Do you need to ‘set yourself on fire’ to keep someone else warm?

yoga mental health Jan 01, 2021

I just found a quote which I think speaks to the practice of making difficult decisions around spiritual life:

“You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep others warm”

Of course we want the people around us to be happy, we want them to be comfortable, at ease, to experience joy and happiness. Indeed there is a whole form of meditation and spiritual practice dedicated to this – Metta Meditation. In such a practice we begin by wishing love, kindness, joy and peace on those we love, and extend our well wishes in increasingly widened circles so as to embrace all, even those who we find hard to love. The practice of metta is a deep and wonderful practice for sharing love and the fruits of our own practice.

Indeed every day in my Ashtanga practice I finish with the closing chant, in which I wish that all be well with humankind, and I devote my practice to the wellness of others.

But the practice of metta, doesn’t mean that we can always help other people feel good or happy. Indeed after many years of working with people and teaching it has become clear to me that sometimes people will be unhappy whether it be with you or others. Often there is nothing you can do about it, as it has nothing to do with anyone else, and everything to do with the person who is unhappy.

We all work through our lives with our own issues, blindspots, places within ourselves that we would rather not shine a light on. Sometimes in our interactions with people, whether it be our kids, our partner, our students or our friends a door opens shining a very bright light on our own ‘stuff’, or on theirs. Instinctually we often want to run right up to that door and slam it shut it so the light won’t be so blinding. Because when we see ourselves clearly in certain situations we may not like what we see!

I think many of us spend our life trying to intuitively avoid opening those doors on our own stuff or other people’s. It becomes a very complex and draining exercise in emotional chess. How will they feel if I do that? But then if I say that they won’t be happy etc etc. Often we won’t make decisions about what is good, nourishing or important to us because we are worried about how other people might feel. So instead we “set ourselves on fire to keep other people warm”. We allow other people’s issues to determine our actions and life choices. This can be in very small ways or in much larger, life long damaging ways. Indeed for many it seems that ‘setting ourselves on fire to keep others warm’ – becoming over self sacrificing – relates back to the parent child relationship and is then replicated in relationships throughout life.

In order to live freely we all need to own our own issues rather than passively requiring that other people dance around them. Whether it be a no go zone in a relationship, or a past hurt that we don’t want in any way mentioned. When we require other people to sacrifice themselves in order to help us maintain a veneer of emotional stability we aren’t doing anyone any favours.

The saddest part is that when there are no go zones in relationships, things we can’t talk about, then we are never truly able to be fully present and real with each other. There will always be a distance, a block. We will always in some small way have our guard up.

For the person who we are trying not to upset we simply perpetuate their problem or issue and they remain unable to be 100% comfortable with themselves. For us we may not make choices that are good for us as we are instead choosing to enable someone else to avoid their own ‘stuff’.

I am not advocating that we shout out hard truths from the rooftops, that would be unkind and also violating the first principle of yoga – ahimsa (non harming). But there is a way gently and over time that we can stop setting ourselves on fire so others can be warm. We can slowly and patiently let the boundaries and defences down and tell people how we really feel, and how their behaviour or the no go zones they have created are unhelpful for us. This needs to be done gently, we don’t just throw a floodlight on the issue. Instead it is like a gentle torch light easing some pain, sadness, hurt or grief out of the dark and into the light.

But it may not always go well. For some people the stability of practice is not yet there for them to be able to hold their pain and hurt that they are avoiding in awareness. Any attempt to break through those no go zones, to be honest, to have some truth, will be felt as a threat and result in shut down. In these situations while me may wish peace for these people in our lives, it is not our job to save them. Only they can do that. We can stand close and bear witness to the process, but it isn’t our process to have.

Sometimes to be free in yourself it will mean that certain relationships will not last. And that is a very difficult realisation.

You may find that choosing what is right for you or your family, is not received well by others. If this is the case, best to practice not taking it personally. On the other hand when you gently begin deciding you don’t want to set yourself on fire to keep others warm you may find that your relationships grow and blossom. I have experienced this transformation first hand, and you will find life long friends, relationships with family which are deep and loving.


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