Dancing with the Fire


My second firewalk came two nights later at the same location.

I collected the release forms that night as people entered the room, and felt myself tense slightly as a pretty young woman named Kathy3 arrived, moving slowly on a pair of crutches. I would only find out later that Kathy was a social worker for handicapped rights, that she worked in her spare time on a suicide hot-line, and that she had a bumper sticker shouting “Expect A Miracle,” but I could tell the moment I saw her that she was a determined and self-sufficient woman who was working hard to overcome the limitations in her life.

As I watched her throughout the evening, it became apparent to me that Kathy had come to firewalking. So I worried when, just before going out to the fire, her husband asked if people with cerebral palsy should firewalk and Tolly recommended against it. I sensed that Kathy did not take kindly to, nor listen to, people telling her what she could not do.

For myself, this second firewalk was much the same as the first, though slightly colored with the memory of pain. I felt the same tension throughout my body and the body of the group. The fire seemed just as hot, and the path Tolly raked out looked a tad longer. My mind was every bit as incredulous when the firewalking began, and I experienced the same sense of shifting to a magical, otherworldly reality. I did manage, however, to walk before most everyone else, and thus felt double elation as I reached the other side, unburned. At some point Kathy started moving toward the fire, walking on her crutches really, her legs and feet stiffly dragging behind.

The electrical tension in the circle increased tenfold. Ever so slowly she moved, shuffling into and through the fire, so slowly that at times she seemed stationary, up to her ankles in glowing embers. Each step was a major victory, first carrying her into the heart of the fire, and then slowly carrying her out toward safety. Just at the end of the path she stopped, suddenly, and in the next moment she started screaming. We carried her  immediately from the fire and into the house, and later to a hospital, both feet severely burned, the skin already blistering and peeling. Somehow the firewalk continued, as one crazy person stepped forward in the midst of the terror and started the flow of walkers again. The mood afterwards was subdued, however, as we had little energy for celebration given what we had witnessed. I remember feeling torn. On the one hand, I felt finished with firewalking, and wanted never to take part in such a tragedy again. At the same time, I kept trying to believe that things do happen for good reason and that Kathy’s experience might become an important contribution to my understanding of firewalking.

Kathy would later say that she had been doing fine, feeling neither pain nor the slightest heat, all of the way to that final step. Then she looked down, and the image of her feet buried in burning embers overwhelmed her, causing her to think she was doing the impossible and to hear her lifelong admonishments: “You can’t. You’re unable to. You mustn’t.” At this point she began to burn. She asked that we not feel sorry for her or responsible for her actions, and she demonstrated her personal power by healing in a fraction of the time that her doctors had predicted. She felt truly grateful for the whole experience and stressed that she had in fact walked on fire successfully for all but one step.

12 • Dancing With the Fire

A newspaper reporter present that night had timed the walkers with a stopwatch. He said the average walker took between a second and a half to two seconds to get across the coals and that Kathy had been on them for a full seven seconds before she screamed. So she had indeed firewalked the equivalent of some fifty feet (at that time, a Guinness world record) without burning, and without even lifting her feet out of the fire. Through her extraordinary courage, Kathy had demonstrated what I would come to see as the two primary lessons of firewalking : yes, we can walk through extreme heat without burning; and yes, the fire is hot, we can get burned, and whether we burn or not depends more on our state of mind than on how we firewalk.

I would experience many other “firsts” during the remainder of my training. One night I had my first “cold” walk: I walked through the coals and not only did I not feel any heat, I actually felt cold—an incredible sensation—as if I were walking through snow. The next night I had my first real burn, a screeching pain that sent me to bed with my foot wrapped in a cold, wet towel, seriously debating the value of continued firewalking. I also parachuted out of my first airplane, sat through my first sweat lodge (another ancient ritual), and rappelled down my first rock face, as Tolly and Peggy found different ways to lead us through the lessons of the firewalk. Most importantly to me, one night I chose to walk first—to offer the final words to the group, to prepare the coals, and then to initiate and model the experience by going first. That night went so well I felt confident that I could create firewalks on my own. I felt ready, and excited, to go home and get started.


It began raining early in the morning of Memorial Day that year, and the rain kept up through most of the day. My wife Penny and I were living with two friends in a suburban neighborhood in Concord, just west of Boston. We planned to have the firewalk on our front lawn. We called the local fire department and told them we were having a holiday cookout with an Hawaiian luau-style wood fire. I began to see the rain as a plus, as it would keep our neighbors indoors. I went to the supermarket and bought a case of charcoal lighter, if necessary to keep the fire going.

