Firewalking Theory That Can Benefit Everyone
by Tolly Burkan, founding father of the global firewalking movement
Reprinted from EXTREME SPIRITUALITY: Radical Approaches to Awakening
Over Three Million Westerners Have Firewalked
Knowing the secret behind firewalking can improve your life! Even if you never do it yourself, knowing how it works can bring you better health and increased personal power. Why? Because firewalking demonstrates how your thoughts impact everything else in your life. Thoughts change brain chemistry, and that results in an alteration of body chemistry as well. This is immediately apparent when you entertain a sexual fantasy. Firewalkers are instructed to pay close attention to their thoughts, since those very thoughts are the way in which we create our own realities. Positive thinkers literally live in a different chemical environment than negative thinkers. They impose less stress on their immune systems, and the result of that should be obvious.
I have been researching firewalking since 1977 and am considered to be the foremost authority on the subject. Because of this work, the United States now has the largest firewalking culture in history. Never before have so many common people participated in this ancient ritual which had previously been reserved for only a select few. My ideas regarding the phenomenon have evolved over time and it is only now, in the year 2000, that I feel enough confidence in my point of view to publish my own theory about why people are not burned when walking on glowing, red coals. My theory is remarkably different from all the others, but I have found each of the other theories flawed in one way or another.
Water Vapor Theory Dismissed
One theory I encountered on the subject was based on the “Leidenfrost Effect.” Several physicists suggested that the moisture on the sole of the foot created a vapor barrier that prevented the foot from actually contacting the coals. The analogy was proposed that firewalking is similar to licking your finger and touching a hot iron to test whether or not it is up to a sufficient temperature to press a garment. When the iron is hot enough, it literally vaporizes the moisture on a fingertip, and the finger itself is repelled from the iron by water turning to vapor. This is termed the Leidenfrost Effect, named after the man who first described it.
The Leidenfrost Effect can also be easily observed by putting a few drops of water on a hot griddle… when the metal griddle is hot enough, the water beads up and dances around because the heat is so intense that the bottom of the water drop is vaporized before the drop reaches the heated surface and the rising water vapor pushes up against the underside of the drop, causing it to bounce off the escaping steam before it ever reaches the metal.
A physicist by the name of Jearl Walker was so convinced in the validity of this theory that he actually believed it was impossible to get burned while firewalking. After severely injuring himself on a coal bed, he lost faith in this theory. Once, during my early days of research, I observed someone getting burned during a firewalk, and back in the 1970s I rejected this theory that had been based on the Leidenfrost Effect.
Conductivity Not An Issue
Another theory physicists have proposed is the “Conductivity Theory.” The analogy used to illustrate this idea was that of reaching into an oven to remove a hot cake pan. The air inside the oven is the same temperature as the metal cake pan, yet one can reach an unprotected hand into the oven without injury. However, if you were to grab the pan itself, the result would usually be a burn. The reason for this is that the air is a poor conductor of heat, while the metal pan is a better conductor. Physicists theorized that the coals were poor conductors and that was why a firewalker’s foot was not burned in the coal bed, regardless of its temperature.
In 1994, physicist Bernard Leikind visited the Firewalking Institute and tried to dramatically illustrate this concept by strapping two sirloin steaks to his feet and then walking across a bed of coals while The Discovery Channel filmed the event. The steaks seemed to be unaffected by the coal bed. He then placed a metal grill in the coals and, when it was glowing red, he placed the same steaks on the grill and the metal instantly seared the meat. He felt this sufficiently demonstrated that mental state had nothing to do with the phenomenon of firewalking. He emphasized that it would not be possible for humans to walk on the glowing, red grill without injury.
As soon as he said this, a number of people from our staff walked on the grill without harm.
The grill was so red-hot; the weight of people walking on it bent the softened metal and left impressions of the firewalkers’ feet on the grill. We keep the grill with its molded footprints as a souvenir to help debunk the conductivity theory.
When a physicist experiments with fire, the objects of observation are usually not living, conscious subjects. Rules of conductivity can be applied in these instances. However, human beings are dynamic, self-regulating organisms… thus research into firewalking is really outside the physicist’s realm of training. People who research the mind and body are more qualified to propose theories on firewalking than scientists who simply deal with static matter.
