How to Walk on Hot Coals: The Singular Power of Belief

A history of selling the idea that positive thinking can conquer disease; and how good intentions took me across hot coals.

Robert S. Donovan/flickr

Positive thinking has been a mainstay of self-help for hundreds of years. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” A hundred years later, Henry David  Thoreau  said, “Thought is the sculptor who can create the person you want to be.” William James claimed that the greatest discovery of his generation was that “human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.”

In the latter half of the 19th century, a man named Phineas P. Quimby founded the New Thought movement. Born in 1802, Quimby was a small, black-eyed, energetic man with little formal education. A clockmaker’s apprentice, he abruptly changed careers in 1838 when he became fascinated with Mesmerism (named after Dr. Mesmer, who had attempted to cure illness using the mind, eliciting ridicule and rejection among his colleagues and eventually forcing him to leave Vienna in 1777). After practicing on a 17-year-old boy, Quimby proclaimed himself a healer, based only on his self-training. Quimby believed that disease was nothing more than an “error of the mind.” Since disease sprang from the mind, not the body, it had to be cured using the mind.

He called illness “a deception, started like all other stories without any  foundation, and  handed down from generation to generation till the people believe it, and it has become a part of their lives.” Even children were deceived by sickness. Explaining Quimby’s methods, a Bangor, Maine, paper wrote in 1857, “In the case of a young child one might say, ‘Surely here the mind can have nothing to do with the disease.’ But not so. if a child coughs, the mind is cognizant of it, and dreads it, as he would dread the fire that has just burned him; and that dread increases the tendency to cough, and thus the disease is produced.”

The upside of this theory was that disease was now easy for Quimby to cure. He would “simply converse with [the patient], and explain the causes of the troubles, and thus change the mind of the patient, and disabuse it of its errors and establish the truth in its place, which, if done, was the cure.” He called this process “the Truth.” Quimby described his method of cure in detail, referring to himself for some reason in the third person, as a doctor, and notably enamored of the recently introduced technology of the daguerreotype (which, one biography claims, he helped invent—he also claimed to have invented the circular saw):

A patient comes to see Dr. Quimby. He renders himself absent to everything but the impression of the person’s feelings. They are quickly daguerreotyped on him. They contain no intelligence, but shadow forth a reflection of themselves which he looks at. This contains the disease as it appears to the patient. Being confident that it is the shadow of a false idea, he is not afraid of it ... Then his feelings in regard to the disease, which are health and strength, are daguerreotyped onto the receptive plate of the patient, which also throws forth a shadow. The patient, seeing his shadow of the disease in a new light, gains confidence. This change of feeling is daguerreotyped onto the doctor again. This also throws forth a shadow.

This back-and-forth daguerreotyping and shadow-throwing goes on way past the point of reader tolerance, until “the light takes its place, and there is nothing left of the disease.”

Like any forward thinker, Quimby had detractors. One patient wrote that he was vilified for his ideas and “frequently threatened with mob violence.” Still, he had myriad acolytes. Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science movement, was one of his students. An 1860 article in the Lebanon, New Hampshire, Free Press declared that “his curing disease is perfectly intelligent and is in itself a new philosophy of life.” Another article, written by a patient, defends him by contextualizing the resistance to his unorthodox methodology: “It is an ancient and time-honored custom for the educated classes to oppose every new thing that they cannot comprehend and account for.”

Quimby treated more than 12,000 people using what he came to call the “Quimby method.” He evidently thought quite highly of his contributions to humanity, so much so that he made the following cringe-worthy claim in November 1861: “I am a white abolitionist. The blacks, it is true, are slaves; but their slavery is a blessing, compared with that of the sick. I have seen many a white slave that would change places with the black. The only difference is that white slavery is sanctioned by public opinion.” However deluded he may have been, Quimby laid the foundation for the belief that mental power could conquer disease, habit, and any obstacle life could conjure. His theories soon enthralled the cultural imagination.

In 1894, the first New Thought conference was held; in 1908 the national new Thought Alliance was formed. The New Thought movement was partial to what they called “mottoes.” Henry Wood, a popular New Thought author, encouraged using mottoes such as “Divine Love fills Me,” and “I am not Body.” He advocated beholding words with the “mind’s eye,” thereby “telegraphing” thoughts into one’s consciousness. Ralph Waldo Trine, one of the founders of the New Thought movement, wrote a best-selling book called In Tune with the Infinite, which offered “suggestions” for thoughts to hold in one’s mind, like “Dear everybody, I love you.” He was read by Queen Victoria and Henry Ford, who directly attributed his success to Trine’s book.

