Firewalking – physics or mysticism?

Firewalking – physics or mysticism?

by David Ratcliffe & Tim Walker

Back in January 2005, when David and I were at the James Randi Educational Foundation “Amazing Meeting 3″ in Las Vegas, the subject of fire walking came up. Being sceptics, we were all agreed that there is nothing supernatural going on here – it’s purely physics. Various suggestions for the phenomenon were put forward. Some suggested a thin film of water or sweat on the sole of the foot protects the skin. Others said the ash acts as an insulator. Then we had the “Your foot is not in contact with the coals for long enough to get burnt” brigade.

So I thought the only thing to do was try it. David was foolish enough to agree to go along with it! When we got back to the UK I googled “Fire Walking”, and it came up with this site – It appealed to me not only because not only would I get the chance to do the walk, but I could experience all the New Age trappings involved as well. And there was a lot of that.

Mu’izz Waldstadt is an unusual man. His philosophy borrows from many areas, but seems to mainly come from Sufi mysticism. There we were, rational people, sitting in chairs chanting for what seemed like hours on end. It was interesting to observe our companions and the way the approached it. Apart from David and I they did as they were asked, rolling their heads and chanting words which had no meaning to us but were apparently Sufi prayers or chants. The final spiritual preparation was to wash and then kiss each other’s feet and I’m afraid your correspondent “bottled out” – as did David. In the parlance of tabloid newspapers “We made our excuses and left.” The children were watching through a doorway and I heard one say to another, “Your mum’s kissing my uncle’s feet!” with a horrified voice. It was one of the highlights of the day!

The actual site chosen for the walk was maybe a mile from the Rainbow Healing Centre where the seminar had been held, in the middle of a field in the countryside. The logs were neatly stacked up in a pyre and once we were all assembled around the pyre Mu’izz lit it. Paraffin was used as an accelerant – lots of it. Nevertheless it took a long time before the wood was mostly consumed.

There was considerable drumming going on and more chanting to “honour the fire”. I helped to rake the larger pieces to one side and the remaining coals were spread out in a circle. They were fairly small, perhaps one to three centimetres across. Buckets of water were placed at cardinal points and we were invited to walk “when you feel ready.”

For a little while nobody did anything. I felt that if I didn’t get moving I might not have the courage to do it, so I moved to 2the side of the circle opposite David and stood looking at the coals for a few moments. Let there be no doubt about it, those coals were very, very hot – and it’s counter-intuitive to step out onto them. All our lives we’re told “Don’t touch that – it’s hot!” and with good reason. To walk across coals that are around 650 degrees Celsius seems the act of a madman. Yet as I hesitated there I saw someone walk across in front of me. So off I went. It was maybe six steps or so. I had heard from one on the others who had done it before that it would be like “walking on the soft grass of a cool English meadow.” Rubbish. It’s hot. It was uncomfortable rather than painful though, but the ember that stuck to the sole of my foot didn’t help – I was grateful to reach the other side and stick my foot in a bucket of water. No blisters though! As time went on everyone did the walk. There was a fairly wide range of people there, men and women between 25 and 60, and much to my surprise children as young as about 7 – they all participated.

As confidence grew, people were crossing the coals time after time and it became a little manic. Mu’izz called a halt to the proceedings and everyone was invited back to the centre for further talking and chanting. At this stage David and I left – we had quite a long way to drive and it was about ten o’clock.

So – physics or mysticism? Well, physics. There was nothing supernatural about it. We weren’t protected by our auras, nor were our feet in tune with the fire. It wasn’t “mind over matter” either.

There were two things happening here. Firstly, the feet were not in contact with the coals for long enough for sufficient heat to be transferred to seriously damage the flesh. Run your hand through the flame of a cigarette lighter and you’ll see what I mean. Secondly, the ash acted as an insulator between the feet and the red hot coals underneath. Technique is important as well – do not, repeat not, run – your feet will dig into the coals and you’ll get burnt. A confident walk is the way to do it. And make sure you are heading for a bucket of water! In addition the grass was wet and cold – this may have helped. That ember that stuck to my foot hurt, but as I write this two days later, no blisters have appeared. The spot still tingles a bit though.Would I do it again? No. Once is enough. I must give David credit here – he did a fire walk 13 years ago, so he knew what to expect. Yet he still did it again!

I’ve given little credit to the part Mu’izz played a bit here, but I have to admit that beneath all the chanting and New Age talk there was a good deal of common sense. What he did was to give people the confidence to take that first step onto the coals. It may also give them confidence in themselves in the future. No, I’m not a convert, but I do think that such things might have a useful place in society, but without the mumbo-jumbo!