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Fire-walkers trample fears

By Linda Shen
Staff Writer

November 10, 2003

article main imageDTH Photos/Jessica Russell
John Anderson of Chapel Hill leads a fire-walking seminar Saturday night by walking across hot coals, challenging other members of the group to face their fears. Below: Gaines Steer of Chapel Hill walks across small glass pieces.

The scene looked like a throwback to an ancient pagan ritual.

With a red moon overhead during a harmonic concordance -- when five planets are aligned in the shape of a five-pointed star -- John Anderson, founder of, tended a bonfire and talked shop as the sparks flew upward. Around him, a small crowd huddled warily, watching the glowing logs break into coals.

On that Saturday night, the ancient art of fire-walking got a brand new start in Chapel Hill.

Anderson, 50, is a town resident who walked on fire for the first time three years ago. "With a bunch of liquid courage, we raked out the coals," he said.

Though he doesn't condone inebriated fire-walking, it did get him across the fire the first time. Now, it has become a spiritual quest.

After his initial walk and with the encouragement of his wife, Jane, Anderson embraced his new discovery. Through research and a conference in Florida, Anderson became a certified fire-walking instructor.

Since then, Anderson has returned to Chapel Hill and started Ucandoit Inc., a corporation specializing in motivational speaking using fire-walking as a vehicle. "The difference between fear and excitement is a thin line," he said.

Tolly Burkan, Anderson's instructor and founder of http://, is regarded as the father of modern fire-walking. In his 15 years of fire-walking, Burkan has taught more than 2 million people under private tutorial, at conferences and at corporate seminars.

Burkan described fire-walking as a form of empowerment. "The fire-walk is a metaphor. It's a symbol for anything that stimulates fear in you," he explained, adding that the impact lasts a lifetime. "You're taking a step through the membrane of fear."

It's a big step.

At 1,250 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat of the coal bed is intense enough to obliterate a beer can in less than 30 seconds. In comparison, engine blocks of cars are poured at 1,100 degrees.

Without even knowing the exact temperatures at play, the visuals Saturday were intimidating enough: a 10-foot stretch of coal, burning red. The coals were hot enough to keep people at a distance and hiding in the shadows of trees around the perimeter of the fire pit.

The fire-walk was held at The Last Unicorn, a Chapel Hill business owned by Gaines Steer, a location that added to the atmosphere.


With Steer's iron and stonework pieces leaning against trees, lighted candles in old, wrought-iron lamps and fanciful signs leading the way, it seemed like a moment out of a book of children's stories -- a mismatched fairy tale with a side of fire-walking.

The hot coals waiting were to be the culmination of the evening, and Anderson had plans before anybody attempted the walk.

Under a partially eclipsed moon, half red and half silvery white, Anderson began a round of board-breaking, followed by glass-walking.

Reassuring the group, Anderson said, "It's all about paying attention." His daughter, Claire, a freshman at East Chapel Hill High School, went first. With practiced ease, she made her way across the multicolored shards. When John Anderson asked how many cuts she'd garnered, "none" was the answer.

The last trial before the coals was arrow-breaking. "This is terrifying," Anderson admitted.

As the group looked on, Anderson demonstrated by putting the tip of a standard, 35-pound target arrow at the hollow of his throat and pushing it against a wall until the arrow snapped. Despite knowledge that the human trachea can take 75 pounds of pressure, Elsa Mondou, a friend of Jane Anderson, commented, "I must be out of my mind."

One by one, Anderson, his wife, his daughter, his daughter's teammate on the East Chapel Hill High School volleyball team, Mondou and Steer all succeeded. Their efforts left colorful arrows halved and scattered on the ground while the logs burned hotter by the minute.

As if the moon were counting down, the lunar eclipse reached its peak just as the fire was ready. Cuing tribal music, Anderson spread the bonfire into a bed of glowing coals with a long-handled rake, saying, "(The fire) is 1,200 degrees; you don't want to get your face in this."

Feet, however, were perfectly fine.

Anderson offered a few last words of advice about the coals, saying, "Do not walk through with your shoulders hunched. Do not run through it. Do not jump through it." Observing the general reticence, he added, "What you focus on and what you believe about it determines your reality."

That night, everybody believed in the power of Anderson's going first.

He talked to each of the participants as they walked over the bed of coals, and he waited with open arms as they made it across.

At the end of the night, with new believers gathered around the dying embers, Anderson looked satisfied.

"When you walk over your fear, you've made it a servant to your will."

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