Attitude and Gratitude in a Sweat Lodge: A Personal Perspective

The following is a true story.  It's not meant to be a commentary about Sweat Lodges or Spirituality. Nor is it meant to minimize, criticize, or poke fun at the sacredness of the Sweat Lodge. I wrote it purposely as partly serious, partly tongue-in-cheek. That's my approach to life. Partly serious. Partly humorous. The story is meant to describe what it was. An experience. My experience. Then. Was it profound? No. Truly profound experiences are rare. Was it useful? Yes. I have since participated in dozens of “sweats.” Each experience has been different. It is what it is. Some are very hot. Some are miserable. Some are gentle. I get out of it what I need at the time. Or I don't. It's a sacred ceremony; a spiritual experience; a tool. It's neither an end all, be all, must do source of self-discovery nor a fast-track to God, The Great Spirit, or the Divine. It's a way. Not the way.

I repeatedly see what I term “The Divine Bovine.” Seekers of Divinity settling for “bovinity.” The herd. Plodding along, hypnotized by the fly swishing tail of the follower presently in front of them. People, who out of frustration, desperation, fear, curiosity and/or ennui lose themselves in the latest “New Age Rage”, or cult, or revivified/rejuvenated ancient tradition, or traditional religion, and, with glazed eyes, hail it as the only way. There are many ways. Whether it's a medicine man in a sweat lodge, a guru, a minister, a priest, a rabbi, a Jehovah's Witness, or a cricket in a brass cage, pay attention to whether or not you're blindly, vacantly following or whether you're being inspired.

I fiercely support a person's right to his/her Spiritual practice of choice. The operative word here is “choice.” True choice comes from within. If you choose to follow, so be it. Go for it. But, be aware. Be alert. Pay attention to what type of follower you are. There are multiple definitions of “follow.” Webster lists at least 14. They include: (9) to take as a model, act in accordance with, imitate. (10) to accept the authority of, obey (11) to support or advocate the ideas, opinions, etc of, and (12) to watch or listen closely. We all follow something, someone, sometimes. Follow with vigilance. Follow with awareness. Follow with choice. Sometimes being a “perfect (10)” isn't what it's cracked up to be.

Sue Jamieson, 1999

Healing the Heart in a Sweat Lodge—

I've been invited to participate in a Sweat Lodge ceremony. I've never done one and I'm excited, yet, nervous, as I have no idea what to expect. The night before the ceremony, I have a dream in which I find myself sitting in a lodge, men on one side, women on the other, with the leader sitting on my left next to the door. The woman who invited me is not sitting next to me, which I find odd in the dream. As we sit in the circle, the leader passes around a cup for each of us to drink out of. When the cup comes to me, I look into the bottom of it and see the word “MANAWA.” I awake from the dream wondering what the word means.

I recently met the woman who has invited me to the Lodge and have never been to her home. In the morning I go to meet her and several people who also are going. I walk into her home and see a poster on her wall listing the seven fundamental principles of Huna Shamanism. The fourth principle is “MANAWA” which means, “Now is the moment of power.” I feel exhilarated to receive an answer to my dream so quickly. I'm off to a good start.

Mid-afternoon, we arrive at the site of the Lodge, where several people have already gathered and are making “prayer ties” to hang in the Lodge. The Lodge is a round structure constructed of saplings tied with cloth and covered with heavy tarps and blankets. When it's time to begin, we line up to be smudged with sage, women first, then the men. The doorway is low so that we have to crawl in on hands and knees. We crawl in clockwise. I find myself sitting in the Lodge exactly as I dreamt the night before. It's crowded with more than a dozen of us sitting on the perimeter around the fire pit in the middle. All is quiet as the “fire keeper” brings in the hot rocks that have been in the fire since six A.M. Each rock is placed in the fire pit by use of two deer antlers. Herbs are sprinkled onto them. The Lodge is small so the fire pit is less than a foot away from our knees as we sit cross-legged. Quickly, it becomes very hot. I'm sweating so much that my clothes are stuck to my body. The smoldering herbs are aromatic, but smoky, making it difficult to breathe.

I question my sanity about why I'm doing this. It's crowded, hot, and hard to breathe. I can see that in a few minutes the flap is going to be closed and I'll be sitting in total darkness with total strangers, with no fresh air. Water is going to be poured onto the hot rocks, which will create steam and a more intense heat and make it even more difficult to breathe. My brain is screaming “panic.” We have each been given fresh cedar boughs to hold in front of our noses to help breathe. I bury my face in them. I must have imprints on my face from pressing so hard. I'm contemplating bolting, thinking that the leader would be surprised as I flatten him in my haste to leave.

He asks if anyone has any questions before he has the doorkeeper close the door. I ask if it's normal to be afraid and disclose that all my fears are up… the dark, not being able to breathe, close quarters with strangers, etc. He laughs and says it is. He says to pray. And pray. And pray some more. Then, really, pray. And finally, pray.