The power of positive thinking was even advertised to the younger set. In 1906, a story called “Thinking One Can” appeared in a youth magazine. After larger engines refuse to pull a train over a difficult hill, citing impossible conditions, a smaller engine volunteers. Even though it seems dubious for a little engine to accomplish what larger engines cannot, the smaller engine succeeds in pulling the train over the hill, while chanting, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” In 1930, the story reappeared with the title it still bears today: The Little Engine That Could. When we read this story to children, we teach them that positive thinking makes the impossible possible. The plot of the little engine is not inherently compelling or timeless; what has made this story endure for more than 100 years is its reinforcement of our most valued cultural beliefs.

In 1922, a Frenchman named Emile Coué introduced America to Couéism, or autosuggestion. Like Quimby, Coué believed that a regimen of self-hypnosis through affirmations could cure ailments by replacing “thoughts of ailment” with “thoughts of cure.” His  book, Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion, was an immediate best seller. Coué coined what became a famous affirmation: “Day by day in every way I’m getting better and better.”

Born in 1898, Norman Vincent Peale developed his theory of positive thinking to overcome his “inferiority complex.” The pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in new York City, Peale created the secular Guideposts magazine in 1945 as a forum for inspirational stories. He positioned himself at the intersection of religion and self-help, which magnified his message to a broader audience. When The Power of Positive Thinking came out in 1952 it stayed on the best-seller list for 186 consecutive weeks. In The Power of Positive Thinking Peale urges  the reader to “become a possibilitarian.” Regardless of how hopeless and dark things may seem, you should always keep a positive attitude. You should always imagine yourself succeeding. “Do not develop obstacles in your imagination,” he warns. Despite criticism from the psychological community, including the psychoanalyst with whom he had developed his theories, he had a weekly radio show called The Art of Living, which ran for 54 years. Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984.

* * *

One August night, a hundred teenagers and I stood in front of a giant bonfire, waiting to walk on hot coals. The weather was unusually cool, but it was hot near the fire. Kids joked around and pushed each other, but also seemed scared.

One kid to another: “It’s like a meditation thing, right?” Second kid, reassuring: “Yeah. it’s all in your mind.” He paused to reconsider. “But you should walk briskly.”

I’d arrived at the Omega Teen Camp a few hours earlier. The camp was owned and operated by the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. Well-known in self-improvement circles, the Omega Institute’s class topics range from practical (dealing with fear) to aspirational (personal growth) to just screwy (tree whispering). The teen camp aims to provide Omega fils with the self-empowerment they have provided to Omega père (upper-middle-class white folks, primarily) since 1977.

The camp was in Holmes, New York, a quiet, verdant small town with a dearth of road signage. Nancy, a tall and muscular woman, tended the fire, her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. She had tanned, rough skin, the kind you get from being outdoors all of the time, or from leaning over fire on a regular basis. She wore a baseball hat with flames on the side. Her face was blackened like a chimney sweep’s, and she wore heavy fire-retardant gloves. She carried a steel rake, and every few minutes she refreshed the coals by raking them out of the still-burning fire, as she muttered to herself, “It’s not as big as I would have liked.”

Nancy yelled at the restless crowd, “Be quiet!” The teenagers, who seemed to vacillate between periods of extreme lassitude and hyperactivity and were currently in hyperactive overdrive, resisted. “Come on, you guys,” Nancy said, “we really have to try to keep the space sacred.” She asked people who weren’t going to participate to go to the other side of the field, and reminded us that if we’d recently had a stroke or were diabetic, we should not fire walk. Also, she reminded us to take off our toe jewelry.

“A lot of people ask me, Am I going to burn myself ?” said Nancy to the large assembly. “We don’t get burnt. We get kissed. We get blessed, as a reminder of what your intention is and what you have to do. When you get up here, stand in front of the fire. Pray. Intend. Open your heart. Walk straight across with a flat foot.” She demonstrated a brisk but calm walk. “Don’t hop all funny. Don’t run. Anybody with a stroke or who has difficulty walking please do not do this. Let’s sing.”

The campers and counselors started to sing a tuneless song:

Earth my body, 
Water my blood,
Enter my breath,
And fire my spirit.

They sang this eerie dirge over and over as Nancy spread the coals. The sky grew dark, darker. I started to get chills.

