The coals are crunchy. They have been burning for hours, are fresh and hot—somewhere in the neighborhood of 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. The people lining up to walk across them are barefoot, jeans rolled up so a fraying hem string doesn’t catch and light legs up. They have been told to walk. Running leads to tripping, they are told, and no one wants a burned face. I’m not sure why faces will burn but bare feet won’t, but this is what we are told. To take off shoes, roll up our pants, look up. To say “Cool Moss” as a mantra. And then to walk calmly, powerfully, straight into the fire.
The concrete floor is actually shaking. At the Meadowlands Exposition Center in New Jersey just outside New York City, people are jumping up and down, dancing. It’s 3 p.m. or 10 p.m. or 1 a.m. or all of the above—time is distorted when self-help guru Tony Robbins is exhorting us to celebrate. He waves his hands, his grin bright as any stage light. It’s irresistible, and as it turns out, resisting is so little fun anyway.
I am here with my family: my younger brother, his wife, my mother, and a pair of my brother’s friends I have long known and liked. Of the six of us, only my brother has firewalked before. He and my father had gone together when my brother was 12. I’d been invited, but declined because it conflicted with a school dance. And I’m pretty sure I thought it sounded weird.
It’s a funny thing. My brother has been very successful. He’s risen through the corporate ranks and is funny and thoughtful and easy to be around. For years, he’s credited the firewalk with much of who he is, and I’ve wondered how much it really had to do with that success. When he called and asked if I wanted to go to “Unleash the Power Within,” the firewalking seminar, I said yes without hesitation; it was a visceral response. For years, I had regretted not going the first time. My father had long since died, but my brother was offering another chance to answer a question that had lurked in the corners of my mind: What does it mean if, when you are 12, you learn that you can walk across fire? What could it have meant for me? Who could I be if I learned I could walk across fire?
“If the Saint calls you, if you have an open road, then you don’t feel the fire as if it were your enemy,” says a Greek villager in anthropologist Loring Danforth’s book, Firewalking and Religious Healing. In northern Greece, he writes, people firewalk as part of a celebration of St. Constantine and St. Helen. Their unburned feet are signs. The villager says, “When I go into the fire, someone else is leading me—the Saint.”
In the U.S., firewalking has been used by self-help gurus to promote self-confidence and the ability to change. It’s about self-transformation—an idea nearly sacrosanct in the land of the American dream—and belief in the power of the individual.
Most people are bedeviled by the firewalk, how it works or whether it is an elaborate hoax. David Willey, a physics instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, and some of his friends set the world record for the world’s hottest firewalk in 1997 in Edmond, Washington. He recorded the trench was 3.5 meters long and temperatures ranged from 1602 to 1813 degrees F. Only one man walked it at its hottest. Willey’s theory, according to his web site, is that “the foot absorbs relatively little heat from the embers that are cooled, because they are poor conductors, that do not have much internal energy to transmit as heat, and further that the layer of cooled charcoal between the foot and the rest of the hot embers insulates them from the coal’s [sic].”
Mythbusters—a popular and good-humored TV show dedicated to using science to prove or bust myths and urban legends—took on firewalking. The Mythbusters concluded that the “secret” was just knowing how to walk: Use a regular, steady pace so that you don’t dig your heels in too deeply.
Other theories posit that the coals just aren’t that hot. But according to a National Geographic interview with firewalking expert Tolly Burkan, people have heated metal grills and walked across them unharmed.
The truth as best I can tell is no one knows why it works. There are records of people getting burned—Robbins says he burned himself once and other people have been burned, too. But mostly, it seems that people from all different parts of the world and all different faiths and all parts of history walk safely through the fire.
When the seminar opens, a bunch of healthy, positive-looking folks in suits get up on stage, dancing to loud, pulsing music, clapping their hands in rhythm, some awkwardly. The lights glare and flash like the start of a rock concert. Production values are astounding—the sound board is enormous, manned by technicians who could as easily be working for a rock star. As the lights flare and the music thumps, I turn to my brother. “Just like a sales conference,” he says.
