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One of the people on the Skeptics in the Pub mailing list, Partha Lal, sent a note to me asking me to publicise a firewalk he was doing for charity.

I checked out the charity, which seemed worthy enough (the charity is Haven House, a children’s hospice. (It’s still not too late to donate some money for Partha’s walk! Send him an email with details of your donation). I duly published the details of the event in a mail. A few days before the event, Partha told me that people could join in for a modest price, and being someone interested in new experiences, I decided to do the firewalk.

I was quite terrified, if truth be told, for several days before the event. Although I’m a pyromaniac and love to watch flames, I’m terrified of being burned (is this normal?) and while I knew, in my head, all about the thermal conductivity of ash and so on, I still found the build-up psychologically challenging.

Nonetheless, as with all deeply dreaded or anticipated events, the day of judgement drew nigh. So I set out along the A406 towards Woodford in North London filled with trepidation.

I arrived early (as the organisers had requested) and got chatting with some of the other participants and spectators. I was quite surprised when one of the other participants mentioned that if you stopped breathing during the walk, you’d be burned. I asked how your breathing could affect heat on your feet, and the person said, “Well, that’s what I’d heard”. Many of the other participants seemed quite tense and quite a few nervous jokes were exchanged around the delightfully insensitive barbecue.

Well, time passed and the “Guinness World Record Holder” Tony Cole arrived. He gave embodiment to the phrase “small but perfectly formed” and was wearing more beads than Bead Boy who has worked in the bead display industry for 50 years. Terry had “Positive Mental Attitude” written across his chest in big gold letters, and since his most recent World Record was tossing a pancake more than 8,000 times in one hour he must have had at least enough Positive Mental Attitude to stop himself going stark staring mad with boredom.

Terry and his mate Andy Johnston were going to train us to get us ready for our firewalk. Andy was obviously the brains behind the operation. To get us in the mood for our dangerous ordeal, Terry broke some chopsticks on this throat, and a helper smashed a wooden broom handle across Terry’s arm. Andy just stood at the back with his big Ying Yang necklace and looked spiritual. Andy told us Terry could do these things because he (Terry, but Andy as well) had loads of Chi, and they would train us to have masses of Chi too, so we wouldn’t be burned by the “thousands of degrees” of heat in the fire.

But first, we had to build the pyre. I felt this was a bit like asking someone to bring their own rope to their hanging, but we all dutifully trooped down into the grounds where a pit had been marked out by some turf and sticks. We respectfully carried bits of wood from a pile and made a circle. Andy exhorted us to make a wish as we laid our log, and being the heartless skeptic I am I wished that the next lottery ticket I buy will win Division One (always a good idea to make wishes specific and testable in my view).

Following more stacking, plenty of kindling and the finishing touch of two bottles of cooking oil, our bonfire was complete. Terry and his un-named helper decided to light the fire with their fire-breathing act. This worked rather well, and after a few mouthfuls of paraffin the fire was blazing merrily.

We all then wandered back to the house to learn about Chi.

Now that the moment was getting closer, and we could all see the big, hot, very red conflagration outside the window, we were all quite nervous. Andy helped by telling us how horrifically dangerous what we were about to do was. He went on and on about how hot the fire was, and how people had been burned by not following his instructions. He ratcheted the drama up by saying that he didn’t know if he himself would be doing the walk… if he didn’t feel the Chi flowing, he wouldn’t walk. The emphasised again and again the necessity of following his directions, to the letter. So, what were his important instructions?

We had to “keep breathing”. That was pretty much it. He wound it up with a load of mystical nonsense about Chi and energy centres and rubbish like that, but he made us do lots of breathing exercises. Now these exercises had a very important point. The biggest obstacle we would face was fear. Andy told us on numerous occasions that if we felt like we couldn’t do it, we shouldn’t. He did not force or coerce anyone, and that was good. The breathing of course helps calm us down… it’s a tactic I always use when I’m anxious. But his reasons why the breathing was so important were spurious to say the least.

We learned that “science couldn’t explain firewalking”. Andy told us that apparently scientists just said it was “mind over matter” and left it at that. Also, the ancient Indian writings said everything was made of the same material, and because “Quantum Physics says the very same thing” then that was utter vindication for all the Indian mystics down through the ages who had been ridiculed by the West! This was relevant because according to the “Chi” theory, the fire and our feet are made of the same substance. The Chi in our feet would “tune” us to the fire and stop us getting burned.