It has always been my belief that a person’s state of mind is the crucial factor when exploring the science of firewalking. Just because a physicist can walk on the coal bed without harm does little to dismiss the idea that mental state is important. His belief in his theory gives him the confidence to walk on the coals. The “confidence” itself is a mental state. I suggested to Dr. Leikind that we blindfold him and lead him in various directions near the coal bed so that he would have no way of preparing himself mentally before actually stepping onto the embers. He refused. He also refused to walk on the metal grill, so I assumed that at some level he too must have realized there was more to the phenomenon than the conductivity of the coals and simple physics.
In fact, after years of insisting that firewalking was rather safe due to the low conductivity of the coals, with temperature being irrelevant, on May 9, 2000, Dr. Leikind finally signed a statement saying, “Any claim that the temperature of the coals is not important… is simply preposterous;” and adding, “it is my opinion that firewalking is an abnormally dangerous or ‘ultra hazardous’ activity.”
Yet someone in America recently walked on coals measured at 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit without injury! Obviously, physicists still do not fully understand the process.
Typical firewalks that are open to the public involve coal beds ranging between 1,200 and 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Dr. Ron Sato, faculty member of the Stanford University Medical School and director of a nearby burn unit, says that human flesh momentarily exposed to 1,200 degree heat should sustain third-degree burns to the epidermis and dermis, charring the entire thickness of skin to a blackened carbon residue. Dr. Sato has treated people who have accidentally stepped on glowing coals and were so badly burned that they required skin grafts. When commenting about people who voluntarily firewalk without injury, Dr. Sato says, “There’s no logical explanation.”
Boiling Water In A Paper Cup
Two scientific experiments have helped me form my present theory.
One is a simple demonstration used by school teachers. Perhaps you saw it in your own science class when you were a teenager? The teacher fills a paper cup with water and places it over a flame. The water boils and the cup does not burn. The reason for this is that the water can only reach a temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit before it turns to steam. Since the water is in constant contact with the paper cup, the paper cannot get any hotter than 212 degrees. However, in order for the cup itself to burn, it must reach a kindling point… which happens to be higher than 212 degrees. The water maintains the temperature of the paper at a constant 212.
The other experiment was conducted by the United States government during the early days of research into space flight. When a spacecraft reenters the atmosphere, friction heats the craft to extremely high temperatures. It had to be determined whether the person at the controls could still function if the interior of the craft became very hot. To simulate this situation, scientists created a heat chamber. Volunteers entered the chamber and the inside temperature was raised. It was discovered that though an egg was cooking within this atmosphere, the human subjects were unharmed. In fact, the measured air temperature within the nose of a subject was actually cooler than the air in the chamber itself.
Mind In Matter
These two experiments form the basis of my own theory regarding firewalking. The reason Dr. Leikind’s steaks were seared by the glowing metal while human feet were not is simply because the human foot was connected to a living, conscious being who is more than inert matter. The human body has a mechanism to cool itself. Respiration, perspiration and circulation all play a part in this process and all are connected to the brain, which is obviously influenced by the mind. Observe someone sucking on a lemon, or entertain a few sexual fantasies, and you yourself can instantly see how the mind can change the electro-chemical state of the brain and then the central nervous system relays that electro-chemical change to the body systems and cells of your being.
You can have physical experiences when nothing physical is impacting you. This is not “mind over matter,” but rather: “mind in matter.”
When a firewalker is in the proper state of mind, the blood flowing through his or her body is akin to the water in the paper cup. The blood is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. As it moves through the soles of the feet, it continually cools the tissue and prevents it from reaching its “kindling point,” in the same way that the water maintained the temperature of the paper at 212.
Of course there are limits, and it has never been our intention at the Firewalking Institute of Research and Education to push the limits. Rather, we have simply looked for an explanation of the basic phenomenon of firewalking as it has been practiced throughout thousands of years and have sought new applications that can enhance the lives of those of us living in society today.