Ritual fire walking dates back to 1200 BC. In the 1930s, the phenomenon was studied at London’s National Laboratory of Psychical Research, led by Harry Price, who made a study and a career out of exposing fraudulent mystical practices. Price rose to fame when he exposed William Hope’s spirit photographs as hoaxes, and conducted a “black magic” experiment in which he tried to change a goat into a young man (it didn’t work). In observing fire walking firsthand, Price set out to answer a number of questions, among them: “Is fire walking based on trickery? Can anyone do it? Do the performers prepare their feet? Can they convey their alleged immunity from burns to other persons? Does one have to be in an ecstatic or exalted position?”

The secret of fire walking turned out to be simple physics. Wood has low conductivity. Ash’s insulating capabilities and a quick pace would keep anyone from getting burned. As University of Pittsburgh physics instructor David G. Willey told me unequivocally, “You can put your hand on very, very hot coals without burning.”

Adam Simon, the camp director, was a balding, long-faced man in his fifties, with salt-and-pepper hair. Simon, who had dark eyes and a kind expression, exuded an ossified happiness one often encounters among the spiritually enlightened. He gently touched my shoulder and asked me if I was going to fire walk, adding, “The worst that can happen is a few little burns on your feet. Like if you held a match to your foot.”

I tried to arrange my features in what I thought would read as a thoughtful, sincere, fire-walk-contemplating expression. In truth, I had no intention whatsoever of walking on hot coals. My intellectual inclination to be brave and my social desire to be accepted were in every way trumped by what I considered to be a reasonable and evolutionarily sound fear of setting my feet aflame.

The peacocking males were gamely attempting to infuse this spiritual ritual with sexual overtones. one of the boys bragged, “I prefer to walk [on the coals] more slowly because it’s more spiritual.” Some of them had their shirts off. I contemplated the fact that this camp had cost their parents several thousand dollars.

As we waited for the fire to die into hot coals, I tried to interview some of the teens, who were more interested in making out with each other. Teenage bodies agglomerated like rows of barnacles. After being ignored by at least 30 sullen campers, I found two girls kind enough to answer my questions. Earlier, they explained, there had been a ceremony for lighting the fire. The girls spoke in a patois of heartfelt nonsense; something about how one sets an “intention” to walk across the fire, that said intention is about confronting your fear and finding your power, and that you must keep that intention in your heart.

“What is an intention?”

An intention, they said, almost in unison, was something like a mantra. “For instance,” explained one girl, “last year my intention was I am beautiful. I repeated that as I walked the fire. You step into a new life. You set a new intention for how to live. You feel stronger.”

“And you didn’t get hurt?”

“No. It felt like walking on a cloud. Or on warm sand.”

I was highly skeptical, and it must have come across on my face, because the other girl said, “Sometimes you get a fire kiss,” citing the camp’s sweet neologism for a burned foot, an impressive bit of linguistic  legerdemain.

“If you don’t have an intention you shouldn’t do it,” said the first girl, and they both nodded with intense gravity.

Three boys beat bongo drums by the side of the fire, creating a restive atmosphere. The teens sang their fire song with gusto, reminding me too much of Lord of the Flies. Finally Nancy interrupted the song and said, “Come on, whoever wants to walk.” They ran excitedly toward the fire in a chaotic, safety-blind fashion. “Single-file line!” shouted a female counselor with stringy blond hair, face paint, and a pierced belly button.

The kids grumbled but reluctantly organized themselves into an approximate queue. They began to walk across the coals: one at a time, over a glowing bed of embers five feet wide and eight feet long, or about three strides. There were still flames shooting from the coals. I was impressed. Some kids in line didn’t seem so focused. They horsed around, shoving each other, teasing, “What’s your intention?” But when they got close to the fire they shut up fast.

There was drumming, clapping, ululation. Each kid walked across the coals to shouts of encouragement and into the arms of two teenage girls who had formed a self-appointed reception line of hugs. (The teenage boys appeared especially psyched about this.) It was an opportunity for peer validation, which most teens don’t see the likes of in high school, and which really cannot be overestimated. They were so happy, so proud, so accepted, so close to female breasts. Fire walking was turning out to be a powerful anodyne for the particular malaise, insecurity, and disenfranchised suffering that attends being teenaged. It was surprisingly moving to me because it meant so much to them.

The campers walked on coals, several times over. As soon as they finished, they eagerly hopped back on the end of the line. I saw only one kid even hesitate. it was pitch-dark now, and the coals were glowing a deeper, more fiery red. Toward the end of the ceremony, I reluctantly joined the line. Anxiety pounded in my stomach. With only three people ahead of me, Nancy stopped the line and raked on fresh hot coals.

I was having difficulty breathing normally. Adrenaline filled my body, pricking my arms and legs with thousands of tiny, invisible needles.

