Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sweat Lodge - another oldie, but goodie

I just spent four days bonding in the woods with Shana and her Leadership Workshop gang. I'm still processing and trying to find the right words to capture the incredible experience (plus, a lot of it was very hush, hush, so I can't reveal any of the secrets), but my own old sweat lodge experience comes to mind.

Sweat Lodge

I signed up for a sweat lodge ceremony at a swanky spa, figuring that even with our great group discount, I should probably tear myself away from the lovely pool for a bit of enrichment. I thought a little pow-wow out in the desert with my sister and some of my book club friends would be a cinch anyway. Compared to the other rock climbing or boot camp activities, it sounded like even a pudgy out of shape 40-something might be able to handle it. I was wrong.

The sweat lodge wasn’t lodge-like at all, more like the size of a washing machine. We were supposed to squeeze ten of us in, like a bunch of big-haired clowns into a VW Bug. At least there was no big hair in our crowd. No make-up, no underwire push-up Wonder bras, no deodorant, jewelry, glasses or even a bobby pin was allowed. We learned in our pre-sweat lodge training the day before that a bobby pin might singe our skin. That should have been my clue to head back to the pool, but I didn’t. So, clad in our cotton clothes and cotton Scrunchis, we piled in to the tiny womb-like tee pee in the 100-degree Tucson desert and took our last real breath for a long time.

One of our guides was a Native American whose ancestors taught him the ancient rituals passed on during thousands of sweat lodge ceremonies, including requiring him to fast for seven days before leading us. The rest of us had fasted, too, sort of. We skipped lunch. We had also given up alcohol for 24 hours, maybe not a huge sacrifice, but for my book club, otherwise known as a drinking club with a reading problem, it was a big step. Our other guide was a white guy with a different, much more macho past, but equally perceptive and spiritual. With his encouragement, he somehow eased the second thoughts I was having as the white tarp closed and the bright, cloudless sky disappeared.

Thick steam and the smell of burning sage filled the space as our guides poured water over the hot stones. They described the significance of East, West, North and South and the debt we owe to our ancestors as well as to future generations. The whole Circle of Life theme continued as the sound of our voices starting circling around and one by one we expressed our intentions, regrets and gratitude. We did the A ho Mitakuye o’yasin chant as we listened to ancient beliefs as well as to our own more modern sad stories. I felt pretty guilty as the descriptions of broken relationships, abuse, illness, addiction and loss floated around me, leaving me little room to bitch about my own charmed life.

The ceremony continued as we all turned into one puddle of sweat and tears in order to somehow purify, cleanse and start over in the tiny suffocating fort. I started to just sit silently and skip my turns, thinking that the circle would move along faster and hopefully get me out of the unbearable heat more quickly. It became clear that the lesson from this torture was that I could learn more from listening rather than my usual me me me approach. As the others prayed and as the air became thicker and thicker, my own non-religious but spiritual self started praying, as well, to whatever God we atheists are supposed to pray, to help me, too.

I tried to move a little, bending over deep because it was easier to breathe down low. It was pitch black and I poked the tips of my fingers behind me under the heavy tarp to feel some real air. The only thing keeping me from racing out of there, besides the searing hot stones four inches from my face, was that I didn’t want to be the first one to give up, knowing that if just one person escaped that inferno, it would somehow break the trance. I kept praying to God to get me out of there, getting more and more desperate, promising anything - to save the world, volunteer, exercise every day, stop eating high fructose corn syrup, anything, to just get out of there.

Three hours after going in, the thick white flap was opened. The glaring sun was gone, replaced by a cool, dark night. We all sort of silently drifted out and stood still, disoriented. I walked through the quiet desert back to reality and joined the other half of my book club, the superficial spa pigs that turned down the sweat lodge opportunity for some not quite the same eucalyptus massage instead. I tried to explain how it was the most meaningful and physically exhausting experience in my life. I tried to describe all of my new lofty aspirations. They all just said that my skin looked great, like I had just had a really good facial. My not yet cured me me me persona kept at it and tried to pass on the beautiful chant we learned - A ho Mitakuye o’yasin. I said it a couple of times, then slowed down for this already two glasses ahead of me group. “A ho, okay? A ho Mita…” All I heard was, “Did you just say ho? Who you calling a ho?”

I gave up and said, “Pass the wine.”

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