Firewalking as Spiritual Transformation

In addition to our regular academic explorations, commentaries, and news articles, Religion Nerd also offers a forum for the Religious Insider.”  Insider accounts offer RN readers an intimate opportunity to “hear” the voice of those within a particular tradition or practice. 

In this account, Dan Beckett reflects on his introduction to and continued practice of Firewalking– presenting us with a snapshot of his personal spiritual/religious journey utilizing an Americanized version of this unique and ancient practice. 

By Dan Beckett

When people first hear about firewalking they often think of strange, ancient rituals performed by people with weird costumes and painted faces who talk funny and lived a long time ago.  

While it’s true that firewalking has been practiced for centuries, even millennia, in many cultures around the world, what people often don’t realize is that firewalking is alive and well today in the United States, with more people practicing it each year than at possibly any other time in history!  Many have found it, as I have, to be a profoundly moving spiritual experience. I am a firewalker who first encountered the practice in a spiritual growth workshop hosted by Edwene Gaines in Valley Head, Alabama.  To date I’ve attended five firewalks, and want to share my experience and understanding of the practice to those who may be interested in learning more about it. 

What Exactly Is Firewalking?

Firewalking, simply put, is the practice of walking barefoot across a bed of hot coals. The bed is commonly between eight and 20 feet in length, depending on who is conducting the walk. The process starts with what could be described as a small bonfire of hardwood. The wood burns down for about three hours before the coals are raked into a bed and tamped down to make a solid walking surface. Participants walk across the bed, stepping finally into a pan of water or the spray of a hose to put out any embers that may be along for the ride beyond the end of the walk. Not all walks include water at the end, but the ones I have participated in, did.  There is significant ritual associated with preparing the site, building the fire, preparing the participants and doing the actual walking, but I want to focus here on the experience, not the ritual or the mechanics.  The rest you can see/experience for yourself if you ever choose to observe or participate in a firewalk. 

Firewalking has roots in many ancient cultures and most probably dates back to before recorded history. There is evidence of firewalking, during various historical eras, in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burma, China, Egypt, Fiji, Greece, Haiti, Hawaii, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Spain, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, Trinidad, and South Africa.  

The modern firewalking movement in the United States began to take hold in 1979 when a man named Tolly Burkan added the practice to the public seminars on human potential he had been presenting for several years. After firewalking himself, and finding no definitive published research on how it was possible or how it worked, Mr. Burkan began a lifelong journey to experience, teach and promote the practice in the US.  Presently, over three million people have walked on fire unharmed, and the practice is now found in some unlikely places: from spiritual growth seminars to corporate power retreats. 

What’s the Point?

The experience of firewalking is as individual as the person doing the walking. But, there are some common threads that run through people’s experience, and they are often rooted in a decidedly spiritual experience.  If you imagine people walking on hot coals repeating the phrase, “Oh, God, please help me!” you may not be far off the mark, as the experience can be intimidating for beginners. 

It takes courage to take that first step because you are doing something that most people will tell you is impossible — that is if they didn’t politely excuse themselves and run after you first broached the topic.  Although the experience varies greatly from person to person, I have found that a firm belief, that one can indeed walk on the hot coals and not be burned, is the core requirement for doing so.  In fact, firewalking instructors will tell you that if you don’t believe that you can do it, DON’T DO IT. You may well get what you believe you will get which could be burned feet, if that’s your focus. 

Stepping Through Fear

Taking that first step onto red hot coals is an exercise in facing fear if there ever was one, and this is, in fact, one of the primary goals of the practice.  Imagine what your world would be like if you approached challenges not as others told you they would be, but as you yourself decided and then discovered they would be.  

Now, properly run firewalking workshops are not casual affairs.  The instructors have been through rigorous training in, among other things, building a proper fire, carefully preparing the surface prior to anyone walking, and thoroughly educating the walkers for the event.  You definitely don’t want to simply toss down some coals and have at it. There are right ways and wrong ways to build what many instructors refer to as a “sacred fire.” 

Doing the Impossible

For many who have walked, there is immense satisfaction in having done something that the world tells you is impossible.  In fact, many firewalking instructors have the walkers write out on a card, “I walk on fire.  I can do anything I choose,” along with the date and your signature.  This acts as a powerful reminder of what has been accomplished, which is especially important in a world where some seem to want to discount their accomplishments.  Almost as if to say, “Well, if I did it, it can’t be that big a deal.”  It IS a big deal, and it’s important not to diminish the fact that you have done what others consider impossible.  Imagine what your life could be like if you regularly accomplished the impossible.  Redefining your sense of “impossible” is an incredibly powerful tool in the lifetime bag of tricks for any person. 

Belief is the Key

It has been my experience, and it is taught at many seminars, that belief is the key to a safe and successful firewalk. One of the main points of the exercise is to find, communicate with, and trust whatever higher power makes sense to you.  When you ask God if you can walk on the hot coals and not be burned, and you receive an affirmative answer, in whatever form that takes for you (and it varies wildly from person to person), you have tapped in to an immense power that can guide you in any and every way.  And it really doesn’t matter if you ask God, Allah, Yoda, your dead ancestors, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  What absolutely does matter is that you believe.  This concept is, of course, not specific to firewalking.  But, walking on hot coals will tend to focus your attention, I can guarantee that. And the focus on this “higher communication, ” if you will, is what many believe the practice is all about. 

