Dancing With the Fire – The Skeptical Mind

The Skeptical Mind

by Michael Sky

When we are certain that a phenomenon such as firewalking does not happen, we are really saying: “My basic knowledge of how the universe works is so complete and so accurate that the cosmos holds no more surprises for me. I know all the real truths and the details will all fit them.”

How sad … If only experience and life would not keep teaching us how little we know.

Sit down before fact like a little child, and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.

Doubt is not ultimately transcended through beliefs. Doubt is a state of mind that is fundamentally without content. It is an expression of the contraction of the being. It is not cured with positive beliefs that are the opposite of doubt. It is cured by the release of this contraction so that there is a continuity between consciousness and forms and relations, and unobstructed continuity between the being and Reality altogether.

The first barrier which most people encounter on their way to the firewalk is something which I call the skeptical mind. The skeptical mind is that part of us which tends to doubt and distrust certain things, especially things which we have never experienced before, such as Firewalking. It is a ‘show-me’ attitude, which assumes that something is false until proven true, a predisposition of disbelief toward anything which would stretch us even slightly beyond our current convictions about the nature of things. Persisted in, it becomes a mentally, emotionally, and physically ingrained habit, a fixed posture of skepticism, from which it is impossible to even entertain notions such as Firewalk, much less to participate in and truly learn from such realities.

The skeptical mind is a total way of being in the world which is endemic to our culture, a highly valued trait within our scientific, medical, legal, media, business, and educational communities. All of us carry some degree of the skeptical edge in our lives, though for some it is much sharper than for others. It is a deeply rooted pattern of psycho-physical response, taught to us at an early age, and supported by virtually all of our cultural institutions.

Above all, the skeptical mind is viewed as absolutely essential to our survival in these modern times. This is a dog-eat-dog world after all, filled with harsh truths and hard realities, filled to the brim with shams and charlatans, rip-offs and scams, so many fictions masquerading as fact. Our survival depends upon our ability to separate the snake oil from the real thing, to discern the true from the false. Thus, we talk of healthy skepticism, of street-smarts, of hard-bitten cynicism, and of cold, relentless logic, all terms which suggest strength and intelligence to us. Asked to define the opposite of skepticism, we will usually come up with words such as naivety, romanticism, idealism, and innocence, all suggestive of weakness and stupidity.

In fact, the word skepticism means doubt, distrust, and disbelief, and its true opposites are faith, trust, and openness. The more we approach the circumstances of our lives with the attitudes of doubt, distrust, and disbelief, the more fully committed we become, mentally, emotionally, and physically, to the skeptical mind and the resulting posture of skepticism. The more fully we have adopted a posture of skepticism, the more difficult it becomes to approach anything in life with the attitude and posture of open faith and trust. This is especially true for new things, strange things, foreign things, unheard of things, ‘too good to be true’ things, and ‘impossible’ things. Eventually, a deeply ingrained posture of skepticism operates like a set of blinders which will effectively screen from one’s awareness anything ‘out of the ordinary.’ It is then no longer a matter of doubting and distrusting such possibilities — the skeptical mind simply will not see them to begin with.

I must stress at this point that in using the term ‘the skeptical mind’ I am not implying that the mind is by nature skeptical. Quite to the contrary, I believe that the human mind is essentially open, trusting, and believing and that skepticism is a trait which most minds learn which then develops into an overall way of being in the world, a posture of skepticism, very much to the mind’s detriment. Ultimately, skepticism is nothing but a bad habit, necessary in the way that bad habits are always necessary, but ultimately of no redeeming value to the human species.

To those who might argue that skepticism is vital to good science, I would answer that the very best scientists are children. During their first seven years, children are endlessly exploring, touching, tasting, and smelling life; testing, trying out, and learning, learning, learning, absorbing vast quantities of data. Their brains expand in great bursts of cellular growth, their eyes and ears wide open and accepting of everything. They steadily expand their understanding of the world, figuring out gravity and nourishment and human relationship, a breakthrough every hour, a Nobel prize worth of discovery every day — and they do it all, this prodigious learning, without the slightest trace of skepticism, without the slightest need for doubt, distrust, or disbelief. Rather, it is precisely the child’s wide-eyed innocence and absolute believing which makes such learning possible.

