Sunday, January 2, 2011

1-1-11 The Sweat Lodge

On the way to Okeechobee for New Year's lodge

 When I tell people that I regularly participate in Native American sweat lodge ceremony, I usually get one of two reactions.

"Didn't some people die in one of those?" or "What's a sweat lodge?"

Yes, I tell them. Some people HAVE died in sweat lodges.

James Arthur Ray held a "Spiritual Warrior" retreat at the Angel Valley Retreat Center in Arizona that resulted in the death of three participants and the hospitalization of twenty others.

He packed 55 people into a 415 square foot lodge, covered it with plastic tarps, kept them in there for two hours, and brought more hot rocks in every fifteen minutes.

The farm land on which we hold lodge in Okeechobee
Needless to say, he wasn't really following traditional protocol.

Oh, and he was charging $9000 - $10,000 per person for the five day retreat.

This isn't how a sweat lodge should be run, and is a gross perversion of the practice, in my opinion.

What is a Sweat Lodge?

In a nutshell, you build a dome, cover it with canvas or leather, bring in some hot rocks, sit down, soak up the heat, throw some water on the rocks to make steam, play the drum, rattle, sing, pray, and meditate.

WARNING: Don't try this at home without competent supervision. I'm only including this information for you to get an idea of what it's like, not so you can go out and catch heat stroke.

The inipi, before covering or laying out blankets
You start with a structure. Sometimes it's willow branches, bent as in the picture. Sometimes it's pressure-treated two-by fours. On reservations they have buildings made just for the purpose.

You cover the structure with heavy canvas. Something that breathes and soaks up the excess steam, but doesn't let the heat escape. James Ray used plastic tarps, which allows the steam to condense and doesn't breathe at all. When you pack that many people in such a tight space under those conditions. Bad things can happen.

Blankets are arranged on the lodge floor in the outdoor structures, with a space in the middle, lined with stone fragments, for the hot stones to rest.

You build a fire. There is a specific way to do this. You start with two logs, say about 8 inches in diameter, and place them parallel, then you pack some light, dry kindling between them, and make a platform with more thick branches going across. This platform is where you set the stones.

You pack more kindling around the stones, then put some light, thin sticks and branches on top of that, with one end in the ground and the other resting on the stones. Then you put some heavier wood, like split logs, over that, surrounding the stones completely.

You light the fire, and then tend to it to make sure as much heat as possible is being directed into the stones. It's a good idea to offer tobacco to the fire before lighting it, a pinch for each of the four directions.

The fire is constructed to be a birds nest, to invite the messenger spirit of the hawk down to carry the prayers to the heavens. The lodge, or inipi, is constructed to resemble a womb, of the earth mother, where the spirits are invited to commune with the participants.

A covered inipi the moring after lodge,
 with drinking water and drum displayed
It's recommended to fast before the lodge, for as long as you are capable of doing it, this helps with the cleansing and with reaching a higher meditation state.

Different lodge locations will have different setups, and may be run differently. This description is just what I've done in my own practice, according to the medicine man I'm working with and his tradition. Other methods may vary.

Men and women are both allowed in our lodges, the women go in first and sit on one side, the men on the other.

Fresh stones laid out for their first use in the inipi
For clothing, whatever you're comfortable in. Some people have stripped naked, others down to underwear. I wear loose, comfy shorts, and bring a towel. I've been told to take off all metal jewelery, no earrings or necklaces, etc, but I leave my nipple rings in and haven't had a problem with them yet.

You can't bring anything into the lodge except a towel and an instrument, prayer ties if you wish to offer them to the fire afterwards, so drink whatever water you can beforehand to help prevent dehydration.

When the stones are ready and the time arrives, the medicine man goes in and everyone is smudged with sage smoke. Everyone except the fire tender(s) enter the lodge on their hands and knees and crawl clockwise, arranging themselves to take up the space.

The most people I've seen in lodge, personally, were fourteen, but some left early, and the rounds were cut short to accommodate the more intense conditions that crowding creates. We normally host between four and eight.

When everyone is settled, the fire tenders bring in the stones.

The fire for our first lodge on New Year's Eve
The way we do it is we bring in all the stones at once. I've heard of some others doing ten stones at a time, and adding stones between rounds, but that's not how we do it. Anywhere from twenty to fifty stones are carried in on pitchforks and placed in the center of the lodge.

If everything has gone well, the stones should be glowing red hot.

With each stone, the fire tender says "grandfather coming", the medicine man taps it with the peace pipe, and the lodge answers "welcome grandfather". Yes, the stones are called grandfathers. There are native words for this, but I have trouble remembering them, and wouldn't know how to write them down, other than phonetically.

The fire for our second new year's lodge
The medicine man throws sage on the stones, and it lights up and burns to fill the air with the sweet smoke, purifying the space, according to native beliefs.

When all the grandfathers are in, the fire tenders bring in the bucket of water, and place the pipe on the buffalo skull that sits gazing into the entrance way. The inipi is then closed. The medicine man uses a dipper to put this water on the stones to create steam. The dry, radiant heat of the stones is easily bearable, it's when that steam hits you that you really find out what the sweat lodge is about. It's intense, to say the least.

Usually, before the steam hits, he will pass around bear root. It's a native root that is chewed to help you through the ceremony. It's bitter, numbs the mouth a little bit, and is not intoxicating.

The buffalo skull that looks into the lodge
The medicine man opens the lodge with offerings to the great spirit. Each participant is given the chance to offer up people that are in need of medicine for healing. Steam is added to the lodge, and the first song is sung.

From there, it varies, sometimes, the lodge is opened to let air in after each song. Sometimes just the front flap is opened, sometimes both front and back. Sometimes, it isn't opened at all. It depends on who is in the lodge, how well the stones have retained their heat, and how hot or cold it is outside.

We do four rounds of song with some time for silent meditation and reflection. On the third round, we have a chance to pray for whatever blessings we wish to receive or bestow on others. After the fourth round, water is usually given, everyone must drink all the water they are given. Each round is intended to open a door from each of the four directions, with a specific intent related to that direction.

Heritage Lemon from Varri Green Farms
After water, everyone smokes the peace pipe. It's filled with an herbal smoking blend, no tobacco, no marijuana, just herbs. It's very tasty, and I cherish this time of the ceremony. The intent is to pray silently while smoking it.

The medicine man then passes information he's gotten from the spirits to the participants. We pass the instruments to the front of the lodge, and exit, on hands and knees, in a clockwise direction. Everyone lines up and the medicine man taps our chest and head with the peace pipe, then we huddle around the fire, talk, and eat.

"Why on earth would you want to do such a thing?"

Old stones that are no longer usable, having been hollowed
by the heat and steam, they are as light as styrofoam

It's for physical and spiritual cleansing.

Now I'm not going to get metaphysical here and start talking about spirits and astral projection. That's something that it's up to you to figure out for yourself. It is impossible to penetrate the mystery of direct spiritual experience without going out and getting you some. What is possible is talking about my own experiences.

I believe that the human being has four bodies.

Ash from the sacred fire of the lodge, this is scattered around
the farmer's trees as fertilizer
The first is the physical body, which we are all familiar with, legs, arms, skin, that shit. Most people can barely even see that correctly. They see the outer shape and don't even think about where all the organs and tissues that give it form are at, or what they're doing, or how what we eat and do can affect them. Martial artists, doctors, and fitness types are more familiar with the inner workings, but most folks just think their bodies are just meat sacks with a food hole and a poop hole and some fun bits to play with. This is only about half the equation though. The other three bodies can be considered to be a part of what the New Age folks like to call the "ethereal double" they are made up of the energy that animates and permeates the physical frame.

The next is the mental body. We like to think of it as "the brain" but the brain itself is part of the physical. The thoughts and ideas and memories we carry are what I'm talking about. Like the physical, most people, if they are aware of this body at all, just see the surface and think "that's all there is" but it goes much deeper.

The emotional body is the collection of subtle sensations. It's often confused with the mental body. The difference is that the mental body says "this is a picture of my mother" and the emotional body produces a response to that, love, anger, sorrow, guilt, whatever.

The last and most often overlooked, doubted, and misunderstood is the spirit body.

Each of these bodies has a common trait, we need to exercise them, and feed them wholesome food. For the first three, this is obvious, healthy food, intellectually stimulating information, healthy emotional situations. We exercise them by moving the body, using the mind, and reaching out to other humans in emotionally supportive ways. The more we love, the more we understand love, for example.

The Spirit Body

The spirit body is the part of your body that interfaces with the primordial energy that supports and sustains all things. I said I wasn't going to get all metaphysical on you, but this is important stuff for understanding the concept of Spiritual cleansing.

Many people think "spiritual" and automatically think of religion. This is because religious practices tend to affect the spirit body, often through the other three bodies.
A gas outlet fire seen
enroute to Okeechobee

We often hear "spirit" in different contexts, refering to "the spirit world" or in reference to attitude, "fighting spirit" or "team spirit", etc.

The Chinese have a good way of describing this, our raw sexual energy, ching, feeds our bio-electrical energy, chi, which feeds our spirit energy, shen, which then feeds the ching in a sort of feedback cycle. This is why we have women in skimpy outfits jumping around and waving pompoms at sporting matches, to help the crowd feed spirit energy to the players.

Physical and Spiritual Cleansing

So the sweat lodge cleanses and purifies the physical and spiritual bodies. The hot stones heat up the air which heats the body, which raises the body temperature and helps to fight off sickness. This is like an induced fever, which helps to make the body inhospitable to germs. The sweat also helps the body remove toxins. By participating in regular sweat lodge ceremonies, there is a cumulative change in the body. I can't describe it specifically, but the heat bothers me a little less each time, and I've become more tolerant of cold, as well. After my first lodge, the veins on my temples bulged for a couple days, but that doesn't happen any more. I'm not a doctor, I can't tell you everything that occurs, but a change happens.

The spiritual cleansing is partly enduring the experience. Surviving the trial of heat and steam proves something to you, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. It quiets the mind and emotions and allows the spirit time to be fed. You have to remember that you're sitting in a pitch black space, with no sound but the hiss of the water and the crackle of the rocks. You're singing songs that have been sung for hundreds of years and adding your own identity to the sound with drumming and rattling as the spirit moves you. The body is weakened, ego is destroyed, and you're faced, ultimately, with nothing but what you've brought in with you.

Deep stuff.


People claim to see spirits, lights, and travel to distant places, like under the ocean, out to the stars.

A drawing based on sweat lodge visions
Personally, each time it's a little bit different. I've seen indigenous animals, animals from africa, dragons, figures in native american dress, eclipses, strange symbols that seem meaningless, and fantastic displays of light. One common visual effect is a blue light hovering in the lodge around the other participant's faces, and a "spotlight" effect coming from the backside of my drum. Swirls of colored light coming from the stone pit, after they stop glowing red, are also common for me. I've gone hunting through verdant forests, and visited balconies with overgrown trellis where I watched transcendent sunrises. I've talked with armed horse-riding warriors in the painted desert.

All while sitting in the dark in Cocoa, without a trace of intoxicating drugs in my system.

The visions are not the point, and there are times when I have no visions. The point is getting out of the way of the experience and letting it unfold as it will. Opening my third eye and letting my thoughts and visions float past without trying to force them or guide them.

A pattern recreated from my memory
of a sweat lodge vision
From start to finish, the experience of participating in Sweat Lodge ceremonies requires effort, physical and spiritual, and I feel rejuvenated and refreshed afterwards, even if the day after I'm wiped out and just want to sleep. By the third day, I usually feel stronger and bolder than ever, which can sometimes get me in trouble, but only if I start overstepping my boundaries.

If nothing else, the camaraderie of sitting around the fire, constructing the ceremony, and the sights and sounds and smells of the lodge event are a treat, but I do believe there is more going on than meets the eye, even when visions occur.

For New Year's eve, we went to Okeechobee and held two lodges, one starting around nine, and the other starting at 11:30, so we could be in lodge as the year turned. The pictures in this story are from that lodge.

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