Saturday, December 02, 2006

Sweat Lodge, Part Two

[This is the second and concluding part describing a sweat ceremony I participated in some years ago. The first part was posted yesterday]

The second ceremony took place at sunset when the fire was lit. There were a number of large stones in the pit, the size of large grapefruits or small melons -- that and lots of firewood.

There is purpose and significance in how all this is done, including the placing of the stones and the firewood.

At sundown when the fire was lit, Steve, who was leading the sweat, explained to us a number of practical as well as spiritual details about the sweat. I suppose he had to tell a little bit more than normal as most of us were novices.

Among other things, we should no longer cross the area between the fire pit and the lodge. If our errands brought us past the lodge, we should keep the lodge to our right -- that is to say, movement around the lodge should be clockwise. Inside the lodge, movement would also be clockwise, as we entered and as we left.

I understood that there are seven directions to consider. East, South, West and North, of course, but also Up, Down and -- Center!

That really wiped me out!

Imagine! Center is a direction! It changed my universe in a flash!

It's kind of like origami. As the paper is folded, you cannot see the purpose or meaning of it. Then, all on a sudden, there is a small white bird in your hand...

The four directions of the compass are associated with guardian spirits: the Eagle, the Coyote, the Bear and the White Buffalo Woman. There are special meanings associated with them and as Steve explained it, it was quite beautiful and rich.

I cannot recall the details, but as he spoke, associations to the four archangels and the images of eagle, lion, ox and man associated with the four evangelists came into my mind.

The other three directions I understood to be associated with Father Sky, Mother Earth and Spirit. Indeed, Holy Spirit is at the center and is the life of all things. Without center, there is no life.

To enter the sweat lodge is to enter the womb of the Earth. The sweat is a physical cleansing intertwined with a spiritual cleansing. It is a death and rebirth.

I recently acquired an understanding that the sweat lodge, in its inner essence is a baptism.

The reader may find this idea a bit strange, but I have tried to explain it in a sister to this essay entitled: "The Round Church". Round churches are peculiar to the island of Bornholm, I will post a piece about them in the near future.

After a couple of hours, the fire burnt down to coals and the stones were red-hot. We were then called to the sweat ceremony.

We were given a small piece of a bitter root -- this has the effect of helping the body to sweat more freely. Then, by turn, we were "smudged", that is to say cleansed with smoke from a small pot by Steve, who welcomed us with a few words and an embrace. We each entered the lodge, saying a brief phrase, I have forgotten the phrase itself, but its meaning is a greeting and honouring of those who have gone before -- our ancestors.

Moving clockwise, we took our places inside the lodge. We sat on straw covered with thin sheets. This was good for us. When they say "sweat", they should spell it with capital letters with an exclamation point after each letter:
If you sat on bare ground, you would soon sit in a mud puddle.

The sweat consists of four rounds. Each round is directed to one of the four earthly directions, starting with the Eagle. The fire keeper brings stones from the fire pit and the one leading the ceremony inside the lodge guides the stones into the pit. As it is quite late at night, it is very dark even when the flap is pulled back to allow the stones to be carried in.

The stones glow red, filling the lodge with hot earthy smells. The stones are greeted with respect for they are also the stone people, very ancient. The small sparks they emit as they are carefully laid in the pit is their speech.

It soon becomes quite hot and, when the water is poured upon them, the steam, which you cannot see, embraces you with almost physical force.

Steve and Robert shared the roles of fire keeper and ceremony leader, changing between each round. The ceremony leader says a few words and then the word, passes clockwise around the group. Each, in turn speaks what they have to say, concluding with "aho", which the group repeats in unison. The meaning of 'aho' is more or less equivalent to 'amen' -- that is, 'it is so' or 'so be it'.

Being a person who almost always has a smart comment on any and everything, I decided that I would not say anything unless I really felt moved to do so.

The ceremony leaders were most kind and lenient with us and let us leave the lodge in between rounds. I was able to grab my tee-shirt to towel myself with back inside the lodge -- which made it just barely bearable. My body was drenched in sweat and straining to exude just a little bit more liquid through each and every pore. I was really suffering and in quite some torment. It reacquired a sincere effort of will on my part to hold out to the end.

By the time of the second round, I had given up all my noble ideas of not saying anything unless the spirit moved me -- no, I wasn't going to say anything even if the spirit did move me! Each "inspired" word would only lengthen my misery. When the word and the talking stick was passed to me -- I just gasped "aho!" and passed it on...

And yet it was not like in church when you have a droning preacher whom you would gladly do something physical to, to get him to stop. I heard the words and I didn't hear the words. There were things happening to me I cannot put into words.

Not visions mind you -- just deep, wordless understandings.
If such understanding can be allowed to infuse daily life -- I guess that is spirituality.
It was so beautiful when we left the lodge. It was a late summer evening, quiet with a touch of the new day dawning. We cooled off in the lake. How wonderful it was.

Then a boy came running to tell us there had been an accident!

What had happened is that one of those who had been outside the lodge, drawing water and drumming for us, had forgotten to put down the handle of the pump and, in the dark, one of our group had walked right into the handle, getting a whack right on the bridge of her nose.

Fortunately, it was no worse than a bruise and passing pain -- nothing was broken.

I mention this incident, because, at the moment we were told of Pam's mishap, coyotes in the distance began their distinctive song. I assumed they were dogs that sounded like coyote, but was later informed that there are indeed coyote in Michigan.

The significance here is that Coyote is the trickster whose duty it is to keep us awake -- his tricks can be painful, but are meant for our own good

The lesson: whatever happens, be attentive as you walk the sacred path of life.

Love being aware


Anonymous said...


Hard to say anything more than that, man.

Beautiful words and insights, thank you so much.

Reminded me of the Medicine Cards we use as a daily part of our spirituality; the connection is often surprisingly strong and relevant. I highly recommend them.

Anonymous said...

Sooooo glad you wrote these two posts.

Over the years I have been particularly interested in American Indian spirituality and beliefs. I am 1/16 American Indian and when my brother and I were little kids living our poor, most often hungry lives, we would draw upon what we thought of as our inheritance and encourage each other to use the strength in us from our Indian ancestors to endure and to be strong.

I have read so many times of the details and the benefits of a traditional sweat. It was really wonderful to ready your account of your own experience with this amazing ritual. I can only imagine that you learned many things from the privilege of participating in this holy ceremony.

Chuck Cliff said...

Aww shucks! Thanks! The biggest impression I got is that, in theory, any place can be consecrated as holy ground, and then the next day you can hardly see that anything had happened.

We had to do this in Michegan, because it was a state park and we had to leave things like they were before we came.

Medicine cards? Hmmn... Don't know, they'd probably just tell me things I already know I ought to be doing! That could be embarassing!