Heaven In the Hot Seat: A Sweat Lodge Experience
Daniel (not his real name) was known to be severe and unmerciful as a lodge leader, but I went to ceremony anyway. I didn’t consider that it might be too much for me because I had endured some hot sweats over the years and benefitted from them greatly. I felt confident I could handle anything in the sweat lodge department. If necessary, I could get down close to the earth (the mother) or hide behind my skirt from the steam, or maybe even find a tiny hole at the bottom of the inipi to stick my nose through, as I’d done on one occasion (and never told anyone before now). If you’ve ever been to a real sweat lodge, you can appreciate what I’m talking about.

It was just after sunset when I arrived, and the smell of the fire and grandfather stones heating in the fire pit felt good in my nose. The smell of home. The smell of safety and security and community. Of being a part of something, not just on an intellectual level but a visceral level. Of being with other human beings who acknowledged life in all things. A living universe of diverse intelligence within Creator Spirit. To be with people who thought nothing of conversing with a rock or a tree or the earth! People who did not doubt the reality of the psyche and consequently of the psychic. Traveling in spirit was normal, dreaming was normal (not dreaming as the dominant culture thought of it, but true dreaming), being able to ask for and receive guidance in a multitude of ways was normal and natural and desirable.

Things were coming together as they always did without a schedule or clock. Right here in the middle of Tucson was a huge fire pit, one of three that I knew of, yet the feel was of being far out on the desert, in a private and sacred spot. There were no street lights. Few streets in Tucson have street lights. An Apache friend approached me. “What time is it?” He asked me. “Now,” I replied. He asked me again and I said the same thing. He and a friend began to laugh. “But what time is it?” he said again, smiling broadly. Then I realized I’d been saying “now” without being aware of it. I made a face and shook my head. “Who’s the Indian around here? You’re supposed to be the one to not worry about time! Go find out for yourself, I don’t know.”

The fire keeper was raking coals up over a grandfather stone, Bruce (not his real name) was playing flute on the far side of the fire, and Grandfather (won’t say his name) was intent on conversing with the two women leaders for the women’s lodge. Pima, Apache, Navajo, Lakota, Shoshone, Cree, Yaqui, and other tribes were represented along with some other white regulars like me and some new white people, most of whom would come only once to try it out from curiosity or so they could say they’d been. Sometimes a white person came because of a concern, an illness, grief, purification, or support in recovery.

Sitting there near the fire, I let some dirt slip through my fingers, thinking about my own situation of grief and the need for healing and purification. If it weren’t for sweat lodge and the flute, and my long tradition of meditation, I wondered how I would have survived this time. Perhaps, like so many, I would have resorted to conventional medications to blunt my senses and make me feel better. I felt great appreciation for being there on the earth, beneath the stars, beside a fire.

People were beginning to line up near the fire pit, most of them with prayer ties. I had my ties in my pocket, little squares of red cloth wadded up with tobacco in them and tied with red string. I had prayed while making each one, prayers for loved ones, family, friends, the world, animals, and plants. I felt them inside my pocket and it seemed a few prayers drifted upwards even though I hadn’t thrown them in the fire yet.

It was time to line up. It’s best to be at the front or back of the line if you want to be sure not to get the “seat of honor.” The seat across from the opening is the hot seat. It is for the person who is most ill or most in need of purification. Maybe I needed the hot seat, but I didn’t want it! I tried to squirrel my way into just the right place in line. At first I thought I’d made it, but no, here came some stragglers who had been inside the kitchen still making prayer ties. People ahead of me were tossing their prayer ties into the fire. I had to keep moving. At that point, I couldn’t tell where I was in relation to the middle of the line. The line behind me was fairly long. It was going to be crowded inside. There were about 18 people, and the inipi, a low, round hut, accommodated at best maybe 15.

Then it was my turn to get down on my hands and knees at the entry to the inipi and say, “For all my relations,” in Lakota. This means I am purifying myself for others, not just for my own benefit. Being pure, tending to my own well-being, I can contribute more to the community and serve others better. I crawled in like a baby behind the person in front of me until we came to where we would sit. Oh, no. I was going to be in the hot seat. At once I started making plans to sit way back so somebody else could sit in front of me to take the heat, even knowing that there wasn’t enough room. Finally, I looked about myself and accepted that this was the way of it. I was where I was.

The leader called for some grandfather stones. The fire keeper, who is also the doorkeeper, obliged shortly, sticking a pitchfork in through the opening with several hot rocks poised precariously upon the tips. He turned the fork and the hot grandfathers fell into the pit. He went back for more. When the pit was full, the leader poured a bowl of herb-scented water over the rocks, and the hot steam filled the air.
Each round is hotter than the last. During each round, songs are sung, teachings are given, and each person gets a chance to speak if they wish. The deer antlers are passed around the circle, and only the person holding the antlers is allowed to speak. A person can speak as slowly as he wishes and pause to gather his thoughts and never be interrupted. When a person is finished speaking, she passes the antlers to the next person. Except for the red glow of the grandfathers, it is dark and private. Attention is turned inwards, to the spiritual.

