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What Getting Lit on Fire Taught Me About Mindfulness

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Editor's Note

This piece contains descriptions that may be triggering for people with a history of self-harm. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

Warning: Don’t try this at home or without a trained professional.

When I saw the flame float in front of my eyes on the fire wand my girlfriend was holding, I was mesmerized, calm and completely focused. How could I think about anything else when there was fire right in front of my face? Not just that, but fire that will soon be touching my body? To say I was alert is an understatement.

Before I tried fire play with my girlfriend, I was in a dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) program. Part of the program focused on mindfulness and how to “downregulate” (bring your emotions down to baseline if you’re starting to feel upset). The program showed how focusing on sensations can help emotion regulation.

We enjoy sensations with the warmth of a hot shower, splash of cool water on a warm day, massages, touch, essential oils, feeling textures, spicy foods and more in everyday life. Imagine what we could do if we really put effort into experiencing sensations.

In the program, we did something called “ice dives” where we filled a large bowl with ice cold water and then dunked our faces in it for as long as we could. The therapists timed us while this happened. The goal was to get to 30 to 60 seconds at least. After that, our heart rates would drop as if we had taken a benzodiazepine and we’d have to go lie down on a mat on the floor because it would calm us down so much that some of us would fall asleep. We did ice dives for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it was just for fun or for practice. But we all knew it was really used as a way to regulate our emotions if we needed to.

I used ice dives to handle my emotions (I struggled with bipolar disorder and it also helped my migraines) for the duration of the program and a little while after that. I loved the intense sensation of burning coldness and holding my breath. I did this practice several times a week. It left me feeling clearheaded, calm and tired. It made me focus on the present sensation instead of what was going on in my mind or elsewhere in my body. I loved the way I felt afterward and how clear my mind was. I wondered if I could get the same feeling from doing the opposite sensation — extreme heat. That’s when fire came to mind.

I had done fire play before, but not in a very meditative setting. My first time, I basically helped demonstrate how it was done for an audience. Nervous, anxious and oh yeah, naked in front of a bunch of strangers, this was not a relaxing first time experience. But I did have a lot of fun. The person performing the fire play on me was very theatrical and comedic, which eased my nerves. I only wanted the fire done on my back so I couldn’t really see what was happening (for better or worse) and this also meant I couldn’t pay attention to the flames — I only felt what was happening.

What was happening was very light tapping of warmth and then his hand covering the fire out. It felt sensual, but given the context, it wasn’t as relaxing or transcendental as I wanted. Instead, I was at a BDSM dungeon with a bunch of strangers being entertained by my experience. It was more like sitting too close to a warm fireplace. At the time, I didn’t know what else to expect, so this was enthralling fun for me. However, after learning DBT, and mindfulness specifically, it left me wanting to explore BDSM more (probably not what my therapists intended).

Unlike popular belief, BDSM is nothing like “50 Shades of Grey.” It’s actually a very rich, complex community with a strong philosophy of any adult activity being safe, sane and consensual. With those ground rules, there’s basically limitless activities to engage in. In BDSM, there’s sensation play, but I stayed away from it for the most part because when I go to a dungeon, I go to feel pain. Because isn’t that what dungeons are for?

No. It turns out you can do a variety of activities and I was just now exploring this. After my DBT program, I became really interested in mindfulness and how it could relate to sensation play. Ice cubes, feathers and fire are all about focusing on the sensation, and letting go of any other thoughts or emotions. I wondered the extent of this effect (whether it could be as intense as an ice dive for example). So when my girlfriend (who recently had gotten trained in fire play) gave me the opportunity to be lit on fire for my birthday, how could I resist?

This time, it was just the two of us. It was way more intense. I focused all of my attention and energy on what she was doing. Every movement was quick, searing pain followed by the coolness of her hand. It was sensual and intense. Most importantly, I realized in addition to my emotions feeling calm, my chronic pain was gone too. I have pins and needles paresthesia over my whole body that is not treatable by anything, and this was the first time I wasn’t distracted by it. This was the first time my shoulder didn’t hurt either, and my head didn’t ache — my body felt good, alive even.

Psychologically, I felt better too. I felt excited, as well as grounded. My emotional pain was gone, too. Previously, I was having problems from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with dissociating too much, but I couldn’t dissociate while that was going on. I couldn’t even be anxious, because for me, it had a calming effect. It didn’t last of course. I came back down to feeling my pain again, but with a warmth cast over me and a calmness from this extreme meditation we just engaged in.

My fire play and ice dive experiences taught me the power sensations can have on the mind. Feeling extreme enough sensations can have extreme effects on the body. Fire play is an extreme way to practice mindfulness. Focusing your attention on the fire can give temporary pain relief as well. This probably has to do with an endorphin rush, but the effect is strong and real. Although temporary, I’m glad I was able to experience this because it taught me if I focus my attention on one place strong enough, that may ease my pain elsewhere.

I told the therapists at my DBT program about my fire activities. It took awhile for them to get on board, but once they understood it was about sensation seeking, they came around to accept it. I don’t engage in fire play often, but I like knowing it’s an option if I need an extreme meditative practice to ground me. Focusing on sensations can help quiet the mind and also cause us to enjoy an experience we might otherwise take for granted. Fire is just one extreme form of this, and luckily, I was able to try it by someone who was trained and had the proper equipment, so I could experience the intense mental and physical relief that is possible. I now appreciate sensations in a much deeper level than ever before, knowing that they can be used as aids in mindfulness practices.

I will always love feeling the warmth of a flame, but when that’s not possible, it’s good to know I can always take an ice dive.

Unsplash image by Aziz Acharki

Originally published: January 16, 2020
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