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February 24, 2006

Sweat Lodge

As I stand on the deck in the California sunshine, Jennifer comes to me with a message. "I had a vision this morning in the group meditation," she says, "and it was meant for you." Jennifer teaches Sunday school on Vashon Island in Washington State, where she lives; she is a prophet and has a deep connection with nature and the Native American lands, people, and traditions. She continues, "I saw the sweat lodge. It was like a human chest. The branches that form the frame were like ribs and the steam was breath. The sweat lodge was breathing. And the hot stones are the ancestors. They represent the earth, the mother. And the water is the cool light, the father. When the cool water is poured on the hot stones, steam is produced and the steam represents tears."

I pick up the pitch-fork and re-arrange the logs on the fire. I am using the logs to enclose the stones in heat, covering any gaps. The fire is desire, the wood is my life experience, and stones are the negativity that I have inherited from my ancestors. I carry that heat as anger in my solar-plexus. A guy named Billy whispers into my ear, "Can I have a word with you?" I say yes and we sit down, away from the fire.

"The fire is very special," he tells me, "you must treat it with the utmost respect. I have fire-tended many times with Native Americans and they told me how important it is to treat the fire with respect." I nod and continue to listen, "If you abuse it then it will burn you. But if you respect it, then you can get very close and it will not hurt you." I think about how hard it has been tending the fire because it's extremely hot and my hands and face felt as if they were getting burned. He continued, "Think of the fire as your beloved grandmother; you wouldn't poke or prod her; you would treat her with great care and attention."

The lodge is positioned on the bank of the river with the fire pit downstream from the lodge itself. The cool water of the river symbolically flows down from the top of the head, through the chest, and then through the fire of the solar plexus. In the center of the light-brown dirt of the gently scooped nine-foot-diameter fire-ring is a three-foot-diameter inner-ring, in which the fire burns. Rocks mark the edge of the outer ring. In the fire are twenty-four volcanic rocks, able to take the heat without exploding. The lodge is a nine-foot-diameter dome, a few feet upstream from the fire-ring. The frame of the lodge is made of branches and is covered with heavy blankets. In front of the lodge, a small branch is buried into a mound of earth. Jewelry will be hung on the branch so that it won't burn its owner.

The warriors form a line facing the river, the first one standing between the ring and the lodge. Onlookers drum steadily as the warriors walk around the outer ring in a clockwise direction as seen from above. I feel that this represents the omni-directional rotation of the upwardly rising awakened kunalini, or serpent, energy. Except for the fire-tenders, no one must enter the fire ring or traverse it in an anti-clockwise direction.

Each warrior in turn is then purified. The smoke from a bunch of smoldering sage is wafted onto the body using an eagle feather; the face, chest — tapping the heart, the torso, the left leg — tapping the top of the foot, and the right leg — tapping again. Then they turn around; the back, the back of the legs, the top of the left arm — swishing off the end of the fingers, the top of the right arm — swishing again, the back of the head, and then tapping on the top of the head. The warrior then crawls into the lodge through the small opening, moving around the outside of the lodge in a clockwise direction to make room for the next one.

Once everyone is in, the door is closed. The drumming continues and a flute begins to drone gently. Sounds begin to emanate from inside the lodge, muffled calls in a strange language. And then the chanting begins.

After a while the call comes from inside "ho me tak weasin" which means "all my ancestors". On the third repetition, the flap is opened from the outside. They ask for one rock. I pick a rock that is glowing red-hot in the heart of the fire and fish it out using the pitch-fork. I carry the rock to a stump where it is brushed with stiff bristles and then flogged with a small branch to remove any remaining ash. I then carry the rock to the opening and call "ho ee-ah" before sliding the rock into the two-foot-diameter pit in the center of the lodge. The rocks are placed in a clockwise formation, starting nearest the door. The leader, the last one to enter, uses a pair of deer antlers to help guide the rock into position. The flap is closed and the chanting continues.

I sit in total darkness though I can see the ring of people in my mind. The teenage boy who is leading us calls out in the four directions; to the North, East, South, and West. He calls to the bear and the eagle, to the coyote and the wolf; inviting them in. He calls to the Great Spirit.

Water is added to the fire and breathing becomes hard. My skin is burning. I feel that we are all one in the darkness; we are one family. We sing about God. We sing Christian hymns and Hindu chants and traditional native songs.

After eight rocks have been placed and an hour has passed, there is a final call to open the flap. This round is over and the warriors step out one-by-one, bodies dripping with sweat and smeared with black dirt. They stumble from the lodge like newly born deer, disoriented, with weak legs, and confused eyes. They go to the ice-cold river and wash the dirt away.

In this ceremony, the sin, or karma, from this generation and from previous, is heated by desire fueled by the experiences of life and is then brought into the heart where the compassion of the great light is poured down upon it, tears are shed, and it is transformed into rock from which the foundation for the life of a true warrior-of-love can be built.


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