Fire is a potent symbol with deep spiritual roots, from Greek mythology to Christianity. In Norse mythology there’s even a bridge of fire connecting realms, so the gods can commute to Earth to teach people lessons. So it’s not entirely shocking that fire burns with the same significance in meditation circles. And, as it turns out, the mesmerizing flames and crackling sounds of fire can be particularly useful in helping meditation beginners to reach a serene state.
Why does staring into fire help us chill out? The answer is “rooted in our human history and biology,” says Ryan Sultan, M.D., a psychiatrist, director of the New York City-based private practice Integrative Psych, and a research professor at Columbia University who studies meditation. Since humans have gathered around fires for hundreds of thousands of years, there’s an innate association with relaxation, safety, and calm that comes with fire, Sultan says. When people meditate, the goal is similarly to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and override fight-or-flight mode.
So, for parents who want to try a different approach to meditation, “Watching a fire can act as a sort of cheat code for achieving this state, as our minds naturally find it soothing and mesmerizing,” Sultan says.
Though some forms of meditation call on practitioners to close their eyes, Sultan recommends keeping your eyes open during fire mediation, in order to focus your attention: “Notice the colors, the movement, the heat, and the sounds. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the fire.”
Focusing on your senses noticing the environment is central to many mindfulness exercises, such as the grounding method, and simply naming the things we can see, smell, taste, or touch can help us manage anxiety.
From free fire meditations on YouTube to bonfires in the backyard, I tried to torch my resistance to meditation and learn a little bit more about this classic mindfulness hack. And although this meditation technique might sound campy (or campfire-y?), it proved surprisingly helpful in bringing on the calm.
It might seem silly to watch a video of a fire for meditation purposes, but tell that to all the people who watch a yule log burn on TV every Christmas.
When I tried a “fire meditation for awakening the solar plexus chakra” on YouTube, it was less guided than the basic YouTube meditations I had tried before. And at first, the idea of an hour-long video of a fire was daunting. But once I got started, I found my attempts to meditate easier and more open-ended, even if I didn’t quite make it to the end of the video.
Although experiencing fire in real life is optimal, the sound of crackling can be “very calming in itself,” Sultan says. To his point, the sounds felt like the most calming part of the experience, and I was able to close my eyes and let the crackles and pops calm me accordingly.
In the future, I would mostly lean on the audio alone, and visualize fire with my eyes closed, instead of increasing my screen time.
If scented candles brighten your mood, there might be a good reason — gazing at candles is actually an established meditation technique known as “trataka.” And although it might seem like an excuse to make your house smell like a spa, studies show that this form of meditation can boost cognition. Other research indicates that meditating while concentrating on a candle might increase a person’s attention and memory, and these effects seem to be stronger for older adults.
For meditation purposes, I found that I prefer candles with a wooden wick, which provide a comparable soothing crackle to a burning log. You can also pair an audio-only fire meditation with focusing on a candle, so you get both the visual focal point and the soothing sounds.
A Real Scorcher
To experience fire meditation fully, you can use a fireplace or a backyard fire pit. Given that nature exposure has been linked with improved cognition and mental health, I went with the outdoor option, via a friend’s backyard.
As my friend chased around her 2-year-old son and their two dogs, the crackling sound of the fire drowned them out, and I started to relax. After a few minutes of clearing my head and recycling some breathwork and mantras I’ve picked up from guided meditations and yoga classes over the years, I understood why my dad would always study the lit-up fireplace. He was falling effortlessly — even unintentionally — into a meditation.
After meditating, I joined my friend’s family for burgers on the deck and proceeded to have a lovely evening. As much as I’d like to think I was even more present for our dinner, I was already having a good night. That’s the catch with fire meditation — it’s not a tool you can easily call on when you’re having a bad day, and the best scenarios for the practice tend to be when everything is going pretty well already.
I suspect a lot of why I enjoyed this fire meditation in particular had to do with meditating outside and in the company of others, something I’d tried only a few times over the years, once with a community meditation group that met in Herbert Von King Park in Brooklyn. Being outside and with other people made all the difference — and a growing number of communities are starting to offer family-friendly meditation circles. Although I won’t insist on others meditating with me at my next social bonfire, I will take a few quiet moments to myself and focus on the sight and sound of fire.
Overall, I found it easier to connect to fire meditation than other forms of meditation I’ve tried over the years, from apps like Headspace to in-person yoga classes.
Is Fire Meditation Safe?
A few weeks after I hacked meditation with fire, Chicago’s air quality declined to the worst in the world due to the smoke from recent Canadian wildfires. I began to wonder if, for the sake of my lungs, meditating with fire was like a lot of other things that people did hundreds of thousands of years ago — something modern humans should stop doing because it’s a bad idea.
On an individual level, there are precautions people can take, like keeping the fire in a controlled environment such as a pit or fireplace (which you were already going to be doing with kids around), as well as using untreated wood or manufactured logs that are ethically sourced.
And, for your health, the Cleveland Clinic also cautions fire-gazers to keep a distance, because heat itself can damage your lungs. If you feel hot while you’re meditating with fire, you’re doing it wrong.
Even small bonfires are not great for the environment, so fire meditation isn’t ideal for a daily practice. But if you’re looking for a way to relax and boost mindfulness, fire meditation — especially in a communal setting — can be amazing way to chill out.