(Originally published as a summer newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)

We have just entered what Chinese Five Element philosophy defines as the Fire season. And, as wildfires scorch much of the Mountain West, it seems a fitting time for a discussion of this element. Fire was once a god. It was (and in some cases still is) worshiped as Zhu Rong by ancient Chinese, as Agni by Hindus, as Pele by Hawaiians, as Hestia and Hephaestus by Greeks, as Vesta and Vulcan by Romans, as Ra by Egyptians, as Tohil by Maya, as Brigid by Celts, as Svarog by Slavs, as Xiuhtecuhtli by Aztecs. In ancient times, its tremendous value was at the forefront of human consciousness. Although it has since lost its cultural prominence, Fire has always been a central and mysterious force in human lives – a great gift and a force to be reckoned with.

Fire graces us with its presence in so many forms. Some of these we think of rather literally as expressions of Fire and others more as metaphors. They include the flames of candles, oil lamps, bonfires, grills, stoves, lighters and matches. There is Fire in explosions, in the sun and other stars, the glowing filament of a lightbulb, and in furnaces, ovens, and heaters. All warmth and light is within its dominion, and one could say that the Fire Element is healthy in humans who are warm and light.

Another of Fire’s noteworthy characteristics is its dynamism – it is always flickering and swaying, dancing and changing. Likewise, people in whom the Fire Element is strong are the same way, almost seeming to dance when they talk, their head, arms, and hands moving freely as they speak. Fire is the power that animates life. Seeds thrown too early on cold spring soil may be reluctant to sprout, but when the sun warms the earth, their roots extend into it vigorously. Fire is expansive. It tends grow and consume whatever fuel is available, and to spread fearlessly into the darkness with its light. Fire presides over these qualities all throughout creation, though we see them most clearly in the natural world during summer.

Summer is the time when the sun, a vast ball of fire, is closest to our planet. It’s the peak of growth and activity, and the brightest, longest, hottest days of the year. It induces humans to get out of their houses and play. Bugs swarm and buzz like crazy. Bees fervently immerse themselves in the inviting petals of colorful flowers. And forest fires, as we have seen, consume vast acreages.

Beyond the thermal warmth Fire offers, it relates to warmth of other sorts as well, such as the warmth of physical affection and emotional tenderness. When we are imbued with this warmth, we like to share it with others. Warmth is inviting. It brings people together – like neighbors gathering around a barbecue, or a group listening to someone tell a funny story. Several times I have approached a group of people sitting around a fire on the beach or at a campsite, and I have always been welcomed. The invitation to “come share our fire” seems more than just a literal offer to enjoy its light and warmth, but a gesture of inclusion in the group’s camaraderie.

These are some of the many expressions of Fire’s power as a unifying force. Just as it accepts and consumes everything it is fed, rendering all into one homogeneous ash, it unites people around the oneness we share. It’s what inspires us to merge two bodies in passion. It’s the spark that underlies every social connection – the light in you that is also in me. It’s what we see in each other’s eyes that helps us remember we are all family.

The primary organ associated with the Fire Element is the heart. This connection seems very natural – the heart is red, it pumps red blood, and it has long been associated with passion and spontaneity like Fire itself. It is said in Chinese Medicine that emotions pass through the heart, and this sentiment is shared by many other cultures.

Modern medical science reveres the brain as the most important and sophisticated organ, the control center, and the supposed origin of thoughts and perception. Indeed, the brain and nerves are like an electrical system that is wired into all of our tissues. Although the notion that the mind is confined to the brain has been debunked by today’s psychoneuroimmunologists, clearly there is some connection between the two. Simply put, elements of our thinking, personality, and physical expression are executed through the brain. It sends out chemical and electrical signals to regulate the body and cause it to do what we want it to do, and it also receives and interprets feedback from the body. Thus, manipulation or imbalance of this neural “station” can affect the physical body, emotions, and thoughts. Drugs that change brain chemistry can alter thought processes and personality. Injuries to the brain can do this too, such as the famous case of Phineas Gage, who recovered from having a three foot long iron rod pass through his brain, but then went from being an upstanding citizen to a total asshole.

So, while the brain can hinder and contort the expression of our spirit through this being, it is also, to a large extent, necessary for the expression of our spirit through this being. This establishes the brain’s importance, but it does not place the brain in the position of cause. In my opinion, the true origin of our consciousness is something we might refer to as “unconditioned awareness.” And its main portal into each human being is not the brain, but the heart. The brain has two hemispheres with different jobs and often conflicting missions, yet the heart has a singular task. Life expresses itself through each and every cell of this body, including the brain, but the heart is its primary point of entry, and as such, it is our primary means of connecting to the bigger truth and our greater self, far beyond our social conditioning.

