Thursday, 1 October 2009

On Saturday, I Walked the Fire

Yes, you heard right. I walked the fire. Whenever I mention that I did a fire walk, people look at me blankly, not quite understanding. So it takes a bit of explaining. You know that thing some mad people do (me), chopping down wood with an axe, building a pyre , then lighting it, before walking across the ambers of the fire with their bare feet? Yeah? Well, I walked across those ambers with my bare feet.

Why oh why would I do such a stupid thing?
Reasons there are many. The occasion was the loss of another three amazing colleagues to redundancy. After a massive restructure, a lot of my colleagues have lost their jobs. Fortunately, most of them found really great new challenges so it's not all as bad as it sounds. Yet there had to be a proper seeing them off. So, inspired by a glass walk once done with a group of young people, a fire walk was arranged at a colleagues farm, with camping night to round it all off.

We started off at 4pm with workshops that set the scene. This fire walk was not about imagining a wet mossy carpet, nonono, it was about being very aware of the heat, the risk, the danger, the madness of it all. Apparently the fire is about 1600 Fahrenheit hot. Just as well that mean absolutely nothing to me as I don't do Fahrenheit. I believe it's rather hot though. Like, it melted a stocking, and even moving the ambers into place with a rake made my face burn. The workshops were all about exploring fear and the effect it has on each person's life, how it keeps us from reaching our full potential, how fear can be real and necessary to protect us but also a barrier, and a fear of something that is not actually dangerous. Knowing the difference is the key.

So the firewalk became a symbol for overcoming fear, for taking charge and making a decision, for reaching out for the impossible and going for it. More than that the idea is also to make a personal decision, and to take responsibility for all our actions, thoughts and words from here on forward.

This is all very empowering stuff. The firewalk thus was meant to be a very personal, individual achievement. It was a right of passage, a ritual, in our lives where such ritual, sacred or not, has lost meaning. There was to be no peer group pressure, the decision to walk the fire was to be personal, with a right for the decision to be not to walk the fire.

As the moment drew nearer, my fear increased. There was no doubt in my mind that that fire was hot and my feet were just made of skin. This is what the fire looked like:

And these are the ambers just before I walked over them:
I looked. I thought, this is impossible. I was sure I was not going to do it.

But remember, there was a group of us, and as we started walking around the fire in a circle, clapping rhythmically, with bodhrans and other percussion sounds, and as one by one people walked across the fire, my desire to do it too became stronger. I felt supported, not pressured to do it. I was still very ok with deciding not to cross the fire. I observed the ambers. Plotted a path that didn't look quite so hot. Calculated the number of steps needed (4). Focussed on the path, the ambers, gathered my fear, and took it across the ambers with me.

The question that keeps nagging at me is this: Would I have done it without the groups support? Was it really just my personal choice to walk it, did it really empower me, or did I succumb to peer group pressure that I had rationalised into group support to help me achieve what I wanted? How about the way we shouted at each other "I'm going to walk the fire and so are you" in the workshop? Does that sound like taking responsibility of your own actions? Or did we push each other?

Above all, as soon as the question was put up "what keeps you from reaching your full potential?" all I could think was, what is my full potential? Why do I have to reach it? At which expense? You see, I have talents that I chose not to pursue because I don't see the values of them beyond my own little niche. I'm a good researcher, I could have had an academic career. That was my potential, a potential I don't care much for any longer. Instead I'm doing something that I find harder, that stretches me very often, that makes me at times insecure. Looked at it from another perspective, if all a person aspires is to reach their full potential, this will clearly be at the expense of those around them. It's selfish, unsocial.

There's a balance to be addressed, those of one's own ambitions and those of the people affected by these ambitions. We don't live in a vacuum. While I see the benefit of the firewalk for those who live in fear and who have disempowered lives (and I'm told it works wonders to liberate in this context), I didn't quite buy it.

So, while my colleagues are all full of new energy and feel transformed, I enjoyed the experience but do not feel that my life has changed as a consequence. I'm glad I did it, I'm amazed I did it, and it made me realise that if I set my mind to something, I can overcome fear and I can, to use the German phrase, step over my shadow: overcome my demons. It also showed me how a supportive group, a team, can help people reach higher.

Yet I still don't by into the reaching my potential business. Maybe I choose not to reach my potential and seek the wisdom within me, as the angel card I picked suggested. What I do buy into are the notions of respect and responsibility for my own actions, thoughts and words and I shall endeavour to try and take that responsibility more seriously.

Oh, and the fire didn't hurt in case you were wondering. No blister, no nothing. And I still rationalise this, rather than believing in the power of my mind to do it.


Slugs on the refrigerator said...

What a great post and fantastic opportunity to try something new. I completely agree about the 'reaching your potential' issue. Just because you are good at something (or it can make you money) does not mean you should do it. And real lifehas always challenged me much more than any artificial set up. However, it is cool you got to fire walk. Well done.

Mwa said...

I loved that. It must have been an amazing experience.

You really got to me with the last part, though. About not reaching your full potential. I was a researcher at a university, and, like you, gave it up. A lot of people think I'm "wasting my potential" by not earning a lot of money or building some high-flying career. Instead, I have chosen to become a teacher and now a mother at home. I choose to love and nurture, and will continue to do so when I go back to teaching later.

I suppose we can never know what the "right" path is, but I do feel that examining my motivations and my life has made a huge difference.

(Sorry I'm a bit rambling and incohesive.)

Anonymous said...

What a refreshing read. I felt empowered just reading your experiences and only wished I could make the relevent changes to better our lives at the moment (sigh). I am always being told that I, at 25 and mother of one, have yet to reach my potential. I can only do my best to help my partner who is working so hard to support us all, and am even going back to work from my maternity leave early, even if it means putting a hold on my dream career as a writer.

Looking forward to the next entry, I would be greatful if you could take a look and become a follower of my blog 'Two men, a cat and me' at

Best wishes
Kate Collings

Cave Mother said...

Flipping heck. Brave you. I would love to do that. I daresay that any "empowerment" I felt would last for a matter of days.

cartside said...

Kat, I guess it's up to every one how to interpret what potential means. I tried not to be too critical and think of it as something you would like to do but are afraid to take the risk to do because of lack of confidence, experience or fear of the unknown. To keep challenging myself and go for stuff even if there are reasons to stay within my comfort zone. I still was uncomfortable with the concept.

Mwa, that's exactly it, how do we know what the right path is? We have so much potential, we can't do it all, we have to make decisions which path to follow? Is it career, passion, mothering? I guess the important bit is to choose wisely and responsibly

Kate, we all have more potential to reach, regardless of age. I'm much older, but still none the wiser about my potential, even if I did change my path considerably at some point. Twice in fact. And I don't regret either.

Cave Mother, as I had to also make sure my daughter was ok I missed half of the workshops and my mind was meandering between firewalk and firecracker (i.e. Cubling) so I think the big empowerment message didn't quite arrive home with me. I also still think nothing compares to the empowerment I felt about growing my daughter. That beats everything. Yet I utterly enjoyed the challenge and the sudden change in me, from risk aversion to present mindedly deciding to do it.

Kelly said...

I had not heard that saying before "step over your shadow". I like it.

Well done too, not sure I would be brave enough.



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