Walking Through the Fire

Saturday March 23, 2013

In June last year, our co-founder and CEO, Abby White, participated in a firewalk workshop to raise money for our programs in Kenya.  She wrote an article for a local magazine and for the blog of the event leader, Tony Simons.  We have been asked to share the article on this blog, so here it is – enjoy!

LifeCourage Firewalk

“You are a maniac”.  “I could never do that”.  “You are so much braver than me”.  Some of the reactions I received on telling people I walked barefoot across hot coals last Friday.

Firewalking is used in purification ceremonies and as a rite of passage in cultures worldwide.  For example, Kalahari bushmen believe when their life energy equals that of the fire, they will not be burned, while Tibetan Buddhist monks walk on fire as part of a clarifying meditation.

For Tony Simons, firewalking is a tool to break down personal barriers and nourish self belief.  Tony is a certified firewalk instructor, professor of organizational behaviour and applied psychology at Cornell University, and author of The Integrity Dividend.  I met him last Thursday when he spoke at a business breakfast in Oxford on the importance of integrity in business relations.

The following day, Tony co-hosted a firewalking workshop with Heather Allen, his Integrity Dividend research assistant and Chief Executive of innovative Oxfordshire based consultancy firm TheWowFactor.  A background in nursing care and social work, combined with visionary leadership skills and motivating words make Heather instantly approachable and inspiring.  Together, she and Tony offered me the incredible opportunity to participate in the workshop.

I accepted their invitation because my confidence has been severely knocked recently by my sight succumbing to late effects of radiotherapy.  I am responsible for the leadership of a small international children’s cancer charity and need to do all I can to protect what confidence remains, and build it back up.

Tony believes five steps are essential to achieve any goal: setting intentions, visualizing success, establishing trust, pushing through discomfort, and letting go of fear.  He has been leading LifeCourage workshops for two years, guiding participants through challenges representing these five steps.

I was given a wooden board of 12” square and 1″ thick, and invited to write upon it the barriers I wanted to break through by attending the workshop.  Fear of losing my sight; lack of confidence, lack of trust… I marshalled other significant barriers in my mind.

To purposefully visualize success in breaking through these barriers, we were invited to break the board.  Not with a hammer or saw, but with one bare hand.  Surely not – my board would probably be the only one to not break, or I would make a spectacle of myself by performing the action incorrectly.  I grabbed a pen and hastily added “fear of failure” to my board!

Acknowledging my poor sight, Tony suggested I practice the manoeuvre without the board resting on the cinder block platform.  This gave me a sense of distance and the power required.  The room filled with encouraging noise as I focused on the board, still sceptical about my potential for success.

My hand mentally gathered up every toxic emotion within me, and slammed the heal downwards.  Miraculously, my board broke into two pieces.  I felt no discomfort, no sense that my hand had just met solid wood at great speed.  An awesome wave of empowered satisfaction engulfed my being, creating an acute awareness that this night would be like no other in my experience.

Establishing trust is vital when we rely on others.  I am currently training with my first guide dog, and must trust her completely as we navigate the world together.  I must trust my international team as we work together to build best possible care for children.  They and the many families I interact with must be able to trust me.  Yet trust is so hard to grow – or so I thought.

Would you trust complete strangers to catch you if you fell backwards from a height of about 3ft?  For me, this was a greater challenge than walking on fire.  Standing with my hands clasped at my chest to protect the catchers, , I prayed for trust to come to me.

Four of my fellow participants had already honoured me with their trust, though they barely knew me and in spite of my disability.  My experience as a catcher inspired confidence to return that trust.

“Fall away” came the collective invitation from those waiting to gather me into their arms.  I closed my eyes and let the centre of gravity move through my feet and into my back.  No time to experience fear in the fall before outstretched hands caught me and lowered me to my feet again.

Tony’s inspiring words and skilful direction had woven us all together – some friends of many years and those who met just two hours before.  We were working as a team, totally focused on each other’s safety and wellbeing.  How was this possible?

I believe personal limitations impact how we interact with those around us.  We were all being led out of our comfort zone, all looking for understanding, acceptance and encouragement.  I believe that vulnerability allowed us to be comfortable with one another on simple terms.

So I have stated my intentions and learned to trust more, but still I must accept my failing sight.  Our charity too has set clear goals and created a marvellous team, but still the path ahead is fraught with great challenges – poverty, fear, ignorance, complacency, apathy, politic, greed, arrogance and competition, limited resources.  One could easily throw hands in the air and cry “it is too much – we cannot succeed”.

