On Saturday, I attended my first sweat lodge. Mindful of ‘s warning that the white man is never more than a spiritual tourist in the lodge, attending a ceremony he can never understand or truly grasp, I’m aware that I may not be qualified to say very much on the subject, even though I went through it. Lodges can be men-only, women-only, or mixed-gender. Mine was mixed-gender, but the young teenager who joined us at the start bailed after the first door — it was me and a number of women. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because this is long, I’m putting it behind a cut — I ask that if you read it, you leave me a comment so that I know.
A sweat lodge (wikipedia: Sweat lodge) is a low, round structure built of young trees, planted in the ground, bent over, and lashed in place, covered by layers of blankets, animal hides or tarps. A pit occupies the center of the lodge, into which the lodge-keeper places hot stones to radiate heat. A short distance from the east-facing door of the lodge is a fire pit, where the stones are heated in a large fire.
A sweat lodge is also the ceremony that occurs inside such a space. One begins by gathering the wood, the rocks, the water, and the people. For this lodge, people began arriving around 3:00 p.m. and we introduced ourselves by first name only, and sometimes by place of residence. There wasn’t a lot of talking at all, really. The lodge-keeper, C, instructed us in rounding up stones from her pile, and wood from another pile, and water from a spigot on the house. We filled four large liter-johns with water, and two buckets, and wheeled them down into the woods. Then two loads of wood, and a load of rocks. While some of us did the wheelbarrow trips, others prepped the fire and the lodge space, and the ring around the fire: raking, picking up the remnants of the last fire, and double-checking the blankets of the lodge. Ideally the interior is completely dark.
About 4:15 p.m. or so, I put away my watch. So I have no idea how long each of the stages took. Sometime after that, the “stones were almost ready” and then a while after that, “should be only another 10 minutes or so”, and then “here is how we line up to go into the lodge” and then, a while after that, “we could go in now, but I always savor this moment just before we go in.” We offered tobacco and sage and sweet-grass and mullein to the fire outside, and then we went into the lodge.
With the door open, the lodge is dim. We took our places around the outer edge of the lodge. I am hard pressed now — as I would have been, then — to tell you how many of us there were. C had the space to the north of the door in the east. I sat in the last spot, just inside the door on the south side of the east. There were two, or maybe three between me and the person seated in the east, but there were three people in the east at least, and then another four across the north. Space and time in the lodge expand and contract. The people are seated close enough to touch, and far enough away that it feels like a vast cathedral. Which, in a sense, it is. I could have laid down, full out, inside the lodge, and not been a bother to my neighbors, but I would touch them in passing, nonetheless. You enter the lodge on hands and knees, and it is custom upon entering or exiting to say “mataquyiasen” (I’m not sure of the spelling), meaning “for all my relations,” as a way of saying that you are entering the lodge in a sacred way. Our lodge keeper told us that we could use words meaningful to us, ranging from “Amen” to “blessed be!” but that the important thing was to show respect at the lodge door for all of the interconnections that bind and join you to the world, the earth, the tribe, and the gifts, blessings, and lessons they still had to teach you.
Once we were all seated, the lodge-keeper handed resin to one, and sage to another. “We will sit in complete silence for the first five stones as they come through the door. Bless the stones with sage and resin as they come in.” It wasn’t completely silent. We had two older children/younger teens with us, and they wanted to know what was going on. They took some calming down. Then the stones came in. The first had virtually no color to it, but I could feel the heat radiating off of it, as the tines of the pitchfork that carried it passed by my right knee. You could see wavy lines on the ground under it from where the sunlight passed through the heat shuddering off of it. The lodge-keeper guided it into position in the pit, and the helpers marked it with sage and with copal from their turtle shell or pottery bowls. The second stone fairly glowed. You could see its color shifting from black to red as it passed into the shadow of the lodge. The third stone was pink with color and heat. The lodge keeper welcomed and thanked each stone as it came into the lodge. Soon there were seven stones, all of them glowing, placed in a pile at the center of the lodge, each of them marked and thanked and welcomed. It was an awe-inducing sight. I could feel heat radiating off of them — not the heat of a dead thing too long on the fire, but the heat of a living entity, pulsing with fierce dignity.
