A little over a week ago I experienced my first sweat lodge. It was both strange and wonderful and I couldn’t let the event pass without some kind of write-up. I’ve needed the time in between to process what went on and how it felt, as well as to cool down...
My knowledge of the sweat lodge prior to starting this journey was pretty limited(to GCSE history of the American West to be precise), but it has always been a ceremony that has intrigued me. My interest was peaked further during one of my many planning phone calls to the US when I was given a minute by minute breakdown of the process and what to expect by my host in Arizona.
That phone call was over an hour long and detailed yet, having now experienced the ceremony myself, I’m not sure describing it verbally (or in writing..) does it justice. But let’s give it a go…
The first thing to say is that the ceremony is an all-day commitment; the preparation for going in the lodge being as symbolic as the time spent inside itself.
Lewis lit the fire around 11am; I knew he’d left for work an hour earlier than his usual 7am in order to get the ward rounds done and be back in time. As we gathered wood and kindling he sang Lakota songs and his contentedness was contagious.
Joining us for the ‘training lodge’ were two of Lewis’s residents from the hospital. They would be accompanying him to Sundance Festival the following week and had been advised they would have to know what to expect when called into the lodge. I felt a connection with them, fellow western medics about to embark on an unknown journey, and later would come to feel very grateful for their presence there.
As Lewis explained the significance of the 28 stones he was placing on the fire, 7 for each of the 4 directions, I could feel his pride at showing this side of himself to his juniors and to me. It felt very humbling to be allowed this close experience with him, having met him only a few days before.
The fire was offered tobacco and sage, the pipe was set up, and then we waited. At the time this felt odd, to be sitting in lawn chairs in the New England afternoon drizzle watching a fire and the swarm of mosquitoes around it. Looking back now, though, I realise how important this time was in providing a space for us to tune in to what was happening immediately around us and to let go of everything else.
As starting time approached we prepared the lodge. The sweat lodge or inipi takes place in a circular hut structure built low to the ground. In Lakota tradition, the roof is very low and, crucial to the ceremony, there must be complete darkness. It was my happy job to test the light level before we proceeded and I’ll never forget that moment of crawling on hands and knees into the damp, dark and earthy space and being asked to sit there for a good ten minutes whilst my ‘eyes adjusted’. I’d noticed several large spiders at the entrance on my way in and it took a lot of teeth gritting to sit there and not imagine them coming for me.
Then it was time for the first stones to go in, seven at a time, and for our layers to come off. Initially modest in shorts and t-shirts, all inhibitions were quickly discarded as the stones came in and the heat intensified. By the fifth stone we were down to sports bras and underwear only. In traditional settings men normally sweat naked whilst women wear specially prepared ‘sweat dresses’.
The ceremony is a process of cleansing and rebirth, the lodge representing the mother’s womb, and consists of four rounds. Each round lasts around 10 minutes, serves a different purpose and can change depending on the nature and meaning of the lodge.
We were following Lakota tradition and two minutes in I was struggling as Lewis sang four songs for our first round. They were beautiful to listen to but sadly, preoccupied by my rising heart rate and acute discomfort, I can’t say I followed them too closely. At the end of our first ten minutes, the three of us fell out of the lodge in a sweaty mess and the rain had never felt so good. It isn’t traditionally acceptable to leave between the rounds but we were 'newbies' and on this occasion were given a little leeway.
Lewis had explained he was pitching the temperature somewhere between ‘intense’ and ‘wimpey’ when picking the stones, the larger ones obviously having the potential to emit more heat. But as I sat melting through the second round I knew we were experiencing one end of the spectrum rather than the other and indeed at one point Lewis gleefully confirmed ‘it was hotter than he’d anticipated’. I don’t want to go on endlessly about the heat, I think you probably get the picture, but it’s important to say that there comes a point when you’re so hot you cease to be able to move and simply have to lie there absolutely soaking in sweat completely unconcerned about what it is you’re lying on. I was there mid round 2 but I will say there is something very focusing about it and of course that is the purpose.
I will interject a funny moment between rounds 2 and 3... After exiting the lodge gasping as usual and ready to drink some more ‘medicine’( sage and water), we happened to look up and see a rather perplexed looking gentleman standing near the fire in Bermuda shorts and trainers. It turned out he was Lewis and Barbara’s new AirBnb guest, they host in their barn, and had arrived a little earlier than planned. I would love to know what had passed through his mind at that moment…
The final two rounds seemed easier and I felt glad to be able to enjoy the activity more. At certain points we were all called to contribute a prayer or ‘words of celebration’ and on the final round collectively smoke the sacred pipe.
It’s traditional following a sweat to feast together and we were happy to oblige on this front. The other girls were good sports and allowed me to film a short video of their reactions to what we’d experienced whilst we ate. It seemed to have touched each of us in a slightly different way, some connecting with the singing, some with the moment of absolute focus and darkness. I chatted to Lewis afterwards and he described what a ‘proper’ or traditional sweat lodge ceremony would feel like in comparison to today; likely a little hotter but also more unifying as everyone would know what was coming next and would join in the songs and prayers. It seemed to me that the ceremony had further confirmed something he had told me earlier in the week, that ‘whilst many westerners think of native medicine as “a man shaking a stick”, most of the practices are simply about bringing people together and the power that this collective experience can have.'
He added this time that many of the ceremonies are also intended to give people a space to experience and express emotions that we perhaps don’t get an outlet for in everyday life. I’d heard this before in relation to Sundance. Being the most important celebration for the Great Plains Indians, it involves a gathering of people and sweat lodge ceremonies, but the main event is a four day fast and continuous dance, often associated with rituals such as piercing of the skin. Conditions are extreme with dancers sleeping where they dance and only when absolutely necessary.
tried to describe how that felt to me, to be dancing with no food or water for four days, but I have to admit I found it hard to imagine. Most interestingly he spoke about the sense of release that people feel, when allowed absolute freedom, and how for many it he feels it fulfils ‘a need’ that no other life situation does. Barbara had commented that for many it meets a need to ‘be bad’ or to let out a negative energy that has built up. Interestingly, perhaps for this reason, the ceremony is often attended by veterans who have experienced trauma, both native and non-native.
I’ve been fascinated by this idea ever since, the thought that what we suppress and don’t allow ourselves to feel day to day might be impacting us long term. Whilst traditional ceremonies such as these allow expression, to many so removed from the ritual surrounding them, they would be hard to relate to. So how do we find our own outlet? How do we find a way of coming together and letting things out in a healthy and meaningful way?
I’ll leave you to ponder on that...