Firewalking: Mind Over Matter or a Tool for Personal Growth, or Both?

Tolly Burkan, a former professional magician, was the first person to introduce firewalking to the public in the late 1970s and founded the Firewalking Institute of Research and Education.

When Burkan first learned how to create a firewalk, he was under the impression that it was all a trick, until he tried it a few times. "Immediately, I thought, you know, this has the potential to knock people out of the rut of conventional thinking," he says. "This is remarkable and potentially life-changing."

Burkan decided to take the idea of firewalking out of the circus, sideshow arena and make it more available to the public as a personal-growth tool.

"I was the first one, and I knew that the key was I had to present it to people in such a way that they would take that first step," he says

And, in recent years, through Burkan's efforts, firewalking has been included in executive empowerment seminars at companies such as Microsoft and American Express.

Medicine vs. Skepticism

Burkan was invited in the mid-1980s to the home of Dr. Andrew Weil -- the internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson-- to conduct a firewalking seminar.

"I was very distracted at that event, I didn't do it in the right state, and I ended up with minor burns," Weil says.

At a later firewalk, where the pit was 40-feet long and much hotter than his previous attempt, Weil had a different experience. "There was no sensation of heat, it just felt crunchy," he says. "I could've done it all night, it was amazing."

Weil, who has twice appeared on the cover of Time magazine, believes that the difference between getting burned and not was in his mental state. But he doesn't think it's mind over matter.

"I think it's a mind-body phenomenon, that in a certain state of consciousness, the body can conduct heat away from the surface and not be injured," he says. "I think it's very relevant to medical practice and healing."

All of the mind-body implication stokes the critical fire of the world's leading skeptical organization, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

Skeptic and senior research fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Joe Nickell, easily glides across a hot bed of embers, September 2000, at the Center for Inquiry, in Amherst, N.Y. (Courtesy Joe Nickell)

"Anyone can walk on fire," says Joe Nickell, senior research fellow at the Amherst, N.Y.-based group and author of numerous books, including "Secrets of the Sideshows."

"There's nothing special about it except there are laws of physics and these have been very well tested out, and people who follow these laws will do OK, regardless of their mental attitude or their belief in psychic energy."

Here Comes the Firewalking Judge

"People can walk on fire, which I've done many times," Nickell says. "One of the reasons firewalking is possible is because wood does not conduct heat well. But if you increase the distance, eventually your feet will heat up."

When ABC News' Diane Sawyer took a dare and walked on fire last year, live on "Good Morning America," she actually did it several times.

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