For many years, I have been fascinated by ritual. Ritual takes countless forms in cultures around the world, according to the customs and needs of a people. Through my Reiki training over the last several years, I have come to treasure the transformative power of ceremony, of initiation, of returning to the sacred heart of life beating just below the surface of our everyday lives. It is good indeed to remind ourselves of this, and often.
Seek and ye shall find, the saying goes. I wanted to do something spiritual to commemorate turning 40 and moving on to a new decade, a new stage of life. So when a good friend told me of a Native American elder who travels around and leads sweat lodge ceremonies, I was excited to have the opportunity to attend one in the Netherlands. I’d read about the sweat lodge ceremony and had spoken with people who had done one and felt completely cleaned out afterwards, but much of it was still a mystery when my friend and his 3 lovely boys drove me to a remote campsite in the beautiful forest near Nijmegen. The boys loved the teepee and set about exploring the clearing, even building their own altar of pine cones in imitation of the one from the previous day’s ritual. A little later, all the participants (there were 19 of us in total, 18 Dutch and one American – that would be me!) began to prepare the site. The sweat lodge itself is a small, round dome built of branches tied together with layers of woolen blankets placed over the top to keep in the heat. There is room to sit up but not to stand inside. In the center of this tiny space is a pit in which the hot stones are placed during the ceremony. I helped a woman named Marijke carry out the stones from the day before, taking the whole ones to a spot nearby to be used again, and the ones cracked by the intense heat to a special little cemetery in the trees. The stones at the bottom of the pit were still warm after sitting overnight! It was a beautiful thing to handle these basalt rocks. They are called the grandfathers, while the earth in which they are placed is called the grandmother, all that gives form to our earth.
We lay down straw mats inside the lodge while others chopped firewood and gathered tinder, prepared food, cleaned the campsite, etc. It took a couple of hours to get everything ready. Then Ron, who is a Chippewa-Cree from Alaska, and his partner Josie, an English-American woman who was adopted many years ago into the Navajo tribe, gathered us in a circle as the firekeeper lit the bonfire to warm the stones. We had a beautiful ritual with some singing and welcoming of all the elements for the fire. Every gesture and word and song, though quite simple, were filled with sacred intention and power – we could all feel it, could feel the space shifting around us from everyday consciousness to something deeper, slower.
After a break for lunch, at which time I had the opportunity to speak with Ron and Josie and some of the other participants (even in a group of total strangers, I found some of us had mutual acquaintances and friends!) Ron gathered us around to tell us about the coming ceremony and how to make the intense heat your friend. I figured my frequent sauna visits would prepare me for what was to come, though our local sauna doesn’t plunge us into total darkness in a tiny space crammed up against everyone for such long periods of time! As Ron spoke, it was clear that he came from a long oral tradition, where storytelling not only paints a picture of some event but also tells those of us listening about ourselves. It’s like there is one big story of which we all are a part, and a gifted storyteller brings the strands of our own histories together in a beautiful loom.
We then got changed (wrapped ourselves in towels and sarongs, which we removed later in the darkness to allow the healing heat and steam touch every part of us) and gathered around the fire. The stones by this point were glowing bright red, and the firekeeper tended the fire all day long, a challenging and physically demanding task. Before we could begin, Ron needed a woman to help prepare the altar, so he asked me to kneel beside him at the entrance of the little hut. He had made a mound of earth in which he pressed his thumb around the edges, making a space for the shells I was to place in each of the indentations. This, if I understood correctly, was to honor and invite the spirits of the ocean, the feminine element of water, to be present. Ron sang as I took each shell from the leather pouch, held it in my hand to share energy, and set them on the mound. Then he placed a bear claw and tooth upon the mound – his tribe is very in tune with Bear medicine. That’s too much to explain in the context of this blog.
There were slightly more women than men at the ceremony, so I sat next to Ron at the men’s side of the hut, with a pair of deer antlers between myself and the man on my right to delineate the genders. As we entered the hut, each of us threw a bit of tobacco onto the fire and said our name, announcing ourselves. Then we were blessed as we entered and sat down (not quite enough space to sit cross-legged.) After we were all seated and the opening words and chants were offered, the firekeeper began bringing in the stones. Each stone was welcomed with words and a bit of various herbs tossed upon them lovingly, sage and bear root and others that made a marvelous fragrance inside the lodge. As more and more of the glowing hot stones came into the pit, it began to grow hot indeed. Eventually the opening to the lodge was closed by a woolen blanket, plunging us into total darkness but for the faint reddish glow of the basalt stones. Josie and Ron each led half of the ceremony – Josie doing the first three rounds and Ron the last three. When they ladled the water onto the rocks, we waved the healing steam towards ourselves and rubbed it in. Each round was dedicated to a separate purification or prayer – first gratitude (each of us in turn spoke of one thing for which we were grateful in our lives), then the giveaway (each offered up one thing in our lives we wished to let go, something we no longer wanted to have as a part of us) then a round in which we said one thing about which we were proud of ourselves.) Each time, after the circle went around and spoke, more and more water was ladled onto the fire, and beautiful chants filled the air. I sang along, though I did not know the words. The music just flowed, and through the singing, I didn’t notice anymore how intense the heat was. Anyone who needed a break between rounds could leave the hut.