Likewise, to those who would argue that a good, healthy dose of skepticism is necessary protection in this cruel-hearted world, helping us to ‘wise up’ and ‘know better keeping us from buying all of the various Brooklyn Bridges that life offers, I would point out that it is informed intelligence that keeps us from such follies, not skepticism. It is quite possible to be wide-open and trusting of all that comes one’s way and to still say no to those things which sound false or misleading. In fact, experienced con artists claim that the best marks are those who appear to be rigidly skeptical, as it is simply a matter of using their prejudices against them. A skeptical mind is invariably a closed mind, is invariably a crippled mind. Truly, skepticism is neither essential to the learning process nor essential to the intelligent negotiation of life, and is ultimately a serious hindrance to both. This has not, however, prevented the skeptical mind from becoming one of the most highly valued and firmly rooted traits of Western culture.

It has been through such a deeply rooted posture of skepticism that the Western world has always viewed the firewalk. To date there have been only a few scientific investigations of the firewalk, and what little literature there is on the subject is for the most part anecdotal in nature. There have been a small number of Western institutions that have gone off to various parts of the world to report on the subject, and they have always confirmed that it is in fact happening. Many such reports have included a theoretical explanation of the event, while on other occasions the investigators have admitted to being stymied by what they witnessed. Yet, despite the widely known and highly provocative nature of the firewalk, very little serious scientific investigation of the phenomenon has ever been pursued.

This is especially ironic since the scientific community has for so many years dismissed out of hand most, if not all, paranormal phenomena, such as the firewalk, for being anecdotal, unverifiable, and experimentally unrepeatable. Since the early 1980s there have been a number of firewalkers such as myself traveling about, in full public view, and essentially performing the same experiment over and over and over again, with the same basic results, while enthusiastically inviting full scientific scrutiny. Yet, as I say, the scientific community has for the most part been unwilling to approach the firewalk, unwilling to study it, and unwilling to learn from the data it presents.

Quite to the contrary, there has always been a rather studious avoidance of such a study. As Dr. Andrew Weil points out: “Hardly any physiologists or medical scientists have studied the phenomenon, and those who have written about it have mostly tried to make it appear unremarkable. Their aim is to defuse the challenge it poses to the materialistic conception of the human organism.” Up until a few years ago the Western world, entrenched within its posture of skepticism, was content to simply say, “It’s impossible; it’s a trick, a sham; it can’t be happening” and to let it go at that, enough said, no need for any further thought, just another instance of phenomenal flotsam from the uncivilized world. Over the years, however, the reports from well-respected observers have slowly gathered, saying that it is indeed happening, that the coals are very hot, the feet uncalloused and untreated, and that real people are really walking without burning. These reports, coupled with the recent well-publicized Firewalking in the United States, have made it impossible for the skeptics to simply deny the experience any longer. Yet this has not led, as one might have thought, to an eager rush to understand how it could be happening, but instead to the next defense of the skeptical mind: that of explaining it away.

‘Explain-aways’ begin to arise when the skeptical mind is finally willing to admit that firewalkers are in fact doing what they have always been claiming to do, that the coals are hot, and that the walking happens — for the most part without burning. Having acceded that much, the skeptical mind is usually not at all willing to then allow that this happens for the reasons that the firewalkers give: that it is a demonstration of some new evolutionary capacity of humankind, or of mind over matter, or of possession by God, or of connection to the spirit of the fire, or of any other such ‘exotic’ explanation. No, indeed not. At this point the skeptical mind says: “Enough is enough. While Firewalk may be fact, there must surely be, must surely be, some perfectly reasonable and totally physical explanation.” That is, “Yes it is happening, but it is only something which looks difficult and really isn’t, like an optical illusion, and here is an explanation. We’ve explained it away, and now back to serious matters.” Unfortunately, as Dr. Weil puts it, the real appeal of all ‘explain-aways’ is that they avoid “any reference to the mind or the power of consciousness to modify physical reality.”