For the rest of the day we all just sat around the house, shut in by the rain, and quietly freaked out. Someone would stare into a book for ten minutes without registering a word. Or someone would put water on to boil and then stand empty-headed before the tea cabinet trying to remember why. We paced a lot, moving from one room to another with no discernable purpose. We managed some courageous gallows humor, which sometimes worked a giggling release and other times only served to deepen the gloom.

Our good friend Jonathon just happened to show up that afternoon, in town for the holiday. Jonathon is an engineer and the most logical, rational, linear, left-brain I have ever known. When I told him our plans for the evening, he at first became excited, for he only heard the part about my demonstrating the walk. As I slowly made it clear to him that everyone might walk on fire, his eyes bugged out and he started looking for the exit. I asked if he would like to serve as firetender, staying outside and keeping the fire going for us while we were inside preparing to walk. He gladly said yes, happy that he could take part and witness the walk without feeling compelled to do something so utterly outrageous. Evening finally arrived, as did my friends. Once again I found myself sitting in a roomful of people waiting to have root canals without anesthesia. However, this time there was no one present (myself included) who really knew that it would all work out. Fear feeds on fear. If you look to your old friend for reassurance and instead see fear in his eyes, you will tend to feel frightened, which he will spot in your eyes, further frightening him, which further frightens you, which further frightens him . . . and so it went.

14 • Dancing With the Fire

By this time I had come to understand two basic facts about people that almost always hold true at the start of a firewalk. First, we feel disinclined to intentionally move in the direction of pain, unless we have clear social approval, as, for instance, in the case of athletes or dancers. While we might understand and even applaud the marathon runner’s contorted features and occasional shin splints, we consider it quite stupid to intentionally step on a fire and then suffer injury. Second, we have a deep, cellular, instinctive  relationship to fire and its burning nature: virtually every life-form on this planet knows better than to move in the direction of fire, so again, anyone foolish enough to even consider such a practice probably deserves any resulting pain.

Yet my friends and I had our reasons, strong enough to carry us forward in the presence of our doubts and fears, for there we were. Despite a clumsy and halting presentation on my part, the evening progressed and our moment with the fire approached. I told them to take a little break while I went outside to see how the fire had managed in the rain. I found Jonathon keeping his lonely vigil, umbrella overhead, and I took a rake and poked clinically through the fire, attempting to determine whether we had enough coals to do the walk. I felt suddenly blasted with the heat (the fire had done quite well in the rain), with the fire’s electric, glowing, orange burst of energy, and my stomach seized up with the undeniable danger of our enterprise. I took a deep breath, put on a happy face, and went slowly back inside, attempting to emanate all-knowing reassurance. My friends later said that I was white with terror.

We proceeded out to the fire. The rain had lightened to a soft and cooling presence, and a wonderful blessing and balance for our undertaking. We formed a circle, holding hands, except for Jonathon, who stood dry and sensible beneath his umbrella. The singing began. I took the rake and began spreading the coals: all this earth is sacred, every step we take, all this life is sacred, every step we take. As the fiery carpet first spread out before them, I heard a tangible group gasp. Nothing I had said could have prepared them for the intensity of the heat, for the explosion of sparks and smoke, for the solid red-orange sheet of pulsing embers. Minds boggled, bodies trembled, and our singing grew louder, viscerally driven.

I stood before the hot coals, thinking: “Either it works, or it doesn’t, here goes….” I firewalked across, no problem! I was then stunned to see one friend following immediately after, and then another, and another. Whereas the walks during my training had all progressed slowly, half of our group had walked in the first thirty seconds. Whether they had an extreme desire to walk on fire, or an extreme desire to be finished with walking on fire, they were all smiling, and in the space of a minute we had shifted from unthinking terror to exhilarating joy.

I looked over to Penny, who had not yet walked and who was visibly shaking. I had had a dream just before returning home in which Penny had stepped forward and burst into flames. I was hoping that wouldn’t happen. For her part, she had always steadfastly maintained that firewalking was not her sort of thing at all, and that if her husband hadn’t had the temerity to land one in her own front yard she might have forever remained among the blissfully uninitiated. But there it was, and walk she did, smiling brightly all the way into my waiting arms.

We had by then reached the magical shift that most firewalks achieve: the fire had become friendly and inviting, the singing inspired, and the group intensely bonded, with a strong sense that anything was possible. As if to affirm it all and top it with a final encore, Jonathon stepped up to the fire, umbrella still raised overhead, and strolled across the coals with wonderful aplomb, the perfect ending to an unforgettable dance. We were well on our way to an adventure that, years later, continues to provide a wealth of such moments.

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