What Firewalking Taught Me: Don’t Wait for Big Magic Answers

First Monarch Butterfly Sighting

First Monarch Butterfly Sighting of 2015.  (Photo by Brad Silberberg)

About a month ago I received an email announcing a firewalk that was going to be held in western PA, about an hour from where I live.  I knew immediately that I would sign up, since firewalking had been something I’d always wanted to do, not so much as a personal challenge, but as a unique experience in line with my desire to live life “full throttle”.  That, and it involves FIRE.

Firewalking seemed spiritually expanding and edgy enough to me without being outright crazy in my book like BASE jumping or Xtreme- um,… anything.  I had often considering arranging a firewalk as an event at The Mesa because it just felt like something exciting, and of possible horizon-stretching benefit to our Mesa family.  Several factors kept it from ever happening.

Fire:  I have a friend who says that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who step towards a fire and those who step away.  I have always loved fire and it has drawn me like a magnet.  When I was a kid I’d go outside after dinner on summer nights to blow on the coals left in the barbeque grill, hoping to see how hot I could get them to glow in the darkness.  More than once (OK, often.) I got into trouble for lighting matches and setting things on fire with magnifying glasses.  Little boys and fire!

As I grew older, I came to harness fire as a tool.  In college I learned to torch weld and in my late 20’s discovered blacksmithing as an art form and practical skill.  For over 20 years I worked with fire nearly every day and developed a healthy respect for how it could create or destroy.  In the forge I watched it soften big metal bars so they could be hammered, twisted, or bent with ease, or turn something I had worked on for hours into a shower of slag and sparks if I looked away from it for just a moment too long.

With fascination and respect, I danced with fire.  I had my breath literally taken away pulling big 2,300°F steel plates out of the forge, as my body balked at the prospect of inhaling the super-heated air right under my nose.  I set my pants on fire from time to time.  I sweat buckets working at the fire in the humid August heat of DC summers.  I learned to differentiate burning things by their smell; wood, coal, propane, paper, fabric, leather, hair, skin.

I got minor burns on a fairly regular basis.  Flying flakes of hot iron oxide would land and stick on the back of my sweaty hands, but I didn’t let them curtail my hammering away until the metal was cold.  I worked hot metal bars like a snake handler, always maintaining awareness of which end was safe to hold and keeping the other away from my flesh.  There were times I’d lose track or move the wrong way, and that taught me firsthand how much fire could hurt, deep and long.  None of that ever stopped me from lighting the fire each day.

By the height of my blacksmithing career I had also been introduced to fire as a metaphysical force for transforming more than steel.  I sat with my bare knees next to red-hot stones in the Sweat Lodge and prayed.  I helped build ceremonial fires that were way too big, and carried the blazing Stone People into the Lodge while barefoot.  I gave Despacho offerings to sacred fires with a Peruvian shaman to burn off “heavy” energies and ask for blessings, set candles alight to send out healing intentions, sang and drummed around bonfires, and burned tobacco prayer ties to give thanks.  Firewalking seemed in step.

Most of my friends told me I was crazy when I suggested what I was contemplating.  It has been my experience that this is the worst way to dissuade me from actually doing something, so naturally I put my money where my mouth was, went online and paid the fee, and waited for the big day with quiet excitement.

Not twenty four hours before I was to walk, I mentioned to a new healing client that I was going to firewalk the next day.  She told me that her husband used to regularly hold firewalk ceremonies, “…until a bunch of people got burned.”  This was not exactly the best thing to tell a nascent firewalker about to embark on his maiden voyage, but I was determined to maintain mental neutrality.

In that vein I had decided not to go online and research or watch videos of firewalking.  I wanted to be in the moment and let it be what it would be for me without overthinking it.  Finally, last weekend, the big day arrived.  I headed out early to drop something off to a friend who lives near the venue.

When I told my friend where I was headed he recounted how he had been approached to host a firewalk on his property but was stopped by requirements like extra insurance and ten cords of firewood to be stacked eight feet high and twenty feet long.  That’s a lot of fire, I thought.  As I walked his property, I saw and photographed my first Monarch butterfly of the summer.  Metamorphosis…, I mused.

When I reached the event location and parked I was directed over to the site where the fire would be lit.  The wood was stacked only eighteen or so inches high and about six feet long.  That’s a lot less fire, I thought.  I went to the registration table and was handed a liability waiver to sign.  I started to read it and recognized that it really didn’t matter what it said.  I would choose to walk or not walk, and the consequences would be mine alone.  I signed.

