Saturday, March 14, 2009

Is your hair on fire?

Practice like your hair is on fire!

A traditional aphorism, which probably goes back to Buddhism in India. Gelek Rinpoche makes it the theme of his recent article in Buddhadharma. And it shows up in the Zen tradition and elsewhere.

One meaning, obviously, is to make full use of this fleeting human experience to wake up. But there are two assumptions here: the experience of being human is but one of many and waking up is the highest purpose of life.

How do approach practice if you don't buy one or other of these assumptions?

Another interpretation is that this phrase expresses the kind of totally awake clarity that one is aiming for in practice. Again, there is an assumption, namely, that this level of attention is to be sustained for long periods, if not indefinitely.

What happens to a person who is not able to sustain such a level of attention but tries to do so anyway? Frequently, he or she tries harder and harder, growing tighter and tighter, moving further and further out of the balance and rest in which clarity and freedom arise. Eventually, he or she is forced to rest, and then something quite different happens. This recognition can, as it did for Buddha Shakyamuni, lead in a very different direction. Or, a student, broken in body and heart, can just give up, and lapse into a cynical view of spiritual practice.

In traditional settings, students, by and large, had access only to instruction appropriate to their level of ability and practice. Often, students had to be encouraged to practice what they were given.

In today's world, we have access to practice instructions at every level. This access creates a different kind of problem, how to know what practice is appropriate for one's level of understanding, ability, and interest. Anyone who has practiced for any length of time knows that what works at one phase of practice may be counterproductive at another.

The consequence is that, ultimately, we have to take responsibility in determining what to practice when and how to practice it.

So, I put the question very simply: is practicing like your hair is on fire a good way for you to practice?


Dennis Sibley said...

Good questions Ken, and no I don't personally feel it is a good way to practise.

As one of of my former teachers put it - "would you wait until your house was on fire before you took out fire insurance ?"

And yes, I too feel that we have to take personal responsibility for the way we practice. It will be interesting to see how others respond.

Attachment to Buddhist teachings and teachers is something I've wrestled with during my dharmic journey these past years.

If my own hair ever catches fire it won't be for long as I don't have much left!



Unknown said...

is practicing like your hair is on fire a good way for you to practice?

Thanks for the question. I have not practiced in an immersive religious institution, so I do not know the life that this phrase describes. I'm grateful when I can sustain a brief daily practice and an occasional meeting with others. For me, this is just a slogan (albeit hyperbolic) to remind myself that practice deserves more time than I am able to give it.

But I agree wholeheartedly that panic rarely leads to effective personal change. I take a kaizen view: continuous, small changes from a consistent point of view.

Kate said...

My hair is not on fire and I am starting to know that that is not a problem or lack on my part. Practicing in that way may be right for some but sets me up to fail and that is a pattern I am not eager to support.

Taking personal responsibility for how I practice I find that I need a variety- sitting, writing, movement, study, etc. If I tried to do all of those as if my hair was on fire, I would be a nervous wreck.

Thanks, Ken, for this musing. It supports the most essential practice, which for me is, resting in what is.

A grateful reader/listener


Leslie Ellestad said...

I came to practice with my hair on fire and one of my tasks has been to put it out so I can rest. Perhaps this instruction will be useful for me one day, but not right now.

The "highest purpose of life"...for me it is to relate to others in such a way that through this relating we are supported in our mutual unfolding.

The Site Keeper said...
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Anonymous said...

Like Leslie (previous commentator), I came to practice with my hair on fire and practiced so I could learn to rest. Now that I find myself resting more often than I find myself at the difficult edge of experience, I wonder about the ebbs and flows of spiritual growth.

If one interprets the aphorism as "practice as if *everything* is at stake" then, for me at least, the instruction would probably result in striving and an inability to be with what is without needing to fix, improve or practice harder.

However, I do worry about falling into spiritual cynicism - not because of a broken heart or body - but because I find it difficult to find, recognize or ask for spiritual support during the ebb of my practice. Often spiritual support is aimed at getting one back to practicing as if on fire, as if that is THE way to be, when I sense it is important to respect and accept both the ebb and the flow.

Let me put this another way: spiritual cynicism seeps into my awareness, on those occasions when my practice is not on fire and when I begin to tell a negative story about my spiritual commitment - rather than just accepting the waning as part of a natural cycle of growth.

So, at times I will practice as if my hair is on fire, and at other times, I will not.

Thank you Ken, I deeply appreciate this post.


firelight said...

I appreciate Lynea's comments. I was very used to my practice being on fire and when it wasn't I thought something was wrong. I would spend a lot time struggling to regain that fire. It has taken a lot of years of practice to deeply experience the rewards of both the fire and the rest.

The key for me was to just open to whatever was arising and let it unfold. I thought I was "in control" of how and when the fire would arise even when I intellectually knew that wan't true.

