Wildfire, Tapas, and the Pain of Transformation

If you live in the American southwest, or any other tinder-dry area of the world, you understand that there is always an unrelenting and ghostlike threat of wildfire in the summer. Drought, late freeze, bark-eating bugs, and other natural phenomena (or indicators of climate change) spur the potential for insurmountable rage manifested in the form of super-hot flames that have a mind of their own.

Fire breeds change. However apparent this is to someone looking at it from afar, or comfortably reading about it in the New York Times, it is dreadfully hard to realize and accept up close.

As we here in Colorado watch our beloved landscape turn to ash, or lose our loved ones, homes, or pets in a wildfire, we can’t help but feel our tender hearts singe and char to an undetectable clump of debris. When the place we’ve called home, or the comfortable backdrop to our day-to-day lives is suddenly destroyed right in front of our eyes, change does indeed happen, but it doesn’t feel very good.

In the Sanskrit dictionary, the characteristics of fire are referred to as ‘tapas.’ Interestingly enough, ‘tapas’ is also used as a verb meaning, “to hurt or cause pain.” As described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, tapas is the fuel that feeds the fire of transformation. When we strive to change a habit or break out of a rut, there is naturally some type of resistance to overcome, otherwise it would be easy and none of us would feel stuck in our current situation. Whether the resistance is caused from an inner confrontation with some personal issue, or the raw agony of having to step outside of our comfort zone, the result of this resistance or friction inevitably causes internal fire, or pain.

A real fire ensues extreme feelings of helplessness and fear. These feelings have a tendency to choke us straight into panic mode, leaving us grasping at who-knows-what, in an attempt to try and preserve the illusion of normalcy that once comprised our lives. For those given an evacuation notice, or worse, the dreaded news that the family home has been destroyed, all sense of security, however loathed at times, has now become just a shade of grey in one massive billowing plume.

After a fire, there is no other choice than to recreate new life. Inspired by the possibility of transformation, all of nature including the human spirit eventually rises from the ashes after a good, hard burn.

Fire is indeed a huge catalyst for change; there is absolutely no denying it. If you find yourself experiencing tapas from the flames of transformation, you must trust that like the Phoenix that rises from the ashes of its own burning body, you too shall rise and be free of heat, fire, and hurt. Just as the trees and the grass take their own sweet time to regrow and are stronger and more resilient after a wildfire, you too must embrace patience in regrouping after the combustible trauma that burned the swaddling comfort that used to sheath your life.

As yogi sage T.K.V. Desikachar stated, “Everything about tapas must help you move forward.” Without it, we may miss our chance to truly thrive and transform after a disaster. In due time, we will grow stronger and become happier beings in this world we call home.

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