[Fair warning: many parts of the sweat lodge ceremony are a sensory blur of memory to me; I’m writing the mental images I recall, but their order and accuracy is not a given. Further, if there are any errors noted here in how a sweat lodge is run, they are assuredly mine. Also, once more: this is solely about my impressions, as I am trying to be extremely careful regarding issues of privacy.]
Later that afternoon we’re all quite relaxed as we head off to the sweat lodge, due to the wonderful intensity and satisfaction of creating our own beautiful drums. We’ve been told to bring liquids, a towel, and wear loose clothing — like a T-shirt and a skirt. I wear dresses rarely enough that I don’t have any skirts I’m willing to get really sopping wet, so I take a pareo and wear it as a skirt, knotted at the hip. I worry a bit, hoping this will be both sufficient and respectful. I discover from experience that this is a perfect type of skirt to wear, in that it allows me to pull it away easily from my legs to cool down a bit.
In the backyard of the woman who is running the sweat lodge, the big fire to heat the rocks has been going for hours, and radiates a surprising amount of oddly confined heat to me, in the slightly cool afternoon air — it’s almost as if you can step in and out of the air rivers of warmth and coolness. There are three assistants helping the organizer, and they’re using pitchforks to move the large rocks and chunks of wood around. I’m impressed; this is hard work! The sweat lodge itself is a circular hump to one side of the yard, maybe 6′ high and 10′ in diameter?
Unfortunately I don’t remember the shaman’s name, and I don’t know if she has a website for me to link to. If I find it out later, I’ll add it in here. She’s a kind and friendly person, and very considerate after hearing that out of the ten of us women, two have chosen not to participate and six have never sweated before. She gives us all a calm, clear explanation of what we’re going to do that leaves me in a mix of anticipation and slight concern: will this be too much for me? I don’t know, but I want to find out.
The sweat lodge experience itself is somewhat… spiritually perplexing to me. I’ve heard a lot about emotionally charged visions within the lodge, and we’ve all been alerted ahead of time via e-mail to have something in mind for the time we spend there: “Sweat lodge is a ritual purification which is symbolic of entering the dark womb with the fire of life at the center. Plan what you want to release and what you want to call in.” I am a bit trepidatious, but have something in mind concerning the direction my life is taking: am I on the right path? Is it time to put my doubts behind me and move forward boldly?
[At the time I thought nothing of the excellence of the organizing woman’s explanations. However, later from other sources, I am both bleakly amused and saddened to hear the sweat lodge ceremony — which is supposed to be given freely when necessary for the health of the community — has its share of political and cultural in-fighting. I’m glad we are with someone who bypassed all that. As well, apparently in some circles men have decided it is the physical ordeal which is important, rather than the spiritual and/or emotional clearing which such an ordeal may provide. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, I guess.]
The sweat is indeed a bit of an ordeal to go through, although also quite fascinating. There are buckets of water already prepared for later use, and I smile as I see they are thick with flower petals and other medicinal herbs floating on the surface — this will be a lovely-scented steam we’re breathing. There are pine branches and a smudge of sage and, I think, tobacco? -waiting for us. I inhale with pleasure as I’m smudged; I’m finding I really enjoy the scent of burning sage.
The lodge itself is indeed womb-like, almost atavistic feeling to me, inside and out, even before we start: close, round, warm, dark colored outside, thick with comfortable shadow on the inside… I rather like it. I hear it has been built in the traditional manner, with the right kinds of wood lashed together the correct fashion, and so on. I don’t know enough about the ceremony of creating one to have the details stick in my head, but I can see all kinds of materials in the coverings. I spot what looks like rag rugs, a canvas military surplus tarp, various blankets, an unzipped sleeping bag… it feels oddly comfortable and homey to me. There is a small fountain and pool in the landscaping behind it, and a little cluster of pale barked trees near the front. The air eddies around the backyard: cool, with heated streams flowing from the large central fire.
Since it is part of sacred space (like a dojo, with which I am slightly more familiar) I pause and bow respectfully each time before entering. It feels right to do so, and I see I am not the only one — each of us has our own way of greeting sacred space. Once within, I see small rag rugs around the edges of the dug-in, rock-lined firepit in the center. There is plenty of space, and when I realize some of my companions wish to stay by the door in case this becomes too much for them, I carefully step over to sit on my towel on the far side of the lodge from the door. The eddying air causes some feathers, hung from a small hoop tied to the ceiling lashings, to flutter and sway. I grin at everyone else before the door flap is lowered, feeling unaccountably happy.
I am quietly excited as we listen to further explanations: there will be four rounds and we can exit between each one if we wish. We can sit as pleases us within the lodge, or lie down or curl up under our blankets; there will be drumming, singing, prayers, dancing if we wish — although when I eye the large firepit I find I have no desire to dance near that while in the dark in an altered state, however mild. :-)
The rocks in the center are beautiful while they are visible: they glow heated reddish-gold from within as they are carefully brought in on a pitchfork and added to the pile in the firepit. Sweetgrass smells wonderful when burning; it is apparently used for blessing and thanking. Everything is blessed and thanked: the rocks, the flowers and herbs, the drum… I feel an extraordinary sense of connection to everything else as I see and participate in doing so. When the doorflap goes down and warmly comfortable darkness falls, I feel as if my other senses are extending outward from me like an invisible array of sensory feelers in the lightless air.
The towel-covered ground beneath me is comfortably, yieldingly solid, like a part of my body. I can hear people murmuring quietly and shifting near me; it feels almost cozy, familial. My senses of touch and smell seem to flare outwards in the pitch darkness: there is a pressure in the air which tells me my companion on my right is close. To my left the air is more empty-feeling, and I discover later my cohort sister has curled up under her towel. As the bucket of water is thrown onto the incredibly hot rocks in the utter darkness, there’s a wonderful heated-moist gust of roses for an instant, followed by other rich, sensual scents I enjoy but do not recognize. Even more astonishing and lovely are the momentary golden-red sparkles of some sacred root put on the rocks as the ceremony within the lodge officially begins. The bright glittering looks like stars — like some shimmering galaxy come to earth before us.