At the end of February whilst visiting California and preparing for my move over there, I had the privilege of experiencing my first Native American sweat lodge of the Lakota tribe. The entire day was filled with a sweet reverence and dignity for the thousand year old tradition, as well as every person involved in the ceremony. We were on a farm outside of Napa Valley with vast hills and mountains in the distant background. We parked on the side of a road and we were asked to turn off our cell phones. It was a peaceful sense of isolation and introspection that saturated the experience.
The ceremony started with us and our belongings being saged off to purify our energy and being welcomed with the warmest hug one could only imagine receiving. Afterwards, we sat down on the ground and made prayer ties, which were pinches of tobacco with prayers breathed into them, wrapped in small pieces of fabric of different colors then tied together. They were also lovingly nicknamed, “Native American rosaries”. From there, the chief began to tell us the history of the sweat lodge and the rundown of the events that were to follow. The men and women separated to change into what we were gonna sweat it out in. When we reconvened, we gathered around a fire that had been cooking the rocks for the ceremony since early that morning. One by one, we had to request permission to enter the wide but low hut that was referred to as the mother’s womb.
Once we everyone was in and settled on the mats inside, we were asked if there were any deceased loved ones that we wanted to welcome into the ceremony. Then the hot rocks were welcomed in ceremoniously with a bucket of water following them. As each rock entered, the mother’s womb got warmer and warmer. Then the entrance flap was closed and the chief started to sing ancient Native American prayer songs to welcome our deceased loved ones as well as our spirit guides into the ceremony, which started our first round. Each round lasted five to ten minutes and then they would open the flap and another flap on the opposite side and give us water to drink as the chief would speak words of great wisdom adjacent to the meaning of each round.
It was a total shock to the senses as each one was almost completely wiped clean of our psyche. You couldn’t see anything other than a glimpse of the growing rocks in the middle that various herbs and water were thrown because of the thick, heavy blankets covering the mother’s womb. The herbs that were thrown and burned on the hot rocks singed your palette to the point where you couldn’t taste or smell much at all. You could hardly hear anything other than you own thoughts over the drumming and the prayer songs. And you had a slight awareness of the people next to you and you can feel the ground beneath you, which was the coolest part of the entire structure, but your skin would throb and when the flaps were lifted, you could see steam rising from your body. There were points within the ceremony when I couldn’t tell the difference between my sweat and my tears. So all that is left is an honest and uninterrupted conversation with you and your higher being.
The second round was devoted to praying for ourselves because it is Native American theory that you cannot give what you don’t already have, an underappreciated and forgotten ideal in this day and age. This part brought up every insecurity and fear I had ever felt as we were encouraged to ask for guidance with anything that we may be struggling with. It was scary yet healing because I was forced to face them but, at the same time, I was able to ask for help with them and feel like I was heard. It was both vulnerable and liberating to ask for help with things I had been carrying with me for so long.
The third round was dedicated to prayers for other people and this is where my concrete belief in the ceremony comes in. A family friend’s child had been ill and the doctors have been stumped by the cause thereof. Lately, they had been running into issues with the insurance company being willing to pay for a particular test that give them more answers. They were the first ones to come mind so I sent prayer for them and four days later, they were given the green light to have test!
The last round was about showing gratitude for life and the many blessings that we receive on a regular basis. This was my favorite part because first, it is incredibly difficult to be sad or depressed by any measure when we are grateful. But more importantly, when we take the time to take detailed stock of what we have, a sense of sweet humility envelops us and we are uplifted automatically to a head space of joy and peace. We remember the places where we were hurt and our spirits were shattered like broken glass and we could have given up on ourselves yet we put one foot in front of the other and kept moving and breathing until those moments became memories and, if we are wise and compassionate enough, lessons. We also remember the ones who picked us up and dusted us off every time life knocked us down.
Stepping out of the mother’s womb was another one of my other favorite parts. First, the physical relief of the cool air, compared to inside mother’s womb, was refreshing and delightfully crisp. And as I walked around the fire, I got to shake the hand of every person that was in there with me, dealing with their own demons and sweating them out with me. In that moment, I realized the need for interdependence because we are all dealing with something. I also realized how universal emotions are. There is no emotion that you have felt that I have not felt and there is no emotion that I have felt that you have not felt. The catalyst for a given emotion and how we respond may differ from person to person. We are all on this same speck of dust on a ball of water floating through space around a ball of fire doing the best we can with what we have. And we all receive different things at different times.
The whole experience was life-altering to the point where I still feel the affects of the ceremony to this day and I cannot wait until my next chance to share those moments with another group of amazing people. It put me in a place of objectivity where I could see the truth of who and what I am. It is a powerful thing to disconnect yourself from your life and look at things from a non-biased and honest yet compassionate and forgiving perspective. And once you can see where you need to improve, you can change any part of your life! It was also a place where you disconnect from the rest of the superficial, rushed and perpetually panicked world and you reconnect yourself to the part of your self before it was given any kind of label. The self that is not constantly and insidiously scrutinized to be better suited for society. The self that remains innocent in spite of circumstance. The wisest part. The divine within.