Sometimes Talking the Talk is Not Enough

The flyer I’d received in the mail invited me to a four-hour seminar on firewalking. “Everyone participating will be taught how to walk barefoot on hot coals without burning their feet,” it proclaimed. To a long-time investigator of the paranormal like me, it was an irresistible challenge. So I made a deposit toward the $75 registration fee to reserve my place, and eagerly looked forward to the event.

I didn’t doubt the reality of firewalking. It has been a well-documented fact for centuries. It is almost always done in a religious context, as part of a ceremony. The phenomenon was recorded as far back as when Pliny the Elder in the first century A.D., told of the practice by an ancient Roman family which performed it at an annual sacrifice to Apollo. Anthropologists have observed it today in India, Greece, Spain, Japan, China, Bulgaria, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Thai­land, Fiji, and Brazil. Then, of course, there is the biblical story of the Hebrews and the fiery furnace.

I’d personally witnessed firewalking in l974 at a California festival of religious/spiritual/metaphysical organiza­tions; it was done by a Japanese priest, who demonstrated it as part of his sect’s worship. Moreover, several years later a friend of mine had spent three days meditating and chanting at a yoga center in Canada as preparation for his own successful firewalk with others at the center. About that time I became friends with Komar the Hindu Fakir, who holds the Guinness Book of World Records distinction for having walked on hotter coals than anyone else. Komar (the stage name for Ohio, cheese-maker Vernon Craig) casually strolls over coalbeds wearing Hindu-like clothing and a turban but with no more preparation than perhaps smoking a cigarette and sipping a Coke. Last of all, I knew that firewalking had been done by thousands of ordinary Americans in the last few years as a veritable craze for it swept the West Coast, thanks to a California teacher named Tolly Burkan, originator of the firewalking movement, and those whom he had trained. Burkan demonstrated it on the Phil Donahue Show in 1984; a student of Burkan’s, Tony Robbins, likewise demonstrated firewalking on the Merv Griffin Show. Another friend of mine, a Russian emigre´ and psychic researcher named Larissa Vilenskaya, was writing a book entitled Firewalking which tells of her experiences as a Burkan-trained teacher and as a scientific researcher into the paranormal.

Could it be done? I had no doubt whatsoever. But could it be done by me? That was the question.

Now, I’ve dealt with fears of many kinds, from physical to metaphysical. As a teenager I had a near-death experi­ence through drowning; I spent four years as a naval officer in anti-submarine warfare and nuclear weapons, with time on the Cuban Blockade and in Vietnam. That’s not to brag, but just to say that I’ve been in some unusual situa­tions where I had to deal with fear, and did. Nevertheless, as I contemplated treading on the coals, I sometimes felt apprehension. After all, their pyrometer-measured temperature would be nearly l,300° F., higher than the melting point of the cast aluminum used for the engine block in my car. Would I walk or chicken out? Several friends whom I’d told of the firewalk also signed up, and we casually discussed the question, each for himself. My answer: I’ll decide when I face the coalbed.

So at 7 p.m. on a bitterly cold evening in January 1985, two dozen people and I met at a private home in West Hartford, Connecticut, for the firewalking seminar. It was the first time for all of us. We’d come for various reasons: curiosity, to deal with fear, to explore our human potential, to say we’d done it, to extend professional counseling and training skills. We were a diverse group: housewives, businessmen, astrologers, holistic health practitioners, karate instructors, an author (me), a dentist, a postal worker, an elementary school teacher, and who knows what else. A re­porter and a photographer from The Hartford Courant were also present to record the event.

Our instructor was a 32-year-old, slightly-built, bearded Connecticut resident with the self-conferred name of Shoshame (pronounced as three syllables: Show-shah-mee). He told us he took the name five years earlier for spiritu­al reasons but didn’t explain why or what it means. Shoshame’s business card identified him as a firewalking instruc­tor, researcher, lecturer, masseur, holistic health practitioner, nutritional and herbal consultant, and a multi-level marketing trainer and distributor of flower pollen, freeze-dried algae, wheatgrass powder, ion generators, and meta­bolic enzymes. He received his certification from Burkan after completing a three-week training course. Since his first firewalk, he’d been on the coals l7 times.

By 8 o’clock we were ready to build the fire. Bundled up in our coats and gloves, we filed outside in silence to the frigid back yard following Shoshame’s instructions to take logs from a nearby woodpile and, one by one, create the pyre. A large area, lit by a spotlight on the house, had been shoveled nearly free of snow. We laid the hardwood logs in a five-foot circle, built it up several feet like a wall, and then filled in the center. When we finished in silence ten min­utes later, it was waist-high and solid with half a cord of oak and maple. Next we crumpled sheets of newspaper and stuck them into the pile. Then we formed a circle around it, holding hands, while Shoshame doused it with several gallons of kerosene. He offered a prayer to God and to the spirit of the fire-to-be and then lit the paper. We stood quietly as the flames quickly warmed us. When the fire was well lit, we went back inside single file still maintaining silence.

