When we think of the 5 great elements we can think of anything, because there’s nothing in this world that doesn’t contain them. When we think about them in the context of spiritual practice, as we often do in this community, we can get pretty romantic. We can wax poetically about the stability of the earth and the fluidity of the water. Which is, of course, true and great! I’ve written lots of prayers offering awe filled gratitude for the gifts of the elements. But recently, I’ve started adding in some intentional offerings of respect and humility too. I’ve started to honor the power of the elements in my morning prayers.
I’ve spent most of my life living under the threat of “the big one,” which is what folks from the pacific northwest call the ginormous earthquake that’s set to come any day now… And, of course, living in this rainy part of the world means I’ve experienced more than one serious and destructive flood. When I lived in Indiana I learned the importance of basements when you see a tornado coming.
All the elements are potentially dangerous. But there’s something unique about fire. Think about an altar dedicated to the 5 elements. It’s ok if the water spills. It’s ok if the feather blows away. The rock will more than likely just remain where you placed it. And that empty bowl representing space isn’t going to cause any trouble. But the candle requires precaution. Fire is always potentially dangerous. It burned down my aunt’s house many years ago. And in recent years it’s been destroying more acres of forest than I can count.
There’s no denying the destructive power of fire. And yet, like all the elements, there is no life without it. Who would we be without the light and heat of the sun? Without the digestive fire of our bellies? Or the fiery passion of our hearts? Fire is potent and in many ways, it makes us who we are.
In fact it’s such a fundamental part of who we are that the rishis who brought forth the Rig Veda, the oldest known Vedic, Sanskrit text, began with the word fire. This ancient, ancient text opens with a hymn to Agni—to fire. The opening line reads:
I meditate on Agni, the forerunner, the Lord of the grand ceremony of life, the one who sponsors the ceremony, the one who makes the offerings, the repository of gems.
When I hear the words of this hymn, I’m struck by the idea of fire as the forerunner—the predecessor, the ancestor. Think about the big bang, which was the beginning as far we can understand it. The big bang was the appearance of very hot space. According to Cern scientists, “the temperature of the entire universe was 1000 trillion degrees Celsius at just a tiny fraction of a second after the explosion [of the big bang].” The beginning of our universe was hot beyond our imagination. It was fire. Fire is a forerunner. Fire, like all the elements, is our ancestor.
Fire is transformation. It turns wood to ash and wax to smoke. Fire is illumination. It allows us to see. Fire is energy and power. And, of course, fire is effort. Think about your own life… Have you ever done something really, really hard? Something that took serious commitment and discipline? Did anyone say that you were on fire?!! Or you were burning the midnight oil? Of course, this fire can tip in the other direction. Have you ever been burned out?
The fire element is potent and powerful. And it forces us to pay attention. Without enough fire nothing happens. Everything becomes dull, lackluster, sluggish. But too much fire and everything is destroyed. Inflamed and rashy. Burned to ash. Either way—too little or too much—and everything is wrecked. Fire asks us to walk a fine line. We have to constantly ask ourselves: “What’s enough?” And “What’s too much?” Like Goldilocks we have to find what “just right” looks like in the balance between hot and cold.
When I think about fire in the context of yoga practice, I can’t help but think of tapas. Remember tapas? It’s part of Kriya Yoga—that triune balance between discipline, awareness, and devotion that helps us lessen the seeds of suffering in our lives. Tapas is also a niyama, one of the daily rituals we enact to care for ourselves, which means we need some fire everyday!
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait says that:
The literal meaning of tapas is ‘shining heat.’ Tapas is the radiance of the life force—it makes us radiant and vibrant. … Tapas is inner fire. It incinerates the impurities blocking the flow of our intuition.
And as I wrote in a past sermon:
Tapas is self-discipline and self-responsibility. Tapas is the commitment to stay in the pause between a feeling and a reaction. Tapas is the ongoing choice to stick with hard practices that you know support your goals. Tapas in the commitment to stay in the fight for social change. Tapas is the choice to renounce a habit that’s killing you. Tapas is the heat that builds up inside us as we put forth effort toward increasing our capacity to stay with the discomfort of transformative change.
Tapas is fire. And fire, when harnessed correctly, can be purifying and illuminating. Fire, when directed with intention, activates our passion and our will power. Fire, in the right amount, gives us the strength to withstand just about anything. Ayurvedic teachings tell us that when our digestive fire is strong and healthy, we could practically eat poison and be just fine. But if our digestive fire is weak, it doesn’t matter how healthy our food is, our digestive system will struggle.
We need fire! But fire requires attention. It needs to be tended. So as we put forth effort—the effort to move in the direction we want to go, the effort to work on something important and difficult—we must pause often and ask ourselves: “what’s enough?” And “what’s too much?” We can remember Kriya Yoga and balance our discipline, commitment, and effort with awareness and devotion.
With this in mind, let’s end with a prayer:
Here we are, in the cauldron of transformative change. We ask fire to help light our way. We ask fire to help strengthen our digestion, our intuition, and our ability to see clearly. We ask fire to help us build energy—vibrant energy—so that we can move forward with intention and joy. We ask fire to help us remember, always, the radiant Light within.