The strings of the lodge poles dangled in my view. A bucket filled with water was passed into the lodge, and the door was shut. “Welcome home,” said the lodge keeper. “Welcome home.” And that was the refrain for a good long while. It could have been fifteen minutes, it could have been twenty, as we welcomed the stones and each other and our guides and teachers. It was this beautiful hot dark glorious space, the most natural place in the world to be at that moment. I couldn’t have imagined being anywhere else than right there. Then the sound of water, and steam, flowing in layers over my eyes, my face, the back of my head, my shoulders, my body. Soaked wet, sweating everywhere, all at once. Hands on the dirt, heart pounding, tones, songs, gratitude, laughter. Welcome home, indeed.
A sweat lodge has at least four ‘doors’, and by doors here I mean ‘intervals of time’ when the door of the lodge is closed, and the heat and steam builds inside to almost unbearable levels, but pervaded with such a strong sense of community, of safety, of hope, of happiness, of womb-presence, of the Mother, of the earth below you and the lodge around you, that it is entirely and completely bearable. Every little while, a new ladle of water went on the stones, and a new layer of heat and steam and moisture pervaded the lodge. The first door is dedicated to the east — to beginnings, to teachers, to the lodge, to the stones, to the spring, and more. The lodge keeper had told us beforehand that the issue for many people is not the dark, nor the confined space, nor the heat, nor the moisture, but the loss of control. You have no real control over when a given door ends, and when it is time to open the door, elate in the sudden sunshine, and the release of heat and moisture. Instead, there is a surrender to the lodge. The question, how long is a door? can really only be answered, “Long enough, usually, but not too long, hopefully.”
A lodge participant has one control, in that there is a phrase, “mataquyiasen for the door,” which is used to signal that a participant has had enough for this particular door, and that they are ready to exit. However, a lodge-keeper usually waits for the assent of all the participants, before shouting, “Aho! Mataquyiasen for the door!” This is followed by a huge ululation, and the fire-tender outside opens the layers and layers of blankets that cover the door. If, of course, the door’s end is called for too quickly, the lodge keeper may say, “get down and kiss your mother,” in which case you lay down on the ground and kiss dirt — because that’s where the air tends to be coolest and driest and most bearable.
After the first door, the rocks in the central pit were not totally cold, but at least dulled in color to rock-like status again. The lodge-keeper called for more stones; we had three in our second door. The second door is for the south, for the ancestors, for the summer, for a lot of other things. We did a lot of singing in our second door, a lot of toning. There was poetry — I did the hymn for mother Earth then, and our potter did a poem or prayer in Turkish. That may have been the first door, though; I’m not at all sure what order things happened in. Time is not linear in the lodge.
There were more rocks after that, for the third and for the fourth doors. The third door was silent, for the west and for the water, and for black bear, and for autumn, and for sunset, and for change, and for harvest, and for maturity, and lots of other things. I kissed the mother, then, not because I had called for the door’s end, but because I was hot, and I felt I needed air. There is strength in the lodge, yes, but only if you are prepared to admit to your weakness in its face. We sang a song here too, but I’m not sure I could tell you the words, or even if we sang it aloud.
The lodge is complete darkness. When the stones are first brought in and the door is closed, you can see them glowing red, with the sage and the resin burning away on their surface. When mullein is sprinkled on them, you see bright red stars flicker on the stones, and then nova away to brown dwarfs. Sometimes you can see a foot, a hand or an eye. The dome of the lodge becomes a cloud-banked night sky with no moon, and the twine of the lodge pole bindings hanging down. People are invisible. The floor of the lodge, of packed dirt mixed with some lichen or dense algae, seems unlike dirt of any other kind. You share space with thousands and tens of thousands of others, and yet there are only eight or nine or twelve packed into this tiny space. A hand or a lock of hair brushes your foot or your shoulder, and it is shocking in its casualness, its beauty and its fleetingness. Heat is perpetual. Even when the lodge door is open, warmth pervades and envelops you, surrounds you and commands surrender.