Seriously? I’d never been to a sales conference. Then again, I wasn’t a muckety-muck marketing executive.
“Yeah. This is exactly how they all start out. Getting everyone all pumped up. They’re just not usually this big, with this many people.” There are about 5,000 people at this seminar. My brother and his wife—also a marketing executive—start making jokes about conferences.
Not long after, Robbins himself comes out. He is a tall man, powerful and straight at 6-foot-7, but not particularly attractive. His features are a little out of proportion, as though different parts of his body grew asynchronously. His hands are enormous. Years ago, when my dad and brother firewalked, Robbins shook the hand of every person who did it. There were 100 or so then instead of today’s roughly 5,000—and my brother came home talking not about the fire so much as about Robbins’ enormous hands.
I had seen Tony Robbins in the movie Shallow Hal and thought he was flat and uninteresting. Watching him on stage, I realize that film is the wrong medium for him. Film can’t capture his raw energy the way he captures and holds a crowd. There are people who come to life on stage in a way that’s impossible to capture in any kind of recording. A Superchunk album is nothing to a Superchunk show. The same is true for the Old 97s, Bruce Springsteen and countless bands. The give and take between audience and performer is impossible to recreate in 2D. The handful of videos of Robbins live in a seminar are better, the way live albums are better. But still…
Robbins grins as soon as he gets to the front of the stage and in that moment, even before he begins speaking, he is magnetic. Electric. He swings his arms into a raised clap, and smiles, joyous as Christmas. In that instant, he owns the room. Owns it. It happens that fast, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. His smile is engaging, warm. His body is relaxed. His delight is palpable. And the energy in the room spirals upward.
Still, it happens so fast that I am skeptical. I find it worrisome when someone can walk on stage and in a matter of seconds own a room. It’s worrisome when rock stars do it—much less someone who is going to tell you how to live your life.
Onstage, Robbins talks. And talks. And talks. For something like 12 hours. In some ways, what he says is little more than a series of clichés: Don’t see things as better or worse than they are; see them as they are. Or: The story you tell yourself about yourself influences you; pick the story that empowers you. There are new twists on familiar topics, too: Energy is a habit; the more you move, the more you feel. Reasonable stuff.
There are parts that are just flat-out awful: gender stereotypes and strange, long and embarrassing interventions with people who say they have depression. Robbins doesn’t believe much in depression, or more specifically, in anti-depressants. Which strikes me as nuts. At one point, men yell like Mel Gibson in Braveheart and women cry; one says she feels protected. My inner feminist shakes her head exhaustedly. My outer one, too.
Still, there are useful parts of the seminar. The thing that strikes me most and that stays with me is this: Early on in the seminar, Robbins asked us to write down what we prioritized in our lives and what we wanted our priorities to be. The choices were certainty, uncertainty, significance, love/connection, growth and contribution. My priority was certainty. When it came time to write down what we wanted our priorities to be, twice I wrote “uncertainty.” Twice I crossed it out.
The quality of your life is directly proportional to the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably live with, Robbins said at the end of the exercise. Three months later, this is the line that’s stayed with me the most.
For the four years before going to the seminar, my life had been a compendium of uncertainties, and I hadn’t done well with it. My husband had gone to medical school as a 40-year-old, just a year after we’d gotten married and mere months after our first (intensely colicky) child was born. I’d switched from being an adjunct English professor at a big state university to a freelance corporate writer in order to support us. We’d changed cities. The whole thing was rough.
By the time I got to the Robbins seminar, my husband was a third-year med student, and we had two little kids who both slept through the night. I was done being pregnant and nursing, and my business was stable. Three weeks before the seminar, I had made the final payment on the credit card debt we’d gotten into during my husband’s first year of school. In other words, I was more OK than I’d been in a long time. I was beginning to have the intellectual and emotional space to think about sane ways to live with uncertainty. Or, at the very least, to admit that resisting uncertainty didn’t do any good.
