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Get action. Do things; be sane, don’t fritter away your time . . .
take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.
—THEODORE ROOSEVELT, twenty-sixth president of the United States
In 1973, on an eighty-nine-day cruise around the world, I met a very special person. He was Bruce (Tolly) Burkan, the ship’s magician. I had been hired to design and direct theatrical productions on the cruise ship.
When the ship docked in India, Bruce rushed off to spend time with a guru by the name of Si Baba. Upon his return, he told me stories of miracles. He read passages to me from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. He introduced me to a life-enhancing work entitled A Course in Miracles. I thought he was pretty strange, but after the cruise, we kept in touch.
Years later I learned that Bruce had become a celebrity in Sweden teaching ﬁre walking. He sent me photos. One showed Bruce apparently walking across ﬂaming cinders, and another was a picture of him leading someone else across the hot coals. I was skeptical. What was the trick?
Six months later he returned to his home in a remote part of upstate California. (Where else would someone live who taught ﬁre walking?) He phoned me in New Jersey and informed me that he was going to be presenting the ﬁrst ﬁre-walking workshop ever given in the United States. There would be about forty participants, and I was welcome to join the group. He assured me the experience would be of great value in all aspects of my life.
What made me even more uncomfortable than the thought of walking on ﬁre was the language he was using—vision, empowerment, personal power, breakthrough, and creating reality. I wasn’t familiar with the terminology and the mere thought of revealing my innermost self in public made me feel not only uncomfortable but threatened.
I told Bruce that I was giving a lecture that day. Years later he told me that he knew I was lying; he could hear the fear in my voice. Nevertheless, he wouldn’t take no for an answer, so reluctantly I agreed to go.
The workshop was to take place at some ‘‘touchy-feely’’ nature retreat, yet another reason I didn’t want to go. I tried to get a friend to go with me, but he didn’t take the bait. So off I went. Alone.
I deliberately tried to be late, but I didn’t quite succeed. I arrived at the retreat in plenty of time and was directed to a small cabin in the woods.
I was greeted by an unexpected cast of characters. There were six people from the military in full uniform; eleven senior managers, including two CEOs from Fortune 500 companies; several scientists; and a couple of educators and doctors. The group consisted of thirty-six men and four women. Everyone was dressed very formally except me.
The cabin had a dirt ﬂoor. There was a ﬂip chart and forty sawed-off tree stumps that served as stools to sit on. Thirty-nine stumps were occupied. I sat on the fortieth.
Bruce entered the room. He had shaved his head bald and was wearing what appeared to be a dress. I silently prayed he would not say hello to me.
Gazing at the group with love and self-conﬁdence, he said, ‘‘I know what you’re all thinking.’’
I still seriously doubt if he could ever have imagined what we were thinking at that moment. ‘‘This workshop is not just about walking on ﬁre,’’ he went on.
‘‘This experience is to be a metaphor for your life. You will discover how your thoughts inﬂuence your actions and how, in turn, those actions affect other people. You will learn how to pay attention, create a vision for breakthrough thinking, and turn fear into power.’’
For years I had worked as a clinical hypnotist and dealt with people on a deeply therapeutic level. I had developed and facilitated several workshops on self-esteem and personal growth. I knew then and I am certain now that what primarily keeps people from going to their next highest level is fear. What intrigued me was Bruce’s concept of turning fear into power.
For almost three hours we were lectured to and shown demonstrations about the power of the mind. Then abruptly Bruce announced that we were going outside to build a ﬁre.
There was a sudden shift in attitude. The makings of a team began to take shape. He guided us as a group to a woodshed, where each of us picked up a bundle of wood and deposited it where we were directed. Bruce splashed the pile of wood with something ﬂammable and threw in a match.
Whoosh! The pile of wood exploded into ﬂame.
Wow, I thought. That’s real. I knew at that moment that, like me, everyone was confronted by reality.
We went back into the cabin and, for the next hour or so, while the ﬁre burned, we played some more mind games. First we were told we could walk across hot coals, then we were presented with pictures of failure. Then we were reunited with the positive.
After a while Bruce told us to prepare ourselves. ‘‘I want you all to remove your shoes and socks,’’ he instructed. ‘‘Gentlemen should roll up their pants legs. If your clothes come within a foot and a half or less of the ﬁre, they will burst into ﬂame.’’ He glanced at us. ‘‘We don’t want that, do we?’’
At that moment everyone in the room regressed. We became scared, excited children. He led us, barefoot, out to the ﬁre and told us to stand in a circle. Standing in the center of the clearing with a rake, Bruce requested we all hold hands.
