A Lesson in Firewalking

This past weekend I got invited to a barbecue with a little twist: It wasn’t chicken wings we were roasting on the coals -- it was our own precious tootsies. It’s called firewalking, explained my landlord, who hosted the event on his lawn. “Anybody can do it.”

The practice of walking over hot coals appears to have origins all over the place – Chinese Taoism, African Hinduism, Eastern Orthodoxy in Greece – but nowadays, it has become popular in less sacred circles. Throw it in the Google, and the term ‘firewalking’ yields a dozen or so companies that specialize is hosting such occasions for church groups, private parties, and corporate retreats. Drawing from the well of self-help clichés, these business promise everything from “personal achievement,” to “increased productivity” and “company pride”; they promise to empower, to heal, to make whole the fragmented (you can get a two-hundred-person firewalk for only $15,000 – they’re practically giving it away!). In exchange for some buckage, these companies will teach you and your under-empowerd staff the ancient secret of walking across a bed of hot coals on bare feet

Meanwhile, of course, there have been plenty of people who have tried to expose that secret, break down the mechanics of the whole affair. The Straight Dope lists a few reasons we shouldn’t rush to worship the Gods of corporate seminars. In a nutshell: you move too fast for the coals to really burn you; they’re really not that hot anyway; a thin layer of moisture on the bottom of your feet protects you. Comedians and professional debunkers Penn & Teller set about proving the non-amazingness of firewalking on their show Bullshit, asserting that it was “no more dangerous than walking across hot sand on a beach.”

So one night, the guests at the firewalking party munched on the potluck and eyed the roaring fire in the middle of the lawn nervously. An eleven-year-old girl who lives nearby skipped around me and explained that when she was five she had walked over the coals three, four, maybe five times. “It’s nothing,” she said. “I didn’t even feel anything.”

So when the coals had been raked down and a slight layer of ash lay across the top of them – and after about ten people had gone before me -- I took off my shoes and strode across. Just like that: four steps, and it was all over. What did I think about? Nothing – my thoughts were as pure and unblemished as the lotus. Where did I look as I walked across? Nowhere – because I could see everything already.

Or so it felt for three or four seconds before I realized that I had burned the crap out of my feet. I had to stick them in a bucket of ice for the next two hours while the blisters formed; I was still limping the next day. The little girl, as promised, ran across fully three times without flinching.

--Isaiah Thompson

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