What a great image that evokes. Can you see it? Someone sitting on a cushion, completely serene with their head aflame? For many years I thought this famous Buddhist saying was pointing to the level of physical energy we should bring to our meditation practice. To a certain extent, this is true.
I remember one Vipassana retreat in the middle of summer in South Korea. As we sat, a slow, steady trickle of sweat meandered down my spine and my forehead. Any sound of a breeze outside the hall was an immediate distraction as you willed it to enter a window near you and caress your skin. Walking meditation was no better. The effort required to continue the slow, minute movement back and forth in the hall stirred no breeze to cool you. Those hours of practice required an enormous amount of physical and mental energy, but also a certainty of purpose and surrender to the experience. Perhaps it was more akin to practicing like a mountain.
On a deeper level to “practice like your hair’s on fire” points to one of the three marks of existence in Buddhist philosophy: impermanence. I’ve found that getting really cozy with this subject, that nothing lasts…emotions, physical hardships, ecstasy, and life itself…is a tremendous comfort in moving through difficult times, as well as enriching those moments of bliss. For me, it also creates an enormous gratitude for this life I’ve been given.
There is a very famous example in which the Buddha said that if this whole continent became a huge ocean, and within that ocean you had a yoke floating on the waves and a blind tortoise that popped up once every five hundred years, the chances of obtaining precious human birth would be equal to the chances of that blind tortoise emerging with his head poking through the yoke.
As practitioners, embracing impermanence helps us hone our long-term spiritual goals. What will we do with our time on this earth? Of course, we need to balance our spiritual goals with practical aspects of this life…managing our bills and making sure we have a place to live and food to eat. We also have to meet our responsibilities to our friends and family. But we also need to make our spiritual work a priority. In the Mahayana tradition this is so beautifully outlined as our role as Bodhisattva. As humans, we each have the same potential for enlightenment. To use this lifetime to generate the mind of enlightenment in order to relieve suffering for all beings is the vow of the Bodhisattva. The foundation of living this vow is found in meditation. So, here we are…back at our cushion…is your hair on fire now?
I bow to the Bodhisattva in you.