“If you play with fire, you will get burned”
Similar to the idea that without risk there is no reward, I enjoy living in a world where you don’t have to risk more than you want to, but if you do, a whole Universe is there for the taking. To fire up your spiritual journey, sometimes you need the courage to ‘get burned’, knowing you’ll emerge a more authentic version of yourself. This is a story of putting my hands in the flames, time and again
One of my earliest memories is being around five years old, on a cold night just before Christmas. I was at my grandmother’s house with my parents, my brother, my 16 cousins, my aunts, uncles and my precious grandma who was grieving from the passing of my grandfather. She never really got over that, even two decades later, but then again, does anyone?
It was our yearly posada. A posada is a wonderful event where family and friends get together to celebrate some of the centuries-old rituals of Mexican Catholic traditions. From eating copious amounts of food, to heavy drinking and the exchange of gifts, this tradition has it all, and in fact isn’t too dissimilar from other countries’ Christmas-time traditions.
But, being related to Catholicism, there was more to the story. At one point in the night, usually after a round of football and exchanging gifts before dinner, we would do ‘the walk’. The walk is when we go around in a circle, prancing in the yard singing a prayer. Anyone who isn’t part of this tradition might think we’re insane, and indeed looking back now, perhaps we were.
But it was rather innocent. We would all perform this song based on the part of the Bible where Mary and Joseph are looking for a place to stay the night in Bethlehem, as they are persecuted by Herod for the crime of potentially giving birth to a god-man who will take the power from the Romans… Simple story really.
Anyway, it was a thing we did while walking in a circle; but we also had candles.
I loved the candles. Not just the beautiful flames, which seemed to dance with the flow of the wind, but also the wax. So shiny, warm and fun to play with. I loved dripping it on my hands, on my arms, on my cousin’s feet. Sometimes I would drip it on random leaves to make little designs on them.
That was until I discovered something even more interesting to do with it.
To build or to destroy, as you fire up your spiritual journey?
The first time I set a piece of paper on fire, I thought I would die of joy. It’s overpowering. I developed a sincere, overwhelming desire to watch things burn. Seems almost scary to say, yet that is the true reflection of the feeling. Pyromania is a real thing, and those that have it understand the ecstatic desire to experiment with things by burning them.
I enjoyed burning things, like a single piece of paper at the posada, yet that was just one aspect of my affection for fire. Symbolically, fire was my friend, my lover and my confidante. I found the ashy, sulfurous smell of matches intoxicating. Relationships, bonded around a campfire, were magical. Everywhere I looked, fire seemed to make things better.
Sometimes I even became this fire, which was a fitting cloak for my role as the black sheep in the family.
I induced a kind of metaphorical burning within my family, with my impulsive, explosive personality. While I was both entirely loving and affectionate if in a good mood, a bad one saw me angry, defensive and completely careless about my words and actions.
It’s interesting how our childhood behaviours shape our adult lives. Being so impulsive left me with a lot of scars, most of them emotional. I felt deeply misunderstood. It was not just a matter of impulsiveness either. The problem was I saw the whole world as black or white, fire or ice, strong or weak. If you were not my friend, you were my enemy.
This of course led to a lot of trouble at school, as it does with those of us who choose to rebel against society at large. If a teacher told me to be quiet, I would become obnoxiously loud. If I thought what we were learning was not helpful, or interesting, I would throw paper planes in class. I definitely got suspended a lot.
Why did I love tempting life so much, by always going towards the flames, rather than diffusing them peacefully?
I saw it as exploring life’s barriers. We are alive, we know this. We will die, we know this too. Do we know anything else? Do we, actually? Questions of life and death were always a big part of my self reflections, where I would wonder about the meaning of things. Add to that a layer of Catholicism, where doing the right thing has more to do with escaping the fire and brimstone of hell, and my sense of good and evil was understandably warped.
Emerging from Eternal Darkness
I guess I always thought I was going to hell, since I thought going to heaven would be even scarier. This may sound incredible to believe, but the idea of spending more than 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 years, plus infinity as they say, in a heaven where it’s all clouds and harps and chubby angels, somehow seemed existentially bleak. These images of heaven and hell that I’d grown up with just weren’t enough. However, they did serve to enhance an insatiable curiosity for meaning – in everything.
Soon after, I became a voracious reader of all types of literature. Zoology and anatomy books were my favourite, but I consumed entire encyclopaedias before I was ten years old, just so I could understand the world better.
“Who are we?” and “Where do we come from?” and “Why?” These thoughts played on rerun in my mind, constantly. Cinema became my loyal companion as well. I devoured anything to do with horror, science-fiction and war, as each movie seemed to tell me a new story of what the world was, what it could be, and how it all reflected on humanity.
Aside from questions of origin, I wanted to find out why people behaved the way they do. In fact, why does anything behave the way it does? This part of me has only gotten stronger through the years. It’s an unstoppable curiosity to understand the world around me. Funnily enough, the more satisfying answers I receive are not from my fellow human citizens, but from the animal world.
