Playing with Fire – Interview with Michael McDermott

Playing With Fire

Firewalker Leads Northwest Residents to Transformation

by Amanda Silvers

interview from “Widdershins”

Michael McDermott, a Seattle native and firewalking leader for the last five years, recently discussed with Widdershins his experiences and his philosophy on firewalking.

Amanda: Give us a brief idea of what you are about, Michael. Where do you come from, some background if you will?

Michael: I’m a Seattle native. I consider myself just an average guy from a middle-class family in an average community, doing something extremely unusual.

In college, I aspired to be a beatnik-poet musician, so I had difficulty with my grades from time to time because I was spending too much time playing music in the coffee houses and not enough time hitting the books. I went to school at Highline Community College and the University of Washington. My life took a drastic turn when I had some bad experiences with psychedelics and turned to fundamentalist religion to get my head back on straight. I ended up attending a religious college in California. After that I came back to Seattle, and did a number of jobs until I found a niche playing music in bars.

What I’m basically about these days is being in the moment and following my inner guidance. I enjoy life and I like helping others transcend their limitations. I figure that at my age I’m entitled to live the rest of my life doing whatever I please instead of trying to follow the dictates of society.

A: How long have you been firewalking?

M: About six years.

A: How long have you been instructing?

M: Over five years.

A: Why did you begin firewalking?

M: I like to say that it was all a big accident. The fact that I’m a firewalker shows me that the universe has a great sense of humor. Sometimes I start laughing and I can’t stop. I’ll laugh for an hour or two for no apparent reason. I was drawn like a moth to the flame. I figured that if I ever attended a firewalk, that I would have to walk on that fire, and I was right. Sometimes I like to say that it was my destiny.

A: How did you find out about firewalking and get started?

M: Jim Jarvis, a friend of mine, kept telling me about it. I thought it was all a bunch of bullshit. I couldn’t believe it. One night I gave Jim a ride to a firewalking. I was frozen in fear, watching a 12-year old girl walking the fire again and again. I figured if that young girl could do it, so could I. I had to try it. From the first night I ever walked on fire, I was hooked. Firewalking has been and continues to be one of the most powerful experiences in my life. I made a decision and a commitment to myself to be very involved with firewalking for a year.

A: What was your first experience like?

M: Scary. When the fire was burning down to the coals I became sick to my stomach. I had a lot of fear. Mentally, I pictured myself in a wheelchair with no feet. Then a vision came to me. I could mentally picture Native Americans walking on fire in that very place thousands of years before we did it. My mind started to expand. I started projecting out 5000 years into the future. When I looked at it that way, it seemed like I had nothing to lose. What difference would any of it make 5000 years out into the future? After I actually walked on the fire without burning, I experienced a definite euphoria. It was an ecstatic experience. Very exciting and very frightening.

A: Do you know how many fires you’ve walked?

M: I don’t have a clue. I know I’ve walked over 1000 times. After 1000 I quit counting.

A: Why do you continue to firewalk?

M: I host firewalks. I do that to give others the opportunity to walk on fire. I love firewalking myself, but my biggest kick comes from helping others do it. It’s not so much about me firewalking as it is helping others experience it. As I said before, I’ve walked on fire over 1000 times. I don’t “need” to walk on fire anymore. I just don’t need to do that. I host firewalk because it keeps me positive and I know it helps a lot of people. It gives me everything I want in life. It gives me happiness. It fills my life with meaning. I experience euphoria and the feeling of being fully alive. I know that I’m making a positive difference in the world not only for myself but for countless other people. I get to meet fantastic new people all the time. I get so much love from the people, it can almost be overwhelming. I experience a lot of joy and peace. Life is exciting for me. Firewalking is enormously exciting. I’m probably an adrenaline junkie as well as a firewalking addict.

A: What do think about when you are building the fire, raking it out, and walking across?

