The journey itself felt like more than I was up to handling, but I knew that once I arrived, there would be deep nourishment available at many levels. Physically, the space was beautiful: restful and abundant in the sights ...
sounds (coyote calls, birdsong), and smells of nature mellowing into an early autumn.
There was an abundance of food, laughter and soulful sharing, personal inquiry and reflection upon what has been and what I am ready to release, to shed as I balance my rhythms with those of mother nature. Each of us shared what we were ready to release, to set down upon the altar. We harvested what nature had shed, creating bundles to offer along with our prayers to the fire on an soon-to-be full harvest moon.
We ended our stay with an Inipi or Sweat Lodge ceremony held by Sweet Medicine Nation, a wisdom keeper and teacher honoring the sacred ways of her Lakota and Choctaw lineage. It was a sweat performed in the traditional ways: modest clothing (women worn long skirts); offerings of tobacco made to the fire tender and water pourer; four rounds inside the lodge with prayers and songs offered in each round. It was a fitting way to honor the work our group had been doing that weekend as the sweat ceremony itself is about purification and preparation for spiritual work. Entering the lodge is likened to returning to the womb - the Womb - being cleansed and through the intense experience of the sweat, being re-birthed upon leaving.
It was my first sweat lodge and I was nervous about the intensity of the heat and my ability to endure it. Within minutes of being in the lodge a sweat covered my entire being. By the end of the fourth round, I felt as if I was covered in amniotic fluid my clothing and skin slick and drenched. I had been advised to lie down, it being cooler nearer the ground and the edges of the lodge. At times I lay curled on my side, singing along with the chants which seemed familiar even though the language was foreign to me. I cannot say I thought of anything. I was carried along by the words of Sweet Medicine, the songs, the energy of the group pulsating in the darkness.
I never doubted I could make it all four rounds (you can exit after any round) and by the end I felt emptied and cleansed. I admit, I expected to feel something more ... what, I'm not sure. I suppose I expected to receive some insight, a piece of clarity or understanding to be released in all that sweat.
When the fourth round was complete, we each made our way to the exit. There, the fire tender reached down to help each of us rise out and up from the darkness of the lodge into the bright sunlight of the midday. Everyone lines up and you greet each person who had been in the lodge. It was by the third person that I realized something was happening ... that I was feeling less and less in my body, that I was becoming rapidly and increasingly light headed. I greeted a few more people and then declared - to whom, I cannot remember - "I've got to go down!"
I slowly sunk to the ground, folding myself into child's pose with my forehead resting upon my towel. I felt as if I was clinging to the earth, attempting to hold on. I was not aware of much else. At one point someone - Sweet Medicine? - placed her hands upon my back and said "Oh, she is shaking." I was unaware of anything but the earth supporting me.
Slowly the fear and the dizziness began to abate. I then noticed a pair of feet waiting by my left shoulder. As I began to rise up, a hand came down to lift me. Standing by me was one of the grandmothers, an elder who had attended the first two rounds of the sweat and then had sat outside with another participating in prayers and songs. She was a tall, beautifully strong and solid woman with liquid eyes and raven hair threaded with silver. She guided me up and then linking my arm with hers, walked me slowly and calmly out of the circle and towards the picnic area for the following feast. The fire tender, Carl, greet us with water and as he poured it over my head she uttered "Ahh ... I can feel you shifting!" I remember little else of what she said but tangible is the memory of her support, her strong assurance and comfort in caring for and guiding me.
This was the gift of the sweat: becoming vulnerable, being open, being looked after, and tended to with compassion and great care. Receiving is not my strong suit. My greatest fears center upon being abandoned, unable to care for myself, and unable to cope. But as writer and Zen priest Karen Maezen Miller has pointed out "Fear is a false barrier. It's nothing but a gaping hole you step through. On the other side, the teacher is waiting." (Paradise In Plain Sight)
Or in my case, a grandmother was ready to offer me a strong and supportive arm, reminding me I am never truly alone or helpless. There is always support available to me. I just have to open to it, tap into it, and meet it half way.
In so many ways, I now see this truth manifesting in my life. Through so many channels, in many forms I am being looked after, I am being lifted up and received.