Many years ago I heard about sweat lodge ceremonies. I confess at first they seemed creepy. Bodies rubbing up against each other, while people were dripping in sweat. Not my idea of a pleasant journey. Then I had some fellow classmates at one of my Master’s programs go through a sweat lodge ceremony. They came back raving about how incredible it was. I couldn’t go at the time because I was a new mother and breast feeding. But, I wanted to do a sweat lodge ever since. Yesterday, I did.
To begin with I am blessed to have done it at the Ojai Foundation, one of those miraculous places where Native American
teachings of Council, Vision Quest, and Sweat Lodge regularly occur. A picture of the lodge is below. The ceremony is traditional run by a Native American Chumash elder named Paul. As this was an all women’s sweat lodge he was the fire keeper and his wife Aleesa ran the ceremony.
From the very start something in me began to stir as we began the fire ceremony with Paul as our fire keeper. As he talked about the “stone people” (the lava rocks put into the fire), the “one legged” (the trees who gave their life for the fire), the connection to the aliveness of everything around us emerged, not just as a theory or a platitude, but a reality for me. The deep level of respect for the rocks, the earth, the trees, the lodge (also known as the womb of the mother that was going to rebirth us) touched me deeply.
After a Council around the fire where 25 women began to tell their truths to one another (and yes most of us were complete strangers) that lasted three hours, I was already sweating and feeling pretty cooked. Then it was time to crawl into the “mother’s womb” where there were so many of us we were literally packed in like sardines touching arms and legs with very little room to move.
For five hours we sat in the heat. Truth be told I have never felt so drenched in my life. Sure I’ve been in a pool and tub of water, but this was different. I was not only drenched on the outside, sweat was pouring out of me from the inside. If I had bothered to weigh in before and after I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that I had lost five pounds.
As for the details of the ritual in general there were four rounds in the lodge, all held in total darkness. Each round honored one of the four directions and the work we did was related to the psychological and spiritual teachings each direction holds. Though I am still processing all that happened there, what I am able to understand so far is that 25 women sat in the dark and told the most raw and real truths about our lives we could tell.
This was far from a “get over it” experience that those who only want to glorify the light and run from the shadow like to espouse in motivational talks and coaching circles. Rather, this was a “get real” experience. No hiding from the feminine, from the Great Mother, from the shadow. It was time to admit the truth, to feel the truth, to tell the truth without varnish. No hiding, no covering up. No running into addictive or hedonistic patterns as a means of escape. To be honest it was very, very hard work. Physically,
mentally, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically — it was exhausting.
At one point after 6 1/2 hours of it I knew I couldn’t take it anymore. My low blood pressure combined with major dehydration had me nearly passing out. “All my relations,” I said to my fellow sisters. “I need help.” Far from the James Ray macho cover
up the truth and let people pass out, sufficate, and even die approach, this was an environment of total support. “Yes, sister. How can we help you? What do you need at this time?” I was not the only one who had asked for help in this way. Four women had exited out the door before me. Some in panic, some in physical duress, some simply not used to the major catharsis going on. My sisters tried to talk me through to see if I could stay. I started to faint. They let me briefly out the door. There the other sisters who had left were waiting for me and tended to me. I was determined to recover and get back in to finish the sweat. A little bit of water and a few minutes of rest, I did.
In that space we shifted from sharing the deepest wounds of our lives, to praying for the things we were desparately craving to feel healed. We also prayed for those we loved and attempted deep forgiveness work on those who we felt harmed by. I said attempted, because none of it was fake. No fakeness allowed. If you couldn’t forgive you could rage. Some women raged so loud I honestly thought I might have broken an eardrum. Others wailed, moaned, sobbed, cursed. It was intense. I’m a psychologist. I’m used to intense emotions. But, this? This was intense. REAL INTENSE. Raw. Real. Probably the most real a group of
people (let alone strangers) had ever gotten with each other or with themselves.
In between the rounds there was the singing. Beautiful Native American songs. I didn’t really understand the meaning, though they were summed up in general before we sang them. Connecting with the mother, the earth, each other, our hearts, our souls. Hot. Wow! Was it HOT! One woman apologized for dripping on the woman next to her. Laughter was heard all around. Who
wasn’t dripping on the people around them? Buckets of sweat spilling over. It was impossible not to.
Then there was the attempt to listen to our hearts beating and to the heart beats of each other. Then came the drumming trying to sync our heart beats together. Diving us down into the earth, into the womb of the mother. Lifting us up into the blackness of space, the mother’s infinite womb. It became clear we were not only pouring out the toxins from our bodies, we were shedding our skins. We were rebirthing ourselves.
After three hours around the fire and just over five hours in the lodge those of us who were left slowly crawled out. Sticky, dripping, coated with dirt, sand, and pebbles. We were a mess! Yet, we were changed. People looked around at each other clearly in altered states. When we went into the lodge it was day. Now it was night. Stars were overhead. The star people and the moon shined down on us. We did our best to hose off the dirt, sand, and pebbles. Then we went into the tent (the teepee was down for now, getting repaired) and changed our clothes.
Once again we were around the fire. Now it was simply hot coals. The stone people had been moved into the lodge during our ceremony. Only the coals remained and had been arranged into a medicine wheel. Paul was there to greet us. Normally, he does the sweats. We sat around the fire again for about an hour and shared a bit our experience. In part I was also fixated at this time on the leaders of the sweat. They were clearly an example of a deeply spiritual and loving couple. They were both so full of compassion. They had held the space for all of us to do what we needed to do with total acceptance. No judgment. Just love. I
was so moved.
Then the feast began. Finally, we could eat and drink. It was already around 11 pm at night. Some people talked about the sweat. Most chit chatted trying to finally get to know a little bit about the mundane worlds of each other. Some sat in silence remaining in altered states. All agreed. We were all altered. Reborn.
Love and blessings,
To learn more about the Ojai Foundation visit here. http://www.ojaifoundation.org
Copyright 2011 by Dr. Lisa Love. All rights reserved.
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Sweat Lodge at the Ojai Foundation.