It has been a devastating year for local natural disasters. First was Hurricane Harvey flooding Houston in August, followed in September by hurricanes Irma and Maria leveling much of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and other parts of the Caribbean and a major earthquake in Mexico. When October brought the most destructive wildfire in California to Napa, Sonoma and Santa Rosa, I was thinking enough is enough. Mother Nature had other ideas.
The ability to empathize with another’s suffering usually begins with the personal and the familiar. Our capacity to feel our own pain, grief and loss awakens the possibility to feel the same in another. When it comes to large scale tragedies, we need to awaken a new dimension of our being that can hold the immensity of grief and loss without being overwhelmed. This level also seems to begin personally. I felt sadness at the situation in Houston and Mexico, but because I didn’t know those areas, or anyone in them personally, the grief didn’t penetrate very deeply. But the destruction of St John was personal and visceral and my whole organism went into shock. Anger, helplessness, and guilt intermingled with the grief. But I wasn’t there on the ground, and my safety or comfort wasn’t threatened.
The Thomas Fire, still burning in the back-country, heading toward the condor sanctuary in the Sespe Wilderness took this to a new level. After seven years of drought, the land is devoid of water, bone dry and ripe for fire to run wild. As you can see on the fire map above, the Ojai valley was surrounded by the inferno. The fire, with the help of high winds, did its best to descend upon us, but an extraordinary effort by the firefighting team, (at one point, 8500 firefighters engaging all the fronts) saved most of the town. As of today, 154 Ojai families lost everything. Our neighborhood, just down the hill from the fires edge, and the core of the town was saved. The siege of Ojai, with non-stop flames and smoke, lasted from Tuesday Dec 5 through the morning of the ninth, when it was finally clear Ojai was safe. Much fear, anxiety and surrender poured through us.
After Friday, what will soon be the largest wildfire in California history continued to burn in the neighboring towns of Ventura and Santa Paula and headed to Carpinteria and Santa Barbara, home to many dear friends and their families. It appears that as of today, December 22, the inhabited regions are safe, but the wilderness continues to burn.
Given my highly repressed Irish Catholic background, I have become very good at stuffing all the bad feelings into some deep inner room, but with this wildfire event, those doors have burst open and the stuffers are scrambling about in confusion. The wild side of my psyche has been aroused to a new level and it is both exhilarating and exhausting. It is probably not ironic that my primary response to the fire has been the water of cleansing tears.
I was at a Whole Foods in LA the other day grabbing a sandwich for lunch when I saw my first firefighter since this whole journey began. The tears I had been holding in for two weeks burst through the dam. I wanted to go up and thank him as a representative of all his brothers and sisters who laid their lives on the line for everyone else, but I couldn’t compose myself. The intensity of the gratitude was so overwhelming the stuffers were unable to help. I walked around for 10 minutes and tried again. Fortunately he was still in the store and I somehow managed to mumble a few words about being from Ojai and how thankful I was for our home and the town being saved. Turns out he was from Ojai, his family lived a few streets away from us, and although he was fighting another fire in LA, his family kept him abreast of the local developments. It was a cosmic moment. I know there are still more tears to come for those who lost everything, and the devastation of our wilderness environment, but at least the healing has begun.
A major mentor of mine, geologian and visionary Thomas Berry, articulated 12 principles to help guide the human in coming to terms with their relationship to the Cosmos, and I always return to him for a cosmic perspective. Principle 5 speaks directly to the events of this year. “The universe has a violent as well as a harmonious aspect, but is consistently creative in the larger arc of its development.”
The violence of creation is a given. Stars explode to create the elements that allow life. Our sun consumes itself to provide energy for our planet. Mother Earth periodically balances the energies of the planet by unfolding the macro-phase powers of the four elements, earth (quakes and volcanoes; water as flooding, wild fires and air/hurricanes; all natural, all part of the larger dynamic, but none the less, usually sources of deep suffering for the humans. Attachments are painful, and it is ok to have attachments, as long as we can feel the depths of loss when they are gone, allowing life to flow though us in all her power and magnificence. It is ok for our small selves to feel lost in the immensity because this opens the door for our Cosmic Self’, Atman, to awaken.
When confronting the wilds of nature, we are also reminded of our own energy fields and their needs to balance. One of the great realizations of the Tao’sts, and indigenous cultures everywhere was that life processes of the human, and life here on Mother Earth, are a microcosmic expressions of the large scale dynamics of the Universe. We acknowledge this relationship in our solstice celebrations. As we are now passing through the winter solstice, those of us in the northern hemisphere celebrate both the darkness and spark of life still present, at the fullness of the yin, when the days are the shortest, the nights the longest. In June, we will honor the fullness of yang with the deep support of the yin in the background, ready to continue the endless rhythmic cycle.
In both Chinese Medicine and yoga, the dynamic balance of the elements fire and water determine our indvidual health and well being. In Chinese Medicine, the heart governs the fire and the kidneys govern water. The passionate heart does not want to become a hot-headed fool. The cool kidneys don’t want to become depressed. With the support of the kidneys, the heart is able to feel the intensity of being alive, from ecstatic joy to deep grief, because the kidneys are their to provide cooling and grounding in the background. With the support of the heart, the kidneys can can allow a dropping into a deep stillness because the heart offers a spark of light in the depths of the darkness.
In Light on Pranayama, B. K. S. Iyengar describes Prana, the Sanskrit equivalent of Qi, as the union of two ‘anti-elements’, fire and water. Fire is the yang heating, rising and expanding aspect of creation, whereas water is the yin cooling, descending and condensing dimension. Pranayama practice explores and balances these vital elements. When the two are in a dynamic balance, magic happens. When they are out of balance, disease and disruption occur. Practice that balance Prana is important for healing.
This Yin/Yang non-dual model of reality posited by the Tao’ists offers many more fascinating explorations in growth, awakening and healing for the curious and adventurous. The basic principle is that yin is never separate from yang and yang never separate from yin, but both are very easily differentiated. The dynamic relationship between them is the qi or energy that drives all levels of creation, from atoms to galaxies. Patanjali recognizes masters of qi in the Samadhi Pada:
I-40 paramaanu-parama-mahattvaanto’sya vashikaarah
Mastery (of one who has refined their sensitivities) extends from the smallest particle to the totality of creation.
As humans, mastery is not a onetime achievement, but an endless pursuit, continuously supported by the depths of mystery that is our Source, our True Nature, Brahman to the Vedantans. As stated so eloquently in this non-dual Vedic mantra from the Upanishads:
”Om Purnamadah Purnamidam Purnat Purnamudachyate
Purnasya Purnamadaya Purnamevavashisyate
Om, shanti, shanti, shanti.”
That is fullness: (the infinite unchanging Purusha) This is fullness. (Creation/the world of change, impermanence, Prakriti.)
When creation emerges from mystery, fullness remains: When creation dissolves back into mystery, fullness remains.
Even in our suffering and confusion, we are always, full, whole and complete.
Om, shanti shanti shantih.