Dr. Weil on Firewalking

Andrew Weil is a world-famous Harvard educated medical doctor and author. His books have consistently risen to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and he twice appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.

Additional article on Dr. Weil's Website
Put Some Sizzle in Your Walk?




By Andrew Weil, M.D.

What is extreme spirituality? It is accepting, even embracing, challenging situations in order to grow in spirit. Firewalking can be an example of this. Many people wonder why anyone would voluntarily walk across red-hot coals? Well, as one who has firewalked a number of times, I can tell you that firewalking can be, like the other extreme spiritual practices you’ll read about in this book, a powerful and potentially transformative act. Done with the right attitude and expectations, it strips away your self-imposed limits. It brings you to a clarity where you see the difference between your ego—your worry-based, me-centered self—and your divine nature.

As father of the firewalking movement, Tolly’s main achievement is not simply his methods—anyone can burn wood and invite others to traverse hot coals. Tolly’s genius is in demonstrating that firewalking is not foreign and unattainable, and that, like other extreme practices, far from being freakish and esoteric, it is simply a tool to help us see our self-created limitations. Tolly’s message in this book is of excitement and hope: you can do anything you decide you want to.

Let me briefly summarize my experience of three firewalks. From my experiences—both good and not so good—you can see how your decisions and expectations can influence how you perceive obstacles.

In January 1984, Tolly came to my house outside Tucson to present a firewalking workshop. About eighty people attended, including twenty medical students from the University of Arizona. Tolly presented us with the information you are about to read, and then we filed out to a horse corral under a clear, starry desert sky. A huge bonfire had burned down to coals. Tolly raked the coals into a bed two feet wide and twelve feet long. It would take four steps to get from one end to the other.

The bed of coals felt very hot to everyone who approached it. The wood used was pinyon pine and pecan, a hot-burning combination. It was “one of the hottest” fires, in Tolly’s words, and he had seen more firepits than anyone else. The group was in an expectant mood.

Tolly walked first, and I was one of the next to cross. I should describe my state of mind-body before I tell what happened to my feet. I was in good to average physical condition and had not done anything to toughen my feet. My emotional state was also average, but I felt mentally scattered. My parents were present at the firewalk, as was my boss from the college of medicine, who was quite concerned about the safety of the students. My dog had just had ten puppies, and they were crying in the upstairs bedroom. As the organizer of the firewalk, I felt responsible for the success of the evening and somewhat pressured to do the walk early and set a good example.

From the first step, the coals felt burning hot, which came as a great surprise. I was able to cross without faltering or registering pain, but the pain was near my limit. I do not think I could have taken more than one or two additional steps, and I was very happy to get onto the cold wet ground at the far end. While I was somewhat distracted before and during my walk, afterward I was aware of feeling altered: an adrenaline high plus exalted relief and a strong feeling of camaraderie with the other walkers. The soles of my feet burned and tingled, although I could not pay much attention to them because so much else was going on.

I watched others walk over the coals. From the way they moved, most, but not all, seemed to have the same experience I did. A few of those who walked that night said they had felt no sensation of heat. They also had no marks on their feet.

When the coals were doused, we all filed back into the house, still feeling elated. The sensations in my feet resolved into a few burning spots that hurt enough to keep me from sleeping soundly that night. By the next morning, the pain was mostly gone.

What I learned from that first try was that you can walk on fire in at least two different ways. First, it is not that hard just to tough out a twelve-foot walk by taking purposeful strides, maintaining a stoic attitude, and not doing anything foolish like stopping or falling in. The worst injury is likely to be some localized first- and second- degree burns of minor consequence. On a practical level, it is useful to know that if only to demystify firewalking and lend support to the idea that anyone can do it.

Alternatively, and more beneficially, you can walk in some other state of mind-body in which sensation and tissue responses are different from normal. Encouraging you to find that “altered state” where your mind, and even your body, are under your control, is what this book is all about. Knowing that I hadn’t attained it with my first walk, I wanted to try again.

My next chance to firewalk came six months later, again at my house, but this time with a small group of twelve, only half of whom walked. The leader was a local tai ch’i teacher who, despite his lack of formal instruction, had decided he could teach firewalking. But he was not able to create any of the group feeling of personal power and joy that Tolly had been able to encourage in us participants.

On this occasion I was in top physical condition, having just returned from a ten-day program of fasting, prayers, cleansing, and exercise on the Big Island of Hawaii. I had been barefoot a lot, so the soles of my feet were tougher than usual. I was emotionally satisfied, filled with tropical beach energy, strong, and confident. Despite these positives, I felt no connection with the other people present, however; again, I felt internal pressure to do the walk and get it over with.

This was a shorter, cooler walk, The firepit was eight feet long, crossable in three steps. Despite the cooler coals, the sensation of burning heat was even more intense than before, so much so that I hopped through the last stride onto the safe ground beyond the far end of the coals. I knew I had burned my feet, and that thought detracted from any sense of accomplishment. In fact, as I soon found, I had a number of second-degree burns on both feet. They remained sore and interfered with walking for three weeks. Most of the others who walked that night also got burned.