M: When I’m building the fire I like to do ritual. I bless the wood. I bless the fire with sage, tobacco, cedar and sweetgrass. I honor the trees and the spirits. I honor the four directions, the Sky Father and the Earth Mother. Raking the fire out is very intense. I try not to get blisters on my face and arms while I’m doing it, because it is very hot. I’m careful not to get too close to the fire because it can singe my hair. When I walk on fire I usually don’t think of anything. I tried thinking while firewalking in the past and it got me into trouble. Thinking involves ego and fear. Walking the fire safely to me is a state in which ego and fear should disappear. Intention becomes all-important. The firewalk is such an excellent metaphor for life. We learn to pay attention to our intention and to honor our inner guidance, that still small voice within. I love the firewalk. And I love, honor and respect the people that come to my firewalk. They are magnificent. They are awesome.

A: Is there any special philosophy that you have about life that makes this practice important to you, or that makes it possible for you to continue?

M: I have a basic idea that we are all masters in an unawakened state. Part of my teaching is an attempt to get people to wake up so that they can see reality in new ways and become aware that they are masters. I relate to the Taoist philosophy. So many times we minimize our experiences of life by trying to put them into words. I also like the philosophy expressed in Zen Buddhism. When I think about it, I see something of value in every path. When people ask me what my religious or spiritual path is, I just say that it’s all of them and really none of them at the same time. I use various tools and concepts to help myself get to where I want to go, but I don’t like getting dogmatic about anything. I love to muse over philosophical questions. But I’m really more interested in the questions than I am in any answers.

My philosophy of life is that life is too short to be miserable. I might as well be having fun. I spent a great deal of my life being far too serious. If you look at the universe in the perspective of millions of years, nothing really matters all that much anyway.

A: Is there any reason why you would ever stop?

M: The way I feel right now, I’m having so much fun I don’t want to stop. But everything changes, and the day will come when I will stop. Right now, I have been dealing with written complaints to the city from two of my neighbors. They are upset with the singing and the chanting and the number of cars in the neighborhood. We have had to go to a vow of silence in my yard, just so that I can keep operating.

At the same time, some of the top researchers in the world are putting me on some very sophisticated brain wave equipment to try to figure out what’s going on when I do some of the things I do. Reader’s Digest Magazine is sending a film crew out from New York next month to include my firewalks and related activities in a 3-hour video series on healing states of mind and altered states. Lots of things are happening. I have had a number of television stations express interest in filming my firewalks. I try to cooperate with their desires. It seems to be a part of my work to help spread the good news about the firewalking, and to put it out in a very positive light. No, I have no desire to stop today. But every once in a while negative thoughts try to get a hold on me and in the past I have had a tendency to quit worthwhile projects because of that.

Today I practice letting it all go, and just taking it one day at a time. I like to think that I am just a small part of some kind of a grand plan that is unfolding in the universe, and those kinds of thoughts inspire me and enable me to keep going. I don’t have a clue what tomorrow will bring. I’m living more in the present moment now than I ever have at any time in my life. I hope that if I am unable to continue some day, someone else will take over where I leave off.

A: Is there any reason why you would caution others not to try it?

M: I tell people not to firewalking if they are happy with the way their life is going. Walking on fire is a radical action. Many people have reported major changes in their lives as a result of walking on fire. I always caution people about the danger of walking on fire. A person needs to realize that firewalking is a real dangerous activity and she/he should be willing to assume the risk and take responsibility for whatever happens, positive or negative.

A: Can you make a living teaching firewalking?

M: I think people can make a living teaching firewalking, or just about anything for that matter. I know instructors who are doing quite well financially. However, I don’t make money my focus. I do my work by donation. I accept contributions to help offset the costs of running my work, and there are a lot of costs that most people don’t realize unless they have had the experience of being in business for themselves. I think that I’m doing a good work. I get a lot of encouragement from others for what I’m doing and it feels good. My focus is on the service I’m providing and the good that I’m doing for myself and others. Focusing on the money for me would be wrong. I like to keep my attention on how I can serve and help others, and how I can make a positive difference in the community and the world.

A: What about those who say it’s all hype, and only works because the fire is really not that hot?