After some introductory teachings about the process, all of those participating lit the fire together and we went back to where we couldn’t see it burning to prepare ourselves for the challenge ahead.  I did my part to engage in the communal bonding process, but I really wanted to watch the fire burn instead.

Our group was told about how firewalking was, and is still used in different indigenous cultures, and how scientists continue to be mystified that participants don’t get burned.  We were reminded that the choice to walk or not to walk was up to us and everyone would still benefit from the experience.  “You will be transformed by this!” we were repeatedly, excitedly told.

Following the instructor’s lead, we discussed the habitual ways we dealt with obstacles in our lives and took turns dramatically acting them out to much laughter.  The experience of Firewalking would help us think and deal differently with obstacles it was suggested.  We paired off and did exercises designed to help us let go of what we had been told about “the impossible,” “think out of the box,” and “if-up”—entertain the idea of getting more than our desires.

We were encouraged to get excited, have fun, and to raise our energy.  We were told that fire had a certain energy and we just needed to raise our own above that threshold, stay present, walk with intent, and everything would be A-OK.  We were reassured that if we got “fire-kisses” we probably needed them for some energy-moving reason.  I remembered having burning moxa (dried mugwort) placed on my skin during long-ago acupuncture sessions.

At one point the instructor asked for a show of hands of anyone who had firewalked before and a dozen or so of the thirty-some people gathered went up.  When asked for comments on their prior experiences, one young woman admitted getting burned during her last experience, but there she was, ready to do it all over again.  We all cheered her resolve.

It was close to sunset by the time we approached the fire again.  The stacked wood had burned down to red-orange coals six or seven inches deep.  These were pushed to the sides with rakes into two long rows, one on each side of the path.  The fire keepers spread a light, even layer of burning embers onto the hot ground between them.  The instructor blessed the fire and started us on the chant we had been taught to build energy.  Comparatively speaking, it didn’t feel all that hot to me as we stood in the evening cool in a circle around the glowing path.

We had been instructed that after the leader stepped back into the circle it was up to each of us to decide when to walk through the coals.  When that moment came, no one moved for a good thirty seconds.  I was standing near the “starting line” end of the walkway looking at the path thinking:  This doesn’t look all that bad to me.  Really.  I could go right now.  I might as well just do it!, but I didn’t want to make a show of going first and will admit that maybe I wanted to see someone else do it.

Certainly, I also knew that it might actually hurt to walk through those embers but there was no “if” in my mind about walking.  At that point something else came to me; why I had to make that walk.

We had been asked to think about what we wanted to achieve, manifest, or have change by firewalking and to put it into one word.  I had felt at a loss to think of some big, specific thing.  I had shown up, hadn’t I?  I settled on power and personally stepping into my own as a theme, but it felt like I was fishing for something to say just to participate.  I didn’t really have a word for what I might have wanted inside.

In that brief moment it struck me that I was there to walk for all the people I knew (and would eventually meet) who wouldn’t walk through fire.  Like the Sweat Lodge, I was there to be present and do it for “my people” and in the back of my mind I was prepared to suffer a little if need be.  By my efforts and the telling of my story they could experience it enough to be instructive and just maybe be inspired, reassured, or less fearful, just as my late wife, Kate, had taught me a good deal about death without having to die myself.

As I stared at what now looked in the twilight like a velvety black pathway with red-glowing dots I felt no fear at all.  I could feel the truth that most of my fears had melted away in the last three years.  I’ve already been through so many trials by fire, I thought.

In the time it took those thoughts to transpire, a young woman stepped to the fire and began to walk across it.  My mind went silent and before I knew it I was in motion.  I was the third person to walk through the fire and about halfway across I felt a sensation all too familiar as something small and hot stuck to the bottom of my right foot.

My feet are in great shape and have very few callouses.  The skin on my arches is very soft and tender.  While I have a high threshold for temporary pain, I wasn’t really focused on needing it, but there it was.  I knew I was already burned—and kept walking.  Taking my turn, I walked another half dozen times or so over the coals, feeling a twinge here or there.  Eventually I began to wonder why I, of all people, had gotten burned.  Wasn’t my energy high enough?  Was my mind wandering?  Did I need “kissing”?