I do not mean to suggest that science is some great and nasty monolith which has unfairly spurned the poor firewalk these many years. Rather, I am saying that science, in so thoroughly committing itself to the necessity of the posture of skepticism, has by definition greatly limited its field of enquiry and what is permitted to count as ‘good science.’ It has developed a knack for quickly explaining away any data which manage to slip through the perimeters of the current scientific paradigms. Harking back to Einstein’s comment, “It was as if the earth was pulled out from under one,” we can certainly understand the scientist’s reluctance to allow human consciousness into the creative machinery of life; it does make for rather messy data!

The reigning ‘explain-away’ for years has been that Firewalk is a demonstration of something called the Leidenfrost effect. The Leidenfrost effect, named after the German scientist who first studied it, is what happens when you sprinkle water onto a very hot skillet, and, instead of immediately evaporating, it retains its shape and bounces around on the skillet for a few moments. This occurs when the heat is at just the right temperature to evaporate the bottom layer of the drop of water. The vapor then, in effect, becomes an insulating layer for the rest of the drop, protecting it from the heat. The bottom layer of water will continuously evaporate, while the rest of the drop above continues to feed water into it, until eventually the whole drop disappears. Extrapolating, rather extravagantly I think, from that piece of data, skeptics have reasoned that what happens at a firewalk is that participants get so nervous beforehand that their feet sweat and that, a la Leidenfrost, they are protected from the heat of the coals by a thin layer of insulating sweat.

Lately, a different ‘explain-away’ has been getting a lot of press. This argument draws a distinction between temperature and heat energy, pointing out that while two objects may be heated to the same temperature, they will contain different amounts of heat energy depending upon their differing masses, and that it is heat energy which causes burning, not temperature. As an example, imagine reaching into a hot oven to retrieve a baking pan. Though the air inside the oven and the baking pan are both heated to the same temperature, your hand will not be burned by the air because it is of such little mass that it holds very little heat energy. The pan, however, has a much higher mass, contains much more heat energy, and will burn you if you do not protect your hand. This theory continues by saying that burning embers contain very little mass in relation to the mass of human feet and thus cannot contain enough heat energy to do any damage.

A major refutation of these, and any other ‘explain-aways’ that the skeptical mind might come up with, comes from burn specialists. Those who have worked in hospital burn units for any appreciable length of time have invariably treated victims of similar fires, i.e., those who have stepped accidentally on campfires or upon stray barbeque coals, or have come into brief contact with fireplace logs. Such specialists are generally quite explicit about what ought to happen when a person steps on a fire of the sort that firewalkers use: instantaneous second- and/or third degree burning. This is expert testimony, coming from years of direct experience with different types of fire and its effect upon the human body. As I say, most of the doctors that I have spoken with have been quite clear that something extraordinary is happening at a firewalk.

I say ‘most of the doctors’ because I have known of a few burn specialists who have landed in the skeptic’s camp, arguing that it is impossible to get badly burned at a firewalk. However, even the most sophisticated of arguments against the possibility of being burned by hot coals tends to break down when you talk to someone who has actually been burned, and has suffered greatly, from such an experience. I have had six campfire burn victims show up at my firewalks, each having once been very badly burned by a campfire. All of them successfully firewalked, and all were totally certain that the fire which had burned them earlier in life was much cooler, and their contact with it much shorter in duration. One was so impressed by his experience that he is now leading firewalk himself. Still, this is at best anecdotal evidence.

The main problem with any explanation of why ‘you really can’t get burned at a firewalk’ is that people do in fact get burned at firewalk! As mentioned in the previous chapter, I have not come across a single reference to Firewalking anywhere that did not include some warning about the possibility of being burned. In other parts of the world, there are reports of people who have been crippled or fatally injured while Firewalking. While, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever been so seriously burned in the United States, it is not at all uncommon for people to experience burning pain and to develop blisters as a result of Firewalking. I could safely say that all continuing firewalkers eventually get a nasty burn, and that at the end of any given firewalk there are at least a couple of walkers who are feeling pain. These are generally pretty benign affairs: a few sharply stinging spots on the bottoms of the feet, lasting for an hour or two, and then lingering as blisters on the sole of the foot for a few days, or at most a hobbled week or so. I know of several people who have gone to hospital emergency rooms in great pain after Firewalking, including three who were diagnosed by the receiving doctor as having severe second-degree bums, and of one man who spent a month on crutches after one of my firewalks. I have personally had a few rather long, painful nights myself, my foot in a bucket of cold water, when I wished very much that it was impossible to get burned at a firewalk!