Andy also performs healing with his Chi, something he didn’t know he could do because he was a “hardened sceptic”. He only found out about his healing power because he did firewalking… the event was going to be as momentous for us as it had been for him. Andy had discovered that his Chi comes out (or goes in, I couldn’t work it out) a hole in his head. Also, he said that his hole was in a different place to other people’s holes. Note, he’s not referring to his mouth or nose or ear, you know, the familiar holes… Andy was referring to a hole on the crown of his head. Hmmm. I didn’t know we had a hole there. Never mind. No one else in the audience found this the slightest bit unusual. Andy had so much Chi, that he would be sending extra Chi to each of us as we walked.

I was behaving myself very well, I’d only sniggered a couple of times (especially at the “hardened sceptic” statement) but I don’t think anyone had noticed. I deliberately hadn’t been doing the exercises with the group, because I knew that I didn’t need to use Chi to make my way across the coals, but then Andy asked, “Does anyone think this is complete nonsense?” I just had to put my hand up. Andy asked me why I thought it was rubbish. I said that we wouldn’t get burned for quite straightforward reasons, you know, to do with thermal conductivity and so on. I said we didn’t need his Chi or any of his mystical mumbo-jumbo. I said quite categorically that he was forbidden to send me any extra Chi as I walked, and that I wouldn’t be using Chi (if it’s possible to deliberately not use an imaginary thing) and that I would definitely not be burned. Andy seemed quite shocked that someone was prepared to challenge him, but he said that it wasn’t mystical at all. I said if that really were the case that he believed that his feet were tuned to the fire with the Chi, he should put some iron in the fire and then walk on that. He wasn’t too keen to give that a try…

I was quiet and well behaved for the rest of the seminar. People asked questions: some sensible: “Should I run?” (no), “What will it feel like?” (walking on eggshells); some daft: “Should I make the Chi go to my feet, or is feeling it in my fingers OK?” (you should make it go into your feet, but it doesn’t matter if you can only feel it in your fingers).

That was Andy finished, and then Terry came in and did some amazing work to psyche us up. Andy had promised us the best experience of our lives: a truly death-defying spectacular that only Gods or those with magic could hope to complete and survive… all that left me rather cold; I knew anyone could do it… training or not, the only difficulty was getting over the initial fear factor. Terry however did a very good job just before we went down of getting our adrenaline going and hyping us all right up. We all took our shoes off, and then had to put them back on again for the walk down.

So, the time was upon us. We all walked off down towards the spectators huddled around an ominously glowing bed of raked ash, about eight or nine feet long. We all stood around in front of it, and as I looked at the black ash, with evil little red eyes peaking through, smelled the smoke, saw the large chunks of wood burned brightly on the side and felt the heat from the bed, I did need to breathe deeply to keep myself calm… It was a very intense sensual experience, sight; smell and sensation were all involved. The crowd hushed, and Terry made the first walk.

As soon as I saw Terry do it, I knew that it could be done, that literally anyone could walk on hot coals and live to tell. That calmed me down a lot. I was third after Terry, and I confidently (although if truth be told a bit quickly) strode through the fire.

In the end, it was very anti-climatic. I didn’t feel a thing with my feet (the air temperature was about 4 degrees C and lots of water had been poured over where we had assembled to wait until it was our turn, so my feet were actually completely numb). I knew there wasn’t any magic, so really as long as I was sensible, nothing could go wrong, and nothing did.

The other 25-odd people completed their walks, and I decided to go again. I walked there, and back, and there again, three times without pause over the coals. In all, I think I waked the bed about a dozen times (some was vanity, but the latter ones were mostly trying to get a decent photo!). I didn’t get burned, there were no little twinges when I got home, so I had escaped completely unharmed, despite my lack of Chi.

I asked Andy afterwards if he accepted that no Chi was necessary… amazingly, he didn’t. He basically said “Each to their own, your reality is your reality and mine is mine”. I also spoke to lots of the other participants. Some were interested that I could explain the firewalk without resort to magic. Others, however, just kept on believing in the stories. One woman told me that I must have used Chi power, even though I didn’t know it!

All in all it was a very good experience. Certainly not life-changing in the way that Andy had built it up to be, but a good thing to have done nonetheless, particularly for such a worthy cause.

If you ever get the chance, I’d say, “Do it”. If you’re a normal human you’re afraid of fire, and I think it’s healthy to challenge your fears. Just make sure all your Chi is in your feet before you go, and “Don’t stop breathing!”

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