Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Taking a firewalk on the wild side with Tony Robbins

To say that I am not a big believer in those ‘power of positive thinking’ self-help seminars is to understate my feelings.

My exposure to them has been blessedly limited to a couple of work sessions in which charlatans outside experts were brought in to help us think our way out of tough situations. Like having aging technology and no money to invest in our products or marketing, in a market where all our competitors had shiny new products and deep pockets. Problems that, as any savvy business person knows, can be easily overcome by thinking lovely thoughts. (Think outside the poor-box, ladies and gentlemen!)

Would it surprise you to learn that my role at these bullshit off-sites incredible opportunities to learn was to play devil’s advocate?

It’s over a decade since I last participated in such torture an engrossing event, yet I can still recall exactly how I felt being there. 

Much earlier, when I was in college, a friend and I went to an introductory Scientology seminar. When they brought out the e-meter – a black box that looked something like a Geiger counter with a couple of Donald Duck juice cans connected to it -   used to detect someone’s “basic” (i.e., the thing in their life that is holding them back) we were laughing so hard we almost fell off of our chairs. At which point the person conducting the session announced that, because he had gone up several rungs on the L. Ron Hubbard ladder, he was now sharp enough to detect that there was some hostility in the audience. (Since even without the benefits of Scientology, my friend and I were already capable of detecting hostility, we fled before the sicced the goon squad on us.)

Which is not to say that Tony Robbins, a renowned motivational speaker, has anything to do with Scientology. I have not reason to believe that he’s clear or an Operating Thetan. (However, I would like to note that Tom Cruise has been referred to as Scientology’s Tony Robbins.)

What Tony Robbins is is enormously successful, and part of his schtick is firewalking, which is a highlight of his Unleash the Power Within seminars.

Firewalking, for those unfamiliar with it, is an ancient ritual in which people walk over a bed of hot coals without getting burned. It may sound like a big deal, but mostly it’s not. 

As I learned from the Discovery Network:

Firewalking is an ancient practice, part of spiritual and religious traditions around the world. Today, it's also become part of leadership retreats and management seminars. The basic theme is mind over matter -- with enough confidence or spiritual training, the fire can't hurt you. And while people who firewalk often report feeling a sense of empowerment or spiritual progress, there's also a physical explanation for what's happening.

…Typically, firewalking takes place on a bed of wood embers that have burned down, coating themselves with a thick layer of ash. This ash acts like an insulator, making it harder for the coals to transfer their heat to the walkers' feet. It's like the difference between sticking your finger straight into a cup of hot coffee and wrapping your hand around your coffee mug.

Time is also a factor. Firewalkers tend to move at a brisk pace. They don't run -- so their feet don't dig down into the coals -- but their feet don't spend a lot of time in contact with the embers, either. While they're in contact, the coals raise the temperature of the firewalker's feet through conduction. But since the firewalker quickly moves his or her feet away from the coals, the temperature of the skin typically doesn't have time to rise to a point that it causes injury.

This doesn't make firewalking foolproof, though.

And it’s not Tony Robbins-proof, either.

After a recent day of unleashing the power within, a number of the 6,000 (yes, 6,000) participants decided to take a midnight walk on the wild side. 21 people were treated for burns, some for second- and third-degree burns. Three of them were hospitalized.

"I heard wails of pain, screams of agony," one of the attendees, Jonathan Correll, 25, told the Mercury News.

One woman seemed to be in so much pain "it was horrific," he added.

"It was people seriously hurting, like they were being tortured," the newspaper quoted Correll as saying. "First one person, then a couple minutes later another one, and there was just a line of people walking on that fire. It was just bizarre, man." (Source: US News/MSNBC)

Robbins released a statement about how they had been “safely providing this experience for more than three decades…in the safest way possible” blah, di, blah, blah.

And of course the true believers didn’t have the same impression as Jonathan Correll.

"Overcoming something like that, it's a breakthrough," Henry Guasch, 19, told the Mercury News. Guasch added that he got a minor burn when he slowed his pace in the middle of the field.

Guasch and another participant, Andrew Brenner, told the newspaper that faith and concentration were the keys to not getting singed.

Oh, ye of little faith. You’re the ones that get your soul-less soles singed.

Slate weighed in on the hot-foot:

If you stand on a hot coal for too long instead of moving quickly or if there are any bits of metal, wood, or sap (which are better thermal conductors than coal) in the fire, you could get burned. The same is true if a hot piece of coal gets stuck to your foot during the walk. The scope of Robbins’ firewalk in San Jose—6,000 people sharing a dozen 10-foot-long lanes of coals—might have made it more likely for firewalkers to get held up on the coals, increasing their chance of being injured. (Most traditional firewalking rituals involve only one dozen to two dozen people on a single lane of coals.) Also, minor burns and blisters are common results of even successful firewalking.

As for whether your mental state impacts how gets burned:

Robbins has written that “people change their physiology by changing their beliefs,” and one of the burned firewalkers interviewed by the San Jose Mercury News explained his injury by saying that he “didn't get into the right state.” But physicists and anthropologists who have participated in firewalks deny that any particular state of mind is required for successful firewalking, so long as the coals are properly prepared and you don’t stay in the fire too long.

I don’t suppose this will tarnish any of the glow…

And while I doubt I’ll ever pay Tony Robbins to unleash the power within me. But if I do, I think I’ll keep my shoes on.

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