Why would you want to walk through the Ring of Fire?

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by Pamela Slim

It may seem a bit strange to brag about coming from a proud lineage of divorced relatives. But proud I am:  my parents and every single aunt and uncle in my family got divorced and remarried.

“That explains it!  I always knew something was a little ‘off’ about that Pam Slim,” you say.  “Coming from a broken family like that.”

Fascinating interpretation.  And dead wrong.

What I gained by watching my parents and relatives go through painful, gut-wrenching, excruciating divorces was the realization that by walking through hell with an open mind and willing heart, you come out a freer, happier and more whole person.

Martha calls this hell the “Ring of Fire” in her forthcoming book Steering by Starlight.

What is the Ring of Fire?

The Ring of Fire is part of a bigger picture shown here:

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Martha describes each component:

The Shallows (Material Reality):

“The exterior shell of our life is what I call the “Shallows.”  You might also call it the world of form, of physical objects and the thoughts that cluster around them.

When your consciousness is fully attached to this realm, you are a material girl or boy.  You’re mentally trapped in your concept of yourself as isolated, limited and separate from all other things.  Your socialized beliefs and your lizard-fears direct your actions, which consist of running from things you dread and grasping at things you desire.  Maddeningly, no matter what you do, danger is never fully averted and desire is never permanently fulfilled.  Life is a bitch, and then you die.”

The Core of Peace (The Stargazer):

“At our very cores, unperturbed by the disturbances of the shallows, lies that Stargazer self.  No untruth can exist at this level of awareness: no apparent separation from the fabric of the universe, no pain, no fear, no death.  The real reason we feel so starved in the shallows is that we aren’t made to be satisfied with material possessions, or with concepts of ourselves as famous, noble, smart, handsome, righteous, influential, blah blah blah.  What we really want is the peace of the Stargazer.  The irony is that this is already present in every single one of us, though it’s obscured by the dense matter of our lives at the shallowest.”

The Ring of Fire:

“The Ring of Fire is the emotional process we must go through to reach the Core of Peace.  There are only two ways to accomplish this.  We can disbelieve any false ideas that are causing unnecessary pain.  Any unavoidable pain — loss of health or a loved one for example — we must grieve.”

My family’s Ring of Fire ignited around our
kitchen table in 1971.  I was five years old.  I can still vividly recall every detail of the moment: the red and white checkered table cloth, the feel of my Mom’s lap and the look on the faces of my siblings as my Mom and Dad told us they were getting a divorce.
Although they said a lot of things, only one phrase from that
conversation stuck with me for decades afterward:  “We love each other,
we just cannot live together,” they said.

My stomach dropped and I felt a heaviness in my chest.  My safe, ideal, neat, organized world was blown apart.

My Mom describes the next 10 years as being filled with pain,
depression, anxiety and fear.  “There were many days I woke up and
didn’t know how I would get through the day,” she says.  She was living in
the Ring of Fire, as were each of us in our own way, and in our own time frame.  Although it was not pain that she or my Dad wanted to experience, nor to share with their kids, it happened, and we all became stronger people as a result.

Divorce is certainly a common precursor for the  Ring of Fire, but there are many other triggers such as:

  • death of a loved one
  • financial hardship
  • loss of a job
  • illness
  • victimization from a crime
  • labor without an epidural (having just gone through this, I can vouch for it!)
  • plain old desire to feel better

What kind of people avoid the Ring of Fire?

Sane ones of course.  But two types in particular referenced in Steering by Starlight:

  • Story fondlers get so enamored with their tragic stories from the past that they are unable to give them up and move forward.  They say things like:
    • “My life was great until that bastard left me!”
    • “My Mom never loved me!  She always paid more attention to my big brother.”
    • “I never would have gone bankrupt if I didn’t have to bail out my siblings all the time”
  • Fire-fleers are so afraid of feeling the pain and grieving that is associated with the Ring of Fire that they keep up a frantic pace to avoid dealing with it.
    • “I know my Mother died yesterday, but really, I am ok.  I am ready to come back to work.”
    • “I know I caught my husband in bed with my best friend last week, but I am past it.  I have a new boyfriend, and I am sure he will never cheat on me.”
    • “No, my breast cancer diagnosis is not scary at all.  I’m tough – I can take it!”

How do you make it through the Ring of Fire?

Martha offers the following prescription for both profiles:

For story fondlers:

“If you have a tendency to story-fondle, pick up something you complain about often, stop discussing it and take action to change it. If you’re underpaid, ask for a raise, or quit.  Stating clearly to your boss “I won’t continue to work here unless I get a ten percent raise  by March” is very different from telling all your coworkers how bad the boss is, and how miserable it is for you to be paid so little.  Similarly, if a certain friend  mooches off you, stop saying yes -say no and mean it.  If a loved one is addicted and it’s ruining your life, stage an intervention, or go to a codependency group.

