Anyone involved in the creative arts, or with an active spiritual practice, probably has some strong positive associations with the symbol of fire. It is passion, inspiration, faith, hope, transformation, courage, resurrection, rebirth, purification, healing, creativity, the heart’s desire, the soul’s purpose. Being “on fire” is the highest compliment: we are tapped into the life force, joining our personal creativity to a greater force and doing some of our best work.
Finding one’s fire is an epic journey, and central to the human condition. From Prometheus to Maui, the creation stories which feature heroes, gods, and animals assisting humans in their quest for fire are legion. In mystery traditions, these tales are often read as initiatory journeys, and the mastery of various skill levels is spoken of as the ability to carry fire, or walk through the fire.
In my experience, there are three stages of working with fire personally and symbolically. The first is finding one’s passion or calling. This entails going down into the darkness, hunting for who we truly are, learning to recognize the pure fire of spirit amidst all other distractions, and gaining the strength to follow it. This journey takes years. Some people come to it early in life, some much later, but whenever it presents itself, it requires of the seeker great courage and persistence.
The second stage is the long work of tempering the blade. Once we claim that inner fire it claims us, and will send us through every experience imaginable to purify and transform us into an instrument which can contain and direct it. If we have not chosen the right path for us, we will likewise be sent through all the situations we need in order to understand that we need to choose again, or revise our understanding of what our calling truly is.
Being an artist, or following a spiritual path, is met with more than a little skepticism in mainstream society, and rightly so. People have all different reasons for following a creative muse, but in the end I think that such a life ought to nourish or contribute to the larger culture in some way.
Prometheus didn’t go through all those centuries of torture just so that some of us could sit around collecting Grammy awards for awful music. If you have talent and no discipline, or ambition but no depth, the work you produce will be flimsy and will only contribute to the public impression of art as frivolous, spirituality as vapid. It happens all the time, and is a lure that is easy to succumb to, but it’s not the best we can do. And if we’re not going to bring our best to our art or calling, why bother?
The third stage, and the one that interests me the most, is what happens when we have a reasonably tempered blade, and have achieved a modicum of mastery in whatever work we have chosen. The easy path at this point would be to rest on one’s laurels and stop practicing, relying on our past work to sustain our celebrity. Or we can insulate ourselves from the rest of the world and focus only on what we are already good at, sticking with what works.
I don’t think either of these options are necessarily wise, because it seems to me that the work of this stage is integration. All of us who were specialists are now in an excellent position to become generalists, to take the principles of what we know and have learned and apply them to a wider range of questions and concerns. I think this works on a lot of different levels. There is the obvious level of teaching others, and cultivating other interests aside from our specialties. But the more subtle level is bringing all of who we are to everything we do, in a way that is both impactful and transparent.
There is a Shinto myth I have been working with for a while which for me captures this most beautifully, but I will have to wait for the next post to really go into it. Most books on spirituality or creativity concentrate on developing one’s practice, learning new techniques and gaining more knowledge and experience. It is the transformation of mastery into wisdom that is most neglected, in part I think because it is difficult to talk about. But I’ll give it my best shot.