By this time I had taken note that a woman I had met and chatted with earlier in the evening had not yet walked across the fire.  I walked over and stood next to her near the head of the path.  “I haven’t walked yet,” she said immediately.  “I know,” I replied.

I told her that it was OK and she could go when she was ready, or not at all.  “Will you walk with me?” she asked.  I offered her my hand and we walked side by side through the embers until she bumped into me and I lost my balance.  I was able to step out of the fire and stay upright without stepping into the coals piled high at the edges.  She finished her first walk alone and repeated it holding hands with others as well as by herself.

About that time the seminar was officially over, so the fire was raked out flat and even, making it much deeper than what we had originally walked upon.  A few people continued to walk across it, now taking photos with cell phones which had been previously prohibited.  The woman who I had helped asked if I wanted to walk again and have my photo taken, and when I did I could feel my left arch burn as my foot sank into the now deeper coals.  Somehow that photo didn’t come out, and I refused to walk again for a second.  I needed no proof of what I had done.

It was too dark to see what kind of damage my feet had sustained and at that point I frankly didn’t want to know.  It was clear from a few others smearing stuff on their feet that I was not the only one who had gotten “kissed”.

On the ride home wearing socks and shoes my feet really started to hurt.  When I got there I slathered them with aloe vera gel and fell into bed.  I don’t feel particularly transformed, I pouted.  I slept fitfully, but at least when I woke up my feet didn’t hurt much.

Now, I know from experience that when we engage in ceremony we may not perceive anything out of the ordinary happening at the time, but that a transformation can occur days to weeks afterwards.  Reminding myself to keep my mind and my awareness open, I recounted the times I’d had exactly that kind of delayed reaction.

For the next two days I continued to wonder about why I had gotten burned and what my lesson, my big take-away, was.  My energy levels and life-force are about as high as anyone I know.  I truly was unafraid of walking through that fire.  I didn’t feel that I had sabotaged or martyred myself unconsciously.  I thought about how my wounds were centered on both arches like stigmata, yet my toes and flat of my feet were unscathed.

On the third day after the firewalk I was up early and felt exhausted already as I drove to the farm of friends to help with a day of planting tomatoes.  As I cruised along musing about what “went wrong” or if there was some additional, hidden, spiritual lesson from getting burned that I was missing, shocking words came to me:  There is no Big Magic Answer!

So much became clear in an instant.  There was no Big Magic Answer to walking through the fire without getting hurt.  I just did it, got burned a little, and did it again—helping others, enjoying myself and those around me in the excitement.  There was no missed Big Magic Answer as to why I got burned, either.  There were probably a variety of simple and Only God Knows reasons that didn’t really matter.  It. Just. Happened.—and wasn’t so bad.  I had done it and could just move on.

As I drove along I recognized a chronic fixation on waiting, hoping, searching for the mysterious, hidden, Wizard of Oz-like,  Big Magic Answers for certain things in my life when smaller, everyday answers generally would have sufficed if I’d let them.  I realized that much of the time I didn’t need any kind of “answer” at all, just action.

I understood the empty feeling and sense of missingness the Big Magic Answer quest at times left me with.  I wanted only to drink from the elusive Grail when I could have simply cupped my hands.  With a sweep of emotion, tears welling in my eyes, and my hands still on the steering wheel a major pattern in my life had surfaced:  Lack of Big Magic Answer disappointment.  (LOBMAD!)

The obvious episodes came to mind first:  My first wife’s liver transplant was to be The Big Magic Answer to save her life, wasn’t it?  For many reasons she died anyway, and I lived on.  When Kate was diagnosed with cancer, we looked for The Big Magic Answer as to why she, of all people was afflicted and hoped for The Big Magic Answer that would cure her.  She was transformed another way, and I lived on.  After her passing when I travelled out west for a month, I was searching for The Big Magic Answer to where to go and what to do with the remainder of my life.  There was none to be found, so I just came home.

I saw that occasionally my search for some all-encompassing, perfect, Big Magic Answer to a given problem or situation and not finding it would throw me into an emotional tailspin that fogged my mind, ravaged my body with stress hormones, and prevented me from walking away until I could calmly, patiently solve it.  This behavior may have been due to my subconscious reliving similar feeling unresolved traumas of critical Big Magic Answers that never came.

