It's Different When it's YOUR House on Fire

As I write this, a wrecking crew is emptying out the charred remains of my neighbor’s house. What began as a small fire in a house packed with a hoarder’s life time of accomplished belongings turned into a three-alarm blaze at 3am this morning.


When I first heard the sirens, I just rolled over. Another day, another false alarm. Then I heard another siren. I rolled over. Another night, another domestic disturbance. But when the flashing red in my bedroom became a bold, blinking stop sign, it was clear that this was not just a smoke alarm from someone with insomnia frying up some late night bacon. I roused myself, shuffled into flip flops and yesterday’s cut-offs, and walked outside to see what seemed like the entire fire and police departments of my city in a frozen parade on my street. Luckily, everyone living in the house survived unscathed. A neighbor who had smelled the smoke called 911 right away, and the woman with Alzheimer’s who lived there, along with her tenants - a mother and three year-old daughter, were rescued by ladder out the second floor window. I sat on a neighbor’s stoop, watching with a half dozen others, as the firemen used axes, picks, and even a chainsaw to get enough leeway into the roof to be able to send the gushing firehose into the attic. As I sat there this morning, I felt incredibly calm. I had had a premonition when I first moved into the neighborhood about a fire and wondered if this was the one. I saw the even pacing and order of the first responders, the Red Cross, the haul-away contractors and the insurance agent as they arrived on the scene in succession. For them, it was just another day at the office. Another day with “death baked in,” as Thomas Moore says. There was something so comforting to me about the matter-of-fact-ness of the unfolding scene. Beyond the numbness and surreality of a housefire in the middle of a pandemic, there was also a feeling of, “of course.” I thought of Ajahn Chah’s teaching about the crockery already being broken:


“You see this goblet? For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”[1]


I thought of my own house, two doors down and across the street, standing so proudly, having sheltered me and given me so much joy over the years. I imagined one of the bedrooms blackened, eating up the siding and splitting open the roof. I imagined myself feeling calm and at peace with the scene as a dharma teaching, witnessing it just as it was without attachment, being touched with “suchness” of it. I imagined how there would almost be a sense of relief, knowing what the ultimate destiny of the house had been even as I watched the end of something I had cherished. And of course, I recollected all my friends and family who would be by me during the ensuing questions, paperwork, and realization of the path that lay ahead. In my mind, I was as Zen as a Kobe beef cow grazing in the summer sunshine. But thought exercises are not reality. These fantasies going through my mind were the musings of an overeducated Buddhist philosopher; lofty and well-intentioned goals of experiencing ongoing enlightenment in the midst of everything falling to pieces. As I sat there watching a house being decimated that didn’t even belong to me, I felt my cortisol levels shoot up, my heart shivering with the impermanence of things we lean on so heavily, and my fingers needling the chain of my heart-shaped pendant necklace like a secular rosary. In my mind, I am prepared to lose anything in my life. But in my body, I am still practicing letting go of my conditioning to grasp at, hold tight to, and pretend in the permanence of all that I think I own.


The Buddha taught impermanence and wise relationship with impermanence so perfectly that I have never been called to stand on these teachings and go further. Where I have been called to speak, though, is in reflection on our culture that is built on striving. We strive for power, for worthiness, for accomplishment, for belonging, and for pleasure, yet the striving itself is what diverts all of these experiences. Because our bodies and our realities are intertwined and co-arising, knots of striving cannot be unthreaded by philosophical exposition, strategizing, or thinking harder about our consternation. We only experience true peace and ease by coming into deeper, wiser, kinder relationships with our bodies. That is the only place where the erosion of striving and grasping can begin. That’s where the shaking and the moving happens, breaking up clinging and the old realities. And that’s where I begin with my clients. Somatic training is a path to peace, individually and collectively, and our somatic experiences help us recognize slowly how we could actually get where we want to be by being right here – in this moment, in this body, with the quaking of the hand and the house on fire. There is no better time than now.

[1] Version of the teaching by Mark Epstein from Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective