Umi Dan Rotnem

Walking through Fire

The secret to self-actualization is starting to get out anyway, so we might as well stop treating it like one: the path isn’t all cupcakes and unicorns dancing in a climate-controlled valley where fairies hand us our every desire– though the beginning of the path is pretty pleasant, that much is true. 

We’re living our lives, more or less okay. We’re getting by– but, for some, things change, and getting by isn’t enough. Living out the same old dramas and traumas gets old. 

We know there must be more to life. We become seekers. 

These days, the seeker can seek from the comfort of their sofa. Without talking to anyone, we can become experts in our traumas, expert psychologists, and find countless gurus offering wonderfully profound advice to get us started. 

Positive affirmations. Self-care. Meditate. Start working out. Change the diet. Do yoga. Speak authentically. Recognize the divinity within. Have a therapist. Get a coach. Take this certification course. 


At this stage, we start to feel that things are looking up. We’re more empowered, a little less stressed. We begin looking at our life differently and get motivated to make changes that will keep this process going.

Soon, though, we start to realize that doing those things for real is for real changing our lives. Sometimes in really unexpected and uncomfortable ways. It might end up that whatever drove us to be seekers wasn’t quite that big of a deal.

Then, sometimes, we may stop doing those things, thinking, “Meh. It’s easier to just keep the job, fight or disconnect from important people in my life, compromise here and there to keep the peace. I know why I do those things now and I’m better than I used to be. It’s good enough.” 

For the real seekers, though, that doesn’t work. Whatever lit the fire has it burning bright enough that we just can’t stop, won’t stop, don’t stop– sometimes to the point that we realize this fire burns. Not only does it burn but we find ourselves surrounded by it. It hurts. And the only way out is to walk right through it. No doubt about it, we emerge on the other side changed by the experience. Not only did it hurt, but we know it’ll happen again.

We also know we’ll walk through it again. Because it’s worth it.

I had one of these moments recently, which I will share with you all to help show that this is all part of the path, that it is worthwhile to keep your trust in whatever authentic practice is serving you. 

I was feeling particularly connected to my wife. Full of love, and joy, and wanting to express that in the way that partners sometimes do. But, for some reason, I couldn’t say that. Not only could I not say it, I didn’t realize I wasn’t just saying it. Instead, I was making all sorts of double entendre, being handsy, and otherwise acting like a teenager. Maybe fun in some situations, but feel safe assuming that’s not the context of this story. 

I imagine most people reading this can see where this is going: evening time came and I heard a “No!” for the ages. 

Which isn’t the problem! No is totally OK – essential, even. Mutual respect and boundaries must be part of how we conduct ourselves in the world. When someone crosses the line, we must not be afraid to say it, or hear it. 

But for some reason this particular hurt and frustrated, “No!” showed me through a door that I hadn’t quite been willing to walk through. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve peeked. Cracked it, even. 

The door of “I’m not good enough. All whom I love (especially women) will reject and abandon me. Guaranteed.” 

Strangely, I knew that it would be OK. Unlike before, when it felt like drowning in a stormy sea, this felt more like being caught outside in a storm. When we look deeply enough, we discover that we are the pure potential for experience. Everything is already happening here, within. There’s nothing that we can’t face or handle. Even in our darkest moments, there is space to remember and choose. 

And at certain times that may sound like a load of beautiful crap. But the practice does its job. Down and in. Release the contraction. Release the narrative. Get curious. Junpo’s voice echoed in my ear, “This heart can never be broken. It does not blink. It does not turn away. We face the pain of life. In this mind, compassionate curiosity overrides emotional reactivity. Do not dishonor this practice!” 

(That last part might sound harsh, but it works for me, and the context it was delivered in was lovely.) 

After a confusing and uncomfortable half-hour of self-inquiry and being disconnected from my wife, I asked, “What was I doing that made you feel like you had to say ‘No!’ that way?” She told me, we got clear, and fell asleep snuggling. 

One pain down. Seemingly infinite to go. 

The following few days were rough, despite the practice. Self-talk that I thought I’d permanently silenced came back loud and clear. Self-loathing, depression, intrusive thoughts. The chest was empty, the throat was tight, the shoulders hunched. Shut down, disconnected, hiding from it all by being angry. Angry is way better than sad. Even better, putting on a face to the world like I’m totally fine. Because I’m not allowed to be angry and no one wants to know that I’m sad. 

I was further blessed to have wonderful, supportive talks with people whom I trust and care for deeply. “Blessed” is a relative thing; they invited me into a deeper inquiry. Exposing the wound, its origins, and additional unconscious ways that it impacts my behavior. Offering guidance and support to really understand what’s happening. 

Raw. Vulnerable. Pain. Fire everywhere. 

Again, this Hollow Bones dharma shouted to me. 

“Our angst is our liberation. Pick up the phone! Get the deeper information from your feelings! If you don’t like your script, fire your scriptwriter and hire a new one!”

In doing so, I received a wonderful gift. The gift of seeing another way where turning away from my deepest caring and expression of love, because that level of vulnerability scares the living daylights out of me, actually creates the situation I’m afraid of. Now I don’t have to do that again! At least, not in that context… we’ll see where it shows up next!

And that’s actually pretty exciting. It seems to me like true freedom and unreasonable joy is really about the fact that we can take on this attitude. We can get excited for the next great adventure. Just like a killer work-out (or whatever difficult, worthwhile task you can relate to) it’s sweaty and gross and hard… but satisfying, too. We can learn to like it. That doesn’t make it less hard, or more fun, but somehow we can feel light and joyful about it anyway. 

My five-year-old summed it up beautifully for me when she said, “Daddy, we can have all the feelings at the same time. It’s ok.” 

My invitation to all of you seeking self-actualization is to remember. 

Remember that we are fundamentally free. Beyond all thoughts, feelings and emotions there is pure imperturbable presence. Get a strong taste of this. Train oneself to always know this. Rely on this awakened mind. Remember!

And choose. 

Choose to radically accept and willfully surrender to the storm of life. Choose to treat each precious moment of this life as an opportunity for growth and transformation. Choose to be a clear channel for love and light to shine – just like the sun, don’t stop shining, even when the clouds cover the sky. 

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