On Saturday 24th April I was one of about 75 people who did a sponsored firewalk to raise money for Save The Children's work in Haiti.

You can still contribute if you like by making a donation directly to Save the Children (They can also recover Gift Aid)

Here is a video of the firewalking:

(I'm on at about 03:30 and 09:45)
You must have JavaScript enabled to watch this video.

What was it like?

Bloody hot! I did get my feet a bit burned.

Psychologically, it wasn't a transformational, now-I-can-do-anything event for me: I already knew that anyone could do it, that it's just Physics, not some magical mind-over-matter feat. In fact I was more surprised that I couldn't do it – at least, not comfortably.

But more of that later: long before the fire had even been built there was a whole day's LGAT-format workshop – complete with intervals of getting up and dancing to Michael Jackson numbers (actually quite welcome and fun!) – leading up to the firewalk itself. The workshop comprised various trainers giving motivational talks, some featuring demonstrations using volunteers from the audience and/or exercises for us to participate in.

For me the presenters' use of pseudoscientific concepts such as "vibrational energy" and the notion that "we are all beings of light"* raised my skeptical hackles and I felt almost as out-of-place as if I'd found myself in a fundamentalist religious gathering! Which was a pity because they seemed genuinely nice folks who'd gone out of their way and given their time and energy for free to put on this event for humanitarian reasons. (We paid £50 per head to join this event which went to the discounted charge for the conference centre, including providing all participants with a quite decent healthy lunch.) When one looked at the number of people involved – trainers, people doing the sound, a professional photographer and a film-maker, the people setting up and clearing up after the fire itself, and presumably people who'd supplied sound and lighting kit and transport etc – a tremendous amout of effort had gone into the day, all to help people on the other side of the world who were amongst the poorest people on our planet even before their lives were devastated by the earthquake earlier this year. And to be honest I'd joined the event for selfish personal reasons – to shake off the humdrum ennui of my drab, miserable existence by savouring the exotic experience of walking in fire – rather than out of any drive or committment to help the children of Haiti. So I feel a bit rotten for carping about the content of the training ... but on the other hand I feel strongly that we need to think damn' clearly in order not to travel down the Road Paved With Good Intentions which can lead – for example – to peddling vitamins or sugar pills instead of effective medicines to people with HIV/AIDs in Africa. (I'm not suggesting for one moment that Save the Children's efforts fall into this category: as I understand it they're one of the straightforward organisations doing relief and development work that genuinely works all over the world.)

* As in "comprised of light" – explained by one presenter along the lines of "we are all made of molecules which comprise atoms which in turn comprise sub-atomic particles which are not just particles but also waves". Hmmmm, well, ooooh-kaaaaay, but leaving aside any other objections, 'light' is but a miniscule part of the electromagnetic spectrum so the analysis should surely be that "we all all beings of radiation".
But I don't suppose that would go down too well with its target audience!

I also found the pace of the workshops rather slow and unfocussed compared to the NLP trainings I've done in the past. Nevertheless some of it was interesting and useful. For example there was a demonstration and audience-participation excercise in which one person held out an arm while the other tried to force it down. This was then repeated with the arm-holding-out person making a visualisation (of light or energy streaming out of their outstretched hand): for many if not most people this resulted in the arm-pusher-downer encountering vastly more resistance! A bit Derren Brown-ish. Another example was a technique for allowing someone to let go of an unwanted emotion such as pent-up anger:

  1. ask them "if the possibility existed of you letting go of this emotion would you be interested in doing so?". If they would then
  2. ask them "is it possible that you could let go of the emotion?". If they say they could then
  3. ask them "would you let go of the emotion?". If they say they would then
  4. ask them "when?". This always seemed to elicit the answer "now" and the person's physiology – e.g. clenched fist, tense face muscles – changed noticeably.
(The question of what to do if the person says 'no' to any of the above steps never came up. That bothers the engineer/programmer part of me!)

Another feature of the day was that on a couple of occasions John Boys and some of his colleagues broke out their guitars and gave us a bit of their music! Here is one of their numbers, recorded on video by professional film maker Mike Crowe. (Can't say it was quite my bag – not all-the-way-up-to-11 enough for me :-) – but a bit out of the mould for these sorts of things!)

fire ready for lighting

fire alight!