Now the seminar became more academic. Shoshame resorted to colored pens and a marking board to present some of the key concepts through simple diagrams. His first point used FEAR as an acronym: False Evidence Appear­ing Real. We are programmed from infancy, he said, to believe that reality works a certain way, and any experiences we have to the contrary are generally dismissed as crazy or hallucinations. We’re trained to accept limiting beliefs; we’re indoctrinated to remain within conventional boundaries of what’s possible and impossible. All our fears come down to ’what if…’ What if this or that happens—what if, what if? We go out of our way to place limitations on our­selves by imagining things and by accepting the cultural party line on what reality is all about.

“But what if you walk on those coals tonight?” he asked. “What if you step on l,300-degree coals and don’t get burned? What does that mean about reality? What does that mean about the way you let fear control your life?”

He passed out paper and had us all write down our worst fears and then share them with the group. There were all kinds of fears—fear of height, fear of failure, fear of speaking before an audience, fear of success, fear of rejection, fear of death. “It doesn’t matter what kind of fear you have,” Shoshame declared. “You can build your own reality; you can change your programming instantly”—he snapped his fingers—“just like that. This seminar isn’t about firewalking. It’s about overcoming fear. The firewalk is merely symbolic of fear in general. If you can break through that mem­brane of fear and take that first step onto the coal bed, you can learn to overcome fear and limiting beliefs in every part of your life.”

He paused, then continued. “But the firewalk is purely voluntary. You don’t have to walk, and if you choose not to, that’s okay. Trust your inner guidance, listen to your inner voice. If it tells you to walk, then walk. If it tells you not to walk, then don’t. You don’t have to impress anyone. For some people it can take more courage not to walk. But even if you don’t go over the coals, you’ll have a powerful learning experience. You’ll learn how to turn your fear into joy.”

By 11 p.m. the wood had burned to embers and we were ready to walk. Outside we went, pant legs rolled up, socks off, shoes loose and ready to be removed instantly. Shoshame had us hold hands and sing a song, over and over, while he raked out the coals to a bed about six feet wide by ten feet long. The heat was intense. When he pulled the rake out and rested it on the ground, it hissed and steamed through the thin cover of snow. With a shovel he patted the em­bers into a solid mass. It glowed brilliant red-orange in the moonless night, with flames rising from some partly-consumed logs resting along the edges, forming a small alley of fire. At the end of the coal bed where we would step off, Shoshame had the ground soaked with water from a nearby hose which he would use to douse the embers when the walk was over. We were to step into the wet soil in case any embers clung to our feet. Then we could wipe off our soles on a nearby blanket, return to our place in the circle, and put on our shoes.

Everything was ready. We had been warned inside to walk straight and steady through the coals—no gazelle-like bounds, no running, no mincing steps, no hot dogging. We’d signed a release form which waived “all rights to com­pensation in case of injury,” and there was no doubt in our minds there could be injury because Shoshame had said he’d heard of five cases where people were burned. One case was attributed to loss of concentration when a flashbulb went off in the person’s face. Therefore, he’d told us, no one could take pictures except the photographer, and then only of Shoshame.

We were ready. I felt clear and calm—no apprehension whatsoever. I’d decided I would go, no matter what. Would I be burned? No way to find out but to walk. Would the coals feel cool, as some firewalkers had experienced, or would they feel warm, even hot, as they had to others? Would they feel like beach sand on a summer day or like peanut shells? These were all part of the description Shoshame had given us.

And then he was walking across the coals. It took perhaps five strides and five seconds. Midway across, the strobe light flashed. He repeated the walk once more at the end of the evening to give the photographer another chance.

Shoshame had hardly gotten off the coalbed before the first participant had his shoes off and was striding magnifi­cently across the embers. The man next to him in the circle followed in rapid succession, and then half a dozen oth­ers went, all walking properly as instructed. I stepped out of my shoes and walked to the short line of waiting people. My mind was Zen-like, free from thought and mental chatter, focused clearly on the physical aspects of the event, ob­serving without comment, performing without fear. Because of my years in consciousness research, I can say I wasn’t in trance or anything like it. No one else reported being in trance, so far as I heard later. Inasmuch as there was an al­tered state of consciousness in me, it was simply pristine mental clarity, backed by a willingness—a positive mental attitude—to flow with the experience, no matter what.

