Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Sweating the Smalls

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.


Daphne said...

What an amazing description...I can imagine it so well now.

Did you mean Saskatchewan, Canada?

San said...

That's right, Daphne. Saskatchewan, Canada.

self taught artist said...

for some reason when I read this: 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. I burst out into a nervous laugh.
Such vivid writing San (is it san or sans????)
This too: 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. is fantastic.
What a wonderful post...it feels soothing and healing just reading about your experiences. thanks for sharing.

Red Quarreling With Black:
you know, there is so much in your work, it doesn't surprise me you sell so fast when people see it in your gallery. I see the black in the corner but with shimmering life to it...the red, the anger the passion....obliterating most of the canvas and that black, that smallish part that is inside of us that seems to be cancerous is in fact laden with life and shimmering with hope if we dare to go towards it.

San said...

Paula, it's "San," but I answer to many names! I am so glad you found the post "soothing and healing."

What you have to say about "Red Quarreling with Black" simply makes my day! You are so right about the shadowy, dangerous areas lurking within often being laden with treasure. I wish everything did in fact sell quickly. This is one that held out a while. The man who purchased it saw it in the gallery, then waited a few months, then emailed me his intention to buy it. Funny--when he received it, and hung it, he wrote to me, acknowledging that he was surprised to discover that the upper black corner was his favorite part of the painting. He said he'd forgotten what it looked like. His letter made that day for me.

Easybreathingfella said...

Wow, I've just just opened my second box of tissues the sweat is pouring off me having read your highly informative discription.

Keep the home fires burning as they say !!

Best wishers to you and your family for Christmas and the coming new year.

Keith x

murat11 said...

San: Thanks for your comments over in the ark-hives, and thanks for these sweat lodge meditations.

I participated in a sweat in the western mountains of Virginia, about nine years ago. I went into the experience with fears similar to yours. I "made it" through the experience, but never really broke through my discomfort to the state of consciousness you describe as the man began to pray for his heart of stone. How wonderful that, as you let go emotionally, your fears vanished. I suspect the same would have happened to me, had I let myself be as openly vulnerable as I felt. Instead, my focus was upon "getting through," rather than "being there."

Again, thanks for the wonderful meditation. Peace, cuz.

San said...

Thanks for reading so closely, Keith.

We will most definitely keep the home fires burning. And I wish you and yours a joyous Christmas season.

Health and happiness in the new year too...x

Lee said...

Wow! San, as I read this I felt like I was in there with you. So focused on your story that I didn't notice the pictures and art until later when I read the comments. Then I went back and looked. This is a story I could read over and over again.

Paula said it best. Your emotions carried me along. I wanted to sob with you. As I imaged the shaking earth I wondered if I was fainting from the heat or if it really was the earth. For some reason I felt the heat weigh me down and press me into the earth.

The red in Red Quarreling With Black seems to echo the flames in the pictures. I see a figure in the upper right corner. Faces behind the flames. Interesting. The faces seem serious or in pain or sorrow. Very emotion filled work.


San said...

Paschal, thanks for sharing your sweat experience. I've experienced varying levels of "letting go." It seems to depend on the collective energy as much as anything else.

Almost anytime I'm in one, there's a moment when I think, Why in the hell am I doing this? Then, somehow I settle into it and am glad I did.


San said...

Thank you for being there with me, Lee. This post was hard for me to write. So much to try to describe. I'm glad it was "real" for you. What you have to say about the heat pressing you to the earth is pretty realistic. That's a way to stay cooler in there, to lie on the ground.

I am fascinated that you see the faces in the painting. As always, thank you for looking so closely!

david mcmahon said...

There is always so much in what you share with us, San. Thank you.

San said...

Thank you, David.

HMBT said...

I've done my share of sweating it out with friends and family back in Oregon. I was lucky enough to know a small tribe of peoples that were living on the land as their anscestors did before them and they invited us each year to spend a week with them in ritual. It was when I found out who I really am...the real me, the inner warrior of the light. I still keep in touch with my family (of choice) back in the woods of Oregon...the mail person now delivers to the tee-pee's.
Great post, brought back so many fond memories and wonderful spirtiual events. Thanks for that!

Dan said...

San, this was an absolutely fascinating article. I had never heard of sweat lodges before. I think many cultures have these sorts of rituals of cleansing in different forms. Great post.

indicaspecies said...


