Seeing Things in a New Light
by Wendy Keller, survivor
For a few months, my yoga teacher has been inviting me to attend something called a “Fire Offering” – a monthly ritual he does in his backyard. Through a variety of mishaps, I only got around to attending for the first time tonight. I had no idea what to expect and thus no expectations.
After a vegetarian meal, reconnecting with some of the people in my yoga class and discovering a new, inspiring girlfriend named Bonnie, the Fire Offering began.
I am a skeptic by nature.
I believe rituals were invented by humans to keep them from being afraid of death.
The way I see it, I’ve already been dead. I know there is nothing to fear. It’s being alive that’s the scary part.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a Catholic person sprinkling holy water all over the cathedral, a Navajo sweat lodge or this backyard fire offering – earth, wind, water, fire – humans work with what they’ve got to create rituals, and it’s largely the same few items. My intellect knows this. It also acknowledges that people have been tossing things into water or fire and saying special words for at least 12,000 years if you know about Gobekli Tepe. I know about Gobekli Tepe. This is just how humans are. We’re all still cavemen. Maybe cavemen with iPhones, but still the same inside.
We sat on a big black rubber mat, on homemade buckwheat pillows, in two concentric circles. We were going to watch the inner circle of six people throw white rice mixed with some kind of black seedy stuff into the fire pit. The yoga teacher, Luke Ketterhagen, studied in something called the “Himalayan Institute tradition.” Somewhere, this appellation carries great weight. I hadn’t heard of that institute until this night.
The ritual began with a prayer in Hindi, I think. Then he lit the fire with a lot more prayers. I have enormous respect for this man and his way of being in the world. That’s why I’m here. The rest of it, well, who knows? Luke announced that he would pray silently. Then every few seconds, he would say a word that sounded like “Swaa-haa” to me. That was the cue for the six people to throw the rice mix into the fire, holding it a special way between their fingers. They began.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t fragrant.
It didn’t make the flames turn colors.
It didn’t pop and sparkle like a dry pine branch. I like those.
I wanted something from the ritual.
I wanted something to transform me.
Since this was an allegedly sacred space, I thought, “Let me open myself up. I live too much in my head – about everything. Healing comes from my heart and soul.” I read that somewhere. This is a game, my brain replied. It’s just a caveman game. Why are you here? There’s nothing and no one to believe in. You know that. You’re all alone.
Earlier in the day, I’d noticed a deep vein of negativity running through my conversation patterns. Thinking about the pantomime of all rituals now that I was in the middle of one was high treason to any hope of transformation from this. I respect my yoga teacher immensely. Maybe I could make something of this event.
I decided to stop intellectualizing. After all, I’d made the decision to show up and participate. May as well participate fully.
After those six people, it was my turn to join the next group of rice-tossers. Luke said, “Fire has the power to transform you. Throw in whatever you want to have transformed.”
It’s just a made-up ritual, I thought.
Shut up Self! I said in my head.
Well, I’ve got a whole lot of things I’d like to transform, starting with my character flaws. So I practiced tossing a few of those in, just to see what would happen. Nothing. Whatever Luke is doing, it’s all done silently, except for the “Swaa-haa.” The rice mix is oily and gritty and clumpy. It sticks to your fingers and really quite possibly could stain one’s clothes.
I let my mind wander like a goat in a meadow, just to see where it would go.
It came up with my own associations with fire. The pain and loss I feel still rippling through my life from the house fire that levelled my life; decimated my personal fortune; altered my retirement plans; changed my relationship with my daughter; has cost me so much emotionally, financially and in my own sense of self-worth.
And there it was: my sense of self-worth. To be honest, helplessly watching one’s house burn in a wildfire on CNN is a survivable event. Buying a bunch of new stuff, from toothbrushes to table cloths, is a lot of work (way less fun than it sounds) but it isn’t all that miserable. Losing your dead daughter’s final lock of hair is devastating, but not having that precious possession doesn’t make Amelia less dead or more alive. But facing the shame that you haven’t leapt back up on your feet and turned the devastation into some damn silver lining: that’s the rub. That’s the part that makes me skulk around my life guiltily.
I watched the flames and tossed rice with the best of them. Then the last round of rice-throwers replaced us on the inner circle. I was enjoying the spiritual harmony of the group; the monotony of the Swaa-haa mantra; the mesmerizing effect of the fire.
Funny how fire transforms even atoms back to their most essential.
I once asked a physicist where all my stuff went in the fire. Where did the atoms go? The weight of the ash, even if I could have caught it all in a bucket, was surely far less than the weight of my house and all its furnishings.
He had said it went back to its elemental state – atoms and such – some so small I couldn’t see them. I had thought about that for months after he said it. The ashes were carried by the wind, perhaps many miles distant from my newly-vacant lot. Perhaps they landed on someone’s rose bush or on a toddler’s head. They were still somewhere in this biosphere called Earth. They’d become one way or another a part of the dirt and dust swirling around the planet. Then perhaps something someday would grow in the particles of my house, maybe a tree, maybe in Cambodia or Uruguay. And maybe someday that tree would be harvested and sawn into wood and someone somewhere would build a different house with atoms from my house, or a chair or a table or bowl for holding rice mixed with some kind of black seedy stuff.
That’s pretty profound when you think about it. The atoms are stuck here, forever. They never really go anywhere, they just get endlessly recycled. The atoms in my body might have come from a Native American woman’s burial pyre, the feces of a whale, a wagon wheel on the Oregon Trail, or a baby’s disposable diaper in a landfill somewhere.
Kind of helps you ground to the Circle of Life stuff when you think like that. Makes time and objects, fires and fears, seem a lot less permanent and important. My brain works in mysterious ways.
The bright fire in the dark night and the Swaa-haa were putting me in what I recognized as “alpha state” – where the brain waves go into their own sort of rhythm. Somewhere in that trance, an idea came to me. The fire had transformed my life into something new. I might not like this new. I might want the old. But the second my life was literally touched by fire, I was transformed to an elemental state too.
How much more time am I going to spend trying to sift through the ashes so I can reassemble my fortune, my lifestyle, my peace of mind? And was it really Oh-So-Great back then?
No. It wasn’t.
As a matter of fact, before the fire, I spent a heck of a lot of time hoarding my money, my love, my growth, my time, in a desperate, delayed, useless attempt to make something happen in the world. Back then, before the fire, I really thought that I had the personal power it would take to transform my own destiny. I thought I was impervious to any more loss. I thought the deaths of my children had earned me a “Get Out Of Suffering Free” card for the rest of my life. Boy, was I pissed when it proved to be a counterfeit!
The house fire transformed me. It scattered my elements. It allowed something new to be grown. Maybe something better, but that judgment was immaterial. And here I was, resisting it as hard as I could all this time later. How futile! What an incredible waste of energy! How long – nearly seven years tonight – would I like to live in the past?
The rice mix got all used up. The Fire Offering ended. We all bowed our heads and said “Namaste” – the holy energy in me greets and acknowledges the holy energy in you. I’ve loved that phrase since I learned its meaning years ago.
People stood up to leave.
There’s a man in my yoga class, a sweet, gentle, kind older man named John. We’ve become friendly over the years of practicing together.
He said, “I can see something shifted for you tonight.” Really? Could he?
So I told him about my epiphany. I told him about my house fire and how I finally saw the connection, and my resistance to change, and how my ego has been trying to resurrect the Glory Days that might not have ever even existed except in my imagination. He listened politely. He hugged me warmly.
Then he said, “You’ll know you’re making progress when you are so open to change, you voluntarily burn your own house down.”
I drove home crying.