Before we walked across the fire, we sang "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
Singing would make us a more unified group, and being a more unified group would help us get up the nerve to walk across 1,300-degree-Fahrenheit coals. And, according to our choirmaster and instructor Joyce Quick, walking across fire would help us get over any other fears we may have in life.
So we sang "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" in the round.
"Look at the words in a new way," Joyce said. " 'Row, row, row, your boat' . . . your own destiny, your equipment in life . . . 'gently' not hurried . . . 'down the stream' of life . . . 'merrily,' always positive . . . 'life is but a dream' . . . life is something you make up as you go along, something you want, anything you want it to be."
Joyce said we would build the fire together. Everyone would pile on the logs and kindle it with previous editions of this newspaper. While she splashed the pyre with kerosene, we'd stand back, hold hands in a big circle and chant.
"I'd like us to OM out there," she said. "Some of you have never OM'd before. When you OM, OM loud enough to hear yourself, but not so loud that you can't hear the person next to you. Okay? By the way, does anyone have a lighter?"
Someone produced a Bic.
When one woman saw the lighter, her jaw lost its muscle tone and her chin clinked against her sternum.
Joyce said, "Is there anyone here who hasn't signed a release form?"
It all began Saturday afternoon at Sevenoaks, a spiritual center in Madison, Va., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Organizer Janice Smith said this was "the first firewalking workshop in the Washington area."
The trend walked cross-country from California. Smith advertised the workshop "by sending stuff to people who are into the holistic medicine thing."
Taken as a whole, Madison is not the sort of community that's into the holistic medicine thing. Most of the 56 people at the workshop came from Washington or the suburbs. A representative of Sevenoaks was eager to note that the group was only renting the grounds, and one waiver form said "the Touch on Excellence (firewalking) program is neither sponsored nor necessarily condoned by the Sevenoaks facility."
Everyone paid the $75 workshop fee, signed the release forms -- "Who would give insurance to a firewalking workshop?" Joyce asked -- and took a seat in chairs or on the floor of the airy community room. It was all very cozy and touchy-feely and you knew sooner or later we were going to say things to each other like "barriers" and "interpersonal" and "Fritz Perls" and "would you like a cup of Sleepytime with raw honey?"
Joyce announced that, for the next 3 1/2 hours, we would not be allowed to visit the bathroom. "So go now," she said. Not a few people instantly figured out the equation between fear and a full bladder and quickly took the "last chance" opportunity.
Joyce is a tall, pleasant woman who looks like a cross between Geraldine Ferraro and Martina Navratilova. She lives in a Seattle "houseboat community." Four days a week she "works in human relations, which used to be called personnel." She is one of 25 instructors trained by Tolly Burkan, a resident of Twain Harte, Calif., and "the founder of American firewalking."
Burkan learned firewalking from a friend who had "picked it up from a Tibetan master," Joyce said. Tolly Burkan holds a copyright on the "body of knowledge contained in this seminar," one of the leaflets claimed, and Joyce said Burkan doesn't like it much when other groups use "firewalking in connection with fear."
"Tolly is a very control-oriented person," she told us. He doesn't teach anymore. He just writes. One of the books he wrote was "How to Make Your Life Work, or Why You Aren't Happy."
Instead of a blackboard, Joyce had an easel and one of those big dri-mark, square-tip pens that New York kids use to write "Superstar" on the side of the Uptown Local. Joyce wrote down key phrases in big block letters after she'd repeated them about 14 times. "FEAR" was one of the things she wrote. "PAY ATTENTION" was another.
After "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," we sang "I've Got Shoes." It used to be an American slave song. Joyce told us that was "the official firewalking anthem."
Then she said she wanted to "debunk a few myths about firewalking." This was important.
No, calluses had nothing to do with it. No, you don't soak your feet in water or some special anti-burn fluid. No, you are not in a trance state. And yes, the coals really are hot, usually around 1,300 degrees. She told us that even after walking through the coals numerous times she "still has a lot of respect for that fire."
"Don't worry," Joyce said. "If you believe the universe will support you, it will."
It came time for us to stand up and "say a little bit about why you're here and what you want."
"I want to look beyond my fear," Frank of D.C. said.
"I have a lot of rules in my life," said Dave of Falls Church. "I want to go beyond them."
Ted of Rockville said, "I want to know the universe supports me," and Merrill of D.C. said, "I believe life is an illusion. I want to be in control of it."
I liked what Tom of D.C. had to say:
"I've had problems with athlete's foot. I figure if I do this, I'll be cured of that forever."
Firewalking is mentioned in "The Golden Bough," a compendium of religious rites. In India they walk on coals as a religious ritual. In the Fiji Islands, they walk on red-hot stones to celebrate the ripening of the ti-plant root. Some Greeks celebrate the Feast of St. Constantine and St. Helena on May 21 with three days of firewalking.