Robbins grows stronger and more energetic as the day progresses, charging the crowd and the crowd charging him in an endless upward loop. He keeps us on our feet most of the day. “Celebrate!” he yells, when it seems the crowd is dimming a little, and the music picks up. It is execrable music—pop tunes and Enya and power ballads and the Celine Dion Titanic song. But then Robbins claps, an enormously resonant motion, and jumps up and down, his face lit with delight. People around us jump up and down with him and dance. I have never seen anything like this. And I want it: this whole body letting go. I jump up and down, throw my arms into the air, dance until I am sure my body will hurt. But it doesn’t hurt.
As the night wears on, as we get closer and closer to the firewalk, he turns up the magnetism and charm. Robbins begins to talk about the actual act of walking the fire. “A guru taught me this mantra,” he says. He draws a deep breath, uses his forefingers and thumbs to make two small circles in classic Indian style, and then chants: “M-I-C.” Breath. “K-E-Y.” Breath. “M-O-U-S-E.” His timing is perfect. Everyone laughs.
By 10 p.m. we are actively getting ready for the firewalk. The rules are pretty straightforward: Make our moves (the gesture we’d trained our bodies to use to put us “in state” or in a good mental state); look up, rather than down at the coals; say “cool moss” (to crowd out negative thoughts); and walk straight, calmly, steadily.
We go through a couple relaxation exercises that are meant to give us the equivalent of a couple of hours of sleep. Relax, relax. Then the energy is turned up again—more jumping, more music, more celebration. Robbins’ voice is scratchy and warm and the place is alive with joy. It is exhilarating, and I feel great. Not crazy and pumped, but focused. Awake. Alive. I feel as good as I’ve ever felt. Clear.
We stay close together, the six of us, filing out of the expo center and down to the parking garage, where the trenches have been set up. Firemen and paramedics are everywhere. As we enter the garage I catch the eye of a fireman. He is maybe 25 and has really bad teeth. His hair is slicked back and he looks New York tough. He holds my gaze for a moment, then dips his head and shakes it in disgust, like “What’s the matter with you people?” It must be strange for him to see people paying money to walk into fire. All I can think is how much he is missing by being cynical.
The music in the parking garage is loud, a kind of African drum beat playing in an endless loop, or perhaps live drummers. Oprah is in a new partnership with Robbins, and her crew is filming the seminar. You can watch her firewalk on YouTube these days and see her surprise that she could do it.
Staffers dance while physically guiding us into place. Our descent to the fire is loud and crowded but orderly, well-rehearsed and meticulously planned. The absolute orderliness of it, even through the loud music and dancing, somehow underscores the seriousness of what we are about to do, the possibility that people could fall and get burned. That I could fall and get burned. I hold onto my brother’s waistband as I had done the New Year’s Eve we spent on Bourbon Street, when the crowds were so intense that I was lifted off my feet and moved forward pressed shoulder to shoulder with the people next to me.
We clap our hands in rhythm and say “yes” over and over. I dance as I clap—I, who barely danced in public at my wedding. We are a lot of people, and I am short. I can’t see the trenches of hot coals, though I know they are there. I can smell the burning coals, like an outdoor fire pit in a backyard, that smoky smell that clings to clothes and the next morning evokes the glorious night you had. It is closing in on 1 a.m., and we have been going straight since registering at 10 a.m. Though it is dark, I still haven’t seen the actual coals because of the people crowded around. I feel my first twinge of nerves—will I really walk across fire? My feet in the fire? Not being able to see the coals makes them scarier, even though I know what they will look like.
We had taken our shoes off in the expo center and the night is cold; the pavement feels gritty and cold under my feet. I turn to my sister-in-law and say something like “Holy shit! We’re going to walk into fire. What the hell are we doing?”
