Tuesday evening of Thanksgiving week I participated in a sweat lodge ceremony. I'm a relative newbie to the practice, having been in only a dozen or so. Someone told me "each sweat ('sweat' is short for 'sweat lodge') is different from the others." And I've found that to be the case. I once read a rather sensational account of a woman's first sweat lodge experience in Mexico. She described the intense heat, so hot she had to tear off the necklace which was burning her skin. What I wonder is why she wore a necklace into the lodge in the first place. People don't wear jewelry in sweat lodges, or eyeglasses, or contact lenses. It's extremely hot in a sweat lodge; it's also pitch black. Someone with extremely poor eyesight, such as I, can see as well as anyone in the lodge. We're all equals in there. That's part of the appeal.
The sweat lodge ceremony is of course indigenous in origin. The details vary according to tribe, but for me, the sweat is the best way I've found of releasing stress, worry, guilt, anger, and that sense of frantic rushing most of us are so familiar with, especially this time of the year. The lodge is about re-connecting with Mother Earth and Father Sky, our bodies and our spirits. Prior to the ceremony, large stones are heated in a fire, which is maintained by a firekeeper.
It is customary to bring an offering to the firekeeper and to the leader of the lodge, also known as the pourer. An altar with sacred objects is set up between the fire and the entrance to the lodge. People smudge themselves with sage, or are smudged by another, before entering the lodge. Sage is a sacred herb known for its purifying properties. To direct the smoke from burning sage around my body is, for me, a way of focusing my intention to cleanse myself of clamoring concerns that might steal my ability to be one with the approaching ceremony.
When it's determined that the stones are sufficiently hot, everyone enters the lodge on our knees, humbly, as a baby returning to the womb of earth. It is customary to say "All My Relations" upon entering. This signifies our connection to the others in the circle, to all of humanity through all of the ages, to all of the animal kingdom--the Four-Footeds, the Winged and Finned Ones, the Creepy Crawlers--to all of the Plant People, in fact, to All. The lodge has been constructed to face a certain direction, usually east. It is made of saplings covered with tarps. (In the past, animal hides served as coverings.) People crawl in a clockwise direction to sit in a circle around a pit in the center.
The pourer speaks to the circle of people. He/she expresses the purpose of this particular ceremony. Then the firekeeper delivers the first group of heated stones. They are borne in, one at a time, on a pitchfork or on a set of antlers. Often the people inside greet each stone: "Welcome, grandparent!" This is an acknowledgment of our origin in the earth, an expression of gratitude for the opportunity to reconnect with the very bones of the earth, where we came from, to receive the teaching to follow. Each stone is usually blessed by the touch of an herb, such as lavender or bear root or cedar. The touch of herb to hot stone, earth to fire, creates a heady aroma that begins to permeate the air. With the arrival of each stone, the anticipation mounts.
When the determined number of stones for the first round has been delivered, the pourer requests that the firekeeper close the door. (Traditionally, there are four rounds of ceremony, each with a fresh group of hot stones added to the pit, after which the door is opened for a time to allow people to catch their breath and cool down a bit.) It is when the door closes for the first round and total darkness suddenly envelops the circle, that I get a sense of whose company I share. If I'm with a group for whom the sweat is a customary part of their lives, there is a peaceful sense of settling in to the sweet quietude. If, however, there are many newcomers present, the fear and sometimes, outright panic, is palpable.
I'll never forget my first experience. I had been fearfully anticipating the heat. A concern over possible claustrophobia or fear of the dark hadn't even entered my mind. Those two things don't generally bother me. But that day, on the Cree reservation in Saskatachewan, when Victor the firekeeper closed the door, and the darkness descended, I felt immediately overwhelmed by darkness and the closeness of the other bodies. I honestly thought that if I didn't leave right away, I would surely smother. Then John, the elder who was to pour the ceremony, asked for people to take turns praying. I sat in silence, completely mortified with the knowledge that I would be the first person to ask Victor to open the door so that I could exit. (Participants in a lodge are always allowed to ask to leave if the discomfort becomes unbearable.) Then I heard a man somewhere in the lodge--I'd lost a sense of who was sitting where--begin praying fervently that his "heart of stone" be able to love again. I had never heard anyone pray for such a thing with such sincerity. He was pleading actually. I was moved and began to sob. My claustrophobia and fear of the darkness vanished as quickly as they'd came. I was amazed. I welcomed the newfound closeness to these other people. I knew I was going to be OK. Talk about the power of prayer.
Since that first experience on the Cree reservation, I have sat in Ojibway and Lakota ceremonies, in all-women sweats under the new moon in New Mexico, and this past Easter, in a very special ceremony that included every member of my family. These ceremonies have featured song and chants in various tongues, including English, although hearing it all in one's native language isn't as essential as you might think. As Maria, an elder, once remarked, "If your ears don't understand the meaning, your spirit will." I completely agree. There is drumming and rattling, and depending on the leader's background, there may be a passing of the pipe. Above all, there is warmth and prayer.
The warmth is physical and is created by the leader's pouring water over the heated stones, repeatedly. With each round, more stones are brought in. More water is poured. The body's temperature can rise to around 105 degrees. We have carried towels with us, to protect our faces from the steam in the later rounds if necessary. As the steam rises, ever hotter, from the stones, so do our prayers.
I have prayed for much in the dark womb of the sweat lodge. And I have listened to prayers. I have sat beside those who prayed for their loved ones with cancer, I have sat beside those who were about to undergo surgery for cancer, I have wept with a mother begging forgiveness for her perceived shortcomings towards her now-adult child. As Maria also said, "Forgive yourself and the others are taken care of." I have mourned alongside those saying goodbye to beloved sisters and mentors who have passed on. I have felt the earth literally begin to sway, gently, beneath me, as the sweat streamed from every pore in my skin, soaking my clothing and hair, soaking even my towel.
I have also heard prayers for the ecological health of the planet, for world peace, for a return to reverence for the earth. Although I don't doubt, for one minute, the sincerity of these prayers, I tend to agree with my friend Lewis, who advises people to keep their prayers "finite," to pray for something which might bring results within four days. 4 is a sacred number for Native Americans, and I have personally witnessed what I call a "sweat lodge event loop" in the four days following a lodge.
I will speak of this in made-up terms so as not to betray the confidentiality of what transpires in a particular lodge: I might, for example, feel led to pray for one of my gallery clients whose wife has taken seriously ill. Four days later, that client calls me out of the blue, to say that he is feeling quite at peace and wants to purchase a painting he saw in the gallery a while back. Now, had I set out to pray for a painting sale, I very seriously doubt this same sequence of events would have occurred. Such a prayer would have been selfish, a kind of grasping prayer, and that's not what the sweat is about. Although I am very capable, more often than not, of the grasping kind of prayer, that's just not what the sweat is about.
The sweat is about letting go. As the water flows from our bodies, so do our fears, our grasping desires, our anger. When I feel the earth gently rocking beneath me, I imagine that a river is flowing underground, a river of all of the tears that have been shed as long as humans have been around to cry. I feel that Mother Earth is crying with us, receiving our tears and our sweat. We are sweating our "smalls." We have entered the small contained space of this womb to think small, and personally, as human beings, as humus beings, made of earth. We are reminded of how very small we are. But in our smallness and humility, we are comforted.
And when, after the final round, we shout in unison "All My Relations!" that is the signal for the firekeeper to open the door. That's when we crawl, one by one, out of the door and back into our lives. We have suffered a bit, and now we are reborn after those hours in the lodge. Our skin is softened, our defenses down. We are ready to enter the world again.