The experience described below was pivotal in my growth as I gained a deeper appreciation of the skills I was beginning to take for granted.
It’s good to be in a sweatlodge again, to let go of the external world and be in the power of the darkness, the heat, the drumming, the songs, and the prayers. I have attended these ceremonies for several years. I have always found them to be beautiful and powerful times of healing, sharing, and guidance.
The sweatlodge is about ten feet in diameter. Its skeleton is a frame of sticks that have been ceremonially bent, stuck in the ground, and tied together in the shape of an inverted bowl. The cover and door are made of layers of blankets, enough of them that no light penetrates. We crawl through the small doorway when we enter, moving sunwise around the inside of the lodge (this direction is also known as “clockwise”; did you know that the hands of a clock move that way because that’s the direction that shadows move on a sunny day?).
In the center of the lodge is a shallow pit. Not far outside the entrance, there is a fire with rocks that have been heating for close to two hours. We enter and sit in a circle inside the lodge. I have been given the honor of keeping the fire. This includes the responsibility of carrying the rocks (the “Old Ones”) from the fire to the sweatlodge entrance. Pat, the elder who is conducting the ceremony, uses two forked sticks to maneuver them into the central pit. He places the first five deliberately, one in the center and four more in the directions of east, south, west, and north. For this first round, I bring three more stones after the first five—eight rocks in all. The people in the lodge greet the rocks as I bring them in, much as one would welcome revered elders.
After bringing the rocks to the door, I put more wood on the fire to keep the other Old Ones smiling (red hot). Then I enter the lodge, and when Pat gives the word, I bring the door down to begin the first of the four rounds.
The inside of the lodge is lightless except for the dim glow of the red-hot rocks. My mind knows that this small dome is close to capacity with ten of us in it, yet I feel vast space around me, filled with energies and spirits.
There is a sputtering hiss as Pat pours water onto the rocks. Steam comes down over our heads like a hot, heavy blanket. We lose track of whether the water running on our bodies is condensation or perspiration. The darkness and heat, Pat’s words, drumbeats, and songs move us into an altered state of consciousness.
In the second round of the ceremony, I see in the blackness the spirit of an osprey come down to land gently beside a young woman, resting with her and leaning in with a message. Two other spirits come in as well, to be with two young men in the lodge. I have never met any of these young people before today, yet I am told why each of them is being visited by a particular animal spirit. I am also instructed to ask permission to share the information.
When the door flap is thrown back to signal the end of the second round, I tell Pat that I have something to offer the three young people and ask his permission to share. After a brief moment, in which I sense him checking with his own guides, Pat says, “Please.” I speak about what I saw and its meaning. The messages are of affirmation and encouragement for these young people. Later, I find out that they are all in difficult circumstances—“youth at risk” is the current term—and I understand better the messages and their importance.
After the ceremony we emerge into a bright and beautiful summer day, shifting from one world to another. We’re hot and sweaty. Some of us use a handy garden hose for a welcome cold rinse. As we dry ourselves, one of the women who was in the ceremony says to me, “That’s a great gift you have.”
For a moment I am in a state of confusion. Then I realize that she is referring to my sharing of what I saw in the second round, and I respond, “Thank you.” That is all there is to say because for me this is not a great gift. It is a learned and practiced skill, and it is accessible to all of us.
Everyone has the ability to experience the realms beyond the physical. Consider this analogy. We are born with the ability to run. I remember hearing that children rarely walk before the age of four. Once they’re able to move on two feet, they run.
We all started with this ability. Some of us are naturally able to run faster than others. Others, regardless of whether they can outrun their peers, decide there is something about running that draws them. They become joggers or competitive runners. And there are those who want to improve their ability to run. They find themselves a coach. With the help of their coach, they develop higher speed and greater endurance.
From among the dedicated runners come the elite, the champions.
Just as we all have the ability to run, we all have the ability to connect with a spiritual life. Some find that the spiritual aspect contains something meaningful for them. They take up a spiritual path or develop the spiritual aspect of their lives through religion, meditation, shamanic training, time in nature, or other practice.
Some choose to find a teacher. They learn concepts and techniques for strengthening their spiritual consciousness and power. They train for spiritual development in the same way that a runner trains to improve speed and endurance.
Out of that group of spiritual practitioners emerge those who become the analogy of elite runners: spiritual leaders, shamans, or holy people.
The key point is that spiritual development is available to all of us. I have had students whose ability is an astonishing delight to observe. I have also had students who struggle every step of the way, and whose courage and determination have inspired me.
Posted May 14, 2021