A few years ago, I remember hearing an item on the radio, as I was driving home, about several people who were being treated for burns following a fire-walk ceremony at some self-improvement retreat. I remember thinking that at the time that, despite what they may have been told at the event, it was probably a very foolish thing to decide to walk across those red-hot coals.
Many people do manage to complete their fire-walks without any injury whatsoever and the reason they can do it has absolutely nothing to do with their mental powers. It is simply a fact that you probably won’t get burned provided that you stay in motion at a fast enough rate. I remember an expert being questioned about it on TV here in the UK. The TV program asked him if he was prepared to ‘put his money where his mouth was’ so to speak. He duly walked across a bed of red hot coals without any mental preparation at all.
This kind of experience is designed to get people to think about what they believe they can and cannot do. Fire-walking is a tactic that has been used by, amongst others, Tony Robbins and his view is that if you can walk across fire, it can change your thinking about what it is possible for you to achieve. You are supposed to start asking yourself what else you can achieve that you previously thought was impossible for you – that’s the basic idea.
People might naturally think that they cannot walk across red-hot coals or that they cannot karate chop a thick wooden board into two pieces without any formal training or that they cannot swim beneath a boat in an ice-cold loch. I have seen all of these tactics used by people who purport to teach motivation. Whilst the understanding that our own beliefs can be a significant obstacle to achieving success is an important lesson, my own view is that you simply don’t need to expose yourself to danger in order to reach that understanding.
In fact, I did actually karate chop a board into two pieces myself on one occasion. It was when a so-called motivational expert visited the company I worked for at the time. He had a number of people come out to the front to break the boards. The first two people managed it without any difficulty; the third person tried three times without success and so I volunteered to break the board. It was not difficult. What did it prove? In my opinion: nothing! The boards they use are designed to break. The reason the lady before me was not able to break the board was a simple matter of leverage.
That brings me to the case of James Arthur Ray. You may be aware that this fellow was an advocate of using extreme experiences in a slightly different way. His idea appears to have been to get people to endure something genuinely dangerous in order for them to feel a kind of rebirth experience when they had successfully emerged. It is, as I understand, a technique that certain religious groups have also used in the past.
One notorious experience favoured by Ray is the sweat lodge. Loosely based on some ancient Red Indian ceremony, participants endure a kind of extreme sauna in which they are subjected to a prolonged period of intense heat. Sadly, some of those people who were looking to improve their lives paid with their lives. At one of these sessions, in October 2009, two people died and another person subsequently died after being comatose for a week! In addition, 18 other people suffered burns, dehydration, breathing difficulties and kidney failure.
For his part, Ray was convicted of three counts of ‘negligent homicide’. It adds insult to injury to learn that those who participated in the sweat lodge had fasted for 36 hours before the event, had spent a night alone in the Arizona desert during a ‘vision quest’ and – get this – had paid up to $10,000 for the privilege.
You might say that nobody forced those people to do what they did. It’s also true that I have no first-hand information on what tactics might have been used to suggest that this extremely foolish undertaking might be somehow beneficial. But these deaths are a stark reminder to us all that some things never change. People are always looking for a leader to follow, convinced that someone else knows better than they.
It may be easy for us, separated from the situation by time and perspective, to clearly see the folly of these methods. If you feel repulsed, shocked and perhaps even a little angry at the idea that there are people engaged in doing this kind of stuff, just be sure you remember that feeling. Carry it with you for the rest of your life and anytime someone suggests something that seems a little dangerous to you as a route to achieving some greater level of insight into who you are and what you need to do to make some kind of progress in your life, recognise that you are dealing with someone who is, at best, misguided.
You don’t need to fire-walk, you don’t need to break boards and you don’t need to swim under boats in a cold lake. You don’t need any kind of extreme experience to discover who you are, why you are here and what you should be doing with your life. And you certainly don’t need some self-proclaimed guru telling you otherwise.