The Big Chill

Subjecting mind, modernism and other madness to the great fire


We live in very cold times, and the forecast is for an even chillier future. Yes, summer has brought warmth and sunshine to the North Bay. And in the longer term, it appears that 21st-century consumption is driving up average global temperatures. And yet in a deeper sense, our way of life is increasingly frigid. Despite signs to the contrary, we paradoxically live in an age which is characterized by a lack of fire—as in the energy of heart, connection, community and transformation. This kind of fire is at the core of most, if not all, spiritual traditions.

For many eons, our ancestors regularly gathered around the fire. Here they shared the big stories that gave life meaning. Around the fire, they laughed, danced and reaffirmed their bonds to one another. Here they encountered the Great Mystery. Through heart and fire, they found their connection to the deep wisdom of those who came before them. This state of grace is celebrated in the story of Genesis as the garden of Eden before the Fall.

The great march of history from Eden to virtual reality is really a retreat from the warmth of the heart into the coldness of the mind. (Recall that Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden for eating fruit from the tree of knowledge.) That descent from a felt connection to the divine has brought us dogmatic religion as well as the cool, detached rationalism that is so celebrated in modernism. We have gone from being a myriad of peoples, each honoring the Great Mystery in his or her own way, to a world in which ideas, both theological or scientific in nature, battle for primacy.

Not that the mind is without its utility. The fear-based energy of the mind keeps us out of trouble and is also good for planning out a course of action. But whereas the heart feels its connection to all things and innately knows its eternal nature, the mind understands through distinction and separation, it frets about comfort and ultimately, about mortality. The mind seeks power, predictability and control. The heart is about connection, balance and surrender. Whereas the mind fears, the heart feels joy.

When indigenous peoples (at least those few who still have their traditions intact) look upon our Western culture, they recognize the cleverness of our science and technology. Yet they also see a great sickness in us, how we are driven by a gnawing hunger, a kind of emptiness that we try to fill by consuming more and more. This hunger is now bringing us to a crisis of global proportions.

As cold as our world has become, there are signs of hope. More of us are talking about sustainability, community and a sense of well-being that goes beyond our aptly named “gross” national product. Many are being drawn to the wisdom traditions that help to bring mind and heart back into balance.

I am fortunate to be part of one organization helping to bring heart energy back to our people. The Sacred Fire Community (SFC) is doing so literally by sponsoring regular community fires around the United States and overseas. These fires are an opportunity for people of all spiritual traditions to meet and share stories just as our ancestors once did. Sitting around a consecrated fire, sharing from our hearts, we begin to experience the kind of deep community that is so lacking in our culture. The SFC also has a host of “lifeways” offerings that provide the support of ancestral wisdom for the major transitions, such as initiation, which are part of every individual’s journey.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, we won’t be able to think our way out of the challenges to come. But as more of us connect with fire and the wisdom of the heart, as we gather in community and forge alliances across traditions, we will once again find our place in the Great Mystery. And with the help of the ancestors and the grace of the gods, we may just survive.

 Lawrence Messerman is initiated as a ‘marakame’ or shaman in the Huichol tradition. He and his wife, Jessica De la O, host monthly community fires in Sebastopol. Contact [email protected] for more information.

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