I recognized that I wasted time and energy in pointless attempts to divine The Cosmic Big Magic Answer for why this or that did or didn’t happen in my life when often there really was none, diverting me from living life joyfully from here to there.  On those occasions, answering took over from both doing and Being.

It was remarkable to me.  Doing the firewalking, we were told, would help us be able to overcome life’s obstacles as if firewalking was a Big Magic Answer to overcoming fear and rethinking obstacles.  I saw that Big Magic Answers like firewalking itself were my obstacles because I thought I needed them.  I just needed to let go of my desire for Big Magic Answers and use my own heart, my own courage, and my own knowing.  (“Ignore the man behind the curtain!”)  I could Live, Love, Be.

The physical and mental challenge of Firewalking itself wasn’t a life-changing answer for me, but by being willing to engage in it with open awareness I was given an important insight about myself.  Firewalking didn’t transform me because it was so extraordinary, but instead because it seemed rather, well… mundane—and that puzzled me.  As a result of my own insight, I transformed myself, seeing that the mundane can be an answer—and sublime.  That sometimes there isn’t a missing “more”, but what is already there is more than it seems.

Suddenly it was pretty clear why I was still struggling to sell my workshop machinery that I need to divest or move and store to get out of the rented Mesa building.  I had imagined my resistance might be because I was somehow psychically “attached” to them or them to me.  I considered that maybe I had some weird, immature, unconscious need to keep them around even though I hadn’t used them for years and couldn’t envision doing so in the near future.

I also thought maybe I had “artist block” that interfered with using my art and craft equipment and hoped I’d have The Big Magic Art Answer that would snap me out of it before I had to let too much go.  Obviously I was searching not only for The Big Magic Answer as to how to effortlessly and painlessly sell those tools and other great Mesa stuff, but The Big Magic Answer as to whether or not to sell them at all when they had clearly become a burden.

I had procrastinated for months as I waited for The Big Magic Answer to seamlessly vacating The Mesa and moving on to something greater when I just didn’t want to go too far into the process without the comfort of one in the form of a known destination.  Why wasn’t something written across the sky by now?

I was stuck on finding a Deus ex machina, some Big Magic Answer That Would Dramatically Change Everything for how to clear out the Mesa with a snap of my fingers.  (As I remember literally wishing I could do when I returned from the cancer hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma two years ago.)

Some part of me likely knew full well that I just had to do what I had been slowly doing right along:  Use mundane, cut-and-dried, step-by-step processes I already knew but wanted to avoid the small or large pain/boredom/inconvenience of and live through it.  Trust it.  Maybe even enjoy it.  Still, I yearned for The Big Shining All Knowing All Bases Covered Doubt Erasing No Touchbacks Magic Friggin’ Answer for my “new” life.

Like walking through that fire, I could see from my revelation, I just needed to make a move, look for small success, endure any resulting pain, learn from it, SMILE, and MOVE ON to whatever looks appropriate at that point, walking through Life’s little fires over and over again as I had already been doing.  It was never so much about fear for me, but wanting and waiting for mythical, perfect, all-encompassing, presto-change-o solutions to life’s challenges that was distracting me and holding me up.  I could pick a direction and enjoy the “happiness of pursuit” instead of sadly pursuing the elusive butterfly of happiness.

The rest of the day on the farm was exhausting and I discussed my firewalk experience with my friends as we toiled.   By the end of the day I felt purified by the sun and hard work.  (No Big Magic Answer for tying up row upon row of tomato vines!)  The next day I went to The Mesa and gave notice to my landlord that I will be moving out of the upstairs Healing Center by the end of this month.  It was not really a first step towards moving out as a friend suggested, but a highly significant middle one for me.  The Healing Center was the last part of the Mesa building we moved into and the first I shall leave.

As early as last fall I had made a start towards that end, clearing out the kitchen cupboards, turning off the refrigerator, and clearing the book cases.  The cold of winter stopped me, but this spring I had resumed the task.  I had already taken down everything off the walls and packed up the big crystals before the firewalk.  I could move the remainder downstairs in a day, and could have months and months ago, but I dragged my feet for lack of The Big Magic Answer of what life will be like for me without The Mesa.

Where did The Big Magic Answer fixation come from for me, you might ask?  Hearing adults speculate on The Big Magic Answer as to why my beloved and quite young live-in grandpa dropped dead of a heart attack when I was five may have been the start of it.  Trying to find The Way (any way) to please my ungrounded and immature parents and never having the answer they seemed to want added fuel to the fire.  But the kicker was my wishing for The Big Magic Answer to keep my family together and my father from leaving home when I was about 12.  I distinctly remember praying for it.