For fire-fleers:

“If you characteristically run from feelings, or if there are a few awful things in your life that you’ve never allowed yourself to think about, stop running.  In fact, stop doing anything, for at least a couple of hours a week.  Stop smoking, drinking, eating, working, drugging, jogging, cleaning, gossiping, reading-halt all activity that distracts you from your felt experience.  Find a compassionate witness who’s willing to listen, and then talk about the things in your history and your heart that you least want to talk about.”

Regardless of which profile you lean towards, when you start following this advice, you most likely will feel yourself engulfed by fear.

This is no garden variety anxiety or worry, but the kind of all-consuming beast that opens its foaming mouth and shows you its sharpened fangs. This kind of fear is what animals can smell.  It has a form, shape and spirit, and if it scares the hell out of you, you are on the right track.

Doing the Thing You Think You Cannot Do

Martha says:  “The advice I’ve just given you is the opposite of the usual logic that people adopt when something goes wrong, and the flames start licking at their toes.  Creating change, causing a ruckus, facing up to bullies, rocking the boat, taking action, is the last thing story-fondlers want to do.  Sitting still and feeling grief or fear while not moving at all, is the last thing fear-fleers want to do.  As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”  This turns up the heat in the ring of fire so that your limiting beliefs, your outer-limit identities, your mental dungeons burn like tinder.”

How do you get through it?

When you dive into this degree of fear or pain, you must live in the present.  Your gut reaction is going to be to grasp for anything — sitting on a bed of nails, gargling with Drano — that feels better than experiencing your fear.  Resist that, and just try to stay focused on what you feel.  Don’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow or even the next 10 minutes.  Whatever you are feeling, feel it fully.  You may sob, fall to your knees, throw things, vomit or curl up on the floor in a fetal position. “Say Yes to the Mess” is how Martha describes it.  Then, just keep doing the thing that scares you most. After awhile, you pick up momentum and the challenge is not as great, the dread not as thick.

Some people make it through the Ring of Fire alone, but most require some combination of great friends, therapy, coaching, spiritual support or at least a really great “I left Ike so you can make it out of here too-inspired” Tina Turner song.

How do you know you are close to coming out of the Ring of Fire and into the Circle of Peace?

My Mom described a moment when she woke up one morning, on a day just like so many others for the past ten years. But on this morning, she felt different.  There was no dread and sadness.  She was peaceful.  She saw a positive future.  She felt strong.  She had made it through the Ring of Fire.

This feeling of calm will fill up every part of your being.  And you will be fundamentally changed for the better, reflecting your secure, joyful and authentic Stargazer self.

My parents, aunts and uncles are healthy, warm, funny, optimistic and caring people.  They all have happy and supportive “Round 2” spouses.  This is not by chance:  instead of hanging on to bitterness, addiction, unfit relationships and self-defeating thinking, they chose to burn them up in the Ring of Fire.

And because I saw their courage and resilience, I am not afraid to step into the heat.  That makes me not a “child from a broken home,” but a fire walker.

So if you are teetering on the edge of the flames, feel the fear and jump anyway.  You won’t regret it.

16 replies
  1. Miss Squirrel
    Miss Squirrel says:

    Pam this is great and really helpful. I remember reading about the Ring of Fire in Martha's column in O magazine recently, but it's resonated with me more here (whether that has to do more with your storytelling, or my current life circumstances, or both, I don't know!) In the last 6 weeks, I've had my fiance break off our engagement, kick me out of our house, moved in with my parents, put my cat to sleep, lost my dog (the ex-fiance is keeping her), heard that my uncle was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer, a friend from high school was killed in a car crash, and I just got laid off from my job on Wednesday. Needless to say, this is a rather opportune time for me to work through the Ring of Fire and find the Inner Core of Peace. I can personally attest that working through the grief is hard but it truly is a catalyst for positive change though. I've found myself wanting to come out of this a stronger, calmer, more balanced and centred person and I know I'll get there. And I'm starting to feel hopeful about the future even though I'm sad about the present.

    Reply
  2. holly hoffman
    holly hoffman says:

    My Ring of Fire was almost 11 months ago, when I got sober. It’s been an amazing experience, painful, yes, very painful at times, but completely worth it. Before I walked through that, I wouldn’t have had any idea what you were talking about.

    I have found that I have a tendency to slip back and forth, from the shallows to the core. Once achieved, it doesn’t just stick. When I experience enough pain, I’ll do the work to get back in the middle again.

    Reply
  3. messels
    messels says:

    hmm, interesting concept. maybe we can get company managers to do this? i find there’s a lot of denial of “pain to come” [due to rapidly changing market conditions, at least for my company], that ultimately limits growth.

    how do we go about getting a company (and the employees of course) to adopt a more ‘face the music’ culture?

    Reply
  4. Brenda
    Brenda says:

    Pam,

    There are no mistakes in the universe and the timeliness of reading this at this moment was perfect for me. I am totally in the middle of the ring of fire, and I am in agreeance, when I sit and experience the burn, am present with the pain it is much easier than when I pretend to be okay. I have had many M&M days in th epast few months – lying in bed and finishing an entire bag of peanut M&M’s!

