Where’s the Joy? Meditations on the Fire Element

Years ago, when I was living in New Orleans and having a particularly difficult summer, I received a letter from my father. He had just been at a meditation retreat, where a friend told him about this question, “Where’s the joy?”

In the midst of a difficult moment or a destructive thought, just stop and ask yourself, “Where’s the joy?”

My father had found great solace in this question, engaging in it throughout the day. So simple, but it stuck with me. I had been dragging myself out of the house every day for work, biking slowly against the thick air and my own resistance, head down, plagued by mosquitoes and threats of another devastating hurricane. So I began to ask myself, “Where’s the joy?” And when I looked, it was everywhere. It was in the sweet smell of the jasmine bushes, the little breezes that found their way through my hair, sips of iced tea on a hot afternoon. It required that I get out of my head and connect with my body. Joy lived in my sensory experience of the world.

I told friends about this question, Where’s the joy?

They came back to me, telling me that asking themselves that question slowly began to remodel their consciousness, allowing them to see beauty in places they had missed it before.

I wrote out the question and taped it to a friend’s sun visor as he prepared for a drive across the country. He told me he moved it from the visor to the steering wheel, letting it be his meditation for the entire drive.

I wrote back to my father, telling him how profound that simple question had been, how it had become crucial in a difficult time, for myself and others. He quoted my letter in a talk he gave later that year. And years later I quoted his talk, quoting my letter, to a group of acupuncture students I was speaking in front of. The message got passed back and forth, slowly looping in more and more people over the years. This is how fire spreads.

People came up to me after my presentation, days and weeks later, telling me how that question, Where’s the joy? had infiltrated their reality, creating openness where there had been constriction, bringing in the senses and the somatic experience when previously there had been only thoughts.

I’m telling this story because it represents the fire element so perfectly. In Chinese philosophy, the summer season is a manifestation of the fire element. Its color is red, its energy reaches out, connecting and bonding people to each other, and its emotion is joy.

The creativity that manifested from our deepest consciousness in winter and bloomed upward in spring is now bursting out in summer. This represents the peak of our endeavors, the fruition of our rumination, the culmination of our efforts. It is a time of joy and celebration, an excuse to reach out to others in conversation and collaboration.

I will bring up New Orleans again, because it is a place where hardship, violence and oppression are part of everyday life, and yet I have never known a place where people understood better how to be joyful. When someone dies there is a second line to celebrate their life, where music, food and booze are plentiful, where the beloved departed appears on t-shirts and signs, where stories are told with so many tears and so much laughter as hundreds of people parade through the streets to live brass music.

Joy is not the antidote to sorrow, but could it be grief’s boisterous companion? Can we find room in our hearts for all of the big feelings to live together? Can we feel fear and anger and grief and still find the joy?

“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.” 
― Jalaluddin Rumi

 The Heart is the most significant and representative organ system of the fire element, accompanied by three other organ systems (fire is the only element to have more than 2 organ systems affiliated, that is the power of fire).

For now I will focus on the Heart and its yang organ pair, the Small Intestine, whose job is to filter the pure from the turbid, sorting substances that have made their way from the stomach and deciding what gets reabsorbed and what goes on to be flushed out the bladder or large intestine. The Small Intestine decides what is serving us and what is not. On every level. It is our discernment, our quality control, our truth-seeker.

The Heart, the Yin organ pair of the Small Intestine, is called on to house the spirit or Shen, in Chinese, and while it has a set of body guards, the Pericardium and Triple Burner, the Heart itself is considered to be our essence, the purity of our selves, recreated and burgeoning in each moment and reflected in the complexion, the eyes and the tongue. If you speak your truth, you are calling upon the Heart via the tongue.

Many factors can affect the Heart.

Fire is necessary to create life. It catalyses the chemical changes living creatures are reliant on, promotes circulation and allows synapses to occur in the nervous system, connecting and passing messages between our brain and bodies in every moment. Fire heats the cooking pot of our digestion, allowing us to transform food and drink into the substances and functions of our bodies. As with everything else, fire in balance with the other elements sparks life. Fire out of balance can destroy it.

In the body, excess heat and fire tend to create symptoms in the upper body, as heat rises. Some symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Skin rashes
  • High blood pressure
  • Heartburn
  • Dry throat
  • Acne
  • Burning, red eyes
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Flushed face
  • Fevers
  • Urinary Tract Infections

Heat is a common pathogen in our modern world because not only is it generated by spicy food and stress, it is also brought on by visual and audio stimulation, overpopulation, overwork, caffeine and alcohol. Inflammation is a common manifestation of fire in the body and can dramatically affect our joints, muscles and bones, or digestive systems, our skin and our moods.

Spending time in nature or quiet spaces, turning off screens and distracting technologies and sitting with ourselves can resettle our Hearts when they become heated by over-stimulation.

Deficiency of heat and fire can lead to depression, or lack of joy. Heat and function are often interchangeable as concepts in Chinese medicine. We need heat, a yang energetic, for circulation, uplifting of the organs and the mind, for fluidity, flexibility and engagement in life.

Joy is the balanced emotional manifestation of the Heart, where mania, anxiety and lack of joy are the fire element's emotions out of balance. A Heart stays in emotional balance when its truth is known and valued, when it is able to express itself appropriately.

This is not always possible in a society where resources are not equally accessible to all and those in power wish to silence the oppressed. For some, true self expression is dangerous and freedom of speech a great risk. If we live in a society where leaders and those with privilege do not want to engage with truth and weave elaborate stories to protect themselves from it, we all suffer. There is no joy in gaining at the expense of others. There is no joy in holding on to old beliefs and systems that have never represented or served the whole of our community.

Joy is fuller and deeper if we share it. Ultimately, an entire society benefits from the comfort, safety and protection of its most vulnerable members. Joy comes from giving and receiving, from opening the Heart to let love in and out, even when love grows in uncertain grounds. Even when love might lead to loss. Trusting the Heart, connecting with other people, engaging in compassionate practice toward self and others and finding the joy are ways of honoring the fire element this summer season.

For more on complicated emotions:

The Hilarious World of Depression podcast

For more on compassionate practice:

Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong by Norman Fischer

Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong (video)

Self-Compassion Guided Meditations and Exercises

For more on the Chinese Medical energetics of fire and the summer season:

Wood Becomes Water by Gail Reichstein

Nourishing Destiny by Lonny S. Jarrett

For more on acupuncture:

The Spark in The Machine by Daniel Keown

If you enjoy following the cycles of the season and haven’t seen my other seasonal articles, find out how we got here, to the fruition of our efforts, with my winter and spring articles:

The Empowerment of Anger

Living through the Season of Fear

Posted on July 10, 2017 .