And the foremost expression of this truth through the human heart is Love. It is the heart’s greatest power. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that love is both a noun and a verb. We spend much of our lives looking for love, the noun – like an object, something we hope to find, something someone else might give to us if we’re lucky. But love is also a doing. Something we are capable of turning on at any time, something that naturally emanates from the heart if we let it, something we can give to ourselves in the most complete way, but are often afraid to. When I say that we can love as a verb, I do not mean to imply that there is any effort to it. If anything, it takes effort to restrain love. In actuality, it is love itself that does the loving – we just have to allow it to happen.

Loving is the natural state of an open heart, like an open flower. If we just allow our heart to be open, we find an inexhaustible capacity to love. Love is infinite. We will never exhaust ourselves by doing too much loving; we will never drain some reservoir by basking in love too much.

Living with an open heart is a vastly different experience than living with a closed one. To open the heart means allowing the total experience of life to flow through us, willing to be feel all of it, even though we have been hurt in the past. It means being totally open with the world and ourselves, not denying any part of our experience or anyone else’s. It means not holding back from loving – loving the world and everything in it, including ourselves. We are drawn, like moths to a light, to those in whom the heart is open, who speak and live from the heart, who have nothing to hide here. And the more open we are, the more powerful and effective we become.

But, on the contrary, it is epidemic for humans to close our hearts. We clench around it, like making a fist with our chest, trying to protect it and trying to restrain it. It’s instinctive, yet useless. Men have a somewhat greater tendency to do this than women, but women do it too. When we close the heart, we keep ourselves in a state of partial or total darkness about the real truth: that life can be light, that it’s okay to love ourselves and others, that it’s safe to feel. And when we do this for most of our lives, it affects the heart organ and its network of vessels. The vessels become hard (atherosclerosis) and tight (hypertension) and impeded by plaque (cholesterol), and they bring less blood to the heart muscle itself. And so, the leading cause of death in high income countries is heart disease. The number two cause of death is stroke, which on the surface seems to be a brain issue, since that’s the part of the body that’s deprived of blood. But the mechanisms of stroke are vascular – blood flow to the brain is blocked, or a vessel ruptures – so, technically, both the first and second leading causes of death are issues of the heart and circulatory system.

When I use the term “clenching” with regard to the way we suppress the heart, I don’t mean it entirely metaphorically. Although there are figurative expressions of clenching that occur on the mental and emotional levels, I am saying that we also literally, physically tighten our bodies around the center of the chest. Poor posture doesn’t help. Sitting at a desk for hours a day with rounded shoulders can reinforce this habit, as it tends to close off the chest. This needs to be addressed, because part of allowing love is recognizing that we are restricted here – and becoming unrestricted.

Here is a homework assignment. See if you can get a sense of how the center of your chest feels. Relaxed? Open? Expansive? Tight? Constricted? Stuffy? Next, constrict this area with the upper torso to get a more acute sense of how clenching here feels. Imagine the whole cross-section of the upper torso, including the sides and back, squeezing at once around the central axis of the body at the level of the heart. Begin by squeezing your upper back, the sides of the rib cage below the armpits, and the front of the chest toward your core. Then imagine clenching in the deeper tissues, engaging deeper and deeper muscles. Does this feel familiar? Can you think of an area of your life that makes you feel this way in your chest? Say the word No or bring to mind something that scares you or an experience that was hurtful, and pay attention to what happens here. Can you feel the heart close?

Now imagine a light at the center of your chest where you’ve been clenching. This light is love itself. And you can use this light to help you melt and release the clenching around it. Starting at this central point, imagine you are unclenching your tissues, like opening up a clenched fist. Meanwhile, the light of your heart is allowed to expand, to illuminate these clenched tissues and soften them. Gradually open from the inside out, until you have relaxed the whole way to the surface. Then stay relaxed and open. Most people’s tendency is to immediately re-clench. So, remain conscious, and continue to relax the area around the heart center. Imagine that this light cannot be contained – it is your life purpose, for this moment, to deliver unadulterated love to the world. While you do this, either mentally or orally say, Yes, and pay attention to what happens. Now say, I love you, and see what happens. Next, say, thank you. Thank you is an expression straight from the heart. A real, honest thank you is how we verbalize gratitude. The heart opens when we say it or think it. There is so much to say thank you for. I believe the ability to earnestly and enthusiastically say thank you – to ourselves, to others, to Nature, to our obstacles and struggles – is an important sign of a healthy heart.

Finally, imagine your heart is a flower bud and you are surrounded by a vast sea of pure energy – love. Use your intention to draw this pure loving light, like a funnel, into your back, just behind the heart center. Meanwhile, keeping the heart wide open, allow it to stream even brighter out the front of your chest. Light flows in through your back and pours out through your chest. As it pours through your heart like a river – or a fire hose – the flower gradually begins to open, and as it does, this river of light pours through it ever more brightly and powerfully. Stay with this visualization for a few minutes, then see if you can take it out into the world, shining through your heart at everyone and everything you encounter. It’s my belief that if you’ve read this far, there’s a good reason.