Therapist's Note: Clients usually find me in moments when their best efforts at change haven't yielded the difference they desperately seek. When I listen to stories of change not yet reached, I am often struck by how infrequently we give ourselves credit for how much has already been achieved in the efforts we mistakenly believe have been futile. When we can turn our focus away from the goals unaccomplished toward the changes quietly accumulating unnoticed the change process can rapidly ignite with new possibilities and momentum.
Among the dust and soot
of a fire left untended
an ember glows:
unexinguished by the cold of night
and the passing of time.
Such a small yet persistent spark
could burn brightly if only
someone would notice
its quiet unadorned potential
and give it breath..
Over the holidays I had the joy of staying in a quiet cabin on the shores of Lake Michigan. The temperatures were brutally cold, wind whipped over the water creating formidable waves and snow piled high on the ground.
I woke up one morning before my housemates and came downstairs to the chilled living room. The fireplace caught my attention--how good it would feel to huddle up next to such cozy warmth! It's been a minute since I've built a fire, but I was stubbornly determined to rise to the occasion.
I started by crumpling up paper and placing it around the partially burned logs from the night before. I struck a match, lit up the paper, and watched with pride as flames began to leap up, hot and high. Within a few minutes, much to my shivering chagrin, the flames disappeared, leaving behind no trace other than a small line of smoldering smoke rising off of the logs.
After a few frustrated attempts, I began to think the problem was inadequate wood and kindling. I contemplated bundling up and going outside to scavenge for better fire starter, but the howling wind encouraged me to stay right where I was. Perhaps my fire building skills had grown rusty and I was better off waiting for someone else to awake.
I furrowed my brow, squinted into the space where the fire was supposed to be and watched the embers twinkle.
That's when I remembered--all an ember needs to burst into flame is a breath of fresh oxygen.
I leaned in, inhaled the sooty smoke and exhaled all the air in my being with as much oompf as my cheeks could muster. The embers cracked and flashed deeper shades of red. Whoosh.. Jostling with energy, the embers burst into flame. Whoosh.. The flames grew hotter, brighter, taller, engulfing fresh brittle wood.
Whoooooooosh.,,,until the fire took on a life of its own.
I sat back, warmed, satisfied.
That's when I remembered--all change needs to burst into flame is a breath of fresh oxygen, too.
As simple as it sounds, it's easy to forget. We're trained to focus on the flames and not the embers.
Focusing on the flames in the process of change looks like putting all of our effort into reaching our final destination. When the flames first ignite we feel optimistic and competent. But when those same flames die out quickly, our options appear to be to exert even more effort or to just give up. We may throw up our hands and grumble with frustration, self-criticism and self-doubt. Or we may buckle down, trudge up the mountain, wield the axe, chop down more firewood, and haul it back to camp only to have the flames die down once again.
We've probably all been here at one point or another (maybe you're here right now): paralyzed with overwhelm or spinning our wheels or some terribly awful oscillation between the two options.
While we're busy making ourselves miserable, the fire isn't getting what it needs to sustain itself and the changes we're seeking appear further from our reach than when we first began. It's this sort of experience that gives change a bad rap as something elusively, soul-crushingly impossible.
There's another way to approach change: we can focus on the embers. Instead of putting effort into what we think it may take to reach our goal, we look backward on what's already ignited. We don't give up or trudge out, we look down to the messy black soot and find that piece of charcoal that refuses to stop burning. We marvel at it, give thanks, and remember--all that ember needs is a breath of fresh oxygen.
If you want to make change, if you've taken any steps towards change at all (even if all you have done is read these words) I promise this: there is already an ember. It ignited before you even noticed it and it's been twinkling throughout the cold, dark night, just waiting for you to wake up and tend to it again.
All that ember needs from you is for you to lean into it and breathe into it with all the air in your lungs at the moment.
It will take on a life of its own.
For further reflection: What is one small (but important) change that took place within your thinking or doing before you were even aware you wanted something to be different in your life? How might you breathe into that small change to help it burst into flame?
Therapist's Note: We often associate the process of counseling with moving participants toward solid explanations of what they're experiencing and why they're experiencing it. Personally, I tend to take a different approach to my work. Drawing on theories and practices that emphasize the ways we construct meaning, I often find that what best supports clients in making change is providing space for explanations to shift and evolve (and even contradict one another) over time. A change in our explanations can create all kinds of other changes, like petals opening from a flower.
Winter winds creep in.
Dark, damp days stretch into one another:
the difference between dawn and dusk grows difficult to perceive.
Nearly frozen raindrops fall like needles.
All color begins to drain from the natural world.
A bright bloom stretches tall.
Tender, tenacious petals unfurl.
Unexpected beauty blossoms--
startling and soothing to the soul.
The view outside my office window has become increasingly dreary and depressing this past week, but this delightful flower keeps capturing my attention. It's funny, I'm sure she's been gracing me with her presence for quite some time, but it wasn't until the chill set in that I paid her any mind.
I found myself pondering what meanings and motivations she would assign to her surprising existence...
Is she blissfully oblivious to the impending threats as she revels in the present?
Or is she radically defiant, undeterred by worries and expectations?
Does she notice just how excruciatingly exposed she stands?
Or does she feel the wonders of being stretched-wide open?
Does she shudder self-consciously about how out of place she appears?
Or might she take pride in standing out from the crowd?
I imagine if she could speak, she would answer each question with a sigh of recognition and a loud, long "YES". She would resist my efforts to tame her into simplified "this" or "that" explanations. After all, those who are created wild and free know well the joys of embracing the complexities and contradictions of being alive in this world.
Each of us are like that bright bloom as we move through change.
We are tender yet tenacious.
Oblivious yet defiant.
Exposed yet open.
Self-conscious yet proud.
Step back from yourself for a moment. Take a genuinely curious look through the window. Can you see all of that in you in this moment?
When we can gently hold together contradictory aspects of our experience of change, we gift ourselves with both grace and flexibility. Grace to experience self-compassion as we set aside judgments about being too much of "this" or not enough of "that". Flexibility to draw from any of those parts of our experience that serve us well in the present moment.
There's no need to tame yourself.
You are created wild and free.
Wild enough to brighten dreary days.
Free enough to bloom in any weather.
Ah, I can hear the sign of recognition and your long, loud "YES".
Reflection question: Which pair of contradictions listed above most resonates with you? Why might that be?
Here you will find metaphors, images, reflections, and inspiration on the change process. Psychotherapy intersects with creativity, nature, and spirituality on these pages. You can start anywhere you'd like. You'll find a note on my thoughts as a therapist as well as a prompt for your own reflection at the beginning and end of each entry.
I'm a licensed therapist in private practice in Indianapolis who provides counseling to individuals and couples, particularly around issues of anxiety, adjustment, and relationship wellness.