You've described it all so well. Thank you for sharing an informative post on 'sweat'. I learn something new each day. :)

I grab this opportunity to wish you the best of holiday season as I'm about to take off on another break (and no internet till I return).

Cheers. :)


indicaspecies said...


You've described it all so well. Thank you for sharing an informative post on 'sweat'. I learn something new each day. And I must add your painting is amazing and the title is brilliant. :)

I know it's early, however, I grab this opportunity to wish you the best of holiday season as I'm about to take off on another break (and that means no internet till I return).

Cheers. :)


San said...

Heather, I'm glad to know you've experienced the power of ritual. You're right--it does remind us who we are.

It's great that you're in touch with your chosen family too. Thanks for your comments!

San said...

Dan, thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it.

Yes, many cultures have some kind of cleansing ritual. I find that significant.

San said...

Celine, have a great internet-free time! So glad you stopped by on your way out...I look forward to your return.

Anonymous said...

Red Quarreling with Black.
Flames alive feeding off remnants of tree limbs and trunks. Your spirit reaching out, lifted, rising as sweat attempts to cool heat skin. - Oh, I'm getting carried away.

My thoughts turn to pebbles... stones, steaming hot in burning coals. Hissing and sputtering.

Casdok said...

Interesting! And different!

San said...

Chewy, I love it when you get carried away.

Go with it...hiss, sputter. You glow, girl!

wbtt said...

San, the Easter sweat was a highlight, I know I'm overdue for another. Thanks for your words, the letting go and connecting came back in waves.

BBC said...

I've never done that, and recent storms have me blocked off from hiking into the hot springs, one of my favorite places to go.

Good thing you leave a comment on my blog at times, it reminds me to check yours.

Happy paths.

San said...

Hey, BBC, thanks for stopping by.

Those storms sound rough. Happy trails to you...

QUASAR9 said...

Sounds like fun!

QUASAR9 said...

Does it have any known 'physical' healing qualities too, in addition to the 'ritual' & 'spiritual' cleansing?

San said...


Good to see you. Thanks.

San said...

WBTT, here's hoping we can be in one this Christmas season, or New Year's. I love you!

San said...

Quasar, you would probably really enjoy a sweat.

Health benefits: I believe the same benefits, such as lowered BP, that are incurred with any centering spiritual practice--meditation, for example--are to be had here too. Seems to me what's good for the soul is good for the body. Also, purportedly lots of toxins--heavy metals and such--are excreted through the skin.

Conventional wisdom doesn't recommend sweats for folks with diabetes or obesity, and yet I know an insulin-dependent diabetic who participates regularly. I've also known obese people who enjoy them too.

Sometimes, a sweat lodge can have as its purpose the physical healing of a particular person, even if that person is too ill to be in the lodge. I've never been in one of those but have read accounts of miraculous cures. Some would say the boundary between mind/body/spirit is an illusion. I find it all very interesting.

The Moody Minstrel said...

This is my first visit to your site, San (in reply to your first visit to mine), and I'm really glad I came by. This is a fascinating post! It's also a great learning experience for me. As an Oregonian whose 3rd and 4th grade social studies classes mainly consisted of Native American studies (something I've always been very interested in), I'd often heard of the sweat lodge but really had little idea of what it was all about. It appears the descriptions I heard in the past hardly scratched the surface. They only talked about how some tribes used them as a "cure" whenever someone was sick. I had no idea it was such a deeply spiritual affair. Thanks!

I'll definitely be back!

San said...


I'm so glad you visited. Thanks much for your kind words regarding the post.

I too am very interested in Native American studies and I'm sure I'll be posting more about that topic from time to time.


Karina said...

Very thought provoking and inspiring- you covered a lot of ground in this single post.

Rock on.

Anonymous said...

Oh my. Don't get me started on this. LOL

Native Americans. I love 'em. I got a touch of blood in me from them on my mom's side.

Funny thing, my parents were divorced before I was in the first grade in school. My mom and I lived in an old house alone. It was a poor life but we survived.

The reason I mention this is that I recall looking for osage orange and found it but being less than 10 years old I was not able and didn't have the tools to make a proper Bow and I couldn't find arrow wood for the arrows.

However, I did make one and did make arrows and somehow knew how to make them and there were no books, no library, no other people around with that kind of knowledge.

I did hunt rabbits with the bow and show pigeons with it and shot rabbits on the run. We ate everything we could find and kill for food and what we planted kept us alive.

