The Campfire

There will be no pictures of belfries in this post.  Sorry.  Hope no one is too disappointed.

I am, though … a little.

I’m going to talk about campfire scenes, such as the one below, in this entry

and unfortunately, try as I might, I could not find any pictures of bell towers next to campfires, or of campfires burning inside belfries.

But, there will be pictures, and if I could have found a suitable belfry pic, it would have been here.  I’ll try to do better next time!

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Actually, a campfire is one of those things that for me always brings up good memories.

Family gatherings, listening to the grown-ups reminisce and laugh about old tales from their past …

while we kids made S’mores …

On Boy Scout camping trips,  telling and hearing ghost stories around the fire late at night …

At church-run summer camps, singing and having vespers before roaring fires …

And with friends, sitting around blazing fires until they became dying embers, cutting up about various topics in summer and fall evenings during my teenage years

Recalling these things consistently brings a smile to my face.  Maybe you, too, have some good memories of campfires from your distant past, or maybe from just last summer!

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Several years ago, when I was in therapy myself, I was introduced to the concept of the “child within”.  Ever heard of this idea?  It is based on the fact that when we experience strong emotions such as fear, joy, anger, frustration, curiosity, etc. as adults, we tend to react initially in much the same way as we did the very first time we felt those feelings.  And that, of course, would have been as children.  It is also based on the fact that most of our beliefs about life and what is really important about life, about ourselves, our value, and our place in the world, and about the world itself, were all set in place when we were children.  And finally, it refers to the fact that our personality – the way we tend to see and interact with the world around us – is not entirely “fixed” as infants.  It develops and changes as we go through the growth stages of our childhood and adolescence.

Any number of factors can influence our personality development, and it may be possible to identify one or more different childhood personalities that became dominant “default” modes for us as we grew up.  As adults we tend to “put on” these identities, in the same way that we change into different outfits of clothing in different situations, depending on the emotions we may be feeling, or the statements, based in both our childhood beliefs and our childhood emotional reactions, that we are telling ourselves at any given time.

As I reflected on this idea, and spent a lot of time writing in my journal about this, it became clear to me that in fact, there were three distinct “ages” of child in me that exerted strong influences in my adult life.  These three personalities still play a large role in how I interact with others, and definitely affect the choices I make.

These personalities for me are:

1)  First, there is a 2 year old.  This is the little boy who absolutely loves life and the world he lives in.  Life is fun for him!  He is curious about everything, but is also the most innocent and natural part of me.  He has no desire to hurt anyone or anything, but has very little concept of boundaries.  He wants to know everything about everything, AND everyone.  He loves to explore things and places around him.  He greets the world with a smile and with questions.  This is the mode that is most active for me when I am feeling happy, joyful, unafraid, carefree.  Unfortunately, he is the part of me who was most squelched as life went along.

2)  Next, there is a 10 year old.  He is, above all else, a people-pleaser.  Secondly, he is a perfectionist.  Thirdly, he is very shy.  This part of me was extremely strong through the first half of my adolescence, and for about the first 10-15 years of my adulthood.  How or why these characteristics arose in me by the age of 10 I will likely never know for sure (though I have a pretty good idea), but they were there, and they encapsulated my personality at that age very well.  He responds very strongly to fear, and will do almost anything to avoid conflict and tension.

3)  Finally, there is the 17 year old.  This guy is his own spirit.  He is a rebel.  He takes risks.  He folds his arms and shuts the world out.  He does not trust very many people at all.  He loves to feel floaty-headed.  He believes the world is sick, keeps secrets from him, and that he must guard himself against it.  He feels very misunderstood.   He likes excitement, rock music, driving fast, and sports.  Anger and resentment bring him out quickly and suddenly, and he can go on the attack without much warning at all.

Out of a mix of these 3 developmental “parts” of me grew what I like to call my “Responsible Adult” part.  This one is the wise “Craig” who is able to listen to and appreciate the younger three, to shepherd and direct them, to make decisions when careful contemplation and prayer is involved, but who often yields to any of the 3 “child parts” whenever one of them strongly takes over control.  Typically, though, the one in charge is either my 10 year old, mostly when I’m feeling fearful, or my 17 year old, when I’m feeling angry.  In happier moments, my 2 year old may come out, but it’s equally likely that my responsible adult is in the driver’s seat then, too.  There obviously can be mixtures of more than one of the parts, and it can often be very difficult to know “on the fly” which personality segment is actually front and center at any given moment.

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The problem is that I am typically not in a good, mentally healthy state of mind unless the responsible adult part of me is leading the way.  And if you are anything like me, most of the time I am not very mindful of what I am feeling or thinking on the inside.  I tend not to be very aware of times when one of my “children within” is in charge.  Those times are, of course, when the choices I make can most easily get off track, and can end up either hurting others or myself, or creating havoc that I will then have to later try to clean up.

So, how could I find a way to listen to the child parts inside me, and in so doing learn to more quickly and easily identify what is going on inside my mind at any given time?

One day, and I still don’t remember how or why, an image of a campfire came into my mind, and it was simply one of those “AHA!” moments that just make you smile or even laugh out loud!  I suddenly saw myself, in my mind, with my little 2 year old, the 10 year old, the 17 year old, and the responsible adult parts of me, all sitting around a quiet and peaceful campfire, out in the woods, where I felt completely safe and trusting, and I just knew that this was something that would work for me.

