“You’re going to rise from the flames like a phoenix, Jen!” I knew my friend was not just trying to make me feel better with this statement by her tone. Shrill and full of love, her voice was just the jolt of encouragement I needed after sharing the ongoing saga of my winter flu-pneumonia, marked by three whole weeks of fever. Three weeks of waking up drenched in sweat, mustering all my energy to take a shower, only to need another one in a few hours; three weeks of dreading the 5:00 hour, when inevitably the flush would start to rise up from my toes and creep into every crevice; three weeks of wondering what had happened to my immune system to allow this virus, which I’d had previously many times before, to wreck such havoc.
I know from my studies of Āyurveda that no healing path can be put on a timeline, but as my own healing extended I was desperate to know—with certainty—when I would be “better,” and be able to go back to my life. I think I can finally say (knock on wood) that I’m better now, fever long gone and its residual pockets of inflammation extinguished. But I haven’t gone back to my life. Because everything’s different now. Through the biological ramifications of this illness and the measures I took to relieve it, the emotional toll and insights it engendered, and the clarification of my values, goals (and lack thereof), and self-worth, I’ve walked over the metaphorical coals and arrived in a new body on the other side. Along the way, there’s been integration and transformation—the true definition of healing. And something that nothing but fire could have engendered.
This month, I’ll be teaching about the fire element in my element series, which was only partially planned to line up with the month of the Summer Solstice. We’re in the final stages of the rise of yang energy, which began way back at the Winter Equinox, and on the Solstice we’ll get to soak up all of that delicious jivana (life-giving) quality of the sun, which provides for all life on earth in some way or another. The plants use the sun for food, and we use the plants for food; we also use the sun to sync up our biological clocks, scheduling the cascade of hormones and other body processes that keep our intricate and miraculous human system running. The sun’s regular, reliable rising and setting, even if on a shifting timetable, keeps the wheels of life churning through the seasons, year after year, enabling the cycles of birth and death that keep the whole system alive.
While ebbs and flows are more often associated with moonlight, the sun’s seasonal shifts are just as important to honor. Indeed, as we have been experiencing with more intensity the last few years, summer sun can be rough. Just imagine what it’s like to lie on the beach around noon without any shade (as I did recently): Your skin literally starts to burn. The sun is our friend, but in the right doses—just like everything else.
And yet, our culture has taken its obsession with fire—it’s what defines humankind, after all—a little too far. We live in something like a perpetual summer, with our devices, our electricity, our glorification of productivity and status. There’s a reason they call it “burn out” when you reach that state of exhaustion due to overwork; and after a season (or ten) of fire-based living, you’ll be forced into a kind of Siberian-exile winter.
Honoring the sun means honoring cycles, which is one of the lessons my fire-based illness taught me. Truth be told, this was not the first time I’d been burned by burning my own candle at both ends; I’d had previous burn-out-type illness of various degrees, but this was the first time I had enough self-awareness (somehow preserved, maybe heightened?, by the flames) to examine and correct the root cause of my recurring encounters with fire. What I saw in this light were patterns I’d thought I’d addressed, but clearly had not. And, brought to my knees in humility, I recognized that I needed to cede the power I’d given my mind (a very fiery place) to my body, and seek harmony between the two.
Moving into pitta season, as Āyurveda describes summer, we might all be put in a similar position of burnout-induced surrender for different reasons. Whether it’s after a long day of socializing or from the depleting effects of the heat alone, we seek the opposites of fire for comfort and balance: We lie on the ground, receiving the cool stability of the earth as a refuge from the chaos of our minds; we create space, spreading out our limbs and responsibilities to allow that excess heat to disperse. In my Midsummer Rest & Reset last year, I offered “cloud-gazing” as a daily practice to balance pitta—a kind of asana that invites the earth and space that pitta needs to feel refreshed.
When we look at the energetics of summer, it’s easy for the intensity of the fire to blind us to its opposite, and equally important, side: water. This is especially fitting since Āyurveda describes pitta dosha as the combination of both elements, which are not as contradictory as they may seem. Pitta is a kind of fiery liquid (as opposed to agni alone, which is pure fire, the dry and light energy governing digestion), which is able to spread thanks to the water element. Water in this case also takes on another meaning, since the peak of yang also means that yin is beginning to increase once again. The juicy fruits and fragrant flowers emerging in summer, as well as our human instincts to seek water and rest and shade, are all manifestations of yin arriving right on time as the perfect medicine. Even within the season where burnout is most likely to happen, nature offers prevention as literal low-hanging fruit. All we have to do is surrender to the fact that we need it, and we are part of the cycle that ebbs and flows. And now is the time to start ebbing a little more.
Having just gone through a personal pitta season (at a 17/7-ish year-increment, no less), I admit I’m a little nervous about how the pitta in the environment is going to affect me in the next few months. It only takes a few embers to start a conflagration. I know my patterns, but I also feel newly equipped with a reverence for fire that will help me take prevention more seriously this summer. One way I already feel that happening is simply acknowledging my own cycles—within the day, the month, the year, and of life. I can finally admit, after many years of observation, that pitta season is indeed when I feel (and look) my best. I soak up the warmth of the sun like an iguana on a rock, but I also benefit from the more yin-dominant, juicy, and simple foods of summer. There’s more berries and watermelon and zucchini, less work and worry, earlier mornings with slower yoga—all of which hydrate my vāta that is starting to accumulate during the summer. It’s an ideal balance of yin and yang, for me—and claiming this balance as my own is part of what I’ve needed to do, but neglected, in my own healing process for a long time. Too much fire will destroy us, but not enough can cause us to wither and shrink. We start to think that where we are is where we’ll be forever, until the light reveals something new we can grow into.
In Āyurvedic anatomy, we describe the development of the seven dhātus (tissue layers) in a specific order. When we eat, the nourishment from our food gets broken down in stages, feeding one dhātu until it’s ripe and matured, before passing on the leftover nutrition to the next layer. Between the dhātus are membranes called kalās, a word in Sanskrit that has many meanings, including “arts.” Each kalā has its own agni, which is the knowledge that directs the dhātus to transform from one to the next.
In my recent reflections on the dhātu dhara kalās, I realized how important these interstitial spaces are in our own development, too. Once we’ve become a “mature” version of one layer of ourselves, we can’t just jump right into the next one; we have to go through the fire, the agni, in order to transform. Nature knows where we’re going, but we might not—a scary place to be, in between and lacking a clear sense of self. When we’re in those kalās of life, all we can do is rely on the light within know we are, and will be, okay. We may no longer be our past, and not yet our future, and yet we can still recognize ourselves as the light, not only in or of it. That the continuity of ourselves isn’t bound within us, but in our permeability and reflect-ability. Even more: that we all share the same continuity, which is the truth of oneness, revealed when we stop trying so hard to become something else, something different, something brighter than what we already are.
We can only see this truth when we step into the fire, let it consume us, and remember that the work of constant transformation—the art and science of alchemy—is the most important work of our lives, and what makes life itself a work of art.
I am the ritual and the sacrifice; I am true medicine and the mantram. I am the offering and the fire which consumes it, and the one to whom it is offered.
—Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 9, Verse 16