A Talk with Hersch Wilson, author of Firefighter Zen: A Field Guide to Thriving in Tough Times

Hersch Wilson and his wife, Laurie, became volunteer firefighters in 1986. He has worked as an organizational consultant, pilot, outdoor adventure trainer, professional dancer, and author. He writes for Backdraft magazine and other publications. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. More information at HerschWilson.com 

Firefighting and Zen.  What is the connection?

I think firefighting, being a first responder, teaches the same fundamental lessons about life that Zen does. First, that death is inevitable, and we should get over that and enjoy and love the fact that we are alive. Second, all we have is this moment, right now. The future isn’t a promise. Most of us are coming to grips with this truth during the pandemic. Finally, the mindfulness of being a firefighter comes when we are focused on helping or saving someone else. In that time, we no longer are obsessed with self, but we are engaged in serving a higher purpose: we move from “me” to “we.”

What is the firefighter universe? 

The firefighter universe is where first responders live. We see life in extremis, people in their worst and best moments. It is a place where the mantra is “stuff happens,” where life is short, where there seems to be a glitch in most life plans. There is suffering there, but also the joy of helping others. The twist, of course, is that there is no such thing as the firefighter universe, it is the same universe we all inhabit.

What do hula hoops have to do with firefighting, and how does that relate to those of us who are not firefighters? 

Take this moment. We are inundated with information, anxiety, grief, and even a touch of panic as we go through the pandemic. The future is unknown and uncertain, It is hard to form a complete thought. It is like all the elements and emotions that attack firefighters when they arrive on a difficult emergency scene. Firefighters are taught to first stand inside an imaginary hula hoop. Don’t run towards the loudest voice or the biggest flames. First, stand there, and try to make sense of the scene, try to see the big picture before acting. In the same way, immersed in crisis, we can take a few minutes to stand inside the hula hoop, see the big picture, see what the most critical problems are before we take action.

You see emergencies, problems, and inconveniences very differently. What are some best practices for keeping life and its glitches in perspective? 

This is something that I believe we are all learning. Think of all the “problems” that you had pre-covid. Note that most of them have faded as problems as we face more existential issues; staying healthy and earning a living. All those pre-covid problems have dropped to the level of inconveniences. We are learning what firefighters know. Emergencies in the firefighter world are events where there is a life threat, individuals who are suffering, or a home burning down. Everything else is just a problem that needs to be solved or just an inconvenience. Learning and practicing this idea can lead to a lot of calmer days.

You suggest inviting more difficulty in our lives. Why is that?

That seems like an odd suggestion now! But the fact is this — and we’ve just had it reconfirmed — Life is hard. Whether individually or as a society, we will experience suffering, trauma, and tragedy. It is the way of the universe. The double-edged sword is that many of us live lives of ease and comfort and are often not prepared for difficulty. But we can practice difficulty, we can do hard things that will teach us our strength, our resilience so that we can be ready for when the universe asks us, are you tough? 

We make choices every day, some big and some little. What us the one question we should ask when making a tough decision?

I think a question to ask is, What is the brave choice? Here is what I mean. We are so often guided by trying to make the most short-term comfortable choice, the decision that avoids being emotionally uncomfortable. For example, we avoid being honest because it could be uncomfortable — by leading to a conflict, or we avoid asking someone out because it might lead to rejection. We avoid being kind because we might be ridiculed. All this happens quickly and almost at a subconscious level. What we want to do is consciously ask, what is the bravest choice? This is especially important when the decisions we need to make are tough.

Asking the question, what is the bravest choice will lead to tough conversations, sometimes rejection, and maybe a few losses, but it is the path to a fuller life.  

What is your advice for the times we feel we are being swept away by grief?

That feeling of sadness and loss that many of us are feeling right now is grief. As a firefighter, I have traveled down the “grief road” several times. I’ve learned three things. First, it is okay to admit and recognize that you’re grieving. It is a natural and normal human emotion, although one we don’t talk about a lot. Second, we each have our own unique way of experiencing grief. From numbness to sadness to anger, everyone is different. Don’t feel guilty for how you feel. Finally, the deep feelings of grief do not last forever. We are designed to heal. We won’t “go back” to the way we were, we will always carry scars and memories and be changed as a result, but we will get better.

Firefighters literally get under the smoke to see clearly. What do you recommend we do to get under the smoke, for example, when faced with a complicated medical diagnosis or during an emergency?

We “get under the smoke” to see clearly and get under the heat. Under the smoke, we can find the fire or find individuals that need to be rescued. That is our core mission: rescue and extinguish the fire. In the same way, during a crisis, we are surrounded by “smoke” and heat and not a lot of light. There are opinions, wild speculations, our brains are going a hundred miles an hour trying to make sense. Getting under the smoke means understanding the core mission: getting the truth and the facts. It means seeking out and listening to the experts, to the experienced. It means sorting through facts vs. opinions. In a medical crisis, it means someone must listen to and absorb what the doctors have to say. At the same time, everyone else is in denial or looking up quack cures on Google.

What is the most important practice you recommend that will help us stay calm in an emergency — or at any other time – when we are anything but calm? 

There are a couple of steps I’ve learned as a firefighter. The first is mental discipline. We call it “turning the switch on.” That means being present in the moment and focused on solving the problem. The next is breathing. In an emergency, we often forget to breathe! We need to take four deep breaths. It will help us calm down and help oxygenate our brains. Finally, in the fire department, we have a mantra: go slow to go fast. When we slow down, we make fewer mistakes, and it is easier to stay focused.

How can we incorporate the three principles of kindness, and what are they?

I think the most important thing we can personally do, especially now, is commit to being kind. Once you understand that everyone has a story, everyone has suffered, then it becomes easier to act with kindness. Once we choose to act with kindness, then we can employ radical kindness. First, seek out opportunities to be kind. Second, keep your ego out of it: our egos believe the world revolves around them. So, when we open a door for someone and they don’t immediately thank us for our act of kindness, we —our egos — are offended. We need to let go of that. Finally, don’t expect reciprocity for others or the universe. We cannot control the actions of others, all we can control is how we act. And we can choose to respond with kindness. Every time we do, we make the world a little better.

Why is it important to be “tough?”

We are, as every generation seems to, relearning the importance of being emotionally tough. We can be open and vulnerable and continue to move forward, solve problems, and deal with hardship. We are going through a unique and unprecedented time that will call on our toughness. On the fire service, we often get thrown into difficult and heart-breaking scenes, but our job is not to collapse but to help people, to comfort people. That is the same task we are all faced with now. We need to be tough enough to help, be creative, and solve the problems that we will face. For inspiration, we can look back on our families and their histories.

They got through the 1918 flu epidemic, the depression, and two world wars. We share their genes and their stories. We are tough beyond measure, but we sometimes need to re-discover it.

Could you define what being useful means and how we can apply it to our daily lives?

Being “useful” simply means helping solve the problems of others. My mantra right now, in these times, is “I want to be useful.” There are two reasons. First, the need is great. People are confused and suffering. Second, I know the best way to get through difficult times is to have a purpose, to have meaning, to be helpful. It is in service to others that we find fulfillment and inner peace. 

Firefighter Zen: A Field Guide to Thriving in Tough Times By Hersch Wilson

Pub date: August 18, 2020 Price: $16.95 * Pages: 264 * ISBN: 978-1-60868-688-9

Category: Self-Help / Spirituality