In Native American cultures, The Great Spirit is a deity intertwined with the fabric of the Universe itself on the large scale and yet personally engaged with the web of living things and the world on an earthly scale. I am creating a spiritual practice by borrowing a little from the Buddhists and the practice of mindfulness, but mostly from the strong connection I feel for the worship of Earth as taught us by our first nations. For those who hunger for the connection of a spiritual practice from someone who is learning to braid her own.
Sweatin' it out
The sweat lodge was my greatest fear of the week long retreat because it was filled with two of my nemeses, heat and close quarters. But there we were, women encircling from the right of the canvas-covered dome, men from the left, waiting in turn to be smudged with sage smoke eeking out of small openings in the bottom of an old coffee can. If you've never been smudged, it means covered in (cleansed by) smoke--sometimes by others with feathers as fans and sometimes by oneself using cupped hands to spread the smoke up and down the body. The fire across from the front of the lodge crackled and spit sparks in the desert wind. Among the flames were a couple of dozen heating rocks.
Crawling clockwise around the perimeter on hands and knees to create a circle of bodies, we packed tightly around a fire pit and two Shaman sitting cross-legged, one with a drum and one with a rattle. We were prepared for four rounds (of about 10 minutes each), with the ability to bail if we were overcome by heat or panic.
Speaking Lakota, our Shaman hailed our fire keeper for heated rocks, which were delivered one by one with great care using a pitchfork. Each rock was received using a pair of antler-tongs and placed in the fire pit. The rocks themselves are sacred because of their longevity. The Shaman rubbed something I couldn't see on each of 6 hot rocks with a "spat." The herb-infused smoke swirled with the heat upward. Fingers-full of sprinkled Sweet Grass further sweetened the limited air.
Then the fire keeper lifted a large iron kettle half-filled with water and placed it inside the sweat lodge. He untied the heavy canvas door and covered the opening in darkness with some final native words. Once it was dark the sizzling burst and dense humidity of a cup full of water tossed on the fire rocks, hits the face. Three more bursts of steam were added to the thickness. It was difficult to catch my breath, but the rattle and drum riveted my attention to their heart beat and I used them to syncopate my breathing.
The sweat came fast so any hope of staying clean on the dirt floor, or keeping up with the dripping is futile. I sat there breathing and hanging on to the drum beating in my heart. Ten minutes went fast. Next thing I knew fire keeper threw back the door with native words, and a rush of cool blasted the center of the lodge. Those sitting away from a b-line from the door miss out on a good cool breeze, although I did notice a lightening of the air. Six more hot rocks delivered and placed, more herbs added to the rocks. And then the door was closing again. The second round turned out to be a little tougher because my body was noticing the cramped position it held and the roll-call of achy spots in my neck and back. I made a mental note that placing oneself near an edge when you're tall is a bad idea. Again I breathed and the drum and the singing whittled away the time. Again the door opening whisked in a breath of cool air and we were offered a small cup of water. I moved slightly to gain a new position.
The third round was the toughest because by now my back and neck were aching, and while a rattle and whistle filled the lodge, no drum accompaniment this round. I fought back thoughts of baling and breathed like I was running a race, in and out, attention lazered on my breath. I missed the soothing beat of the drum. I rallied in the fourth round, I assumed because the drum and singing resumed.
We all emerged rosy cheeked, dirty head to toe, and happy to have made it through. Next step enjoyment, maybe transformation.