Sweat Lodge – don’t try this at home kids

It’s a little over a week since I returned from the well known pagan camp in North Yorkshire for Lammas so I think I had better post the rest of my experiences before I forget.

I’ve not done a sweat lodge before, apart from a brief attempt about 15 years ago where I came out after the first round and decided not to go back in. Since then I’ve done a few saunas and have a better idea of my tolerance so last weekend I felt more confident to try it.

Perhaps by synchronicity or just by the interrelated nature of everything in the universe, the past few days have included a news story of a guy killed in the International Sauna Championships in Finland. (I wasn’t aware that doing a sauna is a competition.) There was also the story a year or so ago of someone dying after a sweat lodge in Sedona, Arizona; a town renowned for new age and pagan activities. Therefore my reticence towards sweat lodges is probably well founded.

However, last weekend I decided to bite the bullet and get sweaty. I must say that this was a really good experience. Of course there’s the initial stuff to consider such as do you go in naked and can you stand the heat and all that, but if you can get over these sort of issues then the sweat lodge experience is to be recommended.

I’d really got no idea what goes on inside, despite knowing quite a few people who have run lodges over the years.

To the uninitiated a sweat lodge is like a sauna except built in the form of a bender with wooden poles (in this case willow) tied together, covered with blankets and a tarpaulin to keep the heat in and the light out. A hole is dug in the centre, in which rocks are placed, which have been heated in a fire for some hours before. Some of the rocks are so hot as to glow red in the darkness inside the lodge. The participants sit around the edge, safely away from the rocks as water is poured onto the rocks by the lodge leader. The process is something that needs to be done by someone with some experience because there are considerable safety issues involved but, with a little common sense and responsible behaviour on the part of the participants, Messrs Health and Safety need have nothing to do with it.

The process is designed to create a space where the participants can have a transporting experience so that the heat, humidity and darkness allows an altered state and further experiences might follow.

No doubt there are as many ways or running a lodge as there are people running them, but on this occasion there was a series of ‘rounds’ where each person was invited to speak to a given subject. During each round water was added to the stones to create steam which rose up the centre of the lodge and descended along the roof line to engulf the participants. As the participants spoke in turn the lodge became progressively hotter. At the end of each round the door would be opened to allow the temperature to drop and people could escape to douse themselves in cold water or just lie on the cool ground if they so chose. Amazingly I think there were some people who stayed in the lodge throughout which is no mean feat considering the whole process took somewhere between two and three hours.

Each person’s turn at speaking was punctuated with a series of addresses based on Native American cultural references to ancestors, the great mystery and creation, etc., becoming like a mantra before each person spoke.

Obviously it’s not for me to reveal what was said by the people there but it’s betraying no confidences to say that each round was directed towards a particular subject in general. So there was a round for general introduction, one calling for healing for people not present, one for healing of those in the lodge, and others that I really cannot remember. Some were designated to be hotter than others with more water poured on the stones. Often when the door was opened between rounds I found myself bolting for the cool of the air outside.

On the whole it was a challenging but positive experience and I can recommend it. It struck me as highly authentic, though not necessarily in the obvious sense. The Native American aspects may or may not have been authentic and to be honest that’s fairly irrelevant. The references to ancestors, Great Mystery and Great Spirit merely add flavour to the experience and you could make references to whatever culture you choose with similar results.

The real authenticity, I feel, comes from the nature of the ordeal. A sweat lodge is something you don’t take on lightly as evidenced by the recent deaths, although those may be more as a result of machismo rather than any spiritual challenge. Any act of magic or enlightenment, however you chose to frame it, should take some effort for without effort there is no energy. I often refer to this as oomph, others call it gnosis. Without oomph you are merely trotting out hollow words and actions.

Elements of the modern pagan movement suffer from the same ailments as the rest of the modern world. People want quick fixes, simple solutions and easy answers; and some so called pagans seek their enlightenment this way. But they are unlikely to find it. A dissatisfied but successful professional who pays what we think of as a month’s wages for a weekend course on how to become enlightened might return to work on Monday feeling transformed. However, this is probably the result of having some boundaries pushed very briefly or the excitement of daring to break a taboo or two. But these benefits are short lived because real transformation is a lifelong process.

The song Mythical Kings and Iguanas, sung by Dory Previn in the early seventies, tells of those that are sure that ‘everything of worth is in the sky and not the earth’. Deciding that you want a life change and bringing it about by collecting together some crystals and candles with a tarot card or two and reading a rhyme taken from a book on healing or some web site is not going to get you a result.

Tackling a personal issue, however, by facing up to the honest truths, perhaps revealing those to a group of strangers who are also putting themselves out there while putting yourself through a considerable ordeal might just shake you up enough to get a result. The sweat lodge is just such an ordeal and the serious nature of the event gives it oomph. The fallout from such experiences can take enough time to percolate through your unconscious to have a long lasting effect. Of course experiencing even a sweat lodge in isolation with no other commitment isn’t going to change you.

Back in the old days, before we started using the term pagan, we called ourselves occultists and practiced a style of magic that was described as running barefoot in the head; what we were doing was once referred to as amateur brain-surgery. Perhaps a better term might be amateur psychotherapy.

The balls of the sweat lodge, with the inherent physical risks, along with the transporting nature of the heat, humidity, darkness and discomfort, make it a practice that counts. No matter what the symbolism, be it Native American, Scandinavian, Siberian or something cobbled together from your own preferences, it’s authentic. It’s not an easy option leading to a quick ego massage. If you get it wrong it’ll fuck you up but you might just find that is stirs things up enough to wreak real change, you just might not know what sort of change to expect.

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