The person in front of me walked on the coals. I was next. Despite my visceral fear, science won in the end. Walking on the coals didn’t hurt at all. It did feel like walking on warm sand. I was deeply relieved, and admittedly self-congratulatory. I doubt I’ll become a bungee jumper anytime soon, but I did glimpse the intense and pleasurable relief that follows an adrenaline-fueled fear.

Nancy drew the ceremony to a close. As she put out the fire, she said, “It is not our deepest fear that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond limitation.” I pondered her words. Was that true? Did I have any idea what she was talking about? Was there even any difference between her two sentences, practically speaking?

She said, calmly, with conviction, “Your purpose on earth is to reveal the glory of God, or Allah, or whoever you pray to.”

The night was over. It was so dark I couldn’t see my feet. I wiped my runny nose with a sock. Nancy said, “Show the world your light.” The teens cheered and clapped and I thought I heard someone clanging a cowbell.

* * *

My father has always faced challenges with a blend of optimism and silliness that often involved writing songs about problems in- stead of facing them. As a child, I found this pleasing. When my malevolent stepbrother, a teenager so angry he always seemed one tantrum away from a manslaughter charge, tormented the household with his moods, my father made up a song. I don’t remember how it went; only that we used to sing it in the car with gusto. When he and my current stepmother  had problems, he made up the song “Leavin’ Love Alone.” This one I do remember some lyrics to, probably because I learned to play it on the piano, where we would sing it when she wasn’t home. It had a bluesy, mournful tone:

I’m packing my bags
I’m leaving today
If the postman tries to find me
Tell him I moved far away
I’m going to New Orleans
It’s the city of  music and dreams
I’ll drown my sorrow in a bottle of beer
And a plate of catfish and beans
’Cause I’m leavin’, I’m leavin’ love alone . . .

My father neither packed his bags nor drowned his sorrows in a plate of catfish and beans, but these little alternate universes, simple and ridiculous, floated over the landscape, keeping us entertained and distracted. They also kept us permanently stranded in the very situations they temporarily helped us escape. Positive thinking can look an awful lot like old-fashioned denial. What we called optimism often caused a kind of cognitive dissonance I later came to call “the fog.” Being in the fog felt like that last moment of consciousness before you fall asleep. You are just on the verge of seeing something, but then it disappears and you forget it. The fog protected me from seeing that our attitudes didn’t always reflect our reality. Just when I was on the verge of anger or sadness, the fog washed over me until I felt light and pleasantly confused.

Ultimately, affirmations and believing in the power of one’s mind should be used as only part of an arsenal of tools against despair, an arsenal that includes admitting despair. Recently, I asked my dad why he had been so relentlessly positive in my younger years, and why he had constantly loaded even our most casual conversations with imperative affirmations. Was he just teasing me? He responded via e-mail:

Hi friend,

As corny as it was, I was trying to convey that you had the responsibility and the power to shape your own life.

The context, of course, was that [my second wife, now ex] was acting crazy, the situation with [my third wife] was nuts. In other words, you were being buffeted around by a storm of neurotics, and I wasn’t sure I was helping much. As you recall, I also like to repeat phrases over and over again, as did my Dad.

Love, Your Dad

There are undeniable benefits to positive thinking—increased life span, decreased depression, less stress. It’s even thought to stave off heart attacks and common colds. Sometimes the difference between the glass half-full or half-empty is a simple shift in perspective. Yet life is full of ups and downs, and there is something inhuman about addressing each obstacle with the same set of tools. Is there not value and even joy to be found in negative thinking, bitchy gossip, schadenfreude,  aggression?

Considering the pleasures of negativity reminded me of a story a counselor at the Omega Teen Camp had told me. This counselor was in charge of the oldest boys, whom he described as “the ones who bring drugs and have sex.” A particular camper had been breaking rules all summer, constantly challenging the counselor’s authority. Finally, he’d had enough. The counselor knew that said teen had plans to sneak off into the woods after the counselors were asleep, so said counselor corralled other end-of-their-rope counselors and, after said teen pretended to go to sleep for the night, they set about creating the most giant and complicated booby trap, which involved items as varied as benches and tambourines, and which made the phrase “booby trap” seem particularly apt, given the circumstances.

They called it Operation Cock Block. “He stayed up until seven in the morning trying to figure out how to get out of the cabin,” said the counselor, laughing, unable to conceal his glee. Then, maybe because he was so palpably pleased and I was a complete stranger, he amended, “normally I wouldn’t have cared that much, but this kid’s been giving me trouble all session. I shouldn’t say this, because the camp’s about positivity—but his spirit was crushed and I was happy.”

This post is adapted from Jessica Lamb-Shapiro's Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture.