I prefer not to define this principle in the conventional way as zeal or discipline, mainly because I don’t aspire to be a zealot or disciplinarian. I like the term “fiery energy”; it is close to the Sanskrit roots and much more versatile and evocative than those other two more commonly used terms for tapas in English.
The Sanskrit word tapas (“tap” means fire) is a beautiful onomatopoeia, like santosha. It is a kind of mirror of sound organized around the plosive “p” in the middle. The simmering “s” at the end perfectly counterbalances the dead stop before the beginning; the symmetrical “ahs” burn like logs in crackling consonantal flames.
One of the delightful aspects of fiery energy is that it comes in an infinite variety of forms. I experience it internally in activities like vigorous exercise, ardent love, intense concentration, and dedicated commitment, but also occasionally in the hum of inner silence. Around me I see it in the innumerable examples of transformative physical power: in fuels, storms, jets, clouds, bombs, in the seeds of flowers. If all of existence truly consists of mutable forms, I think the forms themselves must be made of fiery energy.
Unfortunately fiery energy is sometimes not visible to me. When I am beset by sadness, loneliness, or fatigue, it can be hard to summon up the energy I need to lift myself into a mood where I can witness it. So I have learned that it is a good idea to tend my flame. Fiery energy perpetuates itself.
At other times my energy is visible and accessible but can be perplexing to apply. The past few nights I have slept less than my body requires. Is it better this morning to get up early in order to get exercise (tapas) or to sleep an extra hour in order to allow my body to rest (ahimsa)?
This brings up the biggest issue I face with regards to fiery energy: I have not always made wise use of it. I have been careless, propelling myself forward regardless of what’s going on around or inside me. As a result I have often ended up hurting myself or the people close to me. Since my adolescence I have been a corral of wild horses. I have learned only recently – assisted by these ten practices – how beautifully they calm when I whisper.
Man and woman
cut brush out back
with a fire to burn what they fell.
The boy lugs a branch
twice tall as himself,
heaves it from the thick end.
Leaves, going in first,
burn from wood,
float on smoke.
a gray wave
rise to meet the boats
whose sails are flaming.
So lit in the mind
ideas lift and hold
attention to their paths.
Become the leaf
or child, the fire
where thoughts alight.
The magic of fire may stay with a child,
but wonder alone can’t manage its machinery.
For a man to put a flame to use
he must observe what burns, and bring it fuel.
I learned at ten to build fires in a hearth.
Andirons, kindling wood across
second grid laid upon the first,
(plenty of pitch, split lumber’s best)
strips of newsprint bedded underneath.
Then the art: to place three logs and turn
them close enough to feed each other’s heat
but leaving room for each to breathe and burn.
A fire contained is our most natural tool,
and tended gently it will never lose
the familial warmth, but lighten any scenery,
its hearthstones keeping flame from burning wild.
Married young, I diligently laid
a grid of promises and trust, with plenty
of knotty business to burn, and stayed
for many years. My heart so raged at twenty !
It blazed away with only time to burn.
And when the fuel was gone I fanned with hope,
and abject discipline: faithful, stern.
Now those years are ash, the smell of smoke.
I love to row,
to pull at oars
on a long, slim boat
whose keel scores water
like a plumb-line.
When I trained my body
to pull hours at a stretch
through every breath;
space was but
the signature of balance.
The last time I rowed
I would have sworn
God was in my body.
When I reached
the end my knees froze,
and have never
been the same.
Massive fire in Australia:
raging down under
like a thousand Hiroshimas,
bushfires making thunder.
It killed a hundred men,
buildings for tinder
left a million animals dead.
In its satellite picture on Google,
the Earth gently raises an eyebrow of smoke,
It is cool, silent as a wick.
There is no smell of blackened hearts.
Discipline and desire to combust
destroy while making life – they must.
So the wonder of the boy
matures in the man to thoughtful choice.
Knowing ashes end the game,
he picks the love to put to flame.