No more firewalking for me, I decided. I was deflated and somewhat embarrassed that I was unable to master this art. Certainly I would never try it again unless I had reason to think it would be different.

So, when a friend invited me to another firewalk, I listened to him with a mixture of interest, excitement, and fear. All of these feelings intensified when he told me the group would be walking a firepit that was forty feet long.

The leader had learned firewalking from Tolly, and then developed his own style and techniques. The firewalk was the climactic event of a leadership training. By the time everyone went out to the fire, it was one in the morning, under a chilly, starry sky.

There were three firepits, neat, parallel, and red-hot. The wood was mesquite, which burns quite hot. The short walk was twelve feet. The others were forty feet, and looked awesomely long. I told myself I was just there to watch, but along with most other people, I found myself practicing the breathing and mental techniques being taught, and even getting into line at one of the forty-footers. I told myself I could cut out at the last moment, unless I got into some “different” state: otherwise I would be crazy to try it again.

This time I was in not-so-good physical and emotional condition. I had a lingering respiratory flu, giving me a sore throat and sore muscles. My feet were tender from not being out of shoes in a long while. I was depressed. It seemed unlikely that I could surmount these draining influences.

Nevertheless, I got caught up in the group excitement, which made me feel I was a member of a revival meeting or a celebrant of some tribal ritual. An ensemble of African drummers provided a rousing background tempo. Those huge beds of coals glowed incredibly in the night. People shouted and crowded toward them.

I was far forward in the line. As my turn approached, I felt a totally novel sensation: tingling energy rushing up my forearms from my hands. It was something like paresthesia (pins and needles) and something like electricity. At first I thought it might be an effect of hyperventilation, since I had been doing vigorous deep breathing, but the rest of my body did not feel hyperventilated, and in a few moments more, the sensations intensified and spread throughout my body. I took it as a sign of the altered state I was looking for, and suddenly knew that I could walk safely across forty feet of hot coals.

I did! There was no sensation of heat or burning, nor was I surprised at that. The coals just felt crunchy. When I got to the other end, forty short feet away, I was somewhere else for a few seconds, then came back to ordinary reality and realized what I’d done. I could have turned around, and walked all the way back to the beginning, too! I was certain of that. I felt strong, healthy, and incredibly high. This was what I had wanted to do. My previous two trips made this success even sweeter.

Through this extreme practice, I had achieved my goal of increasing my personal power: I had consciously controlled my attention and my thoughts, and through the excitement of the group, was encouraged to expect the best of myself and the situation.

Since then I have worked to re-create that state of power and enthusiasm. I practice by walking barefoot over a long (ninety feet) driveway paved with crushed rock. Unless I fully attend to the situation, I cannot take more than a few hesitant steps on the driveway. Only when I focus my attention and believe that I can overcome any obstacle, I reach the state of mind-body in which I can stride down its whole length without hurting my feet. That is the feeling I created in myself at the last firewalk. It is harder to get into without the group spirit, but it can be done.

The practices described in this book can help you get to this state. They’ll help you recognize how incredibly powerful you are. The book distills all the challenges that life can throw your way into recognizable, albeit unusual, experiences. Either by reading about them, or actually doing them, you metaphorically address your fears. You see how possible it is to overcome your own limitations and how exhilarating it is to actually choose your own reality. Instead of pain, you choose power. Instead of anger, you choose forgiveness. Instead of judgment, you choose acceptance.

This book is a portal to a more spiritually-oriented life. I urge you to accept Tolly’s challenge to an extreme spirituality: a celebration of your best possibilities and a decision to create the most from any situation that you encounter. When you do, it’s not only your mind that is altered: it’s your body, too. When you achieve the desired state of consciousness, you can physiologically change your body’s response to danger, tension and stress.

As unrelated as they may seem, extreme spirituality has profound implications for both health and medicine. It demonstrates the limitations of the model now dominant in the health sciences. A new model, in which consciousness is primary, not only makes more sense in relation to our own experiences of health, but also provides more options for positive human behavior. Such a model encourages us to recognize that we take an active part in shaping our responses to environmental stimuli, and that we need not be passive victims of them.

As with all the spiritual practices and exercises in this book, firewalking demonstrates how, through nonordinary states of consciousness, we can modify our body’s responses to ordinarily harmful external stimulation. What does that mean? Well, if you don’t have to experience pain, redness, and blisters on exposure to red-hot coals, then you don’t have to get infections on exposure to germs, allergies on exposure to allergens, cancer on exposure to carcinogens. What a largely uncharted territory in which to discover powerful new techniques to bolster natural resistance to disease!

And what an exciting new paradigm with which to face suffering and challenges. Once you’ve walked on fire, once you’ve learned to love your enemies, once you’ve learned to break boards with your bare hands, you’ll find the strength within to face any obstacle life places before you.