Relationship Problems? Take this Lesson from the Fire Element

Kathleen's picture

Despite the fact that I am a self-professed tomboy who grew up skateboarding and tumbling down streets on BMX bikes with my brother and all the neighborhood boys, I am embarrassed to confess that before this weekend, I had never lit a fire all by myself. I had always had a man around who could do it for me. If you had asked me, I could tell you conceptually what a fire needs -- Kindling, check. Rolled up newspapers, check. Matches, check. This weekend I decided that since I consider myself to be a Five Element Acupuncturist, it was high time that I should build a fire and see what I could learn from it.


My partner Andre and I booked a trip in January to visit Bowen Island which is just a 20 minutes ferry ride from our home in Vancouver, BC for a long weekend. Despite the fact that Bowen is right outside the city, about 40 miles from the downtown corridor, it is a small community with just under 4,000 people in roughly the same square footage that Manhattan occupies. The residents of Bowen cherish the fact that there is not a single streetlight on the entire island. Houses and cabins are found nestled in the woods and there is a sense of calm and lack of commotion that I crave after spending months elbow-to-elbow with my fellow city-dwellers in Vancouver. Our friends’ cabin that we stayed in featured exactly what I needed: a wood stove.


The first night, I watched out of the corner of my eye as Andre set up the fire. He carefully blew on the glowing embers, poked and prodded the logs into place and it roared to life with ease. “I can do that,” I thought to myself as I sat back and enjoyed the fruits of his labor. The next morning, I declared that I would build the fire all by myself. Andre knows me well enough  to know that this is the time for him to fall into the supportive role instead of the teaching role. He sat off to the side chopping kindling for me as I rolled up my sleeves and set upon my mission to build us a fire.


First things first. Fire needs fuel to burn so I built a small nest with newspaper and small woodchips and splinters. I lit it with a long match and smiled as it fluttered to life. Before I could start adding slightly longer splinters to build it up, the blue flames had already fluttered out. I sighed and began again, this time creating a teepee structure around the nest of woodchips and newspaper with the longer splinters before lighting it. I quickly found that I was piling the newspapers and kindling on too thick on top of itself, not allowing there any space for oxygen to flow through and feed the fire. I started blowing on the embers but only when I spread them out did they actually catch fire. I patiently added small sticks to the flames one by one until I had cultivated a small pile of embers that seemed stable.


“I did it!” I exclaimed as my first few larger sticks starting flicking to life with flames. “Don’t get too cocky” warned Andre. Silently to myself I said “P’shaw.. I’ve got embers, I’ve got flames on the sticks, all I’ve gotta do is throw on some logs. What more does he want?” Feeling quite confident, I reached for a log. “Be careful,” Andre said, “you don’t want to smother it.” This is when I made my next mistake. Using the metal poker, I piled all the embers up into one corner of the stove to consolidate the heat and slowly lowered the log on top. Andre pursed his lips to stop himself from telling me I was doing it all wrong. Of course, as any experienced fire-starter will be able to foretell, the flames sputtered and went out. The next 15 minutes was spent coaxing the flames back to life from the dying embers as I added kindling while poking the kindling into the right strategic placement and blowing on the sputtering flames frustratingly flicking in and out of existence.

Okay, I’ve got this now. I had not allowed there to be any space for the embers to breathe so this time, I spread all the embers out along the base of the stove. The embers faded away before I had a chance to realize my mistake and correct it. I’m sure the wrinkle above my eyebrow that comes to life when I am stressed or worried was in overdrive. Finally, I consolidated all the lessons of the past several minutes and put it all together. I piled up the tinder just so, building a foundation of newspaper and small woodchips that peaked to a teepee of larger sticks. I gradually added larger and larger sticks until I had a good pile of glowing embers that I spread out, allowing just enough space to allow for airflow but close enough to each other to generate and build more warmth. Only when the embers were sufficiently hot enough and I had a good stable flame going did I add my first log. When the first log caught on fire, I added the second log, angling it at a diagonal to the first so there would be enough airflow to feed the flames while maintaining contact to allow this second log to catch fire.


And voila! Finally after about 48 minutes and through one of the most frustrating “meditations” of my life, I could take ownership over something that my ancestors going back to cave-dwellers could claim. This city-slicker had successfully conquered creating Fire!


Fire is the element of transformation. Of the Five Elements in Chinese Medicine (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water), it has the capacity to transform the others. Fire will burn wood, char the earth, melt metal, and vaporize water. Because of its capacity for transformation, it is the apt Element associated with human connection. Relationships are electric and pure potential energy. Like Fire, relationships have the power to be the breeding ground of deep learning and transformation or it has the potential to consume.

However, what we don’t often realize is that in order to cultivate relationships that are warm and nourishing, care must be doled out generously but there will be moments in which the appropriate action is to allow for space. Relationships, like fire must be tended to with attention but too much consideration can feel smothering. Sometimes what the relationship needs comes in the form of appropriate boundaries and allowing for autonomous space. The lesson that building a fire illuminated for me this weekend is that relationships, like fire require a balance of kindling and oxygen.


If you are like most people, you probably fall into one of two categories when it comes to your approach to relationships: too distant or too smothering. Chances are, you’ve probably heard from your partner exactly which category you fall into (Hint: usually this feedback is worded as a complaint.) To apply this lesson from the Fire Element requires some deep introspection into yourself and some genuine and vulnerable acknowledgement of common themes in relationship strategy. What are the gifts you bring to communication? What are the challenges? If you are someone who comes with armfuls of kindling, give yourself the permission to create space and allow yourself and your partner the space to be autonomous. If you are someone who needs a lot of breathing room in a relationship, communicate in a way to create space while also making your partner feel secure.


Need help? Did you know that acupuncture is not just for aches and pains of the body. Do you feel like you struggle with communication in relationships? Acubalance is now offering Five Element Acupuncture sessions to help you navigate and integrate your emotional health. Call (831) 678-8600 to book your Five Elements Acupuncture appointment.




Kathleen Lee FABORM, RTCMP, L.Ac. MTCM