For the past year, I have watched my life partner, Ken, go off each Sunday to sweat his little tukus off in a strange little hut. He would look forward to his Sunday ritual with anticipation.
When he would come back from the day long trek and ceremony, he was usually in a much more peaceful space than when he’d left. (His skin would be a curious hue of red, which lasted anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, but he was peaceful nonetheless.)
I didn’t know much about sweat lodges. I did know that a guy in Sedona, Arizona, named James Ray, held one and people had died. It was all over the news in 2009. If people died while in sweat lodges; what in the heck was my sweetie thinking? It was worrisome.
I began to wonder what, exactly, he experienced on those Sundays. They were long, lazy Sundays for me. I would spend them…well…being lazy. Occasionally, Ken’s friends would ask me when I was coming to sweat with him. I would reply, all puffy with my self-righteousness, that my Sunday ritual of being a lazy slob was just as important and mind altering to me, as his mysterious trek to the sweat lodge.
To be honest about the whole thing, I was quite simply terrified of participating in a sweat lodge. This is because the one thing I did know about the sweat lodge, was that it involved being enclosed in a tight, dark space for lengthy periods of time, with at least 8 people. I am extremely claustrophobic. (Also, did I mention people had died in one?)
Yet, because this ritual was important to Ken, and he is important to me, I decided to finally commit myself to accompanying him on one of his Sunday journeys. After committing, I was instantly horrified at what I’d done. The thought of attending the lodge filled me with an incomprehensible sense of doom. Deep down I was sure I wouldn’t survive it.
When Sunday rolled around, I woke to find I had started my period. It was the first and only time in my life that I was happy to have the wicked cramps that accompanied my monthly. You see, apparently, menstruating women are not allowed in the lodge. I am not quite sure why this is, but it worked for me!
The next Sunday came all too soon.
That morning, as I started to get ready for my trip, Ken began to instruct me on certain aspects of what I’d be experience. I listened grumpily.
First, I needed loose clothing that would cover my arms and legs, lest I get burned. Huh??? No jewelry, because the metal becomes very hot and will burn, as well. At this news, a tickle of panic rumbled in my stomach. Just exactly how hot was it going to get in that small, dark, cramped space???? I flatly denied having any clothes suitable for the outing with the silly idea that Ken would leave me at home. Instead, he quickly exposed my lie, by finding something from my closet for me to wear.
He also packed a sweat rag and a towel for me, and recommended a change of clothes, as we’d be showering off at the end of the whole thing. I vaguely wondered if I’d survive long enough to make it to the shower part. I grumbled the whole time we prepared and was being deliberately difficult, but Ken remained kind and patient. I felt like a toddler being dragged patiently and quietly across the floor to the pediatricians office. I’m sure Ken viewed me much the same way.
Somehow, Ken eventually managed to get me in the car. I grumpily demanded a stop at Starbucks when I knew we didn’t have the time. He complied with just a tad bit of irritation this time. Once I had my coffee in hand, I calmed somewhat. At least this was something that was comforting and familiar. Ken seemed to sense this and breathed a sigh of relief. I, however, wasn’t done throwing tantrums. When I discovered we’d be picking up two of Ken’s sweat buddies, I threw a fit and, when finished, burst into tears.
“Why am I doing this?” I cried.
“Why are you crying?” he asked.
“No! Why am I intruding on your sweat lodge. You already have sweat-buddies! You don’t need me!”
“Oh, you’re feeling like a fourth wheel?”
“We don’t have to drive up with them. It’s just usually what I do. It’s a long ride and it’s more pleasant when you have company. Of course I have you today…I’ll call and tell them we’re driving separately.”
I nodded. Then felt like a putz. (After all that is exactly what I was being.)
He had his cellphone to his ear, and I suddenly said, “No, don’t.”
He sighed deeply, disconnected, and we continued to drive in silence.
When we arrived at the carpool meeting spot, I put on my sunglasses to cover my tear-bleary, frightened eyes. I was greeted by Ken’s friends with hugs and “Oh! We’re so glad you could make it!” type exclamations. I cringed inside. That’s exactly what the church goer’s at my mother’s church would say if I happened to show up. This was one of the things I dreaded most about going to church. They said they were happy to see me, but there eyes said things like: “Pagan! Just look at the length of that skirt! Land’s sake! She’s just as wild and slutty as ever. It’s a wonder she doesn’t burst into flame upon entering our sacred and holy home!”
However, Ken’s friends, Sarah and Darren, seemed genuine. They almost seemed a little shy. I had met them both before, socially and briefly, which meant that I didn’t know them at all. Sitting in the back seat of the car with Ken, and listening to their banter had me smiling and relaxing just a bit more. They didn’t seemed the least bit worried about the “sweat” ahead of us which eased my mind a bit more.
