(Originally written in July, 2012)
It’s nearly midnight on a Thursday in the abandoned convention center area in Downtown San Jose. Streets are blocked off in all directions – barricades, orange cones and police officers keeping the peace. Traffic signals are ignored as six-thousand “motivated” people fill the streets in a Tony Robbins trance chanting in unison, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”
They have all exited the “Unleash the Power Within” convention center event in a slow-flowing stream of bodies heading steadily towards the finale, “Firewalk” – the walking-on-red-charred-flaming-remnants-of-burning-wood kind. They are corralled like voluntary glazed-eyed animals to slaughter into 25 chaotic single file lines.
It’s dark. The street lights have all been ordered off leaving only the shimmering glow of what was once cords of wood lying at the feet of each walker. Ominous masked volunteers, who have had less than a day of training, stand motionless in protective clothing, row after row, manning shovels and wheelbarrows of still-flaming embers. Tribal African music permeates through the fog of thick smoke filling the air with the soothing smell of a house fire.
As the masses approach the edge one by one, each lets out their own unique primal scream as instructed by the Line Leader, and then “GO! GO! GO!” shouts the Line Leader pointing frantically towards the fire. Each mesmerized human does as they are told, walking with an uncertain quickness, eyes up at the sky chanting “Cool Moss! Cool Moss! Cool Moss!” until they reach the end of the feet-blistering fires. “Cool Moss” is apparently the preferred repeated phrase over “Hot fire, hot fire, what the fuck am I doing this for!”
It’s utter freakish mayhem. People are screaming, Line Leaders are shouting. Two volunteers lock arms at the end of each 10’ walk feeling the brunt of each walker slamming into them at full pace as another volunteer with a hose sprays each walker’s feet to prevent the flaming hot pieces from sticking in between their toes. The walkers are then instructed to “Celebrate!”
Some celebrate. Some cry due to second and third degree burns. Some call 911 and go to the hospital. This is about as confidence building as drinking the Kool-Aid.
I stand there observing, as I have for the past 10 excruciating hours, on my second day of this working job interview, which has turned out to be more like being locked in a padded room of psychotic believers of some underground religion. Not just the attendees are entranced, but the entire staff is as well.
In all the smoke and cryptic fury, I spot an elderly woman vigorously trembling as her elderly husband holds her close trying to get both of them through the oblivious crowd. Both are barefoot atop the city street concrete and neither are holding a pair of shoes.
“Are you ok?” I shout to them over the tribal percussion. They are both non-responsive. They look scared, focused only on getting to safety. I shout again, “Do you need some help?” Still no answer. I decide to follow them, using my body to shield them from the “celebrating” masses until they reach open space. They wander shaking away.
Moments later a man approaches me, hopping on one foot and holding his shoe in his hand.
“Is there any medical care here?” He shouts over the music.
I realize at that moment that I have no idea what those arrangements are. Surely the organizers have this handled, but there is no tent, no flags, no signs, no indication of where help is. I radio for the answer. The medic station is set up on the opposite flow of where injured people would be after mindlessly burning their feet. This man has to walk a city block through hordes of crazed people to get there. I tell him where to go, he says thank you and disappears hopping into the masses.
I turn around and a young woman gets my attention.
“I need help.”
“What do you need?” She has tears in her eyes.
“I can’t walk. My feet are burned.”
I try to direct her to the same place I sent the man.
“I can’t walk that far,” she says with fear written all over her face. I’m beginning to feel scared, too. What the hell is going on here? I radio for more information, this time with more urgency in my voice.
“I have an injured woman who can’t walk and needs immediate medical attention. I need a medic to come to us immediately.”
A voice radios back to tell me there are supposed to be medics working on people near where we are standing. I run back and forth through the crowd looking. I radio that I see no medics. No response. I return to the woman to tell her I’ll find someone for her. I run another direction and see a line of people being treated in the dark on a curb. No medic tent, no ambulance, just a couple EMTs with a couple bags of supplies. A 5K run would be more prepared.
I run back to the girl and ask her if she can walk a short distance with my help. She succumbs to that being her only option. We walk slowly together. She begins to cry from the pain.
“Deep breaths,” I shout calmly. “One step at a time.”
We finally make it to the curb. She struggles to sit and I struggle to help her. She begins sobbing heavily. The medics are still treating other people first. I rub her arms and her back. I hold her close. I tell her it’s going to be ok, to breathe.
“What is your name?”
“How old are you?”
“23.” I begin to think of my own daughter in this situation. This young woman is just a baby.
“Are you here alone?”
“Where are you from?” I notice this is a good distraction for her.
“You came all the way from Canada by yourself to be here?” I ask with surprise. I can’t imagine what state of mind someone has to be in to do that. To spend that money. To come by themselves. To come to this.
