The Hell Realm: What to do When Everything is on Fire (and How Knitting Helps)

The Hell Realm is often characterized as a state of being groundless. Buddhism’s answer to that wavering, unformed chaos is to acknowledge it, and sometimes embrace it. As Chögyam Trungpa famously wrote, “The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.”

By Kellie Schorr


In Buddhism we try to transcend such dualism as heaven/hell or good/bad, but there is still the Hell Realm to think about.

For those Buddhists who believe in rebirth, the six realms represent a possible destination/transition in the cycle of lives. For Buddhists who do not believe in rebirth nor care what happens after the last exhale, the six realms paint a very real picture of what our life looks like phase to phase, season to season. We’ve all been through some shade of these places.

  • The God Realm – that time when you have what you want and everything is going so well.
  • The Jealous God Realm – where you burn with anger and envy for the one thing you cannot grasp.
  • The Hungry Ghost Realm – a place of longing and grief, need and spiritual, physical, personal deprivation.
  • The Animal Realm – a realm characterized by limited ability and servitude to the will of others.
  • The Human Realm – where freedom from this cycle is within our ability, and yet we suffer because we cling to things that are not real or do not last.
  • The Hell Realm – I don’t really need to describe this. Chances are, you’ve been there:

When the storm collapses your world into rubble
When the doctor says cancer
When your child’s cell phone goes straight to voice mail and he hasn’t come home
When your sweating, heaving, aching being just wants the drug
When things happen to your body that you did not willingly permit
When images fill your mind that you cannot manage or expel

Hell Realm. We often can’t control our entry or exit from this phase of life, so what can we do when we’re there?  We suffer. We endure. We knit. Wait—what?

I’m plotting a new novel in which the main character’s knitting becomes an extended metaphor for the different stages of her life and relationships. To research, I put out a knitting survey asking why people knit and what steps are required. The answers were like walking through the wardrobe into an infinitely more interesting and colorful world than Narnia.

Knitting has a full, luminous culture of language, ideas, and practices. I picked up some great ideas for the Hell Realm while I was there.

Find the Pattern You Love

The first thing most knitters on the survey listed was “find a pattern you love.” It was interesting that it didn’t seem good enough to just grab any pattern. The knitters insisted it must be something you really want to do, presumably because of the investment of personal time and attention knitting requires.  The pattern forms a foundation, a ground, for the whole project.

The Hell Realm is often characterized as a state of being groundless. Buddhism’s answer to that wavering, unformed chaos is to acknowledge it, and sometimes embrace it. As Chögyam Trungpa famously wrote, “The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.”

In the midst of the Hell Realm surrounded by the fire of uncertainty, danger, and pain the lack of something to stand on is usually unhelpful at best. If you can’t find the ground, find a pattern you love in the air around it.

Routine is a guiding star through the anarchy of hell. It may be having a cup of tea at the same time every day, or a good night kiss with the same repeated phrase, or Zhine, calm abiding meditation, where all you have to do is keep up with the next exhale. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing. It just needs to be a pattern you love in your life.

The Buddhist Thought Police are likely to pull me over at any moment and say, “That’s clinging” and they might be right.

My answer, “I’m in the Hell Realm. Shut up.”

If you’re spinning in the turmoil of a situation that is eating you alive and you need something to hang on to, don’t feel ashamed—find a pattern you love.

Keep Your Hands Busy

Every single person who answered my survey listed one of the reasons they knit as, “it keeps my hands busy.” Apparently, we are a culture with energetic hands that need to do things or calamity will ensue.

Truth is, we are active beings and we feel better when we are active. Meditation is so powerful because it purposefully takes us out of that norm and gives our hands, and the rest of our mind/body nothing to do. We don’t live on the cushion, though, and once we rise, those busy hands can be a great help during our hellish moments.

A big part of the hell of Hell is helplessness. Peace comes when we admit there are things we cannot change and no amount of activity is going to affect them. So what can our hands do when they can’t stop the pain, or bring home our loved one, or make the memory of violation any less noxious?

They can reach – to others, to comfort, to wisdom.

They can build – supportive friendships, a base of knowledge, a healing alliance.

They can help others.

During a discussion in The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, contemplates Desmond Tutu’s views of the afterlife as a destination of Heaven or Hell.  He ends up saying, “I prefer to go to hell than to heaven. I can solve more problems in hell. I can help more people there.”

You may feel alone in the Hell Realm you’re going through, and you may actually be alone in it, but there are still other people going through their own personal hell. No matter which realm you are in you can reach to each other; you can walk together. Keep your hands busy.

Make Something of It

The number one answer to the question “What is the best thing about knitting?” was “I can make something.”  There is a great joy in taking yarn and with time, skill, patterns, and pulling out mistakes, transform it into something warm and wonderful. The same holds true for this realm.  If the fire of hell is what you have right now, then fire is what you work with.

The secret to knitting with fire is to realize its exact nature. Fire can be extremely helpful. It cooks food, it warms our bodies, and it renders steel pliable enough to be molded into a tool. Fire can be terribly damaging. It destroys homes, takes lives, and that pliable steel can as easily be turned into a weapon.

Fire is neutral. The true nature of fire is simply this: Fire changes everything it touches. Cooking or burning, consuming or re-forming, wherever fire has been—something different now remains. So it will be with you when you emerge from the Hell Realm.

Make something of the awful experiences you endure. Learn compassion or forge forgiveness. Gain perspective or do things differently. Feel the joy of leaving it. Give merit and help to those still inside. Share your journey. Make new patterns. Find another you love.

Admittedly, I know a lot more about being in the Hell Realm than I do knitting. Yet, I found the practical and joyous application of these truths to apply in both places.

A lot of patience, a couple patterns, and a good steady count is what you need to make it through the fire.


Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall


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