The first round was not so bad. We stayed inside the inipi, but Daniel had the fire keeper lift the flap while he told a story. The cool desert air was welcome. The second round was more intense. Near the end, Daniel passed a bowel of cool water around for everyone to take a sip. A white woman asked to be let out, but Daniel said no. She started making a fuss. His answer was to close the flap and start the third round. She continued to make a fuss. Daniel’s answer was to ask the fire keeper to bring more hot stones. It was still not so hot that it was unusual to us regulars, but I felt for the woman, as it was her first time. She should have gone to the women’s lodge at the Yaki reservation first and been instructed by the Apache elder, not by Daniel at this mixed sweat. Maybe I could mention this to her later.

The third round, I was at my limit. I was thinking of asking permission to leave even though I suspected Daniel wouldn’t grant it. The white woman had apparently decided not to ask permission this time. Instead, she shot out through the opening as soon as the flap was up, pushing her way past four people on her left and Daniel by the door. I could see that she had been planning that move for a while, as she had it down just right, and even Daniel was caught off guard.

The fourth round, I became convinced that I was going to die. I felt great fear. I didn't want to die. My next concern was “What will they do with the body?” Various scenarios passed through my mind. “Will anybody get in trouble?” Then I entered a peculiar state of knowing for certain that I was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it. Given this certainly that I was going to die and that was that, I accepted my death totally and let go. I released all resistance and surrendered to my death unconditionally. As soon as I did this, a marvelous thing happened.

I lifted effortlessly into the most wonderful space of beauty, comfort, greatness, love, and compassion, far beyond imagination. I landed in the soft place in the heart, the point of light, heaven. The heat no longer bothered me at all. I was totally comfortable in a perfect reality of absolute peace. And I was still alive. I sat there, relaxed and at ease, through the fourth round. I could have sat there happily all night. I was in such harmony with the heat, it did me no harm.

The experience of being in heaven no matter where I went or what I was doing lasted for about six weeks in its fullness before it began to fade. Everything and everywhere and everyone was divine; there was no separation between creation and Creator. There was no place where divinity was not. The earth I walked on, the rocks in the parking lot, the fumes from the traffic, my workplace, coworkers, and friends, were all, to me, obviously divine. “Transformations of consciousness,” as the Yoga Sutras describe all creation, or "modifications of the mind."

You might ask: “How could you function normally in the world in a state of bliss?” The answer is that it was easy; in fact, it was far easier to function in the world in this state of connectedness. No, I was not the least bit spacey! Instead, I was highly tuned in to reality (both the implicate and explicate orders) and my left brain was working at top speed. I edited tones of reports and manuals for grammar, spelling, punctuation, politically correct terminology, syntax, parallel construction, order, and organization, with speed and precision. No problem! It was a breeze.

Most interestingly, few people had a clue about my heightened state of mind. I got the impression that they didn’t detect the slightest change. It was as if they were looking at a cached photo of me, or their idea of who I was, rather than at the “me” in real time. Only people close to me in vibration (mostly light body students) detected that I was in an especially high, peaceful state. As with all things, the experience faded after a while. Yet it did change my baseline consciousness and I didn’t go back to where I was before the experience. I had faced death and surrendered to it, and it gave me life more abundant.

Some may think a person must be nuts to voluntarily go through discomfort in order to grow and purify oneself. And yes, it can be negative if a person is doing it for self-punishment or because he thinks this is the only way it can be done. It can also be negative when a person is only doing it because he believes he should because it is tradition or because it is heroic for the ego. But when it is a choice, and it comes from the desire to grow, it can be powerful. I am sure I would never have had that experience in a nice, air-conditioned room in a comfortable chair at a study group or listening to a lecture. Even so, I don’t condone the young lodge leader’s ruthlessness. It may have run off people who could have further benefitted from inipi ceremony. The other lodge leaders I knew were older, wiser, and more gentle and more accommodating. Yet for me, at least, his ruthlessness worked to my advantage.

For anyone wanting a good sweat lodge experience, I would say be sure to go to an elder or a student approved by an elder, and ask for details. Even though there are general rules and traditions, each lodge leader is different. Express any concerns you have. There should never be a charge for a sweat lodge. If going to sweat lodge is a voluntary part of a larger program or course you must pay for, know that anyone who charges exorbitant fees for sweat lodge is suspect of not knowing what they are doing. Listen to both your intuition and your reason. And ask questions.

Author's Bio: 

Linda Reneau spent five years in the Tucson area participating in lodge ceremony. She teaches meditation at the Natural Wellness Center in Monroe, Louisiana