By Brandon Rennels
Last winter in Plum Village, a friend told me my first name can be translated as “Fire-starter.” At the time I had just begun my role as a coordinator for the international Wake Up movement. I was working alongside Buddhist monks and nuns to support young adults in practicing mindfulness and creating communities where they live. Wake Up had been growing steadily over the past few years, and many conditions had come together to allow me the opportunity to dedicate my efforts to the cause. I had been searching for a way to apply my business consulting background to support mindfulness practice, and this was it. It was a dream job—my answer to: “What would you pay to do?” I saw many opportunities to contribute, to support people, to get things rolling.
But fire, when uncontrolled, can be extremely destructive. Coming from a corporate background, I was used to pushing the limits of my mental and physical capacity in order to “get things done.” Once I transitioned to working with the mindfulness community, I naively thought these habits would drop away. I soon learned that working on mindfulness projects does not necessarily mean one is working mindfully. In addition to my old work habits, I encountered a new stress, a second arrow of frustration, when I felt overburdened. Most people in the corporate world will admit they’re stressed out by work, but in the mindfulness realm I thought I should be calm 24/7. So when things went awry, as they often do, I felt bad about feeling bad.
Even though I had found work that I truly cared about, my path had really just begun. To balance doing vs. being, engagement vs. rest, making a difference vs. taking care of myself, and to protect and nurture my internal flame—this was my true “job.” To protect this flame I have often relied on the other elements of air, water, and earth. All the elements are necessary for our survival, yet all have the potential to destroy. What’s necessary is a cultivation of them in balance. Fortunately, I’ve had some help from friends along the way.
Last summer I had the good fortune of being able to visit many different Wake Up Sanghas in the Netherlands. We started most meditation sessions with a weather report about how we were feeling in the moment, aided by the metaphor of the elements.
During my time in the Lowlands, I was able to touch, taste, and play with these elements in different ways, ultimately finding ways to sustain my internal flame.
Air: I Am a Cloud
I had heard that the Netherlands is famous for its clouds. From my observations, I can see why. Big puffy clouds resemble something familiar, but when you turn away for an instant, the scene morphs, and the imagination has a fresh canvas to play with. Through the wind, air acts as an invisible force, shaping and transforming the outer landscape.
Air affects the inner landscape as well, in the form of the breath. Each Wake Up event starts with sitting meditation, following our breathing: full in-breath, full out-breath. I enjoy beginning this way. It really allows a person to arrive. (I went to visit a Wake Up Sangha in Belgium for a “Wake Up and Play” event, a gathering specifically designed to have no formal meditation, but after an hour everyone decided that we should sit! Sometimes you need to arrive before you can have fun.)
Air also carries sounds. Sound, like the wind, is an invisible force that can heal, seduce, enchant. During my fi weekend in the Netherlands, one of my hosts had a birthday party. At one moment we all lay down on the floor with our heads together, listening to the sounds, to our breathing, to one another. I was acting DJ for the evening and thought to put on a French electronic artist who just happens to be named “Air.” Shortly after the opening beat, one of the guys said, “Oh, nice! This is the perfect moment for Air.” I smiled to think that two people who grew up on different continents with different cultures and different life experiences could so easily be united by music.
As everyone was leaving, I realized that this constellation of people might never again be in the same room together. Impermanence. Just as the cloud changes shape, so does the fabric of each moment of our lives. I was grateful for the moments we shared.
Water: Flowing Like a River
It’s easy to flow like a river when you like the direction in which you’re headed. During a lazy day in Amsterdam, I had the luxury of sitting (well, lying down, really) on the back of a paddleboat. It was a magnificent, sunny summer afternoon, and I had just peeled an orange and was savoring each slice while my toes skimmed the surface of the water. At one moment we started turning sideways, and after a few seconds I began to wonder, “Where are we going?” The two people paddling seemed to have been distracted. It didn’t matter. So what if we were off track? I was confident we would find our way.
While it’s one thing to keep this trust when you’re being chauffeured on a calm canal, it can be more difficult to maintain trust when the waters are high. At one point in my stay, there was a weeklong stretch that was quite packed. We had events almost every day in different cities, my work responsibilities had picked up, and on top of it all I wasn’t sleeping very well. Our final event for the week was about awareness of food waste, and although I was interested in the topic, I debated whether it would be better for me to just rest. We arrived the night before on a cold, rainy evening, and by the time we got to our host’s house it was well past my bedtime. Knowing how much work had been put into this event, I decided to flow with the river and join.