I am freaked out. Not because I am worried about burning, exactly. So many people have done it before me and been just fine. My 12-year-old brother had done it, for heaven’s sake. It is strange to think about crossing the coals the way it’s strange to think about jumping from a high dive or hang gliding or pushing your body to do something that goes counter to all natural instincts. The physical reality freaks me out, but also, I suspect, the metaphysical. What does it mean if I do it? What will I now need to do?
We are pulled into a single file, our pants rolled up, our feet bare. My brother’s friend is in front of me, my brother and sister-in-law behind. I put my hand on Ben, the drums going and going. My brother is behind me, the tallness of both men forming a strange cocoon. I get clearer and more focused and relaxed the closer I come to the front of the line. A stillness in the midst of the music settles in. And then I can see the coals. They burn orange and bright and warm. My friends in front of me start walking across. I somehow don’t see them. All I see are the coals.
The staffers put me onto the grass at the beginning of the trench. It feels cool and soft on my feet even as the staffer’s arms are hard and forceful in guiding me into the right place. They tell me to go, but I need to catch my breath, I need to think about what I need to do. Look up, look up, say “Cool Moss.” The staffers say something in my ears, something I can’t understand. They switch gears and begin chanting “yes” with me.
I don’t remember deciding to walk. I don’t remember taking the first step, whether the air felt warm on my soles. My first clear thought is that the coals are crunchy. That all I can feel is crunch. My second thought is that they are hot—and I should probably keep moving. I look up, up, and say nothing. No mantra, no “Cool Moss,” no anything but moving, moving, moving across the coals.
And then I am at the end, and my feet are in cool grass soaked with water. It had been six steps or perhaps ten. Not many. I wipe my feet to get rid of any coals that might have stuck between my toes. I feel stinging on the instep of my foot, low and dull. I have been burned, though only a little. A few small blisters that will go away the next day. I am ecstatic. It is unlike anything I have ever felt, a deep stillness in me in the midst of the noise and also absolute thrilling delight. My brother’s friend hugs me in the most enormous bear hug possible and my sister-in-law flies into my brother’s arms, her whole body wrapped around him. I would burst into tears if I wasn’t so busy hollering at the top of my lungs.
The sheer delight and energy stay with me for weeks. Though I’d come to the seminar to do a thing I’d always wished I had, it turns out that what I really wanted was just to let go. Yes, I wanted to be better and yes, I wanted my life to be bigger, but mostly, I’d been wound tight for a long time. Throughout the whole first day, the hours of Robbins talking and the flashing lights and swelling music, the image that had played in my mind over and over was of my fist, turning palm up and opening. I wanted to drink the Kool-Aid. I wanted to dance with strangers. I wanted to throw myself under a showman’s spell for a day. And I wanted to do it in safety—with people I loved around me, in a place that was familiar to me from my family’s own mythologies.
The actual firewalk itself was a blast—I’d walk across coals again in a heartbeat. I’d do it once a week if there was time and somebody to build me a proper trench. It’s fascinating and crazy good fun, like roller coasters or bodysurfing big waves. But the real thrill for me was in giving myself over just for a day to the swell and the pulse of emotions rising upward, higher and higher. So much joy. So much excitement. So much delight. I was buoyant.
Robbins says the firewalk is just a metaphor. It’s to show us how much more we can do than we think. He uses the firewalk as a starting point to help people transform their lives. The next two and half-ish days of the seminar are about more mental work and also finances and health and other stuff. We pop in and out, leave early, and skip much of the final day and a half. Watching Robbins remains compelling—the man’s an artist—but the subject matter is less interesting. I have walked. I have done what I came to do. No one else feels compelled to stay, either. So we leave.
We go to lunch and dinner together instead. We watch light on the river behind my brother’s house and tell jokes and feel good together in the early spring sun.