The Firewalk

by Carol Hess on September 27, 2011

“I don’t believe it,” my mother exclaimed.

“Well, believe it,” I answered rather cheekily.

“You couldn’t have.”

“Well, I did.”

“I never heard of such a thing.”

“Mom, there’s lots of things you’ve never heard of.”

My mother’s lips tightened, and her eyes flashed that cold blue fire that made me quake in my boots.  Well, I was wearing sandals at the time, but you get my drift.

“You mean to tell me you walked barefoot over hot coals,” my mother questioned in her haughtiest, most disbelieving voice.

“Yes, that is exactly what I did.”

“Well, you must have burned your feet.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Carol, I think you have finally lost your mind once and for all.”

“Yes, that’s the whole idea, Mom.”

My mother disregarded my rather obvious ploy to engage her in a metaphysical discussion.

“You were hypnotized.”

“Mom, I was not hypnotized.  That’s not how it works.”

“I suppose this is all that crazy Louise’s doing,” my mother declared.

Yes, it was that crazy Louise’s doing, but I wasn’t going to let my mother steer our discussion toward the pros and cons of my friendship with Louise.  We had been over that ground a thousand times.  Besides, I was 36 years old.  I didn’t need my mother’s approval of my friends. 

But I didn’t blame Mom for her reaction.  When Louise had first suggested I join her on a fire walk, I had reacted in a very similar fashion.

“You want me to do what?  You must be nuts.”

“No, really,” Louise had explained in her most convincing tone of voice.  “I think you’re ready for this.  It’s a once in a lifetime experience.”

“Tell that to my feet.”

“You won’t get burned, honest.  I didn’t.”

“Yeah.  Well, I’m not you,” I had answered grumpily.

Sometimes I wished I were Louise, or at least had her unquestioning belief in all that mumbo jumbo philosophy she preached.  As far as I could tell, it was a very convenient philosophy.  Louise didn’t do anything Louise didn’t want to do. 

She called it honoring her divine resistance.  She explained her perpetual lack of funds by saying she was working off bad money karma from a previous lifetime.  Yeah.  Well, I was getting tired of lending her money in this lifetime.

Outwardly I scoffed, but inwardly I admired Louise.  She was exactly who she was, not who other people wanted her to be.  She wasn’t intimidated by her mother or anyone else for that matter.  She was never scared of anything. 

“Honestly, Carol.  You will face all your fears at the fire walk.  You will come to understand that fear is an illusion.  Once you’ve walked the fire, you won’t ever walk in fear again.”

That was a pretty convincing argument.  Who doesn’t want to be fearless? 

So three days later I was in a car heading for New Hampshire with Louise and two other fire walker wannabes.  And that’s when the butterflies started.  The I’m so scared I could puke butterflies.

My companions didn’t notice my silence.  They were busy questioning Louise, the veteran fire walker.  I was busy questioning my sanity.  While they were wondering how many times they would walk the fire, I was wondering if I would ever walk again. 

Louise had told me I would know when it was safe to walk the fire.  I just needed to listen to my inner guidance.  Well, I hadn’t heard one peep from my inner guidance.  But my outer guidance, mainly in the form of all those puke-inducing butterflies, was screaming to run like crazy while I still had feet that could run.

I finally told myself that I would not walk the fire.  I would be the dispassionate observer come to witness an interesting folk phenomenon.  I would certainly not walk the fire.  I would watch the fire.  I would watch the fire walkers.  And then I would drive them all to the hospital.

It didn’t quite work that way. 

After several hours of sitting outside on an uncomfortable log, staring at all the other crazies in the circle around the fire pit, listening to a lot of mumbo jumbo, and participating in even more mumbo jumbo, I came to a rather horrifying conclusion.  I was going to walk the fire.  Butterflies be damned.  I was going to walk the fire. 

I was?  No!  Yes!  No!  Definitely not.  Butterflies stop making me feel like I’m going to throw up.  I’m not going to walk that fire.  Read my lips.

Just then the shaman in charge of the fire walk jumped up and began to dance around the ten-foot flames of the bonfire, pouring more gasoline on them to make them shoot even higher.  She pointed to the right, and the flames danced to the right.  She pointed to the left, and the flames danced to the left.  She lowered her hands, and the flames lowered.  She raised her hands, and the flames grew bigger.  It was quite the performance.

Finally the fire had burned down to coals and was ready to walk.  Every time the coals started to turn gray, the shaman raked them until they glowed fiercely red once again.  Each time the shaman raked, I gasped.  As if it made any difference whether the coals were gray or red.  They were hot.  Very, very hot.  Feet-burning hot. 

Suddenly the shaman threw down her rake and walked across the coals.  Just like that.  One, two, three, four steps, and she was on the other side of the fire pit.  She smiled, did a little jig, and with a motion of her hand indicated it was our turn.

That’s when it got weird – well, weirder.  All of a sudden I was on my feet and walking to the head of the fire pit.  The butterflies were gone.  As if from a great distance, I heard Louise exclaim, “Oh my God, it’s Carol.  She’s going to walk the fire first.  I don’t believe it!”

I didn’t believe it either.  I took a deep breath, stepped high over some invisible barrier, and placed my right foot on the coals.  Then my left.  I looked across the pit at the shaman.  She smiled and nodded encouragingly.  I took a third step and then a fourth.  I was on the other side of the pit. 

I walked the fire three times that night.  But I didn’t learn what Louise said I would learn.  I didn’t learn that fear is an illusion.  I learned that fear is very real.  So real it created an invisible barrier over which I had to step each time I walked the fire.

And I certainly didn’t learn how to walk without fear for the rest of my life.  I walk with fear every day, sometimes accompanied by the butterflies and sometimes not.  What I did learn was how to step over my fear and keep walking.  It’s the only way to get to the other side.

This post was inspired by Jonathan Fields, whose new book, Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt Into Fuel for Brilliance, is coming out this week.  I think it’s going to be an amazing book you don’t want to miss.