In this event so far I have observed that many people attending are admittedly depressed or suicidal. The organizers I’ve been working with have told me themselves that most of these people are unstable.
“Well you may have come by yourself, but you are not alone. Everything is going to be ok,” I assure her while simultaneously feeling like the only sane person in this mess.
I hold her until the EMT has assessed her injury and her crying has lessened. She has bulging blisters on the bottom of her feet – likely second degree burns. I can tell by the EMT’s expression that her blisters are worse than others.
I have no idea what to do or say. I look around. I can’t believe I’m remotely associated with this. It’s as irresponsible as putting all these people in the cockpit of a plane and telling them to fly it.
More injured people begin to arrive at the medic curb. The EMT treats my momentary friend’s foot and then instructs her to put her feet on two ice pads.
“Are you going to be ok?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says taking a deep breath. She looks me in the eyes and with an emphasis I won’t soon forget says “Thank you.”
I hug her as I say goodbye and kiss her forehead.
“You take good care of yourself,” I have no idea who she is, but I care about this girl. I just need to get as far away from this madness as I can. I haven’t been this uncomfortable since watching 9/11 happen.
Either something is terribly wrong with me or this is a mindless cult of people lacking self-awareness and common sense. These are people that seem desperate for guidance, for some miracle realizations, for something, anything, to change their lives. Who am I to say that people like Tony Robbins can’t make a buck off of the weak life moments of others. Ad agencies and marketing companies play on our emotions to sell us useless shit we don’t need every day. But there’s something that strikes me as exceedingly wrong with this situation. The organizers knew in advance that the “coals” (they are not coals) were exceptionally hot, but did nothing.
I asked one young man in training to be on staff if he considers any of this mass manipulation. He is an enthusiastic Robbins supporter who is one of many that has gone through one of these programs and then become a volunteer or employee for the events.
“Just don’t be a dick,” he answers. “You can manipulate people in ways that will help them – like make them perform better on the job, or get them to buy something you’re selling. Or you can manipulate people to hurt them. Tony is passionate about helping these people.”
Really? All seven-figure-salary of him?
All the staff I’ve spoken to have repeated the same “passion” speech about Tony. I thought maybe it was just my first time here, maybe I wasn’t immersed in the show enough to truly understand what was making these people behave this way – because I one-hundred-percent don’t get it. And I don’t want to.
I have always been a cynical non-believer, especially of a 6’ 7” man with a golden tongue. In my time here, I’ve been told he is “loud” (aka yells at his employees) and that people that work for him are basically scared of him and his wife, “Mrs. Robbins.” Everything anyone does at that company is to make those two “happy.” Not quite the public persona being portrayed.
What I’d really like to do is get on stage and do a presentation about the four-percent of CEO’s and politicians that are clinically psychotic. It’s been researched, written about and debated. Here’s a funny link to an article titled, Psychopaths Rule the World that I would include in my presentation. <a>http://www.wealthwire.com/news/finance/1938</a>.
Whatever the case may be, I question who is more to blame. Is it the charismatic sociopathic, or the mindless sheep who follow him?
The method to the motivational madness is to ware the attendees down physically and emotionally on their first day. There is purposely no scheduled break for 12+ hours. If you don’t want to piss, shit or starve yourself, you must force yourself to ever so briefly attend to your bodily warnings and then literally run back so as not to miss a thing. One woman approached the event manager thoroughly in tears because she missed the first two hours of Tony on stage.
During the first day’s show, a woman stormed the stage trying to get to Tony muttering something about wanting to marry him. Tony’s security team literally tackled this rather large and unruly woman and dragged her away, all while Tony rambled on stage as if nothing was happening – a sign of a true professional.
The room must also be at the required temperature of 62-degrees, which has the entire production staff on pins and needles keeping all theatre doors closed and bringing in supplemental HVAC systems so Tony doesn’t sweat, so Mrs. Robbins doesn’t get upset, and so the crowd stays alert.
Throughout the 12 consecutive hours of watching one man talk, the masses are instructed to jump up and down, dance, fist pump, repeat phrases, meditate, massage each other, tell each other their fears, lie on the floor being hypnotized in darkness – all resulting in a bi-polar laugh and cry fest with entrance and exit pathways strategically directed through a plethora of product and future event information. Organizers unapologetically admit the entire four-day event is one big up-sell. Who wouldn’t pay $600 to $2500 each to experience this for four days?
The more I watched, the more disgusted I became. I was supposed to spend six days observing at this event, but all I needed was the first show day to know I was not buying what they were selling. I unleashed my power within and hopped on the next plane out just as news crews were arriving to cover the story, which was reported on a local and national level as At Least 21 People Burned after Firewalk at Tony Robbins Event. I’m motivated to leave and I’m taking my unscorched feet with me.