Letting Go with Fire

Goodbye can be so painful. Parting with something or someone we love is rarely easy. Some goodbyes, however, are necessary. They are what is right and fitting. Sometimes goodbye is what saves us. Still, it is hard.

Saying goodbye to my son as he headed home to Vermont yesterday was sad, but I also knew it was necessary. He has to go to work, to class. Live his life and play his music. I also know that I will see him in a month – a help.

Goodbye to the masses of stuff I purged recently, and gave away or sold—that was easy. But for decades I had been unable to part with any of those things. It’s funny when goodbye goes from impossible to easy, seemingly overnight.

But of course there are many processes involved in parting. Some parting is slow, as when my mother died, and a few years later, my father. Some parting is sudden. My brother-in-law died in a nano-second this January from a brain aneurysm. No goodbye allowed.

But there are ways to say goodbye through ritual. To part not only with people, but with beliefs that hold us back, sorrows that clog our hearts, fears that keep us from living fully.

For loved ones who die, funerals and memorials are crucial rituals, shared with others. Other than a ceremony like a funeral, what other releasing rituals are we taught? How do we have a funeral for our fear that we will never find love? Or our belief that we are unworthy? Or the sorrow of a lost love? These feelings must be parted with for us to live fully. How to do it?

About nine years ago, I did my first work with a shaman. Her name is Skye Taylor and she lives in California now. I studied with her, and learned many lessons about myself, and the world. How to engage with the seen and unseen, the ego and the super-ego, the past, present and future. She also taught me how to release and say goodbye using fire.

The fire as ritual. For things you want to let go of permanently. Not for your child heading off to a year abroad—for her, a hug and a debit card will do. Not for the unwanted picture frames and end tables. For them, avoid fire and consider a tag sale or Goodwill. But for all that stuff you may not know how to get rid of, consider the cleansing prayer of fire and smoke.

I did not grow up in a religious family, but as a writer and English teacher I am very comfortable with symbolism. It is not difficult for me to envision a thought, belief or emotion being embodied in an inanimate object.

Skye taught me to blow into a stick (a match stick will do for city dwellers or if the sticks are all under the snow). Blow whatever is to be released, shipped off, dispatched. A toxic relationship, despair, fear, a limiting belief that I have acknowledged and am ready to let go of. The trick is to be specific, too, when thinking about what it is to be released, as I blow hard into that stick held between my hands. Despair over what? Fear of what? What belief, specifically? This is also a good way to release someone—someone you have lost through death, or a break up, and yet are having a painful time letting them go. There is no limit on how many sticks you can use, how many things you can release with one fire.

The fire needs to be burning already. If you don’t have a fireplace or firepit there is a way to create an indoor fire with baking soda and rubbing alcohol – it’s not as scary as it sounds and not at all dangerous. It burns slowly and is only as big as the pile of baking soda you use. (Put a mound of it in a cast iron skillet or a stainless steel baking dish – it won’t hurt them. Pour rubbing alcohol on the soda till it’s saturated and light it with a match. Magical.)

The sticks that now embody what is being released go into the fire. They are burned; they are thus transformed (chemical change is so comforting in its totality); they go up to the heavens as smoke.

If you would like to replace a fear or limiting belief with something positive and affirming, round two is like round one. After releasing, you symbolically bring into your life what you want. For example, you blow into a stick the knowledge that you will find a healthy relationship, a job, a house you love, that you will love yourself, take care of yourself, embrace intimacy, be adventurous—whatever it is that is lacking. Those sticks burn too, and the smoke rises like a prayer.

It works because I believe in the power of this ritual. I believe I can release what is toxic and manifest what is healthy inside myself. I love to see the little sticks curl up, redden, become ash. Doing this with friends or family is tremendously moving for me, as we take turns around the fire pit, or just all go at once, quietly blowing, releasing, blowing, bringing in. I have done it alone, too, which has its own murmuring, resonating intensity.

Clearing energy in my home by burning sage has a similar effect on me. It is about using fire to transform, cleanse, and make room for what is beautiful and beneficial. I walk around the house, smudge stick smoldering, and let the smoke float to the corners. I bend to let it find the spots under tables and even inside closets, where I imagine negative energy may be lurking. If everything is energy and energy never disappears, every fight or sob fest leaves its energy behind. If I have recently struggled especially, or been greatly unhappy, frightened or lost, that feeling has its energy that, in my mind, lingers in the spaces around me. I have faith in the potency of the savory smoke of burning sage to evict that energy.  As far as I am concerned, it is banished, and that’s what matters.

These rituals do not erase emotion or memory, or miraculously change me overnight. But they usher in change. They confirm my intentions and begin the process of defusing the power the emotion or memory has over me. Releasing a toxic belief or emotion can be like letting go of something dangerous in the water. You still see it, but it is drifting away to where it can’t hurt you anymore.

Ritual is a funny thing. It has the power we let it have. And yet many believe that the ritual itself is powerful whether or not we believe. How many people go to church every Sunday, skeptical, jaded, but hoping that is true? That the ritual will work even if they can’t “go there.” Whatever the case, I believe in the power of goodbye rituals, releasing rituals, banishing rituals, and most important, manifesting rituals, to embody my intentions in the matter. My intention to let go. My intention to bring about change. In the end, my intentions are what matter, and if I set my intentions on goodbye, goodbye it is.


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