My Personal Experience:  Lessons of Walks One to Five

I myself have walked on fire five times in the last 18 months, and each time has been a radically different experience. After walking once, I would have told you, “I get it, I got it, I did it, done,” but that would have been far from the truth, as I discovered in subsequent walks.

The first time I walked, it was such a wild idea that I had trouble concentrating on anything or sitting still.  Upon later reflection, I felt like I experienced the whole thing, as if my perception was limited to looking through a paper towel tube or some such.  I went through the pre-walk workshop, chanted the chant along with everyone, walked in a circle with the group around the coals as they were being raked into a bed, and pretty much inwardly freaked out the whole time.  I didn’t know how to get guidance from my higher power, as I had been instructed to do.  I had been told, however, that I would know what it felt like once I approached the fire.  Well, it didn’t seem to be working, and I was getting annoyed.  I realized I had been staring at the heels of the person walking in front of me for several minutes, chanting the chant, and wondering when the telegram was going to arrive informing me that my request had been granted: that I could indeed walk and not be burned.  A burning bush would have been nice, but all I saw was a burning bed of red-hot coals.  Finally, almost in disgust I took a deep breath, and for a change of scene, looked up at the surrounding trees.  At that moment, a strong breeze blew through a tall birch and I felt an overriding sense of joy in the simple beauty of it.  I realized that this was my sign, I stepped up, took the first step and walked across the coals. At least I think my feet were touching the ground!  The coals felt pretty hot, but I was not burned. I had done it!

The second time I was fairly cavalier about the whole thing.  I remember feeling that, because I had done this successfully before, I had it down.  I was ready to teach the class, in fact.  I was apparently that much of an expert after one experience!  I didn’t earnestly communicate with my higher power this time, though I may have made some token effort, I don’t recall.  When I walked out onto the coals, I distinctly felt a burn on the arch of my left foot.  As I stepped off and continued circling the coals with the group, I remember thinking, “Oh crap, I’ve done it now.  I burned my foot. What the hell? I thought I had this! What’s going on here?!?”  As I walked, and felt my foot hurt with each step, I had an insight: I would decide that I had not burned my foot.  At each step, as my foot told me I had burned it, I told it right back that it was fine; that it was not burned.  The feeling of being burned subsided pretty quickly over time, and the next morning there was no sign of any damage to my foot.  

I realized that my lesson for this walk was two-fold: first, don’t skip the asking-for-guidance part, and, second, that I could create my own reality no matter what my initial perceptions were.  It reminds me of that t-shirt from the Discovery Channel show, Mythbusters: “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” That’s what I did, and it worked.

The third time I attended a walk, I did not “forget” to consult my higher power, but found I was not guided to walk.  I was disappointed.  I asked myself what the meaning of it could be, though I respected what I had received and I did not walk.  I was annoyed because didn’t want to be “one of those people” who didn’t walk. (Maybe there was some pride involved? Hmm.) But, there was a powerful lesson in this as well, one that I did not grasp immediately. What became clear later that night was that it was an exercise in listening to and respecting what I received from my higher power.  The lesson for me that night had nothing to do with walking on hot coals.  It was about asking, listening and respecting my guidance.  I thought then that the universe does indeed work in mysterious ways.

My fourth walk was typical and successful, if there is such a thing. Having gone off the rails in a couple different ways on previous walks, I did it right this time.  Not much to report, just your typical walk across red hot coals without burning my feet. I had finally learned to ask, receive and then proceed to do the impossible. I could get used to this, I thought!

My fifth and most recent walk was epic.  There was a major thunderstorm headed our way, and we hoped that it would hold off long enough for us to complete the walk.  I decided not to participate if the rain were more than a drizzle—not because I minded getting wet—but because I didn’t have a change of clothing and the thought of  having dinner with my new friends, dripping wet made me pause.  When it came time to go out, it looked like the sky was about to let loose in a big way.  The wind was blowing furiously, lightning lit up the sky, and we could hear loud cracks of thunder in the near distance.  The weather event made the familiar environment seem otherworldly.

As we began our walk to the fire, I was surprised to find that it was not yet raining, the storm held off until all who desired to participate, finished their walk.  The rain softly began to fall just as our walk was complete, the lightning and thunder began to close in as we walked back to the meeting room.  Once inside, the heavens let loose with an honest to God—Alabama throw down like I hadn’t experienced in a long time.  The rain came down in buckets. I don’t know what the lesson was for me that night. Maybe that things would work out OK if I just stepped out in faith.  Maybe that disaster can be averted with right thinking.  Maybe that walking on hot coals is never better than minutes before an epic deluge.  I don’t know. I do know that I will never forget it.

And, anyway, who cares! After all, I walk on fire. I can do anything I choose. 

Further Reading

http://www.firewalking.com/

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Dan Beckett is a successful business owner, a firewalker, and teaches practical, spirit-centered abundance principles to everyday people from all walks of life.  He holds a Bachelor of General Studies from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and currently lives with his wife and three children outside Asheville, NC.

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