During the first three rounds, we fasted from water because water had a sacred place in the ritual. Josie welcomed the spirit of the life-giving water as we passed a bucket filled with cold water around the circle to her. Each of us was given a cup of the water, and we waited until everyone had some before thanking it and finally having a drink. I can tell you that water has never tasted so wonderful to me before that moment! Blessed water, returning us to life! After we had drunk our fill and poured the cold water over our necks, washed our hands and limbs in it, we passed a bowl of peaches around, each taking a handful to represent the sweetness of life. I just wanted to bathe in the peaches, they were so delicious!
Before the last rounds, Ron told us some stories of his people and his childhood. Here is one of them: His grandmother told him when he was very young that if he was walking around the woods and found a bush bursting with ripe berries, he should not eat all of the berries but leave some for the bears. For if the bear came to the bush later and saw that it had once borne rich fruit but none remained, the bear would think that his little brother did not love him very much. But if the berries were delicious and some remained for the bear, he would know that his little brother loved him very much. And here is another story: Ron went to visit the grave of his father some years after his father’s death. He was happy to see that tall grasses grew upon it, as his father was nourishing the land with the gift of his body in the earth. And he was especially delighted to see clumps of grass that had been eaten, along with many deer tracks. His father’s favorite food during his lifetime had been deer meat, and he said his father would have been so happy to know he was feeding the deer. They don’t have the concept of God as we do in our society, so instead the earth and everything in nature is sacred in and of itself and is honored and celebrated. It seems to me that this is a very healthy way to live, as well as the best incentive to take care of the earth that takes care of us.
Just as our planet is mostly fire with a tiny cool crust upon which we live, so are we beings of fire and spirit with a shell of a body around us. We pondered this, and it was more poignant as the volcano in Iceland was spewing ash into the atmosphere that very moment. We need to respect the power of nature.
The last rounds were prayers, prayers for anyone and anything in need, for our loved ones, and lastly for ourselves. They understand prayer as “making medicine” – sending out concentrated intention to bring what we want into our lives. The power of attraction is the latest rage in New Age literature, but the native peoples of the world have practiced it in one form or other for millennia. As we prayed and spoke our desires to the stones all at the same time, Ron, Josie, and another woman who knew the old songs sang to the accompaniment of a gourd rattle. Josie chose a song from the Caddo Indian tradition, as I had told her that my husband is part Caddo. Also, the sacred feather used in the ceremony came from the Caddos.
Ron told us that the main purpose of the sweat lodge was simply to melt, to melt out of our heads where we live most of the time, and down into our hearts, that we might live a heart-centered life. The heat and steam help this process because it is impossible to think after a while in that heat. At the end of the ceremony, the blanket was lifted, and the first thing I saw was a group of tall evergreens, misty in the dusk, mysterious, luminous, holy. I felt for a moment that my spirit was a deer wandering silently amongst the trees in the half-light.
Everyone was very much in their own silence, their own space, after emerging from the sweat lodge. It felt like crawling forth from the womb and being reborn. Much I left in there, much I took forth with me. Though I was covered in dirt and sweat and smoke, rarely have I felt so clean. After closing the lodge, Ron emerged, called me over to complete my duties at the altar, singing as I removed the shells from the mound and placed them back in the bag. He blessed me with the sacred feather, holding it over each of my palms where I could feel an intense electrical energy, as well as over my forehead and heart. There was no time in that moment. I was a little girl and an old woman, was there and was not there. It’s hard to explain in words something which cannot really be spoken. But I shall never forget it.
We shared a simple meal of soup and bread and cheese in the teepee afterwards, and I was asked to prepare a spirit plate – taking a tiny bit of each different kind of food and bringing the plate to a beautiful spot out in the woods. Ron told me stories about the Indians in the area where my husband comes from, particularly the story of Quannah Parker, a half-Comanche, half-white warrior who brought the peyote tradition to the States from Mexico and who had a fascinating life. Some new friends very kindly drove me to Nijmegen, where I caught a train to Arnhem and where my friend picked me up. Luckily, I was not the only grimy passenger on the Dutch trains smelling like smoke late at night, though probably for different reasons than the others!
I look forward to doing another sweat lodge when the opportunity presents itself and wonder what will melt away then. Certainly this ritual was among the most visceral I have ever experienced. And I have a renewed respect for water, for fire – and a deep gratitude to Ron and Josie for sharing their wisdom and traditions. A-ho!