But people do get burned, all the time. And while bums and blisters are a somewhat unpleasant aspect of firewalking that I often wish would go away, they do at the same time very clearly serve to validate the process. Having watched thousands of people go through the firewalk, and having followed up with many who were burned, and many more who were not, all that I have seen has led me to the very firm conclusion that burns are somehow caused from inside the person, rather than by the fire. Each time I lead a firewalk I use the same amount of the same kind of wood, and I burn it for the same length of time, raking it into a path of the same dimensions, meticulously preparing it in the same way. And yet, from firewalk to firewalk, from experiment to experiment, sometimes there are burns, and sometimes there are not. The fire has burned as a constant, unchanging stimulus. The only changing factor has been the psycho-emotional state of the individual walkers.

Even more compelling is the testimony of experienced walkers, such as myself. To have walked on fire a dozen or more times, to have had the experience on some nights of being able to do just about anything with the fire — dancing, slow dancing, standing still, laughing through it all and feeling no heat whatsoever — and then to stand in front of another fire and hear a voice inside screaming “not tonight!” and sure enough, with the first step forward, to experience a burst of heat and a piercing pain: having gone through this more than a few times, and swapped notes with others who have done likewise, I am firmly convinced that the primary cause of burning at a firewalk is the consciousness of the individual walker, in combination with the collective consciousness of the entire group involved.

The testimony of burn specialists, combined with the continuing experience of thousands and thousands of firewalkers, would seem to present a good case for the basic premise of firewalking: that a fire which would ordinarily burn does not, and that human consciousness is a primary causative factor for this phenomenon. Yet, even with such evidence, most skeptics, firmly committed as they are to a posture of doubt, distrust, and disbelief, will continue to generate ‘explain-aways’ I have watched the minds of some people, just minutes after firewalking, start sending up the disclaimers: “That fire didn’t seem so hot,” “It was only a few steps,” “It was only a few seconds,” “We walked so fast,” “If everyone did it that must prove you can’t get burned.” This no longer surprises me, for it has been my experience that most if not all of us will have to wrestle through such moments of skepticism, such dark nights of the soul, while our minds scramble to invalidate the simple miracle of the firewalk.

Indeed, I find it difficult to even write the word ‘miracle,’ much less announce that I will be performing one with twenty other people next Friday night at 10 pm! Presumptuous, to say the least, with an unhealthy dose of hubris. And yet, looking the word ‘miracle’ up in the dictionary, I find it defined as “an event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a divine source.” Which is exactly what a firewalk is.

Let’s divide this definition into three parts. First, a firewalk is certainly an event in the physical world. These are real feet stepping onto real fire without really burning. It is most definitely not a case of mass hypnosis or shared hallucination or any such thing.

Second, it is an event which surpasses all known human or natural powers. The emphasis here is on the word ‘known,’ meaning that while firewalking is beyond our current understanding of human or natural powers, it is by no means unknowable. Very often the vehemence and, at times, the outright anger with which skeptics view events like firewalking stems from the mistaken belief that such paranormal phenomena discount the laws of nature, or that they deny the fact that we do live in an orderly universe which can be systematically studied and understood. The firewalk can seem like a very large slap in the face to those whose lives are devoted to such study, both contradicting and threatening their life works, that they will typically react by arguing vigorously against its possibility.

