Colleen's thoughts on writing, directing and coaching, and her unique take on life itself!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The sacred sweat lodge ceremony

I was fortunate to be invited to attend a sacred sweat lodge ceremony recently.

It is a spiritual tradition practiced by indigenous peoples to release physical, mental and psychological toxins, to appreciate all those things in our lives we might take for granted, and to pray for the release of pain in ourselves and others. Those we know and don't know. The powerful and the voiceless.

Seeking clarity and motivation to make a positive difference in our own lives and the lives of others.

Before we enter, we are "smudged" with smoke from burning sage and sweet grass - purifying ourselves.

It takes place in a dome-shaped structure made with certain materials that not only allow the spirits to freely pass through, but honor the living materials that serve us such as wood. It's short, so it only permits those entering to crawl through the opening and then sit, preferably cross-legged.

As we enter, we kneel and put our heads to the ground, on the prayer blanket, saying, "All my relations." Meaning we acknowledge the one-ness of everything as being related to us in some way. That we are family with the planet or world (thus grandfather rock, grandmother tree -- every living thing has a soul. Yes, rocks are indeed living things).

The sweat lodge represents the mother's womb, which we enter to be re-birthed with a sense of release and freedom from the burdens we carry as we crawl into the darkened space.

This dome did not have an extended tunnel opening, much like an igloo, which another tribe whose sweat lodge I was invited to experience used.

A large circular pit is dug out in the center of the circle, into which large rocks are place that have been heated by burning wood for many hours. The person - door tender - who brings the grandfather rocks into the lodge is blessed, indeed, for he is bringing the energy of the world, as long as it has existed, into our presence.

Using antlers, honoring all animal spirits, the rocks are put into place, honoring the four directions: north, east, south and west.

As the flap door closes, the only light permitted emits from the red-hot rocks, onto which water is poured, releasing the dynamic steam, which is not only extremely hot, but cleansing.

In this sweat lodge, participants wear comfortable clothing; in other sweat lodge ceremonies I have attended no clothes were worn, for we go in and come out as we were born, men and women. There is NO sexual connotations to these ceremonies, and I mean NONE.

In some cases women sweat together, as do men, when no clothes are worn. It depends on the tribe and the ceremony.

In our case, we were genuinely blessed to have in our presence JC, true Lakota, who led us in song and speaks Lakota, which is a *beautiful* language.

Very sadly the tribal languages are being lost over the centuries, in too many cases because American and Canadian Indian children were taken away from their tribes to be "educated" in Catholic and other religious schools, where the children were punished for speaking their native tongue.

Remember it was Navajo code talkers who played a large role in helping the US win World War II because no one other than the Navajo US Marines could understand it.

Simply put, codes can be broken; languages must be understood, and tribal languages do not emanate from any "root" language with which Europeans or Asians are familiar. Many tribal members who do not speak their indigenous language are now choosing to learn them, and thanks to modern technology, those who do speak it can have their words captured for eternity.

So you can understand how fortunate we felt to have him in our presence. He simply dropped by our host's home for the first time in about a year and a half, not realizing he and his wife were preparing for a sweat ceremony.

JC also brought with him the pipe of his people to be smoked - one small puff each - after the sweat to unite us in our peaceful pursuit of life with all living things.

There are four "rounds" of sweat, each with its own purpose, each honoring its own life chapter - birth/infancy, youth, adulthood, and senior years/death - as well as other teachings of the animals, spirits and humans.

TaTonka, the sacred, powerful, respected American Buffalo, represents health, spirit, vitality, defiance and the balance of nature. It also represents the lesson of self sacrifice. JC told us that "When the tribe became hungry, they would ask TaTonka for life-preserving meat to eat. The TaTonka would unite as a herd, running away. Then stop. And one TaTonka would come back to the tribe, offering himself to them, sacrificing himself so they might live. This is the self-sacrifice lesson of TaTonka."

The first session, no one is permitted to drink water (unless medically advised) because part of the ceremony is to understand life-giving, life-saving and sustaining things we take for granted. As we become more thirsty, the value of water becomes paramount. As the heat flushes the toxins and water from our bodies, coolness becomes not just a desire, but a need. As the steam singes our bodies (slightly), we understand the importance of clothing that protects us in the world. As we allow the steam to stream through our nasal passages and throats, the need for pure air is clear.

We acknowledge that there are those in the world who suffer from the lack of these life-giving, life nurturing elements, and we share their pain, no matter how temporary, enough to understand it sucks.

As we sit in the stark darkness, sharing energy with those in the sacred circle, we are at once alone and with others. It is so dark even the presence of those in the circle can't be felt, let alone seen.

Fragrant lavender or other scent-producing dust is sprinkled on the rocks, producing a remarkable sparkling quality to each stone a particle touches.

At the end of a round, the front and back door flaps are open to receive cool air, but only for a few minutes. Water is offered to the thirsty.

The second round, seven more stones are added, increasing the heat. I chose to share a song, which I ordinarily sing loudly and without sweat pouring down my nostrils or steam affecting my breathing. I managed to get through "You Raise Me Up," as softly as I could.

In subsequent rounds, more rocks are added. Prayers are offered and supported with the others responding "Ho," which is much like saying "amen" in other cultures.

Physical and emotional responses to the ceremony are vast; fingers are swollen to the point that rings won't fit back on for awhile, some of the group are completely wiped out, others wishing only to be silent.

Most of us took towels and lay on the cool grass, visiting our own thoughts and feelings; sharing those we wanted with others.

Interestingly, as all chemotherapy recipients, especially those who have had it administered over a long period of time, my joints suffer.

When I entered, kneeling and putting my head to the ground, saying, "All my relations," I did with great discomfort and found it very difficult to sit in the small space with my knees bent because of these joint problems. But over the time and with the warmth of the steam, they relaxed and I was comfortable sitting cross-legged and had no problem crawling out or putting my head to the ground as I left, saying, "All my relations."

A wonderful, cleansing, spiritual experience with some magnificent, enlightened beings and spirits, followed by some warm congenial camaraderie and the most amazing food! As one person put it, "Food tastes better than ever before after a sweat!"


I mean, Ho!

I look forward to sharing many more sweats with this extraordinary, grounded, truly spiritual group of people. I felt I had fallen into the arms of peace, power and wisdom beyond my comprehension.

Note: to find out about the quest to stop the slaughter of free roaming American buffalo in Yellowstone, please click here.

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