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wildfire magery

August 1, 2011

Today is Lughnasadh, but that’s not why I’m thinking of fire. Last night I finished reading the book, Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara, by Colleen Morton Busch, which tells of how a group of Zen monks decided not to evacuate their cultural center in the mountains near Big Sur, California, even as wildfires were raging nearby in the summer of 2008. Fires did actually envelop Tassajara (the cultural center), and the monks engaged those fires on their own, trusting the training they’d received, but also their years-long practice of mindfulness, and embracing uncertainty in the face of change.

I’m not a Zen Buddhist, but I found this book very absorbing. There are places where Zen Buddhism (beyond simply the practice of mindfulness) overlaps how I’m trying to live my life; books on Zen Buddhism are providing me a vocabulary to think about slippery concepts.

I think of monks (and mages) as people who have mastered a discipline and are adept at applying their expertise to situations they want to direct, if not control. Because I see control as an illusion, and a goal antithetical to my philosophy, I haven’t been able to find a meaningful way to make use of the ideas of mastery and discipline. But reading about these fire monks gave me an entirely new perspective. They weren’t seeking to control anything, even outcomes. They met the fires with what they had at hand in those moments, they did what made sense, and they lived with the results.

But practice had showed Mako that the more she clung to a sense of self as something to guard and protect, the more she felt obstructed. Happiness came in loosening your grip, letting your solid identity — your expectations and assumptions about who you are — go into the oven’s mouth and burn up in the fire of practice. Or in a wildfire. (p. 173)

I think I have unwittingly begun an apprenticeship in letting go. I have partnered with metaphoric fires or floods or earthquakes or tornadoes to resculpt my life, removing everything that isn’t essential. All that remains is the fire inside.

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