M: I would say they are seriously ill informed. And if they don’t believe that fire is hot, they should come and measure it with an optical pyrometer. I know by first-hand experience that fire can burn the shit out of you. It’s easy to sit back and criticize, so I don’t argue with people who make critical statements. That’s their game, but it isn’t mine. I much prefer to take action and have experience and that’s why I know that people who make those kind of statements are ignorant. Our society seems to be full of skeptics and cynics. Because so many people are so jaded and fearful, I consider it a miracle when a new person shows up at a firewalk.

A: What about those people who say it’s a sign of demonic possession, or devil worshipping? I’ve been at walks that were picketed by fundamentalist Christians saying this.

M: That may be their reality, but it’s not mine. It seems that so many times we find what we are looking for. In my six years of firewalking, I have never met even one single devil worshipper at a firewalk. Superstition and prejudice by religious bigots and fundamentalists have limited some people from even attending a firewalk. I don’t think firewalking is for everyone. I don’t like to argue with people. A friend of mine used to say “the mind is like a parachute, it only works when it is open.” I don’t waste my time with closed-minded bigots and religious finger pointers – I have nothing to say.

A: Have you or any of you walkers ever been burned? Seriously burned?

M: Yes I have been burned, seriously burned. I was an invalid for a month once because of a bad burn in the fire. Yes, fire can and does burn. That scientific theory about lack of conductivity of the coals is a bunch of bunk.

A: I began walking on fire back in the 80′s and it changed my life! What is it about firewalking that changes people so much, what makes it such a transformative experience?

M: I think because firewalking is a metaphor for personal power. It enables people to turn fear into power. Firewalking scares the crap out of many people. But the fire is such a wonderful and exquisite teacher. There are immediate lessons that people learn as they go through the fire time after time. If the thinking is negative, the experience may turn negative. I try not to teach people what firewalking is, or what to expect in their experience, because each person is an individual. I encourage each person to find their own individual meaning within the context of their experience as a result of fire-walking. I’m constantly learning from the new people.

A: What do you think is the principle behind firewalking that makes people able to do it without being burned?

M: Our fires are fucking hot. I don’t have a clue how it works. I have some theories and some ideas, but a part of my mind is very skeptical. I’ve looked at scientific attempts to theorize how firewalking works. I admit readily that I don’t really know how it works. I’ve never really met anyone, whether scientist or firewalker, who could completely explain it to me in a way that made total sense.

A: What do you think is the most valuable part of the firewalking experience?

M: After the firewalk. How it translates into a person’s life once they have firewalked. Firewalking can help people to see that many of the truths we hold to be so near and dear, those truths that make us feel comfortable in our reality, are illusions. Firewalking tends to open people’s minds to new possibilities, new realities. It is enormously expansive. It can teach us a lot about how to change our state of mind at will. It teaches us about energy and how to transform it into something good in our lives. Firewalking is transforming fear into power. Opening the heart and becoming more loving. Opening to live life more fully and to accept ourselves more. Returning to the principle of love and the healing that the power of love can bring to us.

A: Why do you think it’s important for people at this time to have the experience of firewalking?

M: I don’t know how ready people are for it. I’ve given up trying to judge what is important for others or what they should do with their lives. I look upon it as an individual decision. I see firewalking as a definite calling. I say that if it is in your destiny, the fire will call you. When the fire calls a person, they’ll probably become a firewalker.

A: Anything else you’d like to add?

M: When I learned to firewalk it was a turning point in my life. I learned to firewalk shortly after the breakup of a 16-year marriage. It was definitely a big part of my healing process. I have met many wonderful people and had so many powerful and awesome experiences as a result of my firewalking.

A: Tell us about your weekly walks? How do people find you?

M: I host a firewalk in Kirkland every Saturday night. It lasts a little over three hours. The main attraction of my events is always the fire. My firewalks seem to work because a lot of people who come to my events talk to others, and they can see the value of the experience. People have positive experiences when they come. That attracts others.

Taken from the 1996 Archives.

Widdershins, Lammas 1996
Volume 2, Issue 3

Speak Your Mind