When humans walk on coals measured at 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit without harm, they are able to do so because the body is obviously capable of cooling and protecting itself up to a certain point. By-the-way, engine blocks for cars are made by pouring molten metal at 1,100 degrees!
My explanation of why people can walk on glowing coals without injury also implies why some people have in fact been burned. During the 1970s I set out to demystify firewalking and created the world’s first firewalking seminar. I trained hundreds of instructors to conduct the seminar around the planet and, as of the year 2000, well over three million people have participated in the firewalking seminar. How many were seriously burned? About 50. Since people are sometimes injured, that too needs to be addressed. (I’m not counting those who’ve tried to stand still or linger on the coals.)
Injuries underscore that the mind, rather than the coal bed, represents the variable. When people are not in the state of mind that allows all body systems to operate at peak performance, the capillaries constrict and prevent the blood from moving freely through the tissue on the soles of the feet. When that occurs, the blood cannot carry heat away from the sole and cannot maintain the temperature required to prevent burning. The result can be blistering or charring of the skin. Aloe Vera has certain properties that can physically restore this circulation and, when applied immediately after a burn is sustained, blistering can frequently be prevented.
Dr. Andrew Weil, the renowned Harvard-trained physician and medical researcher, has investigated firewalking for many years and says, “There is no way I can be convinced that mental state is not the key variable in firewalking.”
When the subject of conductivity comes up, I think of the times when I have patted the coals with a shovel to even out the embers. The shovel is metal and extremely conductive. As soon as the hot shovel is placed in a bucket of water, it creates an audible “hiss.” The shovel is not in the coals any longer than our feet. So the coals obviously conduct the temperature just fine. It seems silly to consider the “conductivity” of a heat source; rather, the issue is about the conductivity of anything placed in contact with the heat source. The metal, being dense, conducts the heat from the source extremely well. Human flesh, however, is not very conductive.
When people burn, it may indicate that their states of mind have made them more “dense.” A “fluid” mind-state translates into fluidity of the body itself. So what needs to be examined is not the conductivity of the coals, but why human flesh is sometimes more conductive than at other times.
Because of my extensive research, I now counsel prospective firewalkers to avoid walking on the embers until they take a moment to look inside themselves at all the conflicting inner voices. Some voices will be saying “Don’t walk!” and others will be saying “Walk!” I tell people to first listen to each inner voice, and then pay attention to the state of your body. Which decision makes your body more comfortable? If the decision to walk makes you feel more comfortable than the decision not to walk, then walk. Because if you are relaxed with your decision, you are in a certain bio-chemical state. Whether the relaxation with the decision to walk is based on a belief in physics or a belief in a higher power, it matters not. Both beliefs create the exact same physiology in the body. Unless their bodies are comfortable with the decision to cross the coals, I suggest people wait for another time.
The body itself is an excellent reflection of mental state. If the body is tense, that is an indication of thought processes that will interfere with the physical mechanisms employed by the body to protect itself. When I say that you must be “relaxed,” I do not mean the same kind of relaxed feeling you have when lounging in a hammock. I believe that people who ultimately cross the coals unharmed have a deep sense of knowing that they won’t burn their feet — before they even take the first step. Obviously, if you think you’re going to get hurt, then you would not step into the coals. You aren’t stupid.
After people tell themselves “I can do this and not get burned, “and they feel “comfortable” with that certainty, they proceed to walk with “confidence.” All these states — relaxed, comfortable, and confident — indicate a certain chemical condition within the brain and body. Thus, firewalking becomes an exercise in examining the mind/body connection.
This is why firewalking is so popular today among athletes, executives and healthcare providers. Anyone seeking to explore the mind/body connection, and ways to apply this information toward enhancing human potential, will find value in firewalking.
New firewalkers are amazed at the discovery that they themselves are such incredible beings. Firewalking reveals that being a mere human is nothing more. Our minds are the new frontier and firewalking is just the beginning in the process of self-discovery. The implications of “mind in matter” are truly exciting and can offer new hope to people with severe illnesses as well as anyone seeking to overcome limitations imposed by old beliefs: salesmen, students, athletes… the list goes on and on… it may even include you!
Information referenced from the Firewalking Institute of Research and Education