Look at the fire and say: `Yes, I'm going to storm through it'

What makes total strangers hug each other and walk on hot coals? A night with Anthony Robbins. By Ed Harris

Anthony Robbins works the stage like a fire-and-brimstone preacher, exhorting his rapt audience to cast out the bad and embrace the good. He takes long strides, gesticulating, chopping at the air with quick, smooth movements. The crowd love it, responding instantly to his many commands: stand up, jump in the air, shout yes! yes! yes!

"This is a chance to prove to yourself what you can do," he urges. "The only limits you impose tonight are yourselves. Will you join that little group of people who would not settle for less than they were worth? Say yes! Say yes! Say yes!" His words whipped the thousands in Cardiff International Arena into a very un-British frenzy of air-punching, hugging and jumping.

Anthony Robbins is possibly the world's most successful motivator, a "peak performance coach" who can persuade thousands of people at a time to hug complete strangers and walk across hot coals. His philosophy is all about positive thinking, setting yourself new goals and achieving them.

In the space of two decades, he has transformed himself from a penniless and overweight loser, into a man with homes in California, New York and Fiji. He flies his own private jet and his client list includes presidents (Clinton and Gorbachev), Andre Agassi and Martin Sheen. He also advised Mother Teresa and Diana, Princess of Wales - who, perhaps inspired by Robbins' touchy-feely techniques, went out and started urging strangers to hug each other.

Last weekend, three thousand people paid pounds 600 each to witness Robbins performing at full throttle at the "Unleash the Power Within Weekend". It was his first visit to Britain in four years, and there was an atmosphere of expectation inside the Cardiff arena. Robbins took the stage, accompanied by booming rock music and strobe lighting. "How many people came here to change something in their lives, their relationships?" he asked. Everyone raised their hands.

Anthony Robbins is 39, and 6ft 7in of tanned muscle. He is clean-cut and square-jawed, his chin huge and his teeth very white. On stage, his torso strained and rippled inside a tight black T-shirt that revealed biceps like melons.

Over four days, Mr Robbins would perform for the faithful, clutching at his chest and clenching his fists. He came on stage at 6.30pm on Friday, accompanied by regular ear-splitting bursts of Van Halen or Fleetwood Mac - a sign for the entire audience to leap up and down, hug and massage each other. He did not stop talking until 2am the next morning, by which time he had persuaded them to walk across hot coals. He unleashed the same high-octane performance on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, swaggering around the stage for 10 or 12 hours a day.

The firewalk was one of the highlights. As the master told his flock: "It is not about firewalking. It is a fun metaphor for walking through the fire of your life. If you can do this, what the fuck can you not do? Look at the fire and say yes! Again! Think that you are going to storm through it!"

Mr Robbins spent six hours working the crowd into what he calls a "peak state", bombarding them with his mix of homespun homily, New Age gobbledegook and rousing talk. By 1am the crowd was ecstatic, eyes shining, cranked up to an extraordinary pitch. The time had come. Mr Robbins told them to tear off their shoes and socks and "pantihose". They rolled up their trousers and shuffled out, wild-eyed, into the car park to contemplate the beds of burning coal. Chanting "yes! yes! yes!" and "cool moss! cool moss! cool moss!" to achieve the right mental state, they clapped, punched the air and gave each other high fives.

Sally Baldwin, a 57-year-old counsellor from Oxford, was preparing to step onto the coals. "I thought he was absolutely dreadful at the beginning, with all the loud music and dancing, but now I think he is rather good," she said. Why was she here? "I feel a lack of fulfilment... My goal is to grow".

Bongo drums played in the dark. The coals glowed dimly and gave off a heat that could be felt from a distance. Each bed was no more than 6ft long and the many who queued up for the life-transforming experience were able to get across in three or four jerky steps before their feet were hosed down with cold water. Nobody seemed to get hurt.

Each time someone succeeded, they celebrated with extravagant whooping and cheering. "It's more painful queueing for your passport," boasted David Vice, 37, a computer programmer from London. "I have read his books, I am fascinated by firewalking. I have always believed in the power of positive thinking. I suppose I am here to improve certain aspects of my job".

Personal growth Anthony Robbins-style is wildly popular. The crowd at Cardiff ranged from teenagers to the elderly, although most were in their 20s or 30s, wearing jeans and trainers, sensible skirts or "firewalk experience" T-shirts. They were predominantly white, and many had come from Europe or the US to see him.

Anthony Robbins started out more than 20 years ago, challenging psychologists to a showdown, to see who was quickest at curing people of phobias in front of audiences of 500. He then took his skills to the US Army, where he ran training programmes, and then moved on to sporting stars and heads of state, honing his philosophy and working on his showmanship.

Today, his empire is large and varied. In the foyer of the International Arena was a stall selling Anthony Robbins merchandise: the two best-selling books, Unlimited Power and Awaken The Giant Within; the Personal Power CDs; the Power Talk Library; the Body You Deserve fitness programme.

People plagued by a feeling that their lives are incomplete flock to his seminars. Tracey Westwood, an articulate woman in her mid-thirties, is typical. She has a successful dress-hire business, her own home in the Midlands and two sons. "To others, I probably have a fantastic life", she admits, "But I have lost my dreams about what I would do with my life - you get into the humdrum of your life and lose touch. He has put me back in touch with that." So what do her friends think? "They think I am barking mad."

That would not bother the king of personal development. He is unstoppable in his mission to improve people's lives, telling them to think "must" instead of "should", spinning his unique brand of salesmanship. "A belief is a tabletop with legs under it," he told Cardiff. "Take away the belief and the tabletop falls down. You feel certain that you have legs under your table." Another weekend, another 3,000 converts.

UNLEASH THE POWER

FIVE STEPS to maximise your potential (and save yourself pounds 600)

1. Put yourself in a peak state for peak performance.

2. Find your passion! What do you love? What do you hate? What are you passionate about? What do you really want? What really drives you in life?

3. Decide, commit and resolve! Unleash your power.

4. Take immediate, intelligent, consistent and massive action. Intelligently employed, massive action can be a cure-all. Get a proven model. Get a plan. Do something immediately before leaving the sight of setting your goal.

5. Be S.M.A.R.T. Strategy - check it, change it, re-engineer it, reinforce it, strengthen it. Measure - more often. Assess - whether it's giving you the emotional reward you want. Reinforce - what works and take new action to continue the momentum. Take - new action!

Follow these instructions and lasting happiness and fulfilment can be yours! (Apparently)

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