When we arrived at our destination, I met more of the people I would be sweating with, and received more of the platitudes I’d heard before. “So nice that you could join us. So happy you finally came.” There were eleven people assembled to sweat that day.
Ken led me around the back of the house to the sweat lodge, giving me an impromptu tour. The sight of the sweat lodge brought a fresh surge of panic. It was so…well, so tiny. How in the heck were eleven people going to fit in that thing? The fire in front of the lodge had the panic transforming itself into terror. It was so freaking hot I was already sweating while standing 30 feet from fire pit!
Every one mingled and wandered off to change. I put on the loose pants and the t-shirt Ken had recommended, and joined the rest in front of the lodge. The head guy, Mark, who ran the lodge came to me and asked if I’d done this before. I said, “Heck no.”
He smiled and said, “Well the lodge is about prayer, so remember, if it starts to get tough in there, pray.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d been praying all morning and it hadn’t done an iota of good. (I was still going to sweat, wasn’t I?) Mark smiled, and said I’d be fine. I tried to smile back but it came out more like a grimace.
Mark began the lodge with prayer and then, one by one, we were all “saged”. (Saging is kind of like taking a bath with the sweet smoke from a burning sage bundle.) The lodge, is a small, round dome that only stands about three feet tall…so you have to crouch down, crawl, and sit cross legged, once you get in it. Crawling into the lodge symbolized re-entering the womb…a symbolism that became quite apt as time went on with my sweat. I ended up sitting in the middle of the back of the lodge, farthest from the door. I had a sinking suspicion this was probably not the best spot for a newbie.
After everyone was assembled in the lodge Mark began the ritual, and rocks were put in the center, one by one. I immediately began sweating profusely. I looked around and noticed that no one else seemed to be sweating. Was I supposed to be sweating like this already? Was this normal? I was pretty sure I was doing something wrong. I was dripping and no one else seemed to be even mildly uncomfortable. The blond girl by the door looked pristine and unperturbed. I was pretty sure I should be sitting by the door. It was probably much cooler over there. I started to deeply resent the blond chick. She had my spot!
I wondered if they stuck me as deep into the lodge as they could to keep me from running out during the middle of the ceremony. From what Ken said, this was a definite no-no and would disturb everyone else’s “sweat”. I sat quietly and started to count the drops of sweat dripping off my nose, hoping no one would notice that I was a premature sweater.
Mark finally closed the door to the lodge, making it pitch black. I sighed in relief, happy that no one could see how miserably I was failing at the sweating thing.
They’d brought in 17 rocks, all glowing red with heat. I knew this, because I’d counted the rocks… the big rocks…the seventeen big, hot rocks. Earlier, Ken had told me they used twleve rocks. I was positive they had brought in too many rocks. Why didn’t anyone else notice there were too many rocks in here? Jeeze.
With the door closed I began to sweat even more. I wondered how much fluid my body could lose before I dried up completely and ignited like a dry twig from the heat. Had that every happened before? I hadn’t even thought to ask.
Mark poured water on the rocks. The temperature in the lodge went up from about 150 degrees to 250 degrees. Breathing became difficult. The air was so hot and heavy that it felt as though my lungs couldn’t extract the oxygen from it. I concentrated on breathing deeply, pulling air in and out of my lungs.
Mark began beating a drum and singing. Everyone else in the lodge started singing with him. How could they sing? I wondered. There wasn’t enough air to breathe much less move my vocal cords. The singing thing disturbed my concentration on the breathing thing. It was annoying. I struggled to breathe, in and out, in and out. I felt like I was baking, sweat ran down my face, down my back, down my butt crack. I suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to cry. So I did. This too, interfered with my breathing.
I think I started to hallucinate. I saw the twins I’d lost years ago in my minds eye and the sorrow felt overwhelming. Throughout the entire sweat, I could not shake the twin’s images. They were in there with me and wanted me to know it…wanted to tell me something. I struggled to breathe, struggled to not cry, and suddenly knew unequivocally that I had to run from that place. I knew I wouldn’t survive. Just as I decided to make a run for it Mark stopped drumming and threw open the door. A breeze swept in and cooled the air slightly. I stared out at the trees, longing to be out among them instead of in the lodge. Once again sorrow overwhelmed me and I fought the tears again.
Water was passed around. I realized I had to pee. Badly. I knew we had three more rounds of dark, scary heat ahead of us, and was afraid to drink the water lest I couldn’t hold my urine. When the drinking horn came to me I gulped the water down anyway. It seemed like the smart thing to do since I was sure I’d already sweated all the moisture out of my body and would need more. Besides, if I was sweating all the moisture out of my body, the water hardly had time to be processed into pee. Right? Wrong. By round three I was delirious with the need to tinkle and was wondering what would kill me first; not being able to pee, or not being able to breathe.