Between third and fourth door (or maybe it was between second and third? Time is not linear, remember) I got up and went out of the lodge. I had to pee, and I did not wish to do so in the lodge. I was amazed that I had anything to pee given how streaked with sweat and mud I was. I was also amazed at how clean I felt. The dirt was just surface, not interior. How can you be totally dirty, and yet completely clean, at the same time? It’s a lodge mystery, I guess. Then back into the lodge.
The fourth door is for wisdom, for the north, for oncoming winter, for the fading of strength and the fading of power. We talked a lot in this part of the lodge, and yet not nearly enough. Part of me could have talked all day, and into the night. They say the lodge roof opens during the fourth door, and you can see the trees above the lodge, and the stars above that, and the moon. I would have liked to have seen that, but I was well and truly content. We went deep in this door, and there were things said that thrummed in me like a plucked bass string, felt more than heard. I also wanted out, and when the door ended I left the lodge. There was a “buffalo door” after that, where they use up all the last stones in the fire, and run it as hot and as wet as possible. It lasted five minutes, maybe twelve, maybe a half-hour. I couldn’t have told you, even sitting outside the lodge in the fire circle.
There’s gratitude in the lodge, and gratitude out of the lodge, that you have been allowed to participate and join with this space, and time, and these brothers, and sisters. How could there not be? It is bread and wine at the altar rail; it is the ark opened and the scrolls open on the bima. It is the hajj. How could it be anything else?
At the same time, it is part of a larger thing, too. The lodge is not just a sacrament; it’s a preparation for something bigger. It’s less of a final communion than a preparation for something greater and more bountiful and more beautiful. All that’s happened by being in the lodge is that you’ve been made ready. You’re purer, cleaner, fiercer, gentler, kinder, harder-edged. Honed I think would be the word. But you can’t come out of the lodge and then think you’re just going to sit around.
Though that, of course, is what we did, right after. We had a feast afterwards, of fresh vegetables and fruit, dishes of startling splendor and magnificence. I ate something of everything — pasta and bread and tomatoes and some sort of a spinach dish, and a magnificent chickpea… thing…, and
Well, the food would get boring to hear about. The day after, I talked with one of the women I know who was in the lodge, and I said that I had gone into the lodge as a preparation for my trip, but that I didn’t know if I had passed my own self-test — I hadn’t called for the end of any of the doors, but I had needed to lay down and rest, breathe lighter air, and so on.
She stared at me. “Andrew,” she said, “it was a lodge. It’s a sacrament but it’s an endurance trial, too. And you did so well! And you approached the lodge as spiritual preparation for a larger task. So don’t be so hard on yourself. You did great yesterday, and you’ll do great in Wyoming.” And perhaps she’s right.
Yet aside from that, it’s easy to see how lodge makes a tribe, makes a people, makes a culture. It couldn’t NOT do those things. I feel closer and more connected to the people in my lodge, to the lodge-keeper, to the fire-tender, to the land where we all live. Barbara King-solver, in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, reports that in cheese-making villages in Kazakhstan and France alike, the whey from the cheese-making process is poured out directly onto the stone floor. There, it changes the microbial structure of the land and the micro-climate around the cheesery and actually makes it permanently easier to make cheese there. In the same fashion, a lodge must change the microbial structure of the land around it, and thereby change the participants from the microbial level up. The more lodges you participate in, the more you are changed and attuned to the land there. The more that you become the land. You are tied by breath, by fire, by rock, by water, to the people with whom you sweat.
Maybe all that is immaterial. You’re changed, that’s the important truth. You’re still you, but just on a different trajectory than you were before.
You’re still a poet, a teacher, a kayaker, a hiker, a lover, a thinker, a human being. But you’re something else, too. More than those things, but not less than them.
I think my greatest challenge right now, is that I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back into the lodge. This mixed lodge was, quite literally, a once-in-a-blue-moon offering, and there won’t be another blue moon until 2009, and then not again until 2012. All the same, I’d like to do it a little more often than that. Say, once a month or so for the rest of my life.