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: A common response I receive when I tell people what I do for a living is: "Oh gosh, isn't it awful listening to people's problems all day long?" I always respond, "Actually, that's not at all what I do; I hear the most amazing things every day, I witness incredible resilience and growth, it's pretty awesome." Yes, clients come to counseling having experienced messy, heart-breaking things in their lives. But the mess ends up fertilizing some incredibly beautiful, tender blooms.
The pungent aroma.
The sting of grit clinging to skin.
The creepy, crawling things writhing and wrestling.
I've been spending plenty of time in the garden recently: preparing the beds, planting the seeds. In my interactions with the dirt, I found myself pondering the contradictions within it.
On the one hand: discomfort and disgust; mess and chaos.
On the other hand: soft, soothing warmth; a satisfying, soulful connection to life-giving, life-sustaining earth.
There are moments in life like dirt.
When everything becomes pungent.
And the creepy, crawling things surface..
And the grit clings to every crevice of our wrinkled souls.
Our first instinct in these messy moments may to recoil in repulsion, eagerly searching for a clean sink to wash our hands of it all. Yet...these are the rich, fertile moments that enable us to plant something new. If we can allow hope to shelter us like a well-worn sunhat, if we can place trust as a cushion beneath our aching knees, we can stay there beside the soil, tending to what is to come.
If you find yourself in a dirt-like moment:
Let your hands turn the warm, damp earth.
Wipe the sweat from your brow with your dusty forearm that feels like sandpaper.
You can sit back with a glass of cold lemonade--water beading on the smooth surface, ice chiming. You can survey the work you have done with a sense of satisfaction. You can take a long hot shower, sighing in relief as your skin feels new again, as the water eases your aching muscles.
Just when you are starting to doubt (or perhaps just when you've forgotten to look for it), a tender green shoot will rise from the pungent, gritty, creepy-crawly, warm, soothing, life-giving dirt.
And you will rise along with it.
For further reflection: What is one thing that grew out of a dirt-like moment in your past? If you were to imagine that one thing as a plant, tree, or flower, what would it look like?
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.