The Zen of Lighting a Woodstove

Yesterday was one of those days. You know the kind of day I mean, when Murphy shows up, uninvited, and stays for the whole day – the infamous Murphy of Murphy’s Law.

Such visitations call upon our resourcefulness, to determine which tools are best to apply in order to thwart being thwarted from what we are trying to accomplish. One survival tool, of course, is a sense of humour, for which my “inner comedienne” definitely is in my kit of self-preservation.

Another tool is the application of ‘beginner’s mind,’ a marvellous concept of Zen Buddhism. Several definitions can be found on the internet. My interpretation is that ‘beginner’s mind’ is indispensable when it comes to lighting a woodstove – nurturing it, sometimes relighting it, more nurturing…yes, a robust fire now is burning, but be attentive to not blow up the stove pipe or the chimney.

Although I trained in mindfulness meditation, I admittedly am truant in its traditional and recommended practice. However, as a city gal who chose to adapt to living in simplicity, pioneer style, mindfulness kicks in daily just so I don’t burn down the farmhouse.

Mindfulness means paying attention, being fully present, living in the moment instead of allowing your mind to cruise through time and space beyond what you contemplate directly in front of you. And, trust me, an awakened fire does focus the mind.

Beginner’s mind suits me perfectly. Despite my depth of knowledge in certain fields, I do not refer to myself as an expert in anything. The reason is, the more I learn reveals how much more there is to learn than is humanly possible in any single lifetime – and not limited to the content of books. For experiential learning is the key to connecting our mind with our body, emotions and spirit.

In lighting a woodstove, for example, no matter how many times you are successful, sometimes immediately and other times eventually, you never can conclude that now you know precisely how to do it well. Each and every event is new and different. Indeed, the maintenance of a lit fire is a true test for developing mindfulness. To keep it lit without going ballistic is a marvel, because doing so paradoxically requires “letting go of attachment to outcomes,” a Zen teaching.

Zen practice calls upon us to be present to the moment and embrace whatever happens in the process henceforth. That means doing so without descending from mindfulness into willfulness. The latter causes our personal will and ego to get so bent out of shape that we may even fantasize about what we might like to do with (or to) the fireside poker. Instead, given the reality that the poker’s iron will trump our will every time, again, it is much wiser to breathe deeply, and use the poker to nudge the fire materials gently, playfully, yet with concentration.

As an artist, I aesthetically enjoy scanning the cords of wood in my cellar, to choose just the right sizes and shapes that must lay together in harmony with the previously assembled materials. The first tasks though are to chop the kindling, tear up and scrunch newspapers to lay on top of the bed of ashes spread inside the stove, delicately build a multi-layered pile allowing spaces for oxygen to feed the fire, and open the draft. Later, manipulate the draft to quieten a fire that gets too frisky, while intermittently adding wood to keep a steady, healthy burn to avoid the buildup of creosote caused by a sputtering fire.

The constant flux of a wood fire is a metaphor for life and, moreover, for this particular historic moment in which change happens around us constantly yet, now, at an accelerated, more visible rate. Similar to working with a wood fire to ensure its life-giving properties are sustained, the Universe has presented us with a multi-layered challenge for sustaining life on our planet.

Keeping informed of planetary realities is imperative. But, do not give away your power to the power of the popular media bombarding us with doom and gloom. Each of us has innate creative intelligence to develop new ways of living on Earth. Our species can negotiate more harmonious interrelationships with our planetary life-support system. Tiny practices of mindfulness are first steps to awaken capabilities that develop confidence, remove fear and open us to a world of possibilities.

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