    Sue Monk Kidd (author of Secret Life of Bees) wrote an absolutely wonderful book about this process and she likened this experience of spiritual mid-life crisis and awakening to that of a caterpillar in a chrysallis. The name of the book is When The Heart Waits and I highly recommend it to anyone who recognizes themselves in this column.

    Reply
  5. Sylvia Heed
    Sylvia Heed says:

    Thanks for the great synopsis of this theory. Clarity.

    Sometimes I like to think of this model turned around. The Shallows are at the core – what we start out with. The Ring of Fire is still at the same place for the same reasons. Then the Peace, the Stargazer on the outside. Moving from a constricted center, limited on all sides by fire, to the outer limits with a free pathway to the stars.

    Reply
  6. Simone's Butterfly
    Simone's Butterfly says:

    Sometimes people really look at me strange when I tell them that I was so glad when my mom finally divorced my dad.

    It gave our whole family a lease on your life.

    It was the hardest decision for her to make especially because it was the second failed marriage.

    But I am so thankful that she did.

    Reply
  7. Jay Hargis
    Jay Hargis says:

    Hi Pam, Great post. For my family, it was late Spring, 1975, and I was 10. My dad called us all out to the patio (we thought we were going to talk about vacation). My mother had gone to visit a neighbor. I remember everything…where I sat and where my brothers sat (both of them younger…8 and 5). The webbing of the lawn chair and the crickets in the background. He said that they “didn’t love each other any more and they were getting a divorce”. My mom then came home to three freaked out kids–ambushed. My dad stuck around the area for a few years and then left for California. It has been 32 years…and that day is clear as a bell.

    Reply
  8. Pamela Slim
    Pamela Slim says:

    Thanks for sharing all your fire walking stories everyone! It really does help knowing that there is strength in numbers.

    I can’t say that I have come to enjoy the Ring of Fire, but at least I know what it is when I feel the flames lick at my heels. It IS worth the burn. 🙂

    -Pam

    Reply
  9. Andrea J. Stenberg
    Andrea J. Stenberg says:

    Pam,

    Thanks for sharing such a personal experience with us. So many times when you’re in the Shallows or the Ring of Fire, it’s easy to feel like your problems are unique and that no one has ever gone through your pain.

    Reading about your experiences helps to remind us that everyone goes through difficult times. It’s not what happens to you, but how you deal with it that matters.

    Andrea

    Reply
  10. whatAboutme
    whatAboutme says:

    What about people who are “lucky” not to have been burnt by the ring of fire? People who lead happy unpainful lives. No deaths, divorces, addictions or terminal illnesses.

    Are we destined to live in the shallows? Is there a way to jump over the ring of fire and into the core of peace?

    Good question!

    I don’t think that you have to go through a terrible experience in your life in order to get to the core of peace. For some, their “ring of fire” is burning up any notions that get in their way of having a life filled with meaningful work, healthy and joyful relationships and good health. These can be nagging thoughts like “I’m not talented enough to get my dream job” or “I will never feel comfortable in my body.”

    The way I would approach it as a coach is simply to turn back around and ask you: If you are not there already, what IS stopping you from living in your Core of Peace? Then I would work to uncover any limiting or pesky beliefs, so you could skip your merry way to the good life. 🙂

    All the best,

    -Pam

    Reply
  11. Cathy
    Cathy says:

    I have read Sue Monk Kidds book also more than once and have learned more each time I read it. As well as Martha’ books too (truly!!) Plus your column is the first thing I turn to when I get Oprah magazine!!
    I would recommend all of them..pullling out pages that resonate with you at the time. and put them up all over your house so you don’t read them…think they’re the best things you’ve ever heard and then forget about them when your child comes in the door with a permission slip for a field trip for the next day which is 25.00 and you have .33 cents to your name. Look at them everyday. Sometimes you will cry…a lot..thinking these things will never hapen to you, but more and more..as you read them and serendipitous things begin to happen (as long as you’re working them and not waiting for the magic fairy) you will start to feel as if there is a real and true and good future ahead of you. That’s where I am now. My husband of 25 years left me for a younger woman (surprise) almost two years ago. The only negative energy now in this house now is financial so I am better off, but I am trying to be able to enjoy remembering my daughters(and our family) memories without anger or sadness.and let go of the anger towards the emotional scarring he has left on my four daughters for life.
    And me..at 52 working a minimum wage job,being behind on every bill.
    Reading these stories and doing exercises is helping. They’re drawing me out of the center of The Ring of Fire and closer to peace and hopefullness.
    So while it’s hard and there will be backslips..you must go forward with all this help. There is no place else to go but down..and you wouldn’t be here if that’s how you felt.
    Good luck to all of us. We will find our North Star..eventually. Don’t give up. I came awfully close, but the fact that I even feel this excitement about my future shows..it does work.
    Cathy

    Reply
  12. Victoria
    Victoria says:

    Very inspiring. You put into words what many people feel inside their soul. I can relate to so much of this but fear of failure & lack of support keeps me from moving through the “ring of fire” I most certainly would like to read your book for it ounds like the spark I need to move me forward!

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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