But firewalking is not, by any means or manner of reckoning, a refutation of the laws of physics or a denial that there is an underlying order to this universe which can be systematically understood. It is merely a firm reminder that there are still large gaps in our knowledge, that our minds must remain relentlessly open to new learnings, and that our understanding must be expected and permitted to grow. Simply consider the lessons that Copernicus, Galileo, Columbus, and Einstein brought to the world: each introduced radical new concepts that were contradictory to the known laws of nature in their time; each met with hostile skepticism; and each, ultimately, ushered in a fresh new wave of understanding which encompassed and went beyond all that was known before. In like manner, the firewalk is a teaching which goes against our current understanding and which promises to deliver several important insights into the workings of the world. It only remains for us to have the courage and the willingness to truly look, listen, and learn.

The third part of the definition of a miracle is that it is an event which is ascribed to a divine source. Looking further through the dictionary, we find that ‘divine’ is defined as ‘God-like,’ and ‘God’ is defined as ‘the creator.’ Given the basic premise of the firewalk, as introduced in Chapter 2 — that there is an ongoing co-creative process, or divine intelligence, which determines the way that the world is, the very fabric of reality, and the laws which govern it; that each of us is a vital and integral part of that process; and that all human beings are potentially co-creators of this world — then it follows that the firewalk may indeed be ascribed to a divine source, which is ourselves!

Harumph and pshaw, yikes and arrgh, the textbook skeptic reels away from this suggestion that we are divine, literally feels revulsion towards such a notion, turns red in the face, grits teeth and clenches fists, screams of pantheism and paganism, of witchcraft and heresy; or chuckles wryly at such misinformed romanticism, lightly dismissing the very idea as naive, primitive, and sadly innocent.

We have now arrived at the root of the skeptical mind, at the very source of all the skepticism that the world has ever known and experienced. For behind all of the doubting, all of the distrusting, and all of the disbelieving of the posture of skepticism, lies this essential doubt, this essential distrust, this essential disbelief in ourselves as co-creators, in our connection to the primary creative forces of this world. The basic denial of our true divine nature becomes a denial of all of life. The basic stance of skepticism taken toward our own true role as co-creators becomes an ingrained habit of skepticism which colors every other aspect of our lives.

Simply consider this: if our basic premise is correct — that we contribute to the creation of reality through our thoughts and feelings — and we disagree, saying that our thoughts do not have creative impact and that our feelings do not have creative impact, then it will follow, quite ironically, that our thoughts and feelings will not have creative power and we will be quite right in proclaiming our lack of divinity. This is the original self-fulfilling prophecy (actually it is a self-frustrating prophecy), the catch-22 of all catch-22s. The more fervently we argue against our co-creative powers, the more surely we empower that reality. The more clever and complete our proof that we are not divine by nature, the more evidence we will be able to find to support our lack of divinity. As Richard Bach puts it so concisely in Illusions: “Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they’re yours.” To which we might add: “The more clever and determined your argument, the more limited you will be.” And then a corollary: “Argue for your greatness and that too shall be yours.”

Of course, it is quite true that as we look out at the world we see very little evidence of such greatness, very little evidence of humankind’s divine nature, very little evidence that human beings somehow contribute to the creation of the external world through the movement of their internal processes. We must constantly remember that arguing from past cases has little relevance during evolutionary leaps. Caterpillars cannot conceive of flying; apes cannot conceive of conceiving. Like a child-king, humanity has long lived with the promise of power while being too young, too immature, too unevolved, to truly fulfill that promise. We have had our many masters, our Christs and Buddhas, the evolutionary mutants, living examples of our true nature, breathing reminders of our ultimate potential, always demonstrating the possible while saying, “You can do this too.” That we have as yet failed to realize our full potential can be an indictment of humanity or a promise for the future. I am inclined toward the latter view and feel that the firewalk’s present-day arrival in the land of skepticism suggests that we may be ready at last to fully embrace our true nature.