We Are All Monkeys
It became my thing. Dogs, hamsters, lizards, I wanted to play with them all. In fact, I still do, perhaps more than ever. However, it would take me decades to figure out why I enjoy animals so much, beyond the ‘fun factor’. Playing with them, interacting with them, learning about them and even just thinking about them. The short versions of it is that, they just simply ‘are’. This seems almost like a surreal aspect to me. There are so many rules in this society, so many things we’re “supposed” to do. And these guys, they’re just happy ‘being’.
To this day, I still think animals have much to teach us, much more than we have to teach them. So, tragically, as anyone who loves something very much knows fully well, this love can easily lead to a lot of pain. Pain that can seem truly excruciating, which was not there before. I’m talking about the suffering that animals go through to satisfy human desires. I feel it, and to me that is the true hell.
Not only do we treat other creatures as lower forms, even though we are all animals, but we define ourselves based on how different we are from them. We get pride over our seeming superiority. We take control of them as if they belonged to us. We torture them thinking they don’t feel anything. Whenever I think of this, I get the piercing desire to help these animals, as it’s so very painful.
Helping them became my life’s mission. And I am only starting to take steps in that direction now. It’s interesting too, because through the years I later discovered that, it is the very people who hate animals so much, who behave the most like them.
Who’s Life is this Anyway?
Life is full of seeming paradoxes like that. The conservative senator who passes legislature against abortions, just days after he made his daughter get one. The preacher who loudly spouts against the carnal sins of men, who later at night abuses children with no recourse. The lady who believes black men should not be allowed on the bus, even though she fantasizes about them.
It is often true that the things we fear the most, are the things we become; unless we are able to confront these fears, so we can get over them. I’ve had many fears in my time, yet some I was definitely not born with. Most kids are scared of the dark. Most adults aren’t. It was only until my mid-twenties that I got rid of that fear, for reasons I hadn’t fully understood until then.
Tell a child that there is an evil force out there, which is intent on taking control of your body, and it results in a fearful child. Despite that, the image of the devil was always interesting to me. I loved the idea of the red-horned, bearded devil with a pointy tail. That image seemed like fun and I almost related to it. It’s funny how we can have such cognitive dissonance of a cartoon devil image and ‘The Devil’, with its penchant for possessing people. Again, to me as a kid, that second was truly horrifying.
But the image of a Catholic God was a very different thing.
Catholicism seems to have been created to separate the “real teachings” of Christ and the world’s prophets from what the teachings were meant to say. Once it all became highly symbolical, it was primed to be interpreted in any way desired. When Constantine founded the Catholic Church in the 4th century AD, he envisioned a way to leverage the powerful teachings of Jesus, towards something greater.
Thanks to him, Christianity became accepted and commonplace in ancient Rome, but it also became one of the single greatest forms of spiritual, social and psychic control that’s ever existed on this green Earth. The reasoning was simple. These scriptures are powerful.
The Catholic Church is, by all accounts, mighty. It spends hundreds of billions of dollars every year for a variety of purposes, which would indicate that Constantine fulfilled his purpose completely. But why create such a powerful empire? And how does it relate to my own personal demons? Indeed, I believe it is all tied together, from the very first day I attended church as a baby.
The End of the Beginning
We’re drenched in water. Purifying, sacred water on a baby’s head, the ritual of the baptism has its origin over two millennia ago, since the very life of Jesus. Babies hate it, obviously. As the water is poured over their soft heads, just months after they’re born, care must be taken that it’s not too much, too fast. Babies’ heads are fragile, after all. But the symbolism is clear. The baby is refreshed; reborn.
I don’t personally remember getting baptized, but I’m sure it was a hell of a trial. Not so much the water getting poured on our faces as much as the crowds of people, the echoing church and the organs playing mournful songs. Yes, my memories of my Catholic upbringing are skewed and opinionated, but so is anything that plays a crucial part in one’s life.
I remember a weirdly liberating feeling towards the fiery release of hell. Scary, yes, but also freeing — as most of the Bible’s teachings are about suffering, I did not want what they were selling. The opposite of their snake oil, thank you very much. Regardless of how terrible it sounded, it seemed like a better option than heaven, with its relentless stillness, naiveté and overbearing pretentiousness.
Give me any image of hell which is not originating in Dante Alighieri, and it seems like the place to rock. Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, and in its first part, Inferno, devised a whole vision of the fiery pits of hell, full of 9 circles of the damned. Lyrically awesome, it also shaped the image of hell in the eyes of humanity forever. But to Dante, like to every other great writer, it was all symbolic.
Who hasn’t lived for a few decades only to realise that both heaven and hell are on Earth? The literal use of these places, is used only to create an effect on people. To induce fear, most likely, but also respect for their fellow humans. Yes, we must listen to the “word of God” but at the same time, we were made in “His” image. So, we’re all sort of gods right? Paradoxes surge with the thought.
