Women On Fire

by Peggy Dylan

The women of the Appenzel area of Switzerland getting their right to vote in 1991 .

The dark clouds rend apart like gossamer fabric being torn by an invisible hand, allowing the full moon to paint silver on the alpine glaciers. One hundred fifty women gathered, circled, drums beating like hearts, breath steaming in the midnight air.

The fire burned in our midst, a big fire, a strong fire, red like our blood, strong like our desire for healing, our desire for a world where our children could walk in safety and beauty.

The first firewalk in Switzerland. Swiss women standing in a circle, hearts on fire, on a meadow in the Alps, held by a larger circle of mountains all around us. I began to rake out the coals. Sparks flew, joining the stars in a swirling symphony of movement.

Stopped and looked at the faces, features so distinct in the firelight, mirroring disbelief, hope, anticipation and, running through all of it, an open trusting in the possibility of the miraculous. It brought tears to my eyes. I was raised in Switzerland when women did not have the right to vote. The last area, a mountainous region called the Appenzel, finally surrendered in 1991 when thirty women sued for the right to have a voice in their own destiny.

To stand in that circle of women was a gift for me, to be able to give back to the country of my youth, to be able to empower the feminine here in these mountains which inspired me, nourished, comforted and challenged me.

Many major shifts in the collective conception of spirituality occurred in Switzerland. Calvinism and Lutheranism, the first major breaks with the Catholic Church, began here in the Middle Ages. Carl Jung lived in the same town I did and his dream analysis changed our perception of our relationship to our unconscious. I had my first experience of self-realization while living here, which fueled my exploration of consciousness and my teaching, and finally led me to firewalking in 1982.

Despite my previous experiences of illumination, my work with Western teachers and mystics in India, and my forages into shamanism in both North and South America, when I walked on fire for the first time I felt such a shift, an opening of a door to unexplored possibilities, that I knew I had to make it more widely available. I began a partnership, which was the catalyst for spreading the firewalk in the West. We began an incredible journey with the fire, learning about its healing capacities and its demand for respect and focus. We also began training instructors in order to make the firewalk as widely available as possible.

“People who have that spiritual connection, especially women, now need to embrace this world and bring our tenderness and our perspective to it. The firewalk teaches us how.”

In Peruvian shamanism the spiritual path is symbolized by three animals: the snake, the puma and the condor. The snake stands for shedding our past, the puma for physical plane mastery and, in the stage of the condor, we spread our spiritual wings. The firewalk is the best puma practice I’ve found, teaching us to use our untapped energy with previously unimagined results.

I have continued my adventure with the fire through my trainings, as I see that the focus of the puma is missing in many wanderers on this Path of spirit. People who have that spiritual connection, especially women, now need to embrace this world and bring our tenderness and our perspectives to it. The firewalk teaches us how.

I feel deeply honored to be credited with being the originator of the Western firewalking movement, and at all times want to acknowledge the richness of its heritage. This ancient ritual has been used for thousands of years, in intense healing rituals accompanied by wild drumming under African skies, to soft droning chants in the Himalayas as monks walk 108 times across the glowing coals. In Fiji the girls walked supported by their clan as initiation rights to womanhood, here in North America both the Zuni and Cherokee walked on coals in secret rituals and the Kahunas, the mystics of the Hawaiian Islands, walked on lava affirming their love for Pele, the Goddess of the land and fire.

“Firewalking has always been practiced in the context of spiritual, emotional or physical healing. It is as powerful and inexplicable today as it was in pre-history.”

Science has attempted to explain it with varied success. They’ve come up with answers both plausible and absurd: from calluses and sweat on the bottom of the feet to the lack of conductivity of the coals. The best explanation I’ve heard comes from the !Kung, the Bush people of the Kalahari Desert in Africa, whom I consider master firewalkers. At the conclusion of their all night rituals, which include circle-dances around the fire and chanting, walking and dancing through the fire and rubbing the coals on their bodies to generate the healing heat, they practice laying on of hands with results that Western medicine would consider a miracle.

The !Kung say what makes firewalking possible is when our n/um equals the n/um of the fire. The best translation for n/um I’ve found is energy. When our energy equals the energy of the fire we can walk safely on it. When our energy equals the challenge at hand, be it illness, relationship, environmental disaster or emotional despair, the real firewalks of our lives, when our energy is equal to the energy bound up in the task at hand, change or healing will occur.

I wish the scientific community would desist in attempting to debunk the firewalk and would put its wealth of resources into exploring the truly intriguing question: How do we generate this energy, this n/um, which makes firewalking possible, puts cancer into remission, inspires and uplifts, and how can we focus that energy to achieve our desired outcomes in life? After leading thousands across the coals I have observed that after a firewalk, when people have done something they previously thought impossible, that impetus allows them to break through barriers in other arenas where accomplishment previously seemed impossible. I also attribute the unusual capacity for healing and change and the energy level people experience at the conclusion of a firewalk to the fact that we are stepping into a tradition which has been practiced by shamans, priests, healers, medicine people and people in ecstatic states since before recorded history. These people have established a relationship to firewalking in the collective unconscious of the human race, which we access when crossing the coals, allowing the door between realities to open, and the wondrous to occur.

There was a woman recently who came to her second firewalk. She had originally walked with a student of mine. She had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis since she was a child and had been on pain killers since the onset of her illness. The night after the walk was the first she slept through without waking to take the pills, she has been pain free since and the doctors say her arthritis is in remission. She says it is healed. This is but one story out of thousands professing to the healing capacities of the fire. The firewalk is a perfect symbol for our times when it seems like the fires of life are burning out of control.

We women have a tendency to pull back from physical challenges, to recoil from the horrors currently facing the human race. This is not a time when we can afford to pull away. We need to step out and bring our balance to this world so thirsty for the feminine perspective.

The firewalk tells us to step into the fire, that hesitation is the robber that fear steals away power. If we but step into the fires in our lives, we will be given the energy, the power, the n/um to overcome, to heal, to soothe those fires that seem presently so uncontrollable to us. The last of the clouds seem to be swept away, a few linger on the mountains behind us, the glaciers shine in the moonlight. A blanket of stars spans the sky. I have raked the coals, the wind blows across the bed fanning the embers into a path of gems in the dark. Anticipation, n/um, growing steadily in the women around me as the drums are now joined by song. A young mother steps forward, approaching the fire, a baby tied to her breast in a colorful cloth. Another woman reaches out offering to take her child so she can walk uninhibited, and then realizes she Intends to walk with her child.

The singing intensifies; all eyes are on mother and child, all hearts with them. Then the young mother steps onto the fire and walks with quiet confidence the length of the coal bed. At the far end she bends her head and kisses her child, a young mother who in her lifetime saw the Swiss women gain the power to vote, affirms for her child a world where she can grow up without fear and walk in beauty and grace. At that moment there is complete confidence that we have the capacity to bring balance and harmony back to the human race. The fire, this element of change and transformation, has once again heard our prayers. The group explodes in joy and women laugh, embrace and walk and dance hand in hand across the fire, a wild celebration of our innate capacity to overcome obstacles, our unbelievable strength and tenacity when it comes to living, and the tender delight in being woman.