Kenneth Greg-Brown is something of an elf, a fifty-something man with the spring of a twenty-something in his stride, his blond hair and goatee carelessly groomed as though he's just bolted from beneath a tree to follow a white rabbit carrying a large pocket watch. I was pondering climbing my porch roof when my wife said that Kenneth would be teaching a firewalking seminar at the local health club.
"It's a firewalking seminar. Kenneth says he knows you're into science and don't go for this sort of thing, so he's willing to give us half off."
I looked at the roof. It didn't have a steep pitch, but it was narrow, and I'd have to twist quite a lot to paint the house eaves. The painting wasn't my worry. I was afraid of heights.
The phrase "half off" surfaced in my mind. I looked at my wife suspiciously. "He must have enough people in this area ready to sashay through hot coals."
She frowned at my elegant sarcasm. "Yes or no?"
Looking askance at the roof and sighing, I agreed. My desire to not fall off the roof matched my impulse to avoid an argument. Besides, I was starting to feel curious about this firewalking business.
Firewalking, or walking barefoot on a bed of coals, was introduced to mainstream America in the 1980s, but it is thousands of years old. It always seemed more than a little nutty to me, like sleeping on a bed of nails or piercing one's flesh with long pins. Why on Earth do something that seems certain to cause deliberate pain?
Firewalking is a ritual practiced by shamans and priests of ancient religions or as a rite of passage. Perhaps it is mind over matter that enables the walker to ignore pain and avoid injury. We've all seen photographs of the fakirs with their eyes rolled back in their heads. They obviously enter some kind of trance that changes the way their body interacts with the fire, like something straight from Paddy Chayefsky's Altered States. So I'd heard.
Hogwash, scoffed the scientist within me as we drove toward the health club after supper.
It's a fact that sometimes firewalkers are burned. I'd read accounts. The real question is this: if their bare flesh comes in contact with red hot coals, why aren't they burned more often? There were a few clues in the videos I'd seen of firewalkers. The coals were always raked into a long bed, it seemed to happen after dark, and the walkers didn't dawdle. I was sure that people walked through genuine hot coals, even kicking them in the air. I'd seen Geraldo Rivera do it on television. But then I'd also seen his buttocks fat injected into his chin. Geraldo wasn't a mystic. If he could firewalk, so could I.
I thought it through carefully. Fire gives off heat, which is why it can burn us. Heat energy is transferred by radiation, convection, or conduction. Radiation, or electromagnetic energy, doesn't really apply in this case. Convection is the circulation of heat energy through a liquid or gas and is insignificant without flame, smoke, or steam. Indeed, I'd never seen actual firewalkers. They always seemed to walk on coals.
That leaves conduction, the transfer of heat through a substance, in this case a hot coal to a bare foot. Since the latter comes in direct contact with the former, it seems that some heat conduction should happen. How much depends on the difference in temperatures and how quickly a coal transfers heat. As it turns out, neither is as great as it appears with firewalking.
Heat is transferred proportional to an energy gradient defined by the difference in the two temperatures. Higher kinetic energy molecules come in contact with and excite lower energy molecules, which heats them up. If you've ever touched anything really hot, this idea makes good thermodynamic sense.
What about a bed of coals, then? At night it looks hot, because whatever coals that glow suggest heat. But a lot of it is ash or covered with ash. In the daytime it would look much cooler. In other words, the difference in temperature is smaller than the visual evidence suggests. I've never seen a lava walker for good reason. That stuff really is hot.
Still, this is literally a perception of degree. The fact is, a hot coal is still much hotter than your bare skin. Why doesn't it burn? The real answer is in the nature of the coals themselves.
As we know, not all materials conduct heat equally. If you place your hand on a block of metal and then on a block of wood at room temperature, the metal will seem cooler. Why? Because metals are better conductors.
Good conductors tend to be poor insulators, and vice versa. This quality, called thermal conductivity, is measured in k, or units of energy per units of material per gradient unit. The reciprocal of k is R, or insulating quality. The term "R-factor" is often used in insulation advertising. Copper, a metal, has a k value of 2712 and an R value of .00037. Dry wood, by contrast, is .33 and 3.03. Wood is, therefore, an insulator. And indeed, everything from pot handles to San Francisco trolley insulators have been made of wood for this reason. Wood has been a well-known insulator for centuries. And insulators (to recap) are poor heat conductors.
The drier and less dense the wood, the more air in the cell cavities and the higher its insulating value. Charcoal, which is what's left after volatile chemicals and carbon are burned, is an even better insulator. So while the coals really are hot, they simply hold onto their energy longer than many other substances. If you've ever watched a fireplace fire burn down and found embers hours later, it's because the ash and charcoal are good insulators.
Knowing all of this, we can explain why a firewalker doesn't get burned:
A firewalker's feet touch largely spent coals. The wood is first burned, expending volatiles and liquids as gases and steam. The remaining charcoal embers are raked into a bed to increase their surface area, which allows their heat to dissipate. The coals, which are mostly carbon (a lightweight insulator) also contain pockets of air that further reduce heat transfer. And while truly hot, they are covered with a thin layer of ash that provides even more insulation. So it isn't that the walker somehow changes the properties of his feet or the coals as he walks quickly over them. His skin simply isn't in contact with the coals long enough to transfer enough heat to cause a burn. If the firewalker is burned at all, it's because the thermal properties of charcoal are unpredictable. A few of the coals may, in fact, be as hot as they look.
If you're getting the idea that I have a habit of taking the mystery out of things, you're right. It's a science thing.
We arrived at the health club with the sun low in the sky and the air balmy. About a dozen people were there already, and Kenneth greeted us warmly at the door, his hair bouncing on his shoulders as he walked forward with hand extended. I'd never noticed it before, but his narrow incisors reminded me of a panflute. I couldn't see the tops of his ears, either. Maybe they were pointed.
My wife was nudging my ribs, and I realized he was talking.
". . . so glad you could make it. I'm sure you won't be disappointed."
"I'll be interested to see what happens," I said truthfully.
Kenneth's blue eyes sparkled, suddenly looking very young in his lined, thin face. One of his thick eyebrows raised ever so slightly, and he laughed. Before I could add anything he turned and bounded off. A woman sitting at the club's lunch counter caught my eye.
"Isn't that Elaine Williams, the news anchor?" I asked.
"Didn't I mention it? Channel Five News is here to film the firewalk."
My wife waved at someone she recognized and walked off. I studied Elaine Williams, a thin woman with short hair, as she perched on her stool sipping a Coke. Not far away stood a man with a camera.
Kenneth gathered everyone in a circle of folding chairs.
"Tonight, you will change. You will be different in the morning. It may not be a large change, but it will be noticeable. I can't explain what will happen to you because everybody is unique. We are all at different points on life's path. But tomorrow you will be somewhere else, I'll promise you. Now, why not go around the room and introduce ourselves?"
This didn't sound very scientific to me. I eyed Elaine Williams and decided to keep quiet as the introductions began. The group included my wife and myself, a younger couple just married, an older couple in which the husband was disabled with a leg injury, a mother and son (firewalking was her graduation gift to him), Elaine Williams and her cameraman, and the club owner and her sister. It cheered me up that her sister was a biologist.
I'd known Kenneth a few years and liked him, so I wouldn't have dared to be openly critical. Just the same, I itched to debunk as he continued.
"The human body is an amazing thing, and it's capable of many amazing feats. Not everybody can firewalk, and not everybody who does it can tell you why it works. Some say it's physics, and some say it's mind over matter. . . ."
He continued his polished prattle. Kenneth knew that he had a diverse audience and was obviously hedging his bets. I couldn't resist cynically thinking that Kenneth must have known that firewalking was a scam. I didn't know most of the people in the room, but I hoped they weren't easily duped. Looking back, it was a bit arrogant to assume that any point of view other than mine was delusory. I also didn't entertain the idea that my wife knew this about me, and that's why she'd invited me. But that's a possibility.
Kenneth was writing something on an easel. He stepped back, and I saw he'd written the word FEAR in large capital letters in a column.
"This is what tonight is really all about. Let me show you what I mean," he said. He turned to the easel, wrote, and stepped back. This is what I saw:
"It's fear, ladies and gentlemen, that controls us. But fear doesn't exist, as we all know. It exists only within our minds. It can't be bottled, measured, or saved. It isn't anything we can pass on to each other. We alone own it. Therefore, it's up to us to see it or not. It is, as this says, 'false evidence appearing real.'"
This was a different tack, and I hadn't expected it. We had a good discussion about fears ruling our lives, like open spaces, closed spaces, and (in my case) heights. People warmed to Kenneth as they talked, and I could see that he listened well. He seemed to encourage us to talk with each other. I enjoyed this discussion as it was grounded in the experience of people rather than bizarre explanations of natural phenomena.
I hadn't noticed Kenneth handing out something from a plastic grocery bag. When he came to us, I reached into the bag and pulled out a plastic Easter egg.
"Take two," he said. "They're rattles."
Sure enough, they were simply plastic eggs containing pebbles. My wife and I took two each, as did everybody else in the room. We all sat, looking a little foolish after our confessions of our fears and phobias.
Someone asked, "Are these pebbles magical?"
"No," Kenneth said. "I got them from my driveway."
"We'll need these to connect to the Great Spirit," Kenneth continued airily. He talked about primitive cultures, aboriginal peoples, and other views of the natural world. Then he urged us to chant with him to prepare ourselves spiritually for our journey as our ancestors in this and other lands had.
Kenneth's eyes twinkled. "I hope you don't mind, but it isn't a real chant. I made it up myself."
One of the ladies in the room giggled. Truthfully, I didn't know what to think. I don't fancy myself ignorant enough to disdain other cultures as primitive, but I've never believed in spiritual conditioning, either. Driveway gravel in plastic Easter eggs and a made-up dirge didn't seem compelling.
Kenneth held a plastic egg in each hand and started to shake them gently as he softly chanted,
I am opening up in sweet surrender to the luminous love light from above,
I am opening up in sweet surrender to the luminous love light from above,
He threw his head back and looked at the ceiling while he continued,
I am o-pening, I am o-pening. I am o-pening, I am o-pening.
After he'd repeated this a few times and encouraged us to join in, people started chanting with him. Sounding at first like a congregational hymn on an icy morning, it soon warmed into a rhythmic, lively chant with the percussion of Kenneth's makeshift rattles hissing and clacking in the background.
I don't know how long we sang. To this day that sound echoes in my head. Amazingly, we didn't sound half bad. Some of us mumbled at first, myself included, but after a while the room seemed to get warmer and so did our voices. We dragged the word opening out far longer than Kenneth during our choruses, and he watched us with a toothy grin, again exposing his panflute teeth. I couldn't help but feel that we were playing into his hands. Just the same, I enjoyed myself immensely.
"Now, we build a fire," he said when we had stopped.
It was pitch black outside the sliding doors at the rear of the club, which had happened when I wasn't looking. Kenneth told us to bring our rattles and keep chanting as we built the fire. Interestingly, the cameraman followed Elaine Williams and left his equipment behind as we walked to the back yard of the club where a half cord or so of wood had been neatly stacked. A dozen feet away lay a pile of kindling with newspapers. As we stacked and chanted, Kenneth lit the fire. I grabbed a stick of white birch with my right hand while I shook my rattles in my left and kept chanting,
I am o-pening, I am o-pening
None of us made eye contact with each other, so I assumed that we all felt stupid. Kenneth walked around us, clapping his hands in time to our chanting and singing along, bobbing his head in the dimness. Whatever he was up to, it seemed to have taken a dark turn. Still, as we piled wood into something of a cone it grew to a pretty impressive pyre with flames shooting high above our heads. We all stood there, looking at it, our faces lit up in the flames. I stepped back to keep the hair on my arms from singeing off.
"We'll let it burn until it's good and hot," Kenneth announced, and he led us back inside.
Sitting in my seat in our circle inside, I could see our pyre blazing beyond the glass. It looked plenty hot already. I suddenly didn't much feel like walking on it any time soon.
"We're going to have a few demonstrations of what I made reference to earlier," said Kenneth. He rubbed his hands together. "That is, the fabulous potential of the human body. We are constantly fooled by what we think is obvious, and yet we are capable of so much more. That's what we'll work on next."
What followed was each of us trying various things: sitting up with Kenneth's finger pressed against a forehead, lifting a chair while bending over against a wall, and other tricks that I would have thought were cool when I was twelve. I looked over at the biologist sister of the club owner, and she didn't seem impressed. I tried to figure out what Kenneth was getting at with these parlor tricks. We were all old enough to have seen them many times, although there might have been a new wrinkle here or there. Obviously, we all knew human body mechanics were based on leverage and muscle, not supernatural power. I looked around the room. Or did we? I wondered.
One look from my wife kept me silent. I looked at the biologist again, but she merely looked bored.
"Now we can walk," Kenneth said, at last.
We all took our shoes off, rolled up our pant legs, and walked outside. For the first time I noticed a young man who had been assisting Kenneth. He was raking coals into a long bed maybe fifteen feet long by five feet wide. The pyre had just burned itself into a heap of hot embers, and he had been pushing and pulling them along the ground. The coals glowed bright yellows and reds. They looked very hot. As the others lined up to one side of the bed and watched the assistant, I slowly circled the coals. I felt their heat and watched them pulsate in the dark. Forget appearances. These not only looked hot and capable of causing a burn, I was sure of it.
As I joined my wife at the end of the line, I saw Kenneth nod to his assistant. The young man propped the rake against the building and grabbed a garden hose. Kenneth walked toward us, raising his arms. He began to chant,
I am opening up in sweet surrender . . .
For something to do, I thought, we started chanting. We stood there, singing and watching those hot coals. Kenneth just walked back and forth. I thought that he would be the first to walk, but after a minute it was obvious that he expected one of us to be the first. At one end of the coals his assistant stood with the hose. At the other I noticed the kid who had just graduated.
Let the young be curious, I thought. Well, that's not what science is about.
