Firewalking

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Firewalking

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

A story is told of the miracle-working Saint Francis of Paola’s (1415–1507) encounter with a papal representative sent to investigate him. The Monsignor critiqued his extreme lifestyle. In response, Francis walked over a bed of red-hot coals and then scooped up a few and presented them to his accuser, who retreated in his perplexity. The story illustrates the manner in which people of a wide variety of cultures discovered how to walk on fire apparently without being harmed, an event that would normally lead to extreme burns, if not death. Through the twentieth century, ethnologists have reported firewalking activity from such diverse places as Hawaii and Africa.

Saint Francis notwithstanding, firewalking was an extremely rare phenomenon in the West, and it became an object of fascination when found as a practice among the fakirs of India. It ranked with the Indian rope trick as the most intriguing feat of the fakirs, perhaps all the more interesting as the rope trick was rarely witnessed. Many Westerners got their first chance to actually see firewalking when magician Kuda Bux (1906–1981) performed the trick in 1935 before an admiring audience from the University of London Council for Psychical Research and a host of news reporters. The council actually issued the first report pointing out that the ability to walk on fire was not due to any supernatural or paranormal ability, but a matter of simple physics: namely, the low thermal conductivity of burning wood and brevity of the contact between the burning coals and the walker’s foot. In 1998 physics teacher David Willey organized a record-setting fire walk. He and fourteen others at the University of Pittsburgh walked a 165-foot coal bed, just for the fun of it.

Prior to the twentieth century, firewalking was most frequently integrated into a supernatural religious worldview, often a demonstration of some attribute of a deity. However, in the late twentieth century, it has been adapted by the Esoteric or New Age community as one of a spectrum of transformational tools. This new wave of firewalking appears to be traced to a 1977 article in Scientific American that explained firewalking in enough detail that many found it possible to duplicate the feat.

Among the people influenced by the article was Tolly Burkan, a teacher and author in the human potentials movement. In 1979 he began to teach his idea that firewalking could be used as a tool for personal growth, and by 1982 he was widely advertising his notion. The following year, he taught the technique to human potentials celebrity Tony Robbins, who put his organization behind the effort to spread firewalking internationally. Robbins agreed with Burkan that the practice was an excellent tool for expanding awareness, overcoming fears, and abandoning beliefs about one’s personal limitations. Burkan took the practice to Europe and began to train other teacher/facilitators. Teachers were trained through the Firewalking Institute of Research and Education, which he founded, and then additionally through the Sundoor Foundation, founded by his former wife, Peg Burkan. The first book on firewalking appeared in 1989, Michael Sky’s Dancing with the Fire.

While not as widespread as other New Age techniques such as, for example, the Tarot or crystals, firewalking has spread exponentially through the 1990s to the present and is no longer a magical secret held by a few professional firewalkers.

Sources:

Burkan, Tolly. Extreme Spirituality: Radical Journeys for the Inward Bound. Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing, 2001.
Danforth, Loring M. Firewalking and Religious Healing. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Nisbet, Matt. “The Physics Instructor Who Walks on Fire,” October 25, 2000. Posted at http://www.csi cop.org/genx/firewalk/. Accessed April 1, 2007.
Sky, Michael. Dancing with the Fire: Transforming Limitation through Firewalking. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Co., 1989.