Every firewalker is saying about himself or herself: There is an ongoing, co-creative process which determines the very fabric of reality and the laws which govern it and I, as a conscious human being, am an integral part of that process; there is a divine, creative energy pulsing through all of this universe and I, as a conscious, evolutionary human, am the living embodiment of that divine energy. As we, individually and collectively, begin to truly have faith (which equals belief without proof, the very opposite of skepticism) in this possibility; as we truly honor our own divinity; as we truly believe in the creative impact that we have upon our world; as we take full responsibility for our vital roles as co-creators; as we finally and completely lift the veils of skepticism and doubt to behold the magical child, the wondrous, ancient, and eternal soul, the higher self, the holy one, the Godhead, the Christ, as we look upon ourselves and say, “Yes, amen, I am that I AM, so be it!”; then, by reflection, we have also affirmed this for our entire world. We can then experience a co-creative energy which is flowing through each of us, through all people, linking all of humanity together as one, and deeply and profoundly connecting us to the living consciousness of this planet.

Thus is our age-old prophecy and dream of heaven on Earth, of one peaceful world, made manifest. One who experiences that all of life is divinely connected finds it impossible to ever knowingly harm another; finds oneself, indeed, compelled toward a life of good and harmonious thoughts, words, and deeds. It is the transformation of our entire planet, and it begins with each of us looking inside and saying, “Yes, I am divine, I am co-creator of this world; my every conscious moment matters, deeply, fully, profoundly.”

The skeptical mind will point to the world as it is, saying, “Read the papers, watch the six o’clock news, observe the hopelessness, the helplessness, the despair, the confusion, the stupid depravity of our race, Where is the divine, where are these promised Gods, what is this foolishness!?” This is like the scientist removing a fish from water to study it upon a laboratory table for several hours until it is proven that fish can’t exist because the damn thing died! Likewise, in allowing and strongly investing in a deeply-ingrained and profoundly rooted atmosphere of skeptical doubt, distrust, and disbelief, we have created an environment which is poisonous to the human spirit, which is openly hostile to our divine nature, and which works totally against the realization of our greatest dreams and most inspired possibilities. Indeed, the term ‘healthy skepticism’ is an outright lie, and could not be further from the truth, for skepticism always poisons, always attacks, always belittles, always defeats. All skepticism is by nature and definition unhealthy, for it begins with the denial of the essential human spirit, a denial which tragically prevents that spirit from coming forth in the world. Far from protecting, such chronic skepticism stifles and suffocates the body, narrows the vision, depresses the mind, inhibits relationship, and argues feverishly, and oh so cleverly, against the very possibility of embodied spirit, against the very precious possibility that we are each co-creators of this life.

Still, it must be conceded that all of these words are bound to fall like so much water on the rock-hard logic of the skeptical mind. We will probably never manage to completely convince the skeptical mind of the essential goodness of humanity, nor of its essential divine nature, nor of its vast reservoirs of untapped creative potential. The forever self-defeating nature of the skeptical mind is such that it cannot see beyond the created limitations of its own presumptions. Thus, we could do happy cartwheels through the hottest of fires (and have), laughing all the while, and the skeptical mind will immediately explain it all away, without considering for even the briefest moment that it might be true, that there might be a very new and different way of looking at the world. And, if we were then to point out the explicitly suicidal nature of such arguments, the skeptical mind would only dig in deeper still, threatened and offended and ever more determined to put an end to such nonsense. “Argue for your limitations and they’re yours,” warned a reluctant messiah. Sadly, the skeptic argues on, bound and determined to be dead right.

There is the story of a monkey who saw a caged bird and reached through the bars of the cage to grab it, thinking of dinner. Once having grasped the bird, however, his hand became too large to remove through the narrow bars. Though freedom lay in simply releasing the bird, the monkey just could not let go of something which had once seemed so important, and thus eventually died, still clinging to the bird.

Let us not also perish while clinging to a vision of ourselves which is negative, limiting, and stuck in the past. Our greatest teachers have told us that entering into the new world will require the easy innocence and open faith of a child. The evolutionary leap and the leap of faith are one and the same: a courageous leap beyond the narrow bars of skepticism and into a new world of abiding trust and unshakable belief in the divine nature of humankind. It is a leap which each of us must take individually, deeply affirming our divine purpose, acknowledging responsibility for our role as conscious participants in the evolutionary process, and accepting and gladly exercising our ability to positively impact our world. Slowly but surely an atmosphere of openness, faith, trust, and belief will be created, an atmosphere which will affirm, nurture, and support the very best that we could become, the very best of all possible worlds.

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