But what is going on here?
In Tom Wolfe's essay "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening," he recalled Max Weber's theory that every modern religion began not "with a theology or a set of values or a social goal or even a vague hope of a life hereafter. They all have originated, instead, with a small circle of people who have shared some overwhelming ecstasy or seizure, a 'vision,' a 'trance,' an hallucination; in short, an actual neurological event, a dramatic change in metabolism, something that has seemed to light up the central nervous system."
That was what Joyce stressed all afternoon. Her sources were Tolly and Dale Carnegie and Thoreau and Esquire magazine and Bertrand Russell and (of course) gestalt psychologist Fritz Perls and Joyce's friend in Seattle who hated spiders but got over it. But psychoneuroimmunology (yes!), mind over matter, that was the important thing, that was what we were here to learn.
Joyce gave us the very same rap that Tolly Burkan gave on the Phil Donahue show -- how, by "thinking positively," by sheer will and confidence, the brain is able to secrete neuropeptides that can control the body chemistry. It was a process, we were to presume, that would save us from charred feet and bleak futures.
Positive thinking. The Little Engine That Could.
"Here's the secret," Joyce said. We all leaned forward. No one wanted to miss the secret. "The secret is, if you can take a step through the membrane of fear, then just keep walking. You can walk through that fire. But if you think that you're going to burst into flames and be reduced to a greasy black spot, you're not going to go out there."
We asked questions. Mostly, we asked about the fire.
"Thousands of people in this country have walked on fire and only four people have been hurt," Joyce said.
One woman who used two canes to walk decided to go through with it anyway. She made it to the end of the bed of coals but delayed and burned her feet. She spent 12 days in the hospital. One man was more seriously burned.
"But," Joyce added, "he said the five weeks he spent in the hospital was the best time he'd ever spent."
What about the other two people?
"I'm not sure about them," Joyce said.
Still, we couldn't lose.
"I know a lot of first aid," Joyce said. And then, further comfort: "If anyone is hurt, we'll move them immediately to the nearest hospital."
"Some people use a mantra," Joyce said. "This works for thousands of people in Southern California."
She told us that the fire we had made two hours earlier would be raked out into a bed of coals. Any logs left over would be pushed off to the side. Again, we would stand in a circle and chant. This time we were to chant, "Release your mind, see what you find, bring it on home to your brother." Joyce said we could go through the coals whenever we chose, or not do it all. Just so!
Finally, Joyce had heard enough. "Are these questions a stalling mechanism?"
We went outside, into the dark to a bed of fire.
In our bare feet we walked in silence through cold, dewy grass. The sky was absolutely clear and filled with stars. We formed the circle and chanted. Joyce raked the bed of coals about nine feet long and four feet wide. With a garden hose, Joyce created a small puddle at the end of the bed. The coals glowed. We all stared at the coals.
Then Joyce walked through. Slowly, but without the slightest hesitation, she walked through the coals as if she were crossing a street. One, two, three and she was out, unhurt, unfazed.
For a minute or so, no one followed but then it started, one after the other, through the fire and out. Some tippy-toed their way through, some hop-skip-and-jumped, but most just walked.
Why do it? How could you not do it? There are things you do in life for no damn good reason, and this was one of them.
I walked. And when I did it felt warm, very warm and mushy, and no worse than on a hot August day at the beach when the sand is glowing and you are trying to get from your blanket to the Tastee Freeze truck in the parking lot. I am told I uttered a blunt epithet inappropriate to ecstatic ritual as I walked through the coals. I am not apologizing.
Joyce hosed off my feet, and I rejoined the circle. As it turned out, once through the fire was nothing. I was a piker. Some people went through it as many as seven times.
"I went through six times and then I decided to go once more," said Ted Woynicz of Rockville. "I needed a seventh time. I needed to get over that fear. It was like going to a banker and asking for a large venture capital loan. Yeah, that seventh time was pure fun."
Woynicz wondered if he had set some sort of record.
"No," Joyce said. "We have a guy out west who's walked through on his hands."
Of the 56 people in the circle, six did not go through the fire.
The workshop was ending. Bowls of apples and bananas and some crispy wafers that tasted like glue cookies awaited us. Before we ate, though, Joyce asked us if anyone felt any blisters. "Some people want the blisters," she said. But everyone said they were fine.
Then, "Anyone feel little hot spots here and there?" A few said they did, so Joyce recommended we use a "water meridian" healing technique. By pressing our palms on our calves, she said, the hot spots would disappear.
"What do you mean by 'water meridian'?" one woman asked.
"I'm not sure what I mean," Joyce said. "No one is."