A sweat lodge is a time-honored ceremony to cleanse yourself of nearly anything that plagues you. The purpose is to heal via the physical body. Except that I didn’t know that when I attended my first sweat lodge.
What I did know was that my new boss spoke in passionate terms about attending a Lakota sweat ceremony in the hills a few hours away from where we both lived and I immediately wanted to attend.
As the time approached for the event, my boss informed me that she wasn’t able to go due to a change in her schedule. Did I want to drive out to the location of the sweat and attend by myself? She would be happy to inform her friends that I would be coming. They’d look out for me and assist me during the ceremony.
Yes! I didn’t hesitate and the following Saturday, I was careful to follow the directions to the lodge (pre-GPS devices) scribbled on a piece of paper as I drove east into the hills towards Riverside, California.
What was I getting myself into? I was nervous as I made the two-hour drive. I knew little about the Lakota tradition of sweating inside an inipi or womb like structure heated with stones called “Grandfathers”. I was curious though.
Recently divorced from my husband of twenty years, I was a new psychotherapist fresh from a graduate program. My job as the therapist to a group of adolescents in a residential treatment program was to practice the theory of “talk therapy”. However, in my short stint as a therapist, talk therapy didn’t appear as effective as I thought it needed to be to assist these young people. I was soon to learn how powerful healing is when it involves the body.
Let me emphasize, in the telling of the experience here, that despite not knowing a lot about the Lakota tradition, in the end, cleansing took place that impacted my life immensely. Without understanding or thorough knowledge of the sacredness or spiritual nature of the experience, in the end, I was profoundly transformed.
Cleansing is like that: it comes about because the participant intends for healing to take place and inside of that intent is the will and the power to manifest the healing. Whether cleansing takes place via speech or via the body isn’t the sole criteria for healing to occur.
Often healing takes place outside of language, just as it did for me, on the level of the body.
Participants were invited to crawl into the lodge and seat themselves around a small pit. Once seated inside, the ceremony commenced. Those outside the lodge would transport stones from amidst a red-hot fire into the lodge in a series of four rounds.
Once inside the pit the stones were sprinkled with water and the resultant steam would saturate those seated in the pitch black of the lodge itself.
Asking if the lodge was hot is like asking if it hurts to get a tattoo. You bet it’s hot! You bet that needle hurts tender skin! But the greatest significance is the results. I never anticipated the power in those stones!
Picture in your mind: Participants are seated on the ground with legs crossed. Inside the inipi it is pitch black. Unbearable heat crawls over your skin as the steam from the stones are sprinkled with water. You are dripping from sweat by the end of the first round. When the round ends, the canvas “door” is opened and the cool of the evening rushes over your feverish face.
The sweat lodge leader asks that you direct your focus onto what you want to let go, what you want to cleanse from your body, what toxins need to seep from the pores of your skin as perspiration trickles endlessly down your nose.
He instructs you to pay attention to the images that arise within your mind’s eye. They will inform you as to what needs cleansing.
Suddenly, images of my mother appeared. My mother! She was not the best of maternal figures. She was capricious, cruel with her words, and lacked empathy. Suddenly, I was full of childhood connections that only a daughter can have, except that my memories were painful and filled with shame.
I squirmed. I looked in the darkness for those seated next to me. Were they agonized, as I was? Lifting the small stem of sage to my nose, I breathed through it. “The sage will cool you if the heat becomes too hot,” the sweat leader had said. Tears rolled down my eyes mixing with the sweat from my brow.
“Pay attention to what the stones are saying to you. Don’t allow distraction to cross your path. This is your journey, and no one else can take it for you.” The words of the sweat leader came back to me.
Ah! This is what he’d meant in my sudden interest in those seated next to me. I focused onto the darkness, not the darkness of the inipi, but the darkness within me. The darkness of a relationship that had been hurtful and damaging to a young girl’s body and spirit so very long ago. I sat still as a statue and cried silently.
Time disappeared. The singing from the first two rounds was over. We were in the third round, the shortest, but most intense round of the ceremony. Inside the inipi it was quiet. In the extreme heat of the lodge, I sweat from my body and soul those images that held me captive to my mother’s negativity and the squelching of my spirit. I let “her” go from a memory full of excruciating experiences. My body released “her” in an abundance of tears.
Sweating profusely, I allowed the heat, the stones, the songs, and the fire to cleanse what no amount of talking had been able to. Cleansing and healing became entwined, especially where pure intent, the mind, and body joined together inside the very practical, but sacred, Lakota Inipi ceremony.