When we arrived at the event the next morning, judging by the number of teacups and tired faces, it seemed everyone had had a long week. A few people shared that they were tired, and we all listened, together taking refuge in the Sangha. Our next activity was a silent walk, but as people were slowly gathering their belongings, a new idea emerged. The organizers, sensing the energy level, switched the program to an interactive game. I was unsure if this would be a welcome change, but after a few minutes of laughing and stumbling into one another, the group’s mood had clearly lifted. Sometimes a simple adjustment can have a delightful downstream effect.
The events of that week provided an opportunity for me to reflect on how to balance “doing together” and “being together.” In the face of much to do, again I saw that the habit energy of rushing had, at times, gotten the best of me. That’s okay. It happens. But I knew I needed to observe this tendency deeply if I wanted to sustain the flame in the long run. The term “burnout” is often used to describe a metaphorical extinguishment of our internal flame. A surplus of air (impermanence) or water (flowing as a river) can create unstable conditions for fire, so to protect myself I can call on the solid foundational element, earth.
Earth: Rooted as a Tree
Have you ever hugged a tree? It took me a while before I physically embraced my fi tree. The term “tree-hugger” conjured up a negative image in my mind, and this judgment persisted until I visited a national park in California. I saw someone wrapped snugly around a giant sequoia, and she looked happy enough. I tried it myself. Whoa! It actually feels great. Trees, like mountains, are metaphors of stability in mindfulness practice. In a storm the branches sway but the trunk is solid, stable, unmoved. While the Dutch claim that they don’t have much “nature” (as most areas have been developed), I found plenty of trees to take refuge in.
One stop on my trip was a Sangha meeting in Rotterdam. Upon entering the home where we would be practicing, I was immediately invited to share a meal with the hosts. This particular Sangha felt mature and stable, and as I was feeling a bit ungrounded that day, I was thankful to take refuge in them. As we all settled into sitting meditation together, I began breathing in their solidity, and soon the image of a tree appeared in my mind’s eye. It had brilliant brown bark with a wide trunk and roots that dug down deep. In the center of the trunk there was a door, and I found myself wondering what was inside. After a few more breaths the door slowly opened, and inside were my mother, my father, and me as a five-year-old child, all inviting me in. They welcomed me with open arms, gave me some space, and breathed with me. With each breath I felt recharged, encouraged, and free.
If there was ever an “island within,” I had found it. In this space I felt safe, and with each breath I was able to ground myself in the solidity of my ancestors and of Mother Earth. By the end of the evening I had rekindled the inner flame and given it space to burn brighter, like a torch guiding my way and igniting my deep aspiration to change myself, and by extension, the world.
Home Is Where the Heart Is
At the end of my time in the Netherlands, I had the honor of co-facilitating the Sangha meeting in Nijmegen. As I led the mindful movements and deep relaxation, I felt so comfortable, as if I was among old friends. Many of the people in the room I had gotten to know through numerous encounters within and outside of the Sangha meetings.
The Dharma sharing that evening was filled with a lot of emotion. There was the joy of a new baby, sadness of a pending death in the family, difficult jobs, new relationships… this was the real deal! We shared and listened, breathing together with what Jon Kabat-Zinn would call the “full catastrophe” of this shared human experience.
At the end of the evening we all gathered in a circle for a group hug. Looking around, I felt the entire community supporting me and knew I could handle whatever challenges lay ahead. The flame was burning brightly and it felt good. We sang one last song together, and it was a fitting way to end my journey:
Been traveling a day Been traveling a year
Been traveling a lifetime, to find my way home
Home is where the heart is
Home is where the heart is
Home is where the heart is, my heart is with you.
Brandon Rennels, True Garden of Faith, has been serving, living, and lounging within the Plum Village community for the last couple years. As a coordinator for Wake Up, he has had the privilege of interfacing daily with passionate young practitioners around the world. He has also logged enough time at the monastery to significantly improve his table tennis game. In a previous life he was a management consultant based out of Dubai.