I circled the fire with a tambourine in my hand, striking the instrument on my thigh in time with the chant, My body does whatever it takes to protect itself. I gazed into the glowing red and orange eyes of the twelve foot by four foot bed of coals and watched a coating of white ash begin to form. The fire pit looked back, studying me with its many eyes. Will you walk tonight? it silently asked. Would I cast aside caution and logic and make a tremendous leap of faith with a few small steps on a 1200 degree bed of coals?
The chant changed to I am the light, I am the love and then swelled around me with The fire and I are one, and I thought about how I came to be standing here on the edge of eternity, a 42-year old woman, questioning the very nature of reality.
It was only a few weeks ago as I entered the Chapel of Prayer with fifty or so people to listen to a Hindu Guru tell traditional Indian parables, that I met Charmaine McGhie and Tore Fossum. We were seated next to each other and connected so quickly that they invited me to a New Year’s Eve Party and Firewalk.
I was intrigued. I had seen firewalking on TV and read about it in National Geographics, but never had I witnessed it in person. Meanwhile, they gave me a book called Firewalk by Jonathon Seinfeld which I read with interest. It talked about firewalking as an empowerment tool and a subcultural movement in the U.S. since the 1970s. The U.S. has more firewalkers than the rest of the world put together. I couldn’t believe it! How could I have missed it? I had done every new age experience I had run into. How could such a phenomenon have slipped by me? My excitement grew as the days passed.
The book helped keep me occupied and gave me a lot to think about. It told stories of firewalking in every culture. It quoted scriptures about firewalking and discussed the unsatisfactory research that has been done. I was primed for the experience – to watch the experience, at least.
I arrived early at the suburban house in a nice Friendswood Texas neighborhood. Not really where you’d expect to see a firewalk. The preparations looked like any other New Year’s Eve party. Guests arrived with covered dishes, and someone played piano – 50s hits to sing along with. Not even any alcohol present.
At about 9:00 p.m. everyone gathered in the back yard. A cool front was moving through, and the air was cooling down. The grass was soaked with a hose as a safety precaution, and the evening began.
We each took turns carrying logs to build the fire. We were instructed to think of the logs like children, and focus loving attention on them. A firewalk instructor took the logs from us and built an impressive boy scout style teepee-shaped structure which would become a large bonfire using about a half cord of wood. We took turns stuffing newspaper in the cracks, and the fire was lit with great ceremony. A blaze reached skyward as a word of thanks and protection was intoned by a lady wearing a long full skirt. Surely that skirt was not a good thing to walk on fire in. When the fire was blazing violet and gold, we went to the patio to try out some other phenomenal activities. It would be two to three hours before the coals were ready.
Someone asked if we wanted to play the rebar game and a chorus of assent rang out. I had no idea what that meant. Rebars are 3/4 x 6′ steel reinforcement bars used to reinforce concrete. Two people stand face to face six feet apart and a rebar is suspended between them by placing the tip of the metal rod in the hollow of the throat. The two people are told to focus their energy and see the rod bending. When they feel focused, the walk toward each other. The rod could either pierce your throat, cut off your breathing, or it could bend. All of them bent. There were no tracheotomies. It is impossible to use force to bend the rod in this position as it causes tremendous pain. I know that through experience. But when focusing properly the rod just sort of melts, and you are suddenly catching your partner in your arms as you fall toward each other. Yes, I did it!
Next, we broke boards like so many karate experts. Only we weren’t. One inch thick by twenty-four inches wide pine boards set on bricks. When focused, the board almost breaks itself. That was a tremendous energy rush for me. I didn’t know I could do that.
Finally, the coals were ready. We returned to the back yard. The fire was so hot, it was difficult to stand close to it for more than a few minutes. The coals were raked out smooth, and the temperature was measured at 1200 degrees. How could we hope to walk on this? It was too preposterous. I was glad I’d only come to watch.
We circled the fire pit and chanted. No one wanted to be first. I wondered if anyone would find the courage. Suddenly Charmaine was at the top of the pit quietly chanting and focusing on the far end of the coals. Then it happened. She stepped onto the coals and kept walking, slowly, not rushing, the full twelve feet. As she stepped off, a cheer went up, and she went around and repeated it. She was followed by Tore and another, and another. A line of people followed, and no injuries. The lady in the long, full skirt walked eight times, and the fabric did not catch fire. Everyone had walked, except me and one other person. I had only come to watch anyway.
Some people walked slow, some people ran, some people danced. One person cartwheeled through the coals, and then he did the most amazing thing. He stepped onto the coals and stood there in one place, reached down and lifted up a handful of coals and threw them into the air. Then he quietly walked off the fire pit – unharmed.
This went on for a couple of hours. It was like a dream. My mind had no place to file this scene. Could I do it too? Did I have enough faith and concentration? I didn’t know. I did not feel afraid. But I also did not feel compelled to walk. Even so, I had removed my shoes and socks. Was that significant?
Then a voice was calling out last call It’s time to go in and dance. Charmaine stepped up to the pit again, and this time I stepped out beside her and took her hand. We looked briefly at each other. She squeezed my hand, and I began to walk. We moved together, not too fast, casually.
The coals crunched under my feet, and I was about to step off the pit, already at the other end. I did it! I had actually walked on 1200 degree coals, and my feet were intact – not even a blister. Now everyone was cheering for ME! I knew I was about to begin rethinking reality. There was no other choice.
Sandy Penny has been a writer, teacher and spiritual seeker for the last 35 years this lifetime. She currently writes a healing arts section called the Butterfly for the Horse Fly monthly in Taos, NM. Read her work on WritingMuse.com, WritingMuse.Blogspot.com, and TaosButterfly.Wordpress.com