April 2018

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Playing with Fire

Much of the Western canon is suspicious of fiery spirits. The Greek myth of Icarus tells the story of a son (he must have been a teenager) who despite his father's warning to fly steadily--neither too close to the sun nor too close to the ocean--with his man made wings flew close to the sun, causing the wax in his wings to melt and him to fall into the ocean. 

As a child reading this myth, I thought it was a story about obedience to one's parents, but now I think it's a cautionary tale about soaring too high and too low. Perhaps the myth tells us that we are meant to be steady.

Then there's Lady Macbeth, the Shakespearean "B." Holy cow. The lady wanted her husband to kill the king and to make her queen so badly that she says she would have plucked a suckling babe nursing at her breast and thrown it against a wall rather than leave such a promise unfilled. She was a fiery lady, and in the end she went crazy.

That's what happens in our literature to people who are fiery. They drown or go crazy.

I am not like these legendary characters. I fly steady and throw no one against a wall. I am even-tempered, and the unpredictable and all-consuming threat of fiery spirits makes me tense.

I can only think of three times in my life when I have lost my cool: twice at school administrative support who seemed to me to be thinking of themselves instead of students and once at my father, who was mystified by my anger. There have probably been others, but I have suppressed them. Okay, I just thought of another one. But you get the point. 

I don't like anything that raises my adrenaline: caffeine, a suspenseful movie, or a public (or private) flash of anger.

I am not alone in this discomfort. This month at the Samarya Center where I do yoga, teachers have been doing dharma talks on "tupus," the Sanscrit word often translated as "fire" on one of the eight limbs of yoga. Teachers and students alike have talked about how they have learned not to be too fiery, not to overdo it--whatever "it" is: maybe work or perfection or emotion.

They seem to echo Thomas Merton's admonition:

"The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist...destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."

Though I've never thought of myself as a fiery person, I did tend to overwork before my brain tumors slowed me down, so I kept Merton's words in a frame by the desk in any school where I worked.

I also posted Lao Tsu's "One must know when to stop." A young teacher in the last school where I taught stopped by the sign and asked me, "Do you?" Her question was of course rhetorical. She thought I overdid it. 

I have been tired most of my life and have always been a hard worker who tired out, a late sleeper and a siesta-lover, so I have assumed that my spirit is more of water than of fire. I did a (very little) bit of research Monday on yoga's five elements--earth, water, air, fire, and space--and found a website that described a person of water in this way: "You're sensitive and fluid, responding to feelings more than anything else. Dreams, visions, love, and the mysterious attract you. You may be prone to depression, so try to balance your emotions with rationality." (

I think this did describe me twenty years ago, when I started practicing yoga. I remember my first yoga teacher, Denise, and her fiery spirit, and thinking that I should be more like her.

When I was diagnosed with a brain tumor six years ago, however, I came to suspect that my lifelong fatigue resulted from trying to perform at high levels and to live a full life in this body worn weary by overcoming the tumor. I think now that there's more fire in my spirit than I had thought--after all, I did a lot for someone living with a brain tumor. 

I have often not known myself, so I wondered how the innernets might describe me now. I took an online quiz (you can take it, too, at ( and the quiz situated me between water, as described above, and air:  "You're smart, witty, and process-oriented--but may be a little abstract and spacy at times. You're drawn to ideas and love to learn. Just make sure to leave room for feelings and sensations."

Yep. That seems right. Witty and spacy.

Ann, who still takes classes with Denise, says that she doesn't think that Denise identifies so much with fire anymore. 

Perhaps as we age we take on the characteristics of other spirits. Perhaps when we're enlightened (in a few lifetimes) we'll be an even mix of all of these spirits. 

And then what? I don't know. Maybe we are finished with earthly lives. Maybe then we can just be. Maybe that's what we're here on earth to learn. 

To be. 

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