The Fire of Life

Illness, loss, sadness, endings, unwanted change, arguments, working with people who think differently to us, bereavement… the list goes on.  Things that no life is without.  My Iyengar, the famed yoga teacher, says that when life is good we should know that there is sadness just around the corner and when there is sadness, we should know that there is joy just around the corner.  I don’t believe that anyone gets to the end of life without experiencing sorrow of one kind or another.

Last week I had a transformation of sorts.  I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say that I came to my meditation mat, as I always do, and that something tremendous lifted out of me and was gone; something I have been carrying around with me for most of my life; something that was weighing me down, although I didn't know it.  It felt so physically significant (although it was an emotional/spiritual shift) that I felt that if I stood on some scales I would certainly weigh less than before.  I emerged feeling lighter, more myself, less encumbered and with much more energy.

I had an instinct afterwards that I needed to have a bonfire.  I wanted to have a fire in the garden in honour of this shift that had taken place within and as a sign of gratitude to the universe (God/universal energy/whatever name you choose for it) for what I felt it had willingly taken back from me; for being able to encompass and absorb the thing that I had been able to let go of.

The etymology of the word ‘bonfire’ is interesting.  It is usually taken to mean fire of bones, from the 15th century, but Tom Hodgkinson in last Sunday’s Independent newspaper posited three other sources of the word: that ‘bon’ may come from the word boon, meaning a mark of neighbourly goodwill, from the Norse ‘baun’ meaning beacon, or from the word ‘banefire’ meaning the bane of evil things.  He goes on to explain that bonfires were thought to purify and protect and cites the 16th century historian John Stow thus:
“they would invite their neighbours and passengers also to sit, and be merry with them in great familiarity, praising God for His benefits bestowed upon them.”
As I watched our bonfire burn, wood and garden cuttings changed into the warmth and light of fire and then into carbon dioxide, ash and water vapour, I thought about transformation.  I considered the practice whereby farmers burn off the stubble in their fields in order to plough the goodness that is left back into the soil.  I thought of those flowers that wait in Australia for the bush fires to come and only then, from that scarred and black land, come to flower.  I thought about friends who are going through hard times and the pain that they endure in the process, but how (if they are alert to the process) they emerge with more wisdom and humility than they had before.  I remembered a book I read about research done into survivors of great trauma and tragedy and how many of them report that, although they would never have chosen to go through such terrible experiences, those experiences nevertheless left them more compassionate, more grateful, more generous and more certain that they should live their lives wholeheartedly and to the full, casting aside fear.  I wondered about how human beings are transformed in the fire of life and how illness, sadness, injury and pain can teach us so much if we turn to face the flames instead of running in the opposite direction, or pretending that they don’t exist.
I want to tell you that there is no life without sorrow, but what we do with that sorrow and how we behave in the midst of it is important.  Yogis far wiser than me have told us that we are given these events for a reason; that everything is so that we may learn.  It is a simple matter of asking what you are being invited to learn in any given moment, or as you endure any given event, and then staying long enough both to hear the answer and to incorporate it into your life.
My transformation was deeply significant to me.  I offer thanks to the teacher that I met many years ago who planted the seeds of this transformation in me; like one of those Australian flowers, it has been waiting for the fire of life to burn away what was obscuring it so that it could come into full flower.  I move on from it feeling lighter and more energised, full of amazement at how something I didn’t consciously know was there can have been so heavy and required so much energy to carry around.  I feel profoundly grateful for having the time and the method to travel that deeply inside myself to release this thing.  And I move forward knowing that there are more transformations to come, that life has more to teach me, and with a renewed conviction that I am dedicated to the process of yoga, because it works, it helps, it makes us more conscious, it makes us better. 
Whatever you are learning in the fire of life, I wish you well with it, I hope you know that you can rely on your yoga practice throughout it, I hope you have some friend or teacher (in the flesh or through the written word) who encourages you, helps you find faith in yourself and understands why you are doing what you do.
"The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross



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