That was my ﬁrst truly uncomfortable moment. Holding hands with a group of strangers is not my idea of fun, and it was even less fun for some other people in the group.
Bruce looked around the circle and said, ‘‘Now we are going to chant.’’
Holding hands is uncomfortable enough, but chanting really makes me feel foolish.
‘‘And here’s the chant we’re going to do,’’ he continued. ‘‘ ‘Open up your mind. See what you ﬁnd. Bring it on home to your people.’ ’’
Picture, if you will, forty resistant adults, holding hands while standing barefoot around a ﬁre and reluctantly mumbling, ‘‘Open up your mind. See what you ﬁnd. Bring it on home to your people.’’
Eventually we got into the spirit, partly because the chant had a rhythm to it, but mainly because it went on for nearly an hour.
Bruce picked up the rake and moved toward the ﬁre. It was so hot he had to reach out, using the rake as an extension of his arm, to avoid the intense heat. He knocked off one partially burning log and then another. As he was raking, we were chanting; and I was making my ﬁrst mistake: I was observing. Instead of being totally absorbed in the process, I was being a spectator, judging and letting my thoughts overwhelm me.
Within minutes I noticed that a signiﬁcant number of our group had taken a little mind-vacation. Their eyeballs rolled back and they were chanting away. ‘‘Open up your mind. See what you ﬁnd. . . .’’ And so forth.
Bruce ﬁnished raking out a bed of coals that seemed to go on forever but was, in reality, approximately twenty feet long and two feet wide. Putting down his rake, he clapped his hands and pulled us back to attention. ‘‘I’m going to walk ﬁrst,’’ he declared. ‘‘When the spirit moves you, you can walk.’’ He raised his arms. ‘‘Now chant.’’ And chant we did.
What followed was the most powerful sight I have ever seen. Bruce stepped to the edge of the hot coals, calmly focused his attention somewhere in the distance, lifted up his caftan, and walked, slowly and deliberately, across the burning coals. He stepped off, crossed his arms, and waited.
No one moved. No spirits were moving anyone to walk on that ﬁre.
My mind was racing a mile a minute. I knew I had to walk because I had told everyone I knew that I was going to walk on ﬁre. So the question was not ‘‘if,’’ but ‘‘when?’’
I determined to wait until ﬁfteen people had walked. If they made it without screaming and running off into the woods, I would do it. Waiting for twenty to walk would make me a bit of a wimp, but ﬁfteen made sense. I could still tell everyone I was one of the ﬁrst.
No one moved. I was suddenly re-experiencing past events of my life when I didn’t have the courage to act. I made a decision: This would be my personal breakthrough. I would walk . . . third.
I waited. Still no one moved. Time crept by and I suddenly did something incredibly spontaneous. Some may even call it stupid. A little voice in my head screamed, ‘‘GO FOR IT!’’ I jumped out of the circle and stopped in front of the pathway of hot coals.
Let me tell you the difference between fear and terror. You can still function with fear; terror paralyzes you. As I stared at the red-hot coals, one thought kept repeating over and over: ‘‘I’m going to burn myself.
I’m going to burn myself.’’ Then my attention shifted to the trees. I realized I had been holding my breath. That’s what terror does. I started talking to myself: ‘‘Okay, Mapes, get yourself together. Breathe. You teach this to people. Use your stuff.’’
I looked at the coals again. I’m going to burn myself. Then I tried to employ what can be the greatest joke of the human mind . . . positive thinking.
I’ll tell you a secret. Positive thinking does not work for negative thinkers. It only makes them feel guilty. Positive thinking works for positive thinkers. Try telling a negative thinker to look at the water glass as half full instead of half empty, or to make lemonade out of lemons. Try telling that to a negative, fear-abed thinker who has just lost his or her job after thirty years or has just had some personal tragedy, and you may just get a black eye.
Standing there, I remembered something Bruce had drilled in to us throughout the workshop. ‘‘See yourself already across the ﬁre. See yourself already where you want to be.’’ Very simple. At that moment I was able to see myself across the coals and on the other side. I launched forth.
I remember only the ﬁrst two steps, and admittedly they were warm. Suddenly I was on cool grass. I had done it. I had walked on ﬁre.
I felt a powerful emotion welling up within me and I burst into tears. It was the release of all that tension. That twenty-foot walk was an incredible experience for me. Not just because it was possible, but because I had really believed it was impossible.
This experience changed my deﬁnition of ‘‘impossible’’ forever. My ability to walk on hot coals implanted a mechanism deep in my subconscious, a mechanism that, from time to time when needed, reminds me to challenge my assumptions.
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