There are a number of organisations and people who offer firewalks. These are usually done as an exercise in personal growth and more specifically to be a tool for overcoming fear. As participants will be asked to walk over coals at an internal temperature of some 1200°C1, overcoming fear is indeed a big issue.
Note: This entry does not cover how to build and maintain the fire for a firewalk. It is a highly skilled art and should not be attempted without training.
Why Do a Firewalk?
People undertake to do a firewalk for a variety of reasons - curiosity, to overcome a specific fear, challenge, achievement, pride, as a corporate 'teambuilding' exercise (where it's possible that some people might feel pressured into doing it) or simply because the opportunity to do one presents itself. You can even do a firewalk for charity. At its best, it is a tool for self discovery, of finding possibly previously unknown resources and breaking down self-limitations. Firewalk marketers claim that the firewalk is a metaphor for surmounting obstacles in everyday life, such as career hurdles, relationship issues, and health limitations. One master firewalker claims that a person who has done a firewalk will never be terrorised by their driving test!
History of Firewalking
Firewalking traditions have been present in many countries2, where it can be seen as the miraculous workings of the Holy Spirit or of a saint. It is also associated with the gift of healing and self healing and with purification. Indeed, 'trial by fire' was an historic method of proving guilt or innocence. Fire was placed on the skin of the accused, who would not be burnt if innocent. Power over fire is also important in shamanic traditions.
Some cultures also have traditions of 'firedancing', including Africa and the Anastenarides of Northern Greece. There are also accounts of fire handling. In the late 1800s a Scotsman named Daniel Douglas Home was observed to handle incredibly hot coals, bathe his face in fire and lie down on a bed of hot coals. Egyptian and Algerian dervishes have been reported to have swallowed hot coals, a practice which has also been reported in Sumatra.
The modern firewalking movement was started in 1977 by Tolly Burkan, when an article on how to firewalk was published in the journal Scientific American, which inspired him to research firewalking and he offered his first courses a year later. It was a steep learning curve and in the first few years, several dozen people were badly burned. The personal development guru Tony Robbins learned how to firewalk in 1983 and by early 1984, his firewalking classes were drawing hundreds of people including celebrities and big corporations. Organised training of firewalk leaders started in earnest.
The process of doing a firewalk is likely to start with preparation exercises3. It is important to follow the directions of the leader you have chosen as mixing techniques can lead to difficulties resulting in serious burns. The process encourages people to draw on their own resources and access a previously undiscovered part of themselves. Firewalking is talked about as a method of self empowerment.
During the preparation, participants are likely to be told about the history of firewalking and about the building of the fire. They will hear stories and lessons. They will do some self-searching about their reasons for doing the firewalk. They will identify specific fears that they are there to overcome. They may be told that there is a mechanism in the body that conducts the heat from their feet4 or they could be told that it is their empowered state that allows them to walk on fire5. Others assert that firewalking is possible because of the low thermal capacity of the coals and that the ash acts as additional insulation, as well as the short time of contact that the firewalker's soles have with the coals. They may be given a phrase to repeat, such as 'cool moss' and be taught how to walk, and to practice the right speed.
Participants are likely to be present at the lighting of the fire (but not to take part in its building) and may have a ceremony, such as burning a list of personal demons. There may be a lengthy period spent round the fire, which could include dancing, singing, meditating or just sitting around the fire while it is burning down. Alternatively, this time may be taken for a break for food and probably for more exercises.
At the appointed time, the participants will take off their shoes and socks and troop off to where the fire is situated. By this time, the fire will have burnt down considerably and the centre of the fire will consist of red hot coals with partially combusted material at the side, which can be pushed in to feed the fire if need be.
Although all the proceedings have led to the firewalk, there will be people who make the choice not to walk. This will have been stressed throughout the course and it is important that no-one is pressured into doing it. It is not in the interest of the leader to push people who are not ready. Usually, the leader will be the first to walk across the coals. Some firewalks will be undertaken in silence, others will be accompanied by drumming and participants at others will clap loudly or chant to encourage those on the fire.
Some leaders will offer participants the opportunity to walk a second time. At the end of the first walk or at the beginning of the second walk, there may be people who were not ready or able to walk the first time and who will walk at this later stage. They may be accompanied by the leader who will hold their hand. They are likely to receive tremendous encouragement from the rest of the participants who acknowledge the courage this has taken.
During the firewalk, the leader and assistants will have been keeping a close eye on the fire to make sure that hotspots are dealt with and to attend to the needs of people who have crossed. There will be buckets of water for participants to plunge their feet into as well as people with hoses, who are on the lookout for anyone who has picked up a piece of coal in their toes.
When everyone (who is going to) has walked, the participants will return to the seminar room to put back their footwear and for a debriefing session. Those who have achieved the firewalk will want to talk about how they felt. Goodbyes will be said and some people will exchange addresses so that they can keep in contact.
Some leaders arrange for a photographer to be present. In this case, participants will wear something that identifies each participant, such as a number hung round the neck. In this case, participants will have a permanent reminder of their firewalk, when it arrives in the post a little while later.
A Personal Experience
I did a firewalk in 1994 with metaphysician Stuart Wilde. It was a one and a half day course at the Commonwealth Institute in London, beginning on a Friday evening and finishing on Saturday evening.
During the first part of the course, we did exercises and heard about the theory behind firewalking. These included an exercise in inflicting pain on ourselves (using a fingernail to press down on a tender part of the thumb) and one in experiencing a raisin as never before. To do this, we had to study the raisin intently and to eat it extremely slowly, savouring every bit. We were told it would be the most wonderful raisin we had ever tasted - and it was!
We were allocated to teams with ten people in each team, with the aim of being encouraged and supported. We were told that the Ghengis Khan organised his warriors in this fashion and that these units were known as 'arbans'.
We were shown how to walk - briskly, but not too quickly, or we could dig our heels into the coals or trip, not too slowly, or we could be burned, and under all circumstances to continue to the end. We were told that if we stopped or tried to turn and get off the fire sideways, we could be badly burned. Turning inevitably digs the heel into the coals and, at the edge of the fire, there are coals which are flaming. So once we were on the fire, there was literally no turning back!
We went down to the place where the fire had been built, in this case in the car park, and watched it being lit. The wood was around five feet high and 20-25 feet long. Once it was lit, we were each invited to burn a piece of paper we had earlier written things on that we wished to leave behind, or move on from. Mine blew back from the heat of the fire and it was too hot to replace it. I was mildly disappointed.
There were 120 of us doing the firewalk. I was about two-thirds of the way back. I was very impressed with the courage of the first few walkers. I was still not sure whether I would be able to do it; the heat coming from the fire was very great. When my turn came, I took an enormous in-breath and started out. No turning back! I thought 'Cool moss, cool moss' as I had been taught and two-thirds of the way across found myself thinking, 'Gosh, I haven't felt a thing, just as I was promised.' Mistake! Immediately, I felt a burning pain in my right foot, near the big toe. My last few footsteps were not very dignified as I hurried to complete the walk. At the end, I put each foot into a bucket of water and had my feet sprayed by one of the helpers.
Once everyone had walked - well not everyone walked, some could not go through with it - we were asked if we wanted a second walk. Apparently about half the people on firewalks will want to do it again. I had decided not to. The person immediately behind me, one of my 'arban', asked if I would do it again and I said 'No'. She said, 'Oh, go on, I'm going to'. And I heard myself saying, 'Yes!'. The second time was very different. I was still apprehensive. Once on the fire, I felt every footfall as warm. Previously I had felt nothing at all. At the end of it, I had a tremendous sense of achievement. And yes, I did get a photo through the post!