Kirstin Innes discovers a new way of putting some fire in your heart (and under your feet) this Valentine’s Day.
Martin Sterling is a very enthusiastic man with a very dark sense of humour. ‘There are two types of mad, aren’t there? Good mad and bad mad.’ He assures me that he is the former, and not just because he’s coming up to Glasgow on Valentine’s Day to encourage people to walk on hot coals in the middle of George Square. The event is being run as a sponsored walk to raise funds for learning disability charity Enable, and Martin confidently predicts revenue of at least £5000-£10,000. You aren’t expected to turn up, whip your shoes off and walk, though: participants are eased in with a 90-minute training session.
‘Officially it’s called the Fear Buster, but in the office we call it “Learn or Burn” - because if you don’t listen, you will!’ says Martin, cackling. ‘We don’t prepare people for a spiritual experience - there’s no chanting or meditation involved. Fire-walking is essentially based in physics, just like abseiling or bungee jumping, and the biggest secret is that it’s simply a case of mind over matter. We teach people that fear isn’t a word, it’s an acronym. False Evidence Appearing Real. The mind creates all sorts of pictures - projections of possible futures - and then begins to engage with them as though they’re reality. So, you’re standing at the beginning of the fire walk and you’re imagining pain, burning yourself, and it holds you back. We teach people to overcome that state of mind.’
That fire, by the way, burns at 1236°F, and participants are expected to take 6-8 steps across it. Martin has been teaching fire-walking since 1984, and nobody has ever backed out. ‘Obviously you won’t be able to overcome fear if you feel you’ve got no choice but to go through with something, so we make a rule that anyone who can’t do it gets just as big a round of applause. I’ll walk for them - the charity still gets the sponsorship money. But nobody’s ever taken me up on it.
‘You really have to ask yourself: what am I afraid of? It’s not burning my feet. It’s, you know, my parents, losing my job, the future. Something like that. And what people come away with is a skill that they can use throughout life. The ability to overcome those natural impulses and deliberately control their own minds.’
He’s so excited about the inherent possibilities that I feel a little crass asking my next question: does it actually hurt? Martin laughs for a very long time. ‘Ah. Well. Most people find it feels similar to walking on warm sand. It’s quite a crunchy feeling. Like new snow. Or maybe Weetabix. Walking on Weetabix.’ He likes the idea. But - pain? ‘Well, if you stand at the head of the fire thinking ‘oh bloody hell, this is going to HURT,’ then of course it will. Agony. But we teach people to take the attitude that it’s going to feel great, and it really does.’
Martin’s company, the appropriately-named Blaze, organise this sort of event for charities all over the country. ‘I’m always amazed that there are charities who haven’t discovered us yet. It’s much easier to organise, and hundreds of times more profitable than a barbecue party,’ Oh dear. I’ve walked into this one. ‘Which, of course, it sort of is!’
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