the entertainment industry. He told amusing stories about some of the Hollywood stars he met and he talked about other stars – specifically, the Pleiades, supposedly the interstellar source of accurate information from a channeller he met.
We talked several times on the phone after his diagnosis, but kept in touch mostly by email. After a month-long lapse, I sent him a message early in August requesting his phone number, which I had misplaced. There was no response. A short time later, I went looking online for his number and discovered a funeral service in his town for a man of his name and age, just two days after my last message. I had that melancholy, uncanny feeling that someone I knew had disappeared from the scene like a coin in a magician’s hand.
In his last conversation with me, Simon described his diagnosis of cancer a “gift.” He wasn’t talking clichéd affirmations about turning lemons into lemonade; he meant it literally, he insisted. He had at last found peace with his family and lived with his parents in his final months. His illness had become an opportunity for Simon to complete some unfinished work. William James’ words, about the unsuspected benefits of suffering and hardship, sprang to my mind.
Human beings are remarkably fragile creatures. We can physically survive in only a very narrow range of temperature and atmospheric pressure, in a thin skein of the Earth’s biosphere. Our chemically congenial bodies react with all sorts of toxic and nontoxic compounds, making us open to a vast range of molecular entanglements, both good and bad. In other words, life depends on the organic material in our bodies being very flirtatious with other substances. It’s capacity to combine is what makes it so easy to break up.
On top of that, we are 75 percent water, making us highly vulnerable to physical impacts. We’re in regular danger of damaging ourselves in so many different ways so it’s remarkable most of us get to an advanced age without looking like the limbless Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. (Even though we have the specific gravity of Jell-O, there are still plenty of drivers who drive under the influence of mobile devices, as if auditioning for Darwin Awards.)
We are an unspecialized species equipped with only our wits to survive. In many places on Spaceship Earth, a naked human being has about as much chance of survival overnight as a mole rat in the Large Hadron Collider. (That’s one reason why so many cheered “Fearless” Felix Baumgartner’s recent world record for skydiving from the edge of space. Considering what could have happened to the adventurer on the way down – a death-metal lyric sheet of bodily horrors – you can only applaud the sangfroid of someone who challenged the planet’s most extreme environment and won.)
We sometimes look to nature for examples of an inner harmony that often eludes us. But even here, we find no prior model for calm existence. Even in complex ecosystems, we rarely find true equilibrium, but rather what ecologists call “dynamic disequilibrium.” Populations of animals regularly overbreed and crash, with the effects rippling throughout the food chain. Nature is certainly not all tooth and claw – there are myriad examples of cooperation across and between species – but life is perpetually balanced between creation and destruction and it can’t be otherwise. The boundary between order and disorder is where complexity flourishes, scientists tell us. Ergo, the fragility and finiteness of life is what allows embodied beings to exist in the first place. Like fire, it’s about transformation; always has been, and always will be. As Aldous Huxley once observed, “The only completely consistent people are the dead.”
I recently ran into someone who knew Simon – let’s call him Allen – and told him the bad news. We talked for a bit about his struggle, and I mentioned how Simon thought he could lick his diagnosis. “We are so in denial of death in this culture,” Allen said, shaking his head. New-agers and non-believers seem to be in agreement in this regard: aging is something unnatural and wrong, a biological flaw we can cheat through medicine or focused intention – or, at the very least, disguise through makeup, surgical alteration and Internet avatars. And if we live long enough, consciousness-preserving salvation from a technological “singularity” a few decades down the road.
The Tibetan monks beloved by Lululemon-wearing westerners don’t buy such sophisticated self-deception, Allen observed. The spiritual practice known as Chöd occasionally involves meditation in cemeteries at night, as a reminder of the constant nearness of death.
Although Simon was fooling himself about his own chances – I could certainly see myself doing the same, given the circumstances – when he talked about how cancer was a “gift” that brought him closer to his family, his voice seemed touched by grace. He was too young to go and his wick was just about done, but there was a late-stage burst of incandescence.
Life is a tough business. We’re all on fire and on borrowed time, at least in our current, transient forms. I can’t see how this knowledge can do anything more than encourage compassion for all beings, ourselves included. We are all in this together – “this” being a colourful conflagration that has continued for billions of years, with forms shedding forms in a ceaseless burning and yearning that sometimes ignites into a blaze of light.
– COMMON GROUND, NOVEMBER