Questions sprung upon me about this so called word of God, which I never approved of in my mind. Like, why is God necessarily a man? Why not a woman? It seems pretty obvious to have the loving, caring, giver of life be a woman, so I didn’t understand why it had to be a man. Then, there’s the reference to humans having full control over beasts, which seems rather presumptuous, given how amazing the animal kingdom is.
We’re No Better
By telling its readers and followers that humanity was better than the rest of animal kind, by sheer virtue of being told so by a book, the amount of suffering it’s caused is uncountable. But why? It may seem logical for some that we are simply better as we are more intelligent, but every year more studies come out proving every single thing we thought separated us from animals, quite simply doesn’t.
Language? Whales produce more sounds, and even have names for each other. Brain size? Elephants beat us substantially, and also have deep empathy for each other. Social organisation? Ants can have over 100 million ants working together, in relative peace. A soul? Who’s to say we have one and they don’t — it’s all a matter of perspective, and humans only have their human perspective.
Finally, there’s the topic of free will, which many would assume also separates us from animals. If, indeed, it exists at all.
Do you believe in free will?
I don’t think we have free will anymore. In fact, more and more scientists are coming to the same conclusion. But they make an effort not to talk about it. Studies prove that once people think they have no free will, they take more risks and, reportedly, act more selfishly. For me, this is knowledge has given me freedom, like nothing else before. If there is no free will, if there are no choices, then it’s all fated. It’s all destined. So, there’s no need to worry about anything, and we can just enjoy life as it comes.
The reason I think this, is the same reason I believe most things: research. Studying the world around me, and realising things along the way, has led me to the most amazing paths. A simple way of describing this thought is that we all started — if you believe in the theory of evolution — as single cell organisms. After becoming multi-cellular, we became much bigger and more complex.
This culminated in sea creatures leaving the calmness of the ocean towards land, evolving towards amphibians, reptiles, mammals and finally primates. At some point we became human, though we’re still very much like our ape cousins, sharing over 97% of DNA with them. Along that journey, we must decide when we started making our own choices. Unless, we never really had that choice.
What if the whole time, we just react to whatever is happening in our environment? Just like a gazelle runs away from a lion in fear, so do we attack the lion to protect ourselves. Instinct, in all its forms, is very much a reaction. But what about our pre-frontal cortex, with all its advanced thinking and decision-making? These thoughts may very well just be prompts from prompts; extreme high-level responses.
I’m definitely not the first person to think humans, like every other creature on Earth, just act based on our genetic predispositions and environmental effects. I also won’t be the last. But more importantly perhaps, I do believe that the more we repress our very animal emotions and instincts, by trying to control ourselves, the more we’ll suffer. I thoroughly believe even crime stems from it.
Embracing my Nature
Nobody is born evil. I’ve had to contend with that thought as a kid many times. Not that I ever did anything truly bad – the thoughts that often popped into my mind would make me feel so. If only I didn’t try to repress them so much. The liberating feeling of just watching your thoughts, accepting them, and letting them go is almost too gratifying to forget. Meditation became my new church.
Mediation has allowed me to be me. It has also allowed me to connect to my surroundings, by accepting and embracing every single thing that occurs. Acknowledging the thoughts abounding in my head, while striving to be the best human being I can be, has been challenging and mystifying. I’m forever grateful for it.
Now, both heaven and hell live together in me.
People in my life have definitely benefited from my embrace of nature, whether real or imaginary, but I truly think just simply ‘being’ is the answer to most questions out there. I’ve learned this from animals. I’ve learned this from meditation. I’ve learned this from doing the opposite of what my childhood church taught me. Repressing is not the answer. Embracing is. Love grows from it.
Indeed, it has been the fight between fear and love that has driven much of my exploration and discoveries as I traverse this planet with deep affection for its many mysteries. If my inner fire ever meant one thing, it’s a constant flame seeking other flames to dance with. Embracing the different in me has helped me deal with my own demons, as well as understand other people’s as well.
Understandably, if it wasn’t for my burning curiosity, I would not have wandered into the world as much as I have. Traveling has provided me with more joy, more intensity and light, and more answers than anything else before it. It is the only way to live, in my mind. If we are all simply explorers, just observing this life around us with no control over it, then why not just experience it, by truly being it?
I simply had to move around. Exploration being the maxim, from the beginning, one place was never enough. As a child I thought, why not go next door? The young adult said, why not the next continent? Or to the next planet? It’s all very possible within our lifetimes. Science-fiction, like horror and war, is not just a movie genre, but real life.
We can take as much part in these life-movies as we want. If there is no choice, then every choice opens up to us.
By Pablo Mainero
Pablo is an international marketing expert, travel addict and animal lover who delves deep into the world’s mysteries.