He announces that once he closes the door, no one is allowed to leave. Okay. That seems reasonable. He then says that in between the four rounds, when the door is opened, we must ask permission to leave and he will decide who may go outside to cool off and who may not. This statement is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. One of my less than charming traits is an intense problem with authority when that authority tries to impede my right to choose. My belief in the right to be independent and to exercise freedom of choice is absolute. I'll gladly help anyone when asked, but my natural inclination is to challenge being told what I can or cannot do. It's an attitude that has little basis in physical practicality as I stand 5'5” tall, weigh 112 lbs., and couldn't fight my way out of a wet paper bag. I have about as much physical clout as an enraged butterfly.

The less than charming part of having a problem with authority is the way it manifests itself in me. I bristle like an agitated porcupine. Porcupines are docile creatures by nature, unless they're threatened in some way. Then it's, “Go ahead, big guy. Take a bite out of me!” Since I resist authority so much, I repeatedly find myself in situations where I have to face it and get all “bristley”. I'm annoyed that I'm facing it now. I calmly think “Yeah? You and whose army is going to stop me if I decide to leave?” I'm hoping it won't be necessary for me to be confrontational. I dislike confrontation, but I know the choice I will make.

My fears dissolve and “attitude” steps forward. I think about a variance of this attitude toward authority that is another less than charming trait that my father used to refer to as “pig-headed stubbornness.” I prefer to euphemistically refer to it as tenacity. Euphemisms. Sugar-coatings. Is what I see in others as being a martyr, what I see in myself as being tolerant?

I carefully choose to what, or to whom, I commit, since once I commit, it's a matter of personal integrity. I won't back down. I won't quit just because something is hard. I won't ask for mercy. If I say I'm going to do something, I do it. If I say something, I mean it. With that attitude, it seems prudent to be somewhat phobic about making commitments. So, I admit I'm sometimes a stubborn, pig-headed, commitment phobic martyr with an attitude. So what and who cares. You got a problem with that? We all have our moments. Most of the time, I'm a real “peach.”

I'm puzzled by this lapse into a tour of my “dark side” and surprised by the intensity of feeling it evokes. Psychobabble for looking at what's uncomfortable and not pretty about myself. I think too much. So, naturally, where do I go with this? I decide I would rather die in the Sweat Lodge than leave. I commit. My choice.

The “powers that be” must love this one. They must be sitting around chortling. Be careful what you ask for because very likely, you'll get it. I get it.

The door is closed. It's so dark I can't see my hand in front of my face. Water is poured onto the rocks. The steam is so hot it sears my lungs and my body feels as if it's being boiled. I gasp for breath. My heart is pounding so hard from the heat, I'm afraid I'm going to faint, if I don't have a heart attack first. The leader is chanting, singing, and drumming. The sounds are coming to me as if I am in a well. I fight my panic. I wiggle around until I'm face down in the mud. Trying to find somewhere that is cool. Somewhere that I can breathe.

As I press my face into the damp earth, I feel the beat of the drum against my face and body. Entombed in the darkness, I imagine that I'm experiencing the heartbeat in the womb of Mother Earth. I feel the need to be with my body. To comfort it. To cradle it. To love it. I start to cry. Not silent dry tears that slide down behind my eyes, like I usually do. Real salty-tasting tears, stream down my face and into the earth. And, I pray. For my sons. For others. I don't pray for myself. Not yet. I struggle with the desire to pull away from myself. To not feel. I can soar with the eagles. I'm a great escape artist… a regular Houdini. I can pull myself away so that I don't even experience my body, so that I don't feel pain. So that I'm not here. A dubious talent.

Time mercilessly crawls by. It's been an eternity or two since the door was closed. I can't stand one more second of this. If he sings one more song, I'm going to stuff a sock in his mouth. I pray. For myself, now. I pray for my body. I pray to live. My heart is erratically pounding from the heat. My chest feels like it's going to explode. I concentrate on the beat of the drum. The drum comforts me. Always has. There is nothing else. Just the drum.

I press my body into the ground to feel the pulse. My heartbeat slows down. Regulates. Mimicking the drum. I time my breaths to the beat of the drum. Nothing matters but the drum. My lifeline. My anchor. I feel it. I hear it. I'm present. I'm here. No attitude. Just here. This Lodge for me is about being here. Fully. Body, Mind, and Spirit. This is about being present. Now. I can do this. I will do this. This is about power. My power. MANAWA.

Mercifully, the first round ends and the door is opened. Cool, fresh air fills the Lodge. The leader invites everyone to go outside, saying this is one of the hottest “sweats” that he has experienced in a long time. I derive some dubious comfort from this revelation. We all crawl out and lay on the ground. I'm exhausted, but euphoric. I'm alive. I can do three more rounds of this. I do. It's my choice.