Late in the afternoon we went out to watch the pile of logs stacked up for the fire being lit, then returned to the conference room for another training session – this time, it seemed to me, more focussed on what personal issues we might be carrying around and wanting to leave behind through the (presumed) empowerment of doing the firewalk. And some practical directions to doing the walk itself. And the signing of disclaimers declaring that we knew what we were doing and absolving the organisers from liability for anything that happened to us! We were repeatedly advised that we should decide at the fireside itself whether and when we were ready to make the walk, and that it was OK not to walk if it didn't feel right to do.

fire embers fire embers embers raked into bed

We returned to the fire after it had been burning for an hour or more and the embers had been raked out into a bed about 3m square. At the 'finish' end of the bed a patch of grass was being soaked with a hose for participants to immediately cool their feet off. John Boys – the leader of the event – went first, putting his feet where his mouth was (as it were!) followed by the rest of us, as and when we felt ready. Many seemed to walk across almost oblivious to the burning coals. I got two steps along and discovered it was bloody hot and leapt the rest of the way off (as you can see from the video)! I was glad of the wet patch of grass to soak my feet in! There were a couple of particpants who had real issues with doing the walk, who were gently enouraged by Deepak (who seemed to be the most senior trainer there) and the solidarity of the rest of us, and I think both not only eventually made the walk. but did it twice! I also had a second go but found it as uncomfortable as first time round and did my scalded-cat impression again!

me walking the coals me walking the coals me walking the coals

cooling off

another go another go another go

As we returned to the conference room for a final debriefing and farewells Deepak checked everyone's feet to see if they were OK. Nevertheless in the half hour or so following mine began to sting increasingly and were hurting pretty badly for most of the 2-hour drive home, although the pain gradually subsided by the time I got back to Reading. (It was probably a bit dodgy driving in that state, but at the time I started my judgement was clouded by the discomfort, and in any case the conference centre was shutting up shop and, short of sitting around in the middle of nowhere in minor agony, there was not a lot else I could think of to do.) The following morning I found I had half-a-dozen or so blisters up to 10mm across on each foot. I assume that's not normal.

Whether I have particularly thin skin, had the wrong technique walking, or there is actually some mental-physiological component (if not actual "mind-over-matter") I don't know. A factor that may be relevant is that most of the participants were only concerned with their firewalking and only the trainer Deepak (already experienced in firewalking), Dianna Bonner the photographer and I (doing the video recording) were also doing other things, so it may have something to do (on a psychological-physiological level) with not concentrating on the walking. (I wasn't supposed to be doing the video: they had a professional cameraman for most of the day but he had to leave early and I happened to have my camcorder and tripod with me and they asked me to film it — which I was happy and keen to do.) But it could be something much more mundane and physical/physiological: watching myself on the video again I notice that I was leaning slightly forward as I walked. It's a long-standing tendency of mine. Over the last year or so I've been consciously altering my posture, throwing my weight back onto my back and my heels and standing and walking more upright, until it's become almost – but not quite – second nature. (It affects – for the better – my voice, breathing and mood.) However in moments of stress I tend to revert to my old habitual posture, which I think I did on the firewalk, and this may simply have resulted in me throwing more of my weight onto the relatively delicate skin between my heels and the balls of my feet, where I got blisters, rather than on the tougher skin of my heels themselves.

For what it's worth Jon Boys tells me he's done 1000 firewalks and finds that it's OK for him when he's in the right mental state – what he describes as having a "quiet mind" (which, I guess, means that he's paying attention to something other than internal dialogue) – but that when he's "in his head" he knows he's liable to get his feet burned.


So, further work required on the blisters phenomenon ... though I'm not sure I want to be the experimental subject! :-). For a skeptical take on firewalking, including video of Michael Shermer, publisher of the (US) Skeptic magazine and columnist for Scientific American doing a firewalk – much longer than ours – apparently comfortably, and discussion of how beliefs might relate to the phenomenon, see this article in the Skeptic's Dictionary. And for what it's worth; I was eager to walk the coals and was genuinely surprised that I found them so hot. I really didn't think they would feel like that — even before having watched many others walking without any seeming discomfort. So much so I tried it again — and was equally surprised when I found the same thing second time around. I nearly had a third go, just to be sure!

Most of the photographs on this page (not the one of my foot!) are by Dianna Bonner, a professional photographer who – like so many others that day – gave her time and effort to taking photographs of the event, some of which are here.

John Stumbles