Perhaps nine or ten people had crossed the coals and there was now one woman between me and the fire. She walked purposefully up to the coals, hesitated just a moment, and then turned away, almost without breaking stride, returning to her place in the line.

Now it was my turn. Without hesitation or expectation, I walked forward onto the coals. My first step felt quite neutral—neither hot nor cool—except for the crunching sensation and noise as the coals subsided under my weight. The second step was the same. On the third step I felt a slight sensation of heat. The fourth and fifth steps were al­most unnoticeable. And then I was off the coalbed, wetting my feet briefly before returning to my place in the circle. My feet felt unharmed as I stood there, watching others walk or not walk. If anything, they began to feel cold and numb from the frozen ground, but I decided to leave my shoes off anyway until I returned to the house.

Shoshame gave a one-minute warning: those who hadn’t walked still could, but only if they did so within the next sixty seconds. Five had chosen not to go on the coals; none changed his mind.

Once inside, we shared our thoughts and feelings briefly, after which Shoshame had us write on a notecard. Those who didn’t walk wrote, “I can always trust my inner guidance!” We others wrote, “I walk on fire. I can do anything I choose!” We were advised to carry it with us or place it somewhere at home as a constant reminder that we can create our own experience of reality through the infinite potential of our minds. No one was burned; one man had a blister.

The evening ended about midnight with health food beverages and cookies and a feeling of great exhilaration. As I drove home, however, I noticed a slight sensation at two points on my left sole. I hadn’t examined my feet closely af­ter the firewalk; they’d seemed okay so I’d just brushed them off and donned my footwear, feeling fine. When I got home, I reexamined them and discovered two slightly reddened spots, each about a quarter of an inch in diameter. Apparently I’d picked up some embers on that third step. But the discoloration was barely visible, and the next day had almost disappeared. There was no pain at any time—only a slight sensation that something wasn’t quite right at those points. A few days later a small blister appeared at one spot.

And that was it. To put it in perspective, consider firewalking from the medical-scientific perspective: there is no explanation for it. Shoshame quoted medical authorities who uniformly declare that subjecting human flesh to the conditions of the coalbed would leave the firewalker with CBS–charred bloody stumps. He consulted Bruce Fichan­dler, a physician’s assistant at Yale-New Haven Hospital’s burn center for 12 years, who warned that firewalk partici­pants would be seriously burned. The next day Fichandler told the Courant, “I don’t know how to explain how they are able to do that. At l,300 degrees, that ought to burn your feet and burn them good. It would require skin grafting and four to six weeks’ hospitalization, depending on how you recovered.” Yet an estimated 30,000 people have suc­cessfully completed the firewalking seminars.

Some physicists have proposed the Leidenfrost Effect as an explanation. That effect is seen when you sprinkle wa­ter on a hot griddle. The water droplets seem to dance around because their surface has vaporized, creating an insu­lating layer which protects the rest of the drop. The same thing, these physicists say, happens to your feet because of perspiration, so if you don’t leave your feet on the coalbed for long—only a second or so—you can get away with it. The only trouble with that explanation is that it doesn’t work for well-observed instances, reported by anthropolo­gists, in which firewalkers have remained standing still in the coals for up to 20 seconds. In at least one case observed in Greece, the firewalkers kneeled down in the white-hot coals for several minutes! And speaking personally, I have to say that I don’t buy the Leidenfrost Effect explanation either because the sides and arches of my feet were quite dry, so they should have been burned.

Consider firewalking also from a psychological perspective. Making it across the coalbed performs heavy-duty therapy for some participants. An Arizona woman described it as the equivalent of a four day est seminar in five min­utes. A senior editor of Parents magazine said it helped him to do all kinds of things he was afraid of. Shoshame re­lates firewalking to therapy by saying that even those who choose not to walk receive valuable tools and methods which they can use to overcome all the negative programming, fears, and limiting beliefs in their lives. It fosters per­sonal growth and a sense of responsibility for creating a better world, he says. Who can argue with that?

Do I feel I’m a better person for firewalking? No, not in a moral or spiritual sense—but, yes, in a cognitive sense. There’s no substitute for firsthand experience, especially when investigating mysterious phenomena. The power of the human body-mind was shown to me dramatically.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I recommend it to others? Absolutely. But not for purposes of showman­ship. And like Shoshame, I warn you not to try it by yourself.

Firewalking is not what I’d do for a living, but it is what anyone can do for better living if fear is limiting him. When fears and belief-based limitations incapacitate you or reduce your happiness, the thing to do is face them. Walk through those fears as if you were walking through fire. Overcome limitations based on belief systems.

By John White

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