I’m sitting alone in front of a campfire in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Northern California. I am three days into a nine-day healing retreat. I am thrilled to have this time to myself. When you have the opportunity to put your "householder" duties aside, and be a "sadhu" for a week or two, it can be very enlightening.
My campfire is small and is burning at a steady pace. I have never built my own fire before. Since I didn’t have the honor of being a girl scout, I never learned how. Actually, I don’t really know if they taught you that kind of thing, or if you were limited to making things like cheese puffs and macrame squirrels.
At any rate, I learned how to build a fire today. Nobody actually showed me how, but my years of casual observation of other peoples fire building skills have apparently come in handy. This campfire is not to keep me warm, as it is about 90 degrees out. The fire is part of the spiritual purification process of this retreat. We are working with the five elements, and sitting alone with the fire is part of the experience. We are to fast all day, tend to our fire, and not speak to anyone.
I am told that the Native Americans called this kind of thing a "Vision quest." I am sure that most anyone else would call this thing difficult, crazy or several other choice words. It is actually a little difficult, but certainly no crazier than anything else I’ve ever done.
I am very proud of my fire. It is the perfect size for me. I sit with it until it burns down to the coals. Now it’s time for a bath, and I make my way toward the hot springs. After my two-hour soak, I return to my fire pit. The weather has shifted. The clouds are moving in and I hear the rumble of thunder. It looks as if it is about to storm. As expected, the fire is now completely out. The black and gray ashes fill the pit and it no longer has the gentle feel of the small burning fire. I stare at the empty pit, knowing that I need to build another fire. But then I also know that it is probably about to rain.
I am suddenly very angry.
"I don’t want to build another fire. It’s too much work. I had a perfectly good fire earlier. Why do I have to start over?"
The ranting continues in my head, "Well, now I have to go and look for wood again…what if I don’t make as nice of a fire this time? And then it’s just going to rain and go out."
I plop down next to the pit, exhausted by my internal dialogue. I turn off my monkey mind long enough to get a clear message from within, "You can’t be afraid to start fires that are going to go out." Then it occurs to me that this isn’t about the fire anymore. This is about life. This is about beginnings and endings and making choices.
I have been limiting my experiences because I am so afraid of the disappointment that can occur when things come to an end. Often in life, we work really hard at something for a long time. It may be a project at work or a relationship with a partner. When it ends, we are so exhausted by the experience that we are reluctant to begin another one. And then when we do, we compare it to the last one and neglect to see the individual gifts the new experience has. Or if you are like me you think, "well if it’s just going to end, why begin it?" Well, of course, the obvious reason is that everything will end at some point or at least change. And change, although uncomfortable at times, is something I actually enjoy. And we must remember that we get to help shape our experiences. We also get to choose our response to them.
Just like anything else, it comes down to trust. Trust the experience for as long as it lasts. Trust that you can enjoy the fire when it is burning. And then when it goes out, you can choose to build another one. It might even be nicer. And if nothing else, you get very skilled at building fires.
As I sit hungry and delirious by my empty pit, I start to see why they call this a vision quest. I spend the next ten minutes gathering wood. And for the second time in my life I build a pretty good-looking fire. Oh, and incidentally, it never did rain….