“The house is on fire.”
Greta Thurnberg, a 16 year old Swedish student said these words to the World Economic Forum just one day after the Notre Dame Cathedral’s roof was on fire in Paris. She was pleading them to address the runaway climate crisis plaguing our globe and is calling for “permanent and unprecedented changes to take place in all aspects of our society.”
Not only is our climate crisis calling to us, so is there a crisis of our social fabric — a moral and cultural crisis, and even a spiritual crisis as we see hate and religious intolerance on the rise. This is often when clients seek my help … when their house is on fire. They are in crisis — emotionally, in their values, even spiritually.
Frequently, what they initially want is to make the flames less hot, to make the symptoms go away. But they fear leaving ‘what makes the fire’. It is their place of ‘residence’, what they are familiar with deep in their minds. Some feel trapped inside, powerless to get up and run out of their burning house. Others want to stop the fire, but as soon as the fire is stopped they return to playing with the sparks in the same habitual and mindless ways. The permanent and unprecedented changes seem to be too daunting and hard to make.
In late 2016, Phap Dung, a Buddhist monk of Plum Village, interviewed by Eliza Barclay, used a similar metaphor. His response to her question:
EB: What is the best way to manage deep uncertainty and fear in a moment like this?
PD: We see the mind like a house, so if your house is on fire, you need to take care of the fire, not to go look for the person that made the fire… .
When our house is on fire, when our hearts are in crisis, we clearly need to attend to making ourselves safe and, to take care of what is first needed. This is clearly the first task of self kindness. Taking necessary action to preserve life and give ourselves breath. Find our calm so we can take action to upright ourselves again, to get out from under the overwhelm.
As Phap Dung says: Take care of those emotions first; it’s the priority. Because anything that comes from a place of fear and anxiety and anger will only make the fire worse. Come back and find a place of calm and peace to cool the flame of emotion down ….
Once the fire is out in your mind, what does self care, rooted in compassion and kindness look like then? Here begins the more challenging work of cleaning up the rubble of old hurts, resentments and unhelpful emotional habits that are the mindless sparks igniting the fires.
Gabor Mate, in his book When the Body Says No, highlights four personality traits that tend to increase stress levels in the body. Over time, he argues, this physiological stress leads to disease. The personality traits include:
- people who don’t know how to say no,
- people who are rigid and compulsive, perfectionistic, expecting themselves to be perfect in everything,
- people who don’t know how to express their experience of anger in a healthy way,
- people who compulsively and automatically take care of others and don’t think of their own needs; these people are physiologically stressed, whether they know it or not.
Mate argues that stress is the thing that leads to disease or leads to conditions for it and certain personalities are more prone to this stress. For these people, their boundaries will be invaded but they won’t know it. They’ll be extending themselves and they won’t know it; they will work when they should be resting.
Self care requires a self kindness that has the power to say ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘not yet’ where appropriate and necessary. And in the midst of a fire, we need to be well-versed in these small and powerful words, so we can use them swiftly and safely.
Similarly, with our planet ‘on fire’ – we need to practise self care with a self kindness that has the power, strength, resilience and wisdom to make “permanent and unprecedented changes” in every area of our life and relationships. Learning how and where and when and why to say ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘not yet’ is no longer a skill for sometime in the future. It is needed here and now.
Your boundaries, whether energetic, emotional or spiritual need to evolve and reflect what is needed to keep you healthy, whole and safe, even in this environment of ‘the house on fire’. Your boundaries need the strength and flexibility to navigate the complexities of human tasks at hand to put out the fire (whether in our minds or on the planet) and rebuild a sustainable human community on this planet.
Our personal boundaries are connected to this greater story of the Earth on fire. And the Earth’s story and the social fabric ills are massively impacting our personal story.
Phap Dung writes: “The future is built with the present moment and how we take care of it. If you are fearful, the future will be fearful. If you are uncooperative, the future will be divisive. This is very important. The future is not something that will come to us; the future is built by us, by how we speak and what we do in the present moment.”
So let us do self care with kindness and in an aura of social cooperation and harmony, for this too is boundary work. Let us remember to speak and act clearly with what we need to do, for this too is healthy boundary work. May our ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘not yet’ be clear enough to put out the fire in our minds and habits, for this too is self kindness and boundary work! Then let us be brave enough to also make unprecedented and permanent changes so all living beings can thrive and return to wholeness.
Wouldn’t that be the greatest kindness and boundary work, that we choose to live the values of what gives life, offers respect and sustainability to all organic life on this planet—personally and socially?