Tony challenges participants to push forward, even when it becomes uncomfortable.  He presented me with a cedarwood archer’s arrow, placing the nooked end against a wall.  I placed the rounded tip in the hollow of my throat, and my absolute trust in Tony’s hands.  Walking towards the wall went against natural instinct as fear of being impaled welled up, but Tony reassured that doing so would cause only moderate transient discomfort.

I thought of the arrow’s red and gold fletchings – to me they embodied life and death challenges of retinoblastoma.  In that moment, the arrow became a symbolic barrier to our goals, a rough pass to be overcome with hope.

Gingerly, I stepped towards the wall.  Motivational noise whipped up, spurring me onward despite the stinging in my neck as the arrow began to bend.  Suddenly, a decisive snap broke the tension, and pain was gone.  Cheers, hugs and affirming praise wrapped around me as the two pieces of arrow were tied together – my souvenir symbol of “stick-ability”.

Success at each task concocted a strange mixture of excitement and peace.  I felt safe with the people around me, and trusted that Tony would not cause us harm.  I was ready to contemplate the firewalk.

In the gathering night, we lit the ready-laid fire, adding our broken boards in a potent act of commitment to ourselves.  I gave the fire my blessing and lifted my prayers above it to my watching God.

For 90 minutes, the wood burned down, before being raked into a smooth path of glowing coals.  Tony walked us mentally though the fire with a vital safety briefing.  No running, striding, dancing, jumping or hopping – nothing but steady regular pace.  No flash photography on the first walk as this can dangerously startle the nervous firewalker.

We shared motivational statements with energetic gusto, followed by cheering that my guide dog joined in excitement.  Annie’s happy barks sparked  therapeutic laughter throughout the room.

We also learned a Native American friendship chant, a beautifully simple meditation to sing together in mutual encouragement.

Never at any point in the evening did I feel pressured to undertake a challenge.  I stood at the head of the firewalk fettered only by intense fear of fire.  Three hours before, the thought of walking on burning coals absolutely terrified me, but those fears seemed to hold less power in the cool night air, surrounded by these wonderful people.

“Courage is not the absence of fear” says Tony.  “It is the realisation that something else is more important”.

When faced with the final decision, I pushed myself to face my fears because nourishing my confidence is more important than staying comfortable.  I had a choice to walk away at every moment in the process, but the names and faces of children (and their family members) who can’t walk away from the fire inspired me to step forward.

Heather walked on my right and Tony on my left, their upturned palms barely touching mine to guide me along the three metre path of fire.

I sang through the friendship chant four times before stepping forward, allowing myself space to breath deeply within the harmony of voices and be filled by their peace.  I caught a voice inside me saying “when you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (Isaiah 43:2), and knew I was ready.

Burning coals exceed 1,000°F.  I had a vague sensation of discomfort under my bare feet, but refused to explore those sensations further.  I walked steadily, focused only on the words I was singing.

Cool rain saturated grass was almost a rude interruption, and the moment I stepped off the fire, I wanted to walk it again.  I was dazed by the enormity of what I had just achieved, but the elation that quickly followed was epic.  I had literally walked through one of my greatest fears and metaphorically stomped all over many more.

I walked the fire twice more before the night ended!

Walking across glowing coals was a profoundly empowering experience, demanding that I pay attention to this one present moment, without considering what came before or what might follow.  Each moment sparkled as the coals glowed against the velvet night.  That sparkle has remained, giving a heightened awareness of the world and appreciation for it.

Tony’s workshop gives people resources and skills to tap into their inner courage.  I walked through fire and emerged unscathed.  I already had the courage to move forward, but I now understand how to bring it to the surface to sustain me.  My ultimate challenge is to apply in daily life what I have learned about myself through this extraordinary experience.

Perhaps I am a maniac, but a little eccentricity is no bad thing.  I am definitely no braver than any of my friends, and I did not do something you could not also do.  I’m sure success was largely a result of being surrounded by encouragement.  So surround yourself with great friends, pay attention to your relationships, honour them with your trust and allow them to encourage you forward – even in rough times when you think you can’t take another step.  They will help you discover your inner courage and enable you to fly.

If you think Abby’s firewalk is an achievement worth celebrating, please consider making a donation to World’s Eye Cancer Hope, because children and their families have no choice but to walk the fire, and they cannot do it alone!  Simply click on the photo below to find out how to donate.

Do not attempt to firewalk without a trained leader. Firewalking requires an experienced professional instructor who can safely conduct the walk itself, and support participants through the intense personal experience.

Tony Simons is a certified firewalk instructor.  He leads monthly LifeCourage workshops at the Foundation of Light in Ithaca, NY. Below is a video taster of the evening Abby experienced. If you are interested, you can find out more and book a session.

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