I began to practice sitting around that campfire, and at first I found that my “adult” part would not act responsibly at all.  He would, in fact, start going around the ring and telling the others what they must be feeling and thinking, and then he would tell all of them exactly how they were going to approach certain difficult situations, and certain people in my life.  It was not good, and I got nothing out of it.  It was somewhat frustrating, but I still remember that one day the thought (sent from my Creator, I believe) came into my mind that this is not the way campfires are done.  The campfire is best done the way that Native American tribes would conduct their “Council Fires”.  In those events the first persons to speak (after the singing and dancing and eating were concluded) would be the younger braves, followed by the middle-aged tribesmen, and the last to speak, after having heard and reflected upon all that the others had first contributed, would be the tribal chieftain, the eldest and wisest among them.

I decided to try this method out, and found that it was very helpful for me.  In fact, I have never found any other way of mindfulness or meditation that has taught me nearly as much as I have learned by following the campfire method.  I will try to illustrate how it works for me, and perhaps you might decide to try it out yourself.

First, I picture all of my “parts” sitting around a campfire.  To help the child parts feel most at ease I imagine that the fire is in a very safe area (i.e., no wild animals around), and that the temperature is very comfortable.  I picture the time as being just after sunset, as the image above would be, at the end of a cloudless day.  I imagine a fragrant smell, as the fire would be built from, say, hickory wood, and that there is an occasional hiss or crack from the fire, but it isn’t too noisy and doesn’t send sparks flying out at you.   I imagine that there are comfortable blankets around that we can drape over ourselves if we get chilled, or fearful.  I might even imagine a pot of coffee or hot chocolate nearby …

… in case it turns out to be a long and thirsty council meeting!

The bottom line is, for me it’s all about setting up an intimate meeting between the important portions of my own personality, for the main purpose of really hearing what these parts have to say to me;  what they have to teach me.  I feel comfortable with the imagery of the campfire scene, so this works very well for me.  For others, it might be a coffee shop, or their back porch, or riding in a car along quiet country roads, or simply sitting around the kitchen table.   I just believe strongly that it is often crucial to really know what’s going on inside us, especially when we’re feeling sad, afraid, anxious, angry, resentful, bored, frustrated, and sometimes, even when we’re feeling really happy or joyful.  If you are like me, these are important times in our lives, and for many of us, we have a hard time really getting in touch with our feelings and our self-talk in those times.  When we don’t pause to listen to ourselves, we can often make choices that we’ll later regret.

One thing that I have added to my setting as the years have gone on is that I also picture Jesus sitting among us.  Most often, He remains silent throughout the council, but He is there, most often very pleased to be there, very accepting and understanding of all of “us” (the children parts and me), especially when the truth is allowed to be spoken and felt without fear.

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So, say for example there is someone in my family with whom I have been really struggling to get along.  And say that I realize I have said something to this person that I’m now regretting, knowing that I was maybe too quick to anger, and I know I need to work my way through it.  I will have all my children and my adult gather in my mind around the fire, to sort things out.  I will typically go from youngest to eldest, allowing each part to talk about how they feel about this other person, and then often there will be “open floor” discussion after each part has had his initial say.

The way it usually goes is that my 2 year old will smile and laugh about how much he likes this other person, and will go through several features of the other person that he loves, or is very curious about.   Then the 10 year old will talk about how much he has been trying to get the other person to like him, feeling a strong need to maybe do more for this person, trying hard to avoid making that person mad or upset.  But, then the 17 year old will talk about the reasons why that person cannot be fully trusted, how and why he believes they have mistreated us, and will argue for backing off, for isolating ourselves from that person in order to be safe from harm.  Alternatively, if he feels I’ve been wronged, he may suggest ways to get back at the other, to “prove our case”, so to speak.  This may then go back and forth until it is time for my responsible adult part to thoughtfully and respectfully summarize all that has been said.  He then may call up various foundational truths, principles upon which I want my choices and my lifestyle to be based.

At some point, it will become fairly clear to me what ought to be the path forward.  I will either see in what ways I may have wronged or disrespected the other person, or where my own boundaries have become blurred, or perhaps where I have disrespected myself in some way and need to bolster that.  In most cases the main thing that I can change and which should be changed (recall the Serenity Prayer?) is my own attitude toward the other person.  I will realize that he or she, too, has a child within who has to struggle with hurt, fears, frustrations, and anxiety just as I do.  I will realize that God has freely given grace to me, and I ought to be compassionate and truthful in giving “grace” to the other person, too.

As I do these things, as I reflectively listen and then process these inner realities, most of the time I come away having a much greater sense of peace and clarity about it.  I leave the campfire feeling good, usually smiling, as I know that now I have nothing to fear, that all will be well.  It usually ends “good”, and all my parts feel better, like these folks …

… and these …

I hope that if and when you are faced with a struggle, or with anger, or fear or anxiety, over a particular situation or a particular person in your life, you will consider having your own “tribal council” around either a campfire of your own, or another similar safe place for you.  I believe you’ll find it very helpful, and will only make it easier in each moment to be more aware of your own present-moment state of mental health.

Take care, and happy trails to you!

Craig Meek, M.D.


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One comment on “The Campfire

  1. […] The Campfire (cmquest.wordpress.com) […]

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