I thought I was only awake then the fire was present but my experience has taught me otherwise (with some not so gentle proding from my teacher).

Ahh ..some of us learn slowly.


Anonymous said...

I don't buy the first assumption and waking up doesn't strike me as a a purpose but rather more as a path or way. Why do I practice? To live awake enough of the time so that I experience peace -- be peace as Thich Nhat Hanh says. The image of hair on fire somehow doesn't jive with this.

Gerhard said...

If I look at this out side of the context of perhaps it's original intention - "this life time is short make good use of it." and just mentally play with the statement and imagine my hair being on fire and if I am “in the moment” and seeking a way of using all experiences as a tool for my practice ...I would say my first body reaction would be to leap straight up into the air and run. What would my minds reaction be? It might freeze up and just allow my body to deal with the problem and my emotional reaction? Shear panic, fear and anger perhaps – however, if I sat calmly and looked carefully at my reactions and asked myself “Am I in danger? I don’t have a great deal of hair so the moment of danger would be brief, the damage slight and since no one else is close to me and I am not sitting near any flammable material, it is only my hair that will burn. Is there pain?” if there is pain need I suffer for it? It is after all only my senses that are responding. I remember an experience where a flash of fire removed most of my facial hair. From this experience I know that hair just sort evaporates when it ignites and is gone before you know it and all you are left with is a stench in the air and a surprised look on your face. So what did I suffer from when that happened? Well there was embarrassment, I looked foolish, literally because I was now hairless; foolish because I had done a stupid thing – hmm… vanity and pride. … I can laugh ( in hindsight) at myself and let those go. Is there attachment? Well yes, years ago when I was gradually becoming balder I did have to let go of that one. My mother brought that one forward – “oh what a shame, you are losing your hair and you looked so young and handsome with hair.” Ah! The big one – fear of aging, of a slow deterioration of the body – death! the inevitable end and all the goes with that one. Well everything is impermanent anyway, nothing I can do about that – good reminder though. Ok, so what the heck, practice like your hair is on fire, just do it “mind fully” open.

Just a thought, playful mostly.


Greg said...

This resonates with my understanding of Uchiyama Roshi's guidance in "Zen Kitchen", and Ken's in WUTYL. Both Uchiyama and Ken talk about everything you encounter being your life, that is, your experience *is inseparable* from your life. Work with death and impermanence brought (and continues to bring) this home to me.

As this sinks in, for me, a sense of caring and gratitude for whatever arises in my experience is developing.

I say "is developing", because a good deal of the time I'm still struggling with those experiences, but resting is coming easier (a very funny comment, really).

On the rare occassions that I can rest and get out of the way, that caring for my life (experience) shows up as things just happening, not requiring "me" to "do" anything about it. There's a lot of energy in that.

Uchiyama talks about throwing all of your energies into the life of the true Self, that is, everything you experience, as the purpose of practice. Perhaps this is practicing like your hair is on fire.

Thanks, Ken, for your musing, and to all for putting up with mine.

Dog Hair said...

Well I understand this "hair on fire" teachings as a little warning that everything is flamable...that the smallest little ember can burn the house do my best to take care of every little cinder, every little dry stick, and bright sun...look after stuff because everything catch fire

Anonymous said...

I landed here because the line "live as if your hair is on fire' (or similar) is in the one-man play called "The Buddha" In his Own Words", written and performed by Evan Brenner, and now playing in Boston. As I understand it, the play is mostly from the Pali Canon.

So I was curious for a little more context on that provocative teaching. I've looked in, which provides access to the Pali cannon -- all of it? I'm not sure.
I also looked on google -- no luck either place.

So...does anyone know where this might be from? The Buddha himself (Pali Canon or otherwise?)?....later writings? modern writings?

Thanks for any pointers and also for your thoughtful posting and comments....)

Ellen Fishman said...

The urgency - the need to focus intensely.

When habits begin to be cut , when the old , conditioned support falls away perhaps even shatters.
Yes . I could see a point where the ability to puncture the dream state opens the heart.
Then the freedom expands, the capacity to focus intensely becomes urgent.
Yes, the meatphor is apt.

Liked the sources, thanks for pointing the way.

Anonymous said...

Intention is the passion to be cultivated. It isn't like you need to keep feeding the fire and practicing like a maniac, and then getting burned out and needing to take off time to rest. This is an interesting phrase because so often Buddhism is known as very detached. I was raised Catholic and the "burning heart" is an iconic image signifying active love and compassion. In Buddhism mind is heart - so a burning head of hair seems to signify much the same thing. I wouldn't get too serious about the whole thing. It's just cool imagery meant to inspire. It's just adornment. If you feel like practicing hard - do - if you feel like practicing light - do. Just don't be mean to dogs, your in-laws, co-workers or the homeless. If you can do that your hair's probably on fire! Namaste.