I walked over to the kid. He just stood their looking at the coals with an unreadable expression.
"They look hot," I said.
"I don't think they are," he said. "I know someone who did this last week, and he didn't get burned."
It was like missing a pop fly in center field. Our conversations didn't connect. I was talking about appearances, and he was talking about logic. I started thinking about Kenneth and his "demonstrations" of human abilities. He seemed determined to tell us something about appearances. Fear, he said, is False Evidence Appearing Real.
Standing in my bare feet, the heat from the fire warming my bare shins, I wasn't so sure. I held up my hand at the kid. I had to know.
"You going to walk?" he asked.
"Cool! Go for it, dude."
I stood before the bed of coals that stretched into a distance that seemed much longer from its end. The coals all looked equally bright, belying perspective and giving it the appearance of a slanted doorway. The world all around me was cool, calm, and one that I knew very well. It was logical, predictable, and responsive. What was on the other side of this doorway?
I shook my head. I reminded myself that if I was burned with the first step, I could jump off using that foot. Hobbling around on one foot would be embarrassing, but it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. I'd live. In the back of my mind I told myself I'd do more than that and emerge Geraldo-like and unscathed. But the scientist in me was growing fainter by the second.
So I walked. I don't know how fast or long my strides were, but it seemed to take minutes. As soon as I stepped into the coals, I heard nothing. I just looked down at the glowing pavement beneath me and watched my feet press into the fire like it was a living thing. It tickled, if anything, and its texture was a little like foam packing material. Once or twice my feet actually submerged in the red and yellow coals, and a spark here and there shot into the air. It felt soft, like walking on a pillow. I reached the end, stepped into the grass, and laughed. Coals were stuck between several of my toes.
The assistant hosed off my feet. I heard the water, the chanting, and clapping of the others in a sudden burst of sound. I stamped my feet against the ground and walked in a circle. They were not burned or hurt in any way. In fact, I felt fine. I ran to the end of the line to stand beside my wife.
"Did you see that?" I asked.
"You've got to be kidding. We all went nuts. You didn't hear us screaming and cheering?"
In all, I walked five or six times. We all walked, eventually. Elaine Williams walked with her hands in her pockets, staring seriously at the coals as though she was interviewing them. The cameraman walked, too, with the camera pointed at his feet. The man with the disabled leg half-hopped, kicking sparks behind him. My wife was one of the last, which was interesting. I'd thought she would be one of the first.
Eventually, the fire was "walked out," as Kenneth put it. We returned inside and put on our socks and shoes. No one was burned, although a few people proudly pointed to spots on their soles that felt tender. Kenneth said that those spots were key areas in a person's psyche indicating a particular weakness. I wasn't really listening.
The next morning while drinking coffee, I sat on our second-floor balcony and eyed our porch roof. Kenneth hadn't taken chances, really. The coals had been, in fact, well spent. They'd been raked out at night and had looked hotter than they probably were. What's more, his assistant hosed our feet down with cold water as soon as we stepped off. In all, the walk took five or six steps, and I knew that none of us dawdled. Aside from the unpredictable nature of charcoal as a heat conductor, none of us had ever been in any real physical danger.
But I couldn't stop thinking about the firewalking. Science might explain away its mumbo jumbo, but I'd had an emotional rug yanked from under me. There was a dissonance between what I knew and what I felt. I knew that I wouldn't be burned for very solid reasons, but standing at the end of that bed of coals I felt quite differently.
All my experience told me that fire burns. Being burned is a natural and practical fear, and one that I'd found nearly overwhelming. Perhaps, our experience usurps our knowledge and shapes our reality. I don't know. In the end, I had thrown caution to the wind and tried it. I quite literally stepped through a doorway, passing from one set of assumptions to another.
I realized, sipping my coffee and squinting at the rising sun, that firewalking isn't about overcoming physical forces, pretending to have supernatural powers, or duping the innocent. And those who believe our ancestors just didn't know about thermal conductivity and heat gradients are missing the point.
To me, that point is very simple. Every culture throughout history, however diverse, has been composed of human beings. And as different as we all are as individuals, the Universe is the same. Our ancestors understood the same Universe with similar experience, albeit with different assumptions. The dichotomy of the consistent persistence of the world around us vs. its analog within our minds that we label "reality" pushes and pulls us through life. The popular view of firewalking as an effort of the mind to control matter is quite opposite to the truth. Firewalking, I realized, is a demonstration of the mind's ability to be bent by matter. Which, I suppose, is our raison d'etre.
In other words, the Universe is consistent; perception isn't. That is what firewalking is all about, at least to me.
As Kenneth said, it's false evidence appearing real. I put down my coffee cup. I went downstairs, gathered my paint supplies, and climbed onto the porch roof. And I painted for the rest of the morning.
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