That answer never came and my dad left in search of his own Big Magic Answer.  He had the pattern, too.  Years after he passed, his half-sister, my aunt Shirley, felt compelled to apologize to me for what her brother “had done” to me and my family.  “I don’t know…,” she said.  “It was like he was always looking for something he just couldn’t find.  I replied that what he was looking for was HIMSELF.

Over the years a nagging feeling grew that I must be blindly overlooking something huge right there in front of me; The Big Magic Answer that was beyond what I was taught was my meager capacity for creativity, logic, success, or spiritual access.  An answer bigger than what I was deemed capable of that would bring elusive reward, love, fame, healing, wealth, joy, fulfillment, and peace on earth.  An answer too big for the likes of me.

As my life evolved my highly sensitive, inquisitive, and spiritual Piscean nature probably made things worse for me in terms of seeking The Big Magic Answer.  I came to this planet believing in Love, Optimism, and Beauty.  I have at times seen the unexplainable and miracles happen.  I’ve remembered from my soul that all of us human beings could get along in loving, sharing, caring ways and the possibility of Heaven on earth—the thing that didn’t happen with the Big Magic Answer end of the Mayan Calendar in December of 2012.  We just have to do it, change it—all of us together, with our individual small magic.

Had I been the only one stuck on finding The Big Magic Answer instead of happy, creative, smaller, workable ones?  Oh, I don’t think so!  So many things in our world have been touted as Big Magic Answers that we are accustomed to looking for them:  Nuclear power, Twin Flame Soulmates, antibiotics, juicing, multilevel marketing, The Secret, abstinence, gurus, acai berries, Fracking, Viagra, hot yoga, red wine, (No, wait—that was LAST month…) trickledown economics, alkaline water, baby aspirin, religious fundamentalism, Paleo, No Child Left Behind, Past Life Regression, social media, open carry—you name it!  (Why does the word “Panacea” come into my mind?)

At the firewalk I heard one participant excitedly blurt with no context whatsoever, “I’ve always wanted to invent something!”  Yes, invent something—anything, and nothing in particular as long as it was The Big Magic Answer to completely transform them and their life.  A Big Magic Answer without a question to go with it.

Come to think of it, I may not have come up with The Big Magic Answers I wanted, but I have invented plenty.  I designed and made tools for art and industry.  I came up with a unique style of metalwork that’s in books and museums.  I built websites.  I developed healing techniques like Guided Head Movement healing that have helped myself and others change their lives.

I even “invented” a center for creativity, holistic healing, and spiritual development called “The Mesa Creative Arts Center”.  For years I searched for The Big Magic Answers that would help more people in bigger and better ways, create a real sense of community, raise more energy, and easily make the Mesa economically equitable for all.  I never found a one, but the center grew and thrived on love, devotion to service, integrity, fun, shared abundance, gratitude, reliance on Spirit, and plain old long hours of hard work.  It was a blast!

(For those of you already lamenting the eventual closing of the Mesa for good, I remind you that neither the center nor I are your Big Magic Answer.)

Commenting on a study just released by the Mayo Clinic about the secret to happiness, Psychiatrist John Tamerin was quoted as saying, “For many people the root of everything we’re chasing, a better job, more money or true love, is happiness.”  He went on to say how this endless pursuit often backfires:  “If you lead your life always waiting for a great thing to happen, (i.e, The Big Magic Answer) you probably will be unhappy.”  The study’s basic finding?  Happiness is a choice in the moment.

It seems pretty plain to me at this point that if we are waiting for TBMA’s were are bound to end up disappointed, unhappy, and miss out on the Life that transpires while we’re waiting at the bus stop.  Give yourself credit, dear readers, for your small answers and personal magic.  Trust that they are adding up to something worthwhile.  Focus on the here, instead of the missing and find a reason to smile about it.  I encourage you to choose happiness and leave The Big Magic Answers to romp with the unicorns.

And now you’ll have to excuse me… I’ve got some fires to cross.

About Brad Silberberg

Brad Silberberg, director of The Mesa Creative Arts Center in Burgettstown, PA (Pittsburgh area) is an artist, holistic healer, spiritual leader, and change agent.
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