So, there is that old story about being born again. I suppose. And then a drop of blood here and there might go a long way to coming up with an explanation.

And I still talk to animals and trees, and plants. I might be nuts but I like being nuts like me.

Nice post, san.

San said...

Karina, thanks so much for visiting. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Take care.

San said...


I loved reading your story! Thanks for sharing that.

K M F said...


San said...

KMF, thanks for visiting.

Dilly said...

Be like sorna?

Dilly like!

Dilly mayke own sorna! Breev fire! Wagons be good makin sweat lodge! Wagons sit in sercol, breev. MWEAH! Sweat lodge! Instant! MWEAH!

(San, Ms Cweek say Dilly got big nose. San think Dilly got big nose? Dilly say, not got big nose- Dilly got long snowt, small nose on end. Dilly not got big nose. Wat San think?)


San said...

Dilly got NICE snout. To breev fire!

Would be NICE sweat lodge with wagons--they be firekeepers!

Don't fuss with Ms. Cweek. She is nice too. She kids Dilly because she ikes u.

B.T.Bear (esq.) said...

This all sownds far too hot hot hot fer Bears!


San said...

Bears are strong! Just don't bring yer chocklit in. Too hot fer chocklit.

Celebration of Life said...

Hi San! Just dropped in to say hello! I have been gone and very happy to be home. The interstate was solid ice the last 60 miles. This storm is not supposed to let up until Monday night!

San said...

Jolene, welcome back. 60 miles of solid ice, that's a nightmare. We may get snow later today, and we're driving down to Albuquerque in the evening for our daughter's African dance performance. We're hoping for a passable interstate coming back. Sometimes during winter storms they just close it off between there and here. Oh well, if we all have to sleep on the floor at Flannery's house...we'll make the best.

kate said...

I live in Saskatchewan and this is one of the meanings of the the word, smudges, in my blog name. A sweat lodge is quite the experience ... you wrote about it beautifully.

Red fighting with black is really lovely.

San said...

Kate, I'm so glad you enjoyed the post, that you like the painting too.

I hadn't made that association with your blog name. Lovely!

Celebration of Life said...

San: Thanks for the kind words on my blog. I appreciate it!

San said...

Jolene, you're welcome. Sounds like you're feeling better...I'm glad. I'm home painting today, and addressing Christmas cards. Our snow is starting to melt, but this morning it was absolutely beautiful!

Celebration of Life said...

It's in the single digets here this morning. If the wind comes up, the temps will drop into the negatives. I am anxious for spring! I have my Christmas cards all sent out and packages mailed. I have everything ready except for baking. I think this is the first year in decades that I am ahead of the game! :o)

San said...

Wow, Jolene, that bracing Wyoming winter is turning you into the Energizer bunny! That's so nice--you won't have to stand in the long lines in the stores. You can actually relax and enjoy a restorative holiday...

Anonymous said...

Wow, that was a great post! Is this practiced only in the New Mecixo region or elsewhere too? Sounds pretty therapeutic and rejuvenating to me...better than going to a spa. :-)

San said...

Shantanu, thank you. Glad you enjoyed the post. Sweat lodges occur in many places, not just northern New Mexico. And you're right--it is much better than going to a spa!

Carol said...

Dear San,

Thank you for visiting my blog today. I knew that this post is the first of yours that I needed to read. I haven't done a sweat lodge before - have tinkered with the idea, but have not known of any around here.

Your description of this sweat experience was very powerful and beautifully written. Thank you!

When I read the part about the man praying that his heart of stone be able to love again, my eyes teared up. That man's prayers tapped in to my deep desire to remove all hardness within myself so that I am only Open Love. That man prayed the prayer of many of us.

I have done two vision quests in the desert of Utah. They have each included an 84 hour fasting solo. Those experiences live within my cells and still give me strength.

I am going to continue traveling through your blog, but before I go, I wanted to mention that I noticed you are an artist with a gallery in Santa Fe. Do you know Gene McClain, by any chance? He's an artist from Placitas. He is a relative of mine by marriage.

Thanks again for commenting on my blog. I'm glad to have found yours.

San said...

Carol, thank you for your thoughtful commentary on the sweat post. I've yet to do a vision quest, but perhaps I will one of these days. You would no doubt find a sweat a powerful experience. I hope you're able to locate one you can be a part of.

I'm not familiar with Gene McClain, but that doesn't mean anything. I tend to be "out of the loop" in these matters.