Dancing with the Fire

Dancing with the Fire

by Michael Sky

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Tolly Burkan and his wife Peggy Dylan wanted to teach us every aspect of successfully leading firewalk. Since their own approach had been to travel around from place to place, building fires wherever they could, our three-week training would consist primarily of ten public firewalk with a lot of traveling in between, so that we would get a taste of life on the road. Thus, although our group of ten students came together in Sacramento, we spent our initial two days journeying in a motorhome up to Seattle for our first firewalk. This two-day waiting period actually helped me, for I could see little difference between this group of people—all of whom had already walked on fire—and myself. I did not feel like their spiritual or psychological inferior, and I could thus reasonably expect to do as well as they.

Alas, on the day of my first walk, all reason and logic abandoned me. As the day wore on (firewalk always happen at night, which really means that they happen for an entire day) my body became uncharacteristically tense; a low level anxiety took over and gripped me. I was not hungry and I did not feel like talking. I kept thinking of the thousands of people who had already done this. I kept looking at my fellow trainees and seeing of our essential sameness. My mind would be somewhat reassured, but my body grew tenser still.

Midday they showed us a brief news clip of Tolly walking across an amazingly hot-looking bed of coals, and my stomach lurched in protest. I felt as if I had just witnessed an accident victim sprawled bloody across the pavement. I continued to fast and I talked even less. In a notebook I wrote, “I feel like I’m in an airplane, about to parachute into enemy territory.”

At this point, I felt twisted by a combination of fears. I worried that I would severely injure myself. Even worse, I might chicken out, a horrendous thought given the time, expense, and self-esteem I had committed to becoming an instructor. Or, worst of all, I might walk on fire, fail painfully, and limp home a crippled and embarrassed wreck. As evening approached, I found my mind less able to issue up reassurance, and more focused on my fears. My body grew tenser still.

Finally, the workshop began. Fifty or so people gathered, mostly looking as if they had just been told they had four hours to live. Tolly had an intense, yet entertaining style. Working the crowd, he first terrified us with what could go wrong, and then exploded the tension with his wonderful sense of humor. After an hour or so, we went outside and together constructed a large pile of wood, kindling, and newspaper. Then we circled about it, holding hands, while Tolly doused it with a gallon of kerosene and set it aflame. In moments, the fire blasted us with such heat that everyone took two steps away from the scattering sparks and billowing smoke. Definitely not a summer-camp fire, nor even a homecoming bonfire. We beheld an inferno, and if it was designed to frighten, it succeeded.

Back inside we went, and for the next two hours Tolly prepared us for walking. I remember agreeing with most all that he said, while at the same time feeling concerned that I did not really hear anything new. Clearly, I had hoped for some powerful technique or super meditation that would change me from “one who burns” into “one who doesn’t burn” but as time passed I felt distinctly unchanged and increasingly vulnerable. Things gradually took on a surreal air. It felt as if we were all doing drugs together or, again, as if we were all in a plane behind enemy lines, lost in our separate thoughts, contemplating doom, barely breathing.

Finally, the time came. We returned to the fire, which had calmed somewhat into a large pile of glowing embers and smoldering hunks of wood. We held hands, chanting softly as Tolly took a heavy metal rake and carefully spread the coals into a path some twelve-feet long and six-feet wide. With each pass of the rake, sparks flew off in every direction and what little breath we had left became filled with smoke. The heat was still so intense that people moved away from rather than toward the fire, its red-orange glow pulsing, menacing, yet oddly inviting. My mind finally emptied and quieted; I surrendered to the singing and felt transfixed by the fire. My body trembled out of control, as if it were somehow freezing on this warm spring evening. I could feel through their hands the similar shaking of those on either side of me.

Tolly laid down the rake, stepped up to the fiery path, and, with just the briefest pause, walked quickly across the coals. I registered that he took six steps and that he seemed okay, when suddenly another person walked across, and then another. I noticed my head shaking, side to side, as I watched feet sinking down into glowing, red, hot coals. People continued walking, one after another, and our singing steadily picked up, becoming more excited, more vibrant. My mind went blank, while my feet, acting on their own, carried me slowly toward the top of the path. My trembling increased and I sang even louder. Suddenly, I was at the top of the path. Moments later I moved—seven quick steps—I had walked on fire!

I felt overwhelmed with joy and found myself applauding each succeeding walker. The energy between us continued to rise, higher and higher, becoming more and more excited. It was all so beautifully stunning—the fire, the circle, the singing, the stars, the moon—and the wonderful feeling of grass beneath my happy feet. At last a strong shout of joy exploded through the group. Some people hugged, everyone laughed, and then slowly we all filtered back inside.

The funeral parlor had transformed into a circus. A tangible wave of relief rippled through a room filled with happy chatter and excited giggles. We took some time for sharing our experiences, and miracle stories abounded. I became aware of a spot on my left foot that felt a little hot, just slightly painful. Some other walkers seemed distressed also, including a fellow trainee who would turn out to have several bad blisters.

Later, as I called home to assure my wife and friends that I had survived it, feet intact, I began to feel a little let down. Obviously it had been a long, exhausting day. Somehow I had expected

more difficulty; it just seemed too easy. I mean, if anyone could do this, then. . . .

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