During Round three, two of the regular’s left the lodge. I wanted to bail so badly and envied them. I just couldn’t make myself do it though. I was determined to make it though my first sweat or die. I was pretty sure the later was the more likely alternative. When the door was closed on the fourth round I slumped in a literal puddle of misery. I kept my face close to the floor where the air was cooler. (Something like 390 degrees instead of 400.) This was the hottest of the rounds, with Mark increasing the heat constantly by pouring water on the rocks. I withered and squirmed with my nose to the ground. The heat was unbearable. I wanted to rip my clothes off, as they seemed to superheat from the moisture caught in the cloth, and burned against my skin.
I started to mewl piteously and continued to cry, as in my minds eye, I continued to see my lost babies. I was getting ready to run out the door, when Mark suddenly threw it open. “I need to get out of here! I need to get out of here!” I cried. One of the regulars said, “It’s okay, we’re all leaving now.”
The leaving of the lodge seemed to take forever, as each person crawled out on hands and knees.
When I left the lodge, I stood and stumbled around in the sunlight amazed at the freshness of the air that I couldn’t get enough of. It seemed that the air in the lodge had made my lungs defective and no matter how hard I gasped I couldn’t get enough in. Plus, I was so hot, so incredibly hot!
I lay flat on the ground and sucked in air and tried to feel cool again. I closed my eyes, and had just started to feel only a few levels away from okay, when Ken shook me and told me to sit up. I realized everyone was in a circle around me and we were to share the smoking of the ceremonial pipe.
I also realized that everything I looked at was blurry. I blinked. My eyeballs felt weird. I blinked again. Holy shit! My contact lenses had fused to my eyes! No one had warned me not to wear contacts! I stuck a finger in my eye and pushed at my contact, hoping to move it. It budged a little. I did the same with the other eye. It took a few more attempts, but finally it moved.
We each took the pipe, and took a puff. When it came to me I took my puff and inhaled…whoops! I started choking and gasping for clean air. I didn’t realize you weren’t supposed to inhale. Ken thumped me on the back a few times. At least the choking fit made my eyes water, which lubricated my fried contact lenses.
After a few more prayers I was told it was time to shower. I asked where the shower was, and was pointed to the back of the house. Turns out the shower was a hose suspended from a tree, and all the women got naked in front of one another to take a turn under the nozzle. I really didn’t want to see these strangers naked…sometimes, some things, are better left to the imagination. Yet, their easy going attitude made me more at ease, and pretty soon we were all cavorting around the shower like happy, little naked water nymphs. It was then that I realized that I was really, really, happy.
After dressing, we returned to where the men were already sitting in a circle on the ground, eating fresh fruit. Papaya, mango, oranges, lilikoi, and watermelon…they all tasted like heaven. I realized I felt high…a lot like the time I’d been given morphine when I’d had appendicitis. No wonder Ken liked to sweat so much! Coming out of it was like being given really good drugs! And it was legal!
Eventually, we made the drive back home. I was exhausted and slept most of the way.
During the days that followed, my mind returned repeatedly to my sweat lodge experience.
The sweat for me was intense, and very hard to get through. I am told that everyone is affected by it in a different way, depending upon what issues they are carrying. I discovered through that sweat, that I was carrying a huge amount of grief, over the twins I had lost 6 months into the pregnancy, 15 years previously. They had lived for only an hour after their birth. While in the dark heat of the lodge, they had come to me, brought my tears, and demanded I deal with them and my feelings.
After much soul searching, and tearful discussions with Ken over the next few weeks, I finally discovered, that I felt a tremendous amount of guilt, in addition to the grief. One particular evening, weeks after the sweat, Ken asked if I’d ever asked the twins how they felt about their deaths. I hadn’t. So I went off by myself and sat silently until I found their voices. I asked what I’d never dared to ask before… Did they suffer? Did they blame me?
Their answer wasn’t in words. It was an overwhelming blanket of love that slowly wrapped itself around my heart and soul. I realized then, that in all the 15 years since their deaths, that they had only wanted me to know that they had loved me. They had never wanted me to feel the sorrow I’d tortured myself with since their deaths. They wanted what I had wanted for them….a happy life, full of love.
Allowing myself to let go of the guilt, the grief, and feel only pure love from those two small beings, is perhaps one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever given myself.
Because of my sweat lodge experience, I am a freer person than I once was. Words cannot express the value that came from that one experience for me. Will I go again? I don’t know…maybe next year…maybe next month…when I feel I am strong enough, to face yet another damaged part of myself, that I am sure I have buried deep in my heart. I have learned that the sweat lodge isn’t about how well you sweat, or how high it makes you feel. It’s about healing on a very deep and personal level. And yeah…I’ll probably have to do it again.
P.S. With some effort I was able to remove the contacts with no permanent damage to my eyeballs.