Deep in thought

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Native American Indian Sweat Lodge

Farrell Cockrum's painting Yellowtail Vision

One new experience I have had this year has been the privilege to take part in traditional Native American Sweat Lodges.  I first heard about them when I was visiting my good friend Michael in Boulder Colorado who I had met at Tushita, a Buddhist retreat centre based in Mcleod Ganj, India.  Living in Boulder Colorado, close to Utah and having been more exposed to Native American culture than I, his friends told me about their experiences and it planted a mental seed.  Sometime later while at Koh Chang, Thailand, on the other side of the planet, I picked out this book from the library of the guest house I was staying at:

In the book, Wallace Black Elk talks about the tradition of the Sweat Lodge, its purpose as a deeply purifying and healing ritual; used to heal the physical, mental and spiritual wounds of individuals and communities by helping them reconnect with their Ancestors, the Great Spirit, each other and themselves.  He also mentions how the tradition has spilled out over cultural boundaries and is spreading around the globe healing people and connecting them with Life and the meaning that can be found within it as it flows and washes over them.  So while still in Thailand I did a quick Google to see if there was such a thing where I live back home and to my surprise there was, every month,  less than two hours drive from where I live, fantastic I thought - I am there to connect the final dot! 
If you haven't already had the experience I highly recommend it!  Preferably an authentic one led by a genuine "pipe carrier" and not a New Age "Let’s get all hot and naked one!"  Well, the latter is fine if that is what you are after of course.  Apparently, Native American Indians are traditionally very modest and the naked Sweat Lodge is a recent New Age addition.

I found the experience, from start to finish,very primordial and very natural in an elemental sense. There were three pipe carriers (meaning that they themselves have been on a deep, personal inner journey, have learnt the ancient rights and rituals as past down by the Elders and are able to hold the space and facilitate what happens at a Lodge) present at the first one I attended.  The main pipe holder lived with Black Foot Indians for over 30 years and has been fully initiated in their sacred rights and accepted by the Elders. Ceremony, ritual and symbolism were employed throughout as tools to access beyond the everyday, superficial layer of the mind.  

The Lodge is held in the beautiful grounds of Brazier Park:

Braziers Park is a community, a residential college and an architectural treasure hidden deep in the south Oxfordshire countryside in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It was founded in 1950 as an educational trust, and is a continuing experiment in the advantages and problems of living in a group. Community members share responsibility for running the mansion house (a Grade II* listed building), 55 acres of land, organic kitchen garden and livestock,  facilitating courses and organising events assisted by visiting volunteers from around the world.


Braziers Park exploring Conscious Co-Existence…
As one of the oldest secular communities in the UK,  we endeavour to create a space which enables people to integrate both learning and teaching, and to find and develop their full potential in all aspects – intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual. We strive to understand more fully our relationships with each other and with nature and society so that we can co-operate in taking constructive action in the world today.

So in the field, surrounded by other fields and circled by a number of (what I think might have been) Red Kites in the sky was a natural alter for offerings of tobacco (sacred to the Native Americans) and where you could also place items to be blessed. To the right of the alter was a huge wooden carving of an Amercian Bald Eagle standing proud and guarding the Lodge space. 

Red Kite

The day started with ‘smudging’ ourselves with Mugwort (part of a herb species that has been used for healing and medicinal purposes throughout the ages in many different cultures), which involved wafting it over our body to purify the energies that we pick up as we go about our lives.  We did this while standing around an unlit pyre in a circle.  As we passed the Mugwort to the left of us we spoke out loud to the person and said, "To all my relations." which was met by a group call of, "Oh hey!" which we were told roughly translates as "Right on!".  Next to the pyre were about 30 rocks the size of two fists each and these were ‘The Grandfathers’.   The rocks being ancient elements from the land symbolised our wise Ancestors who had been through and seen it all and hence the endearing title they are given, The Grandfathers.  A few of us were then asked to place four of the rocks on the pyre in the four cardinal directions and one in the centre.  Then those of us that did faced a cardinal direction (I was facing east) and prayed for the Ancestors to come and join and help us in the Lodge Ceremony.  An offering of tobacco was placed on each of these five rocks and then collectively we piled the other rocks on the pyre and lit it to heat the rocks for just over an hour.


During some of that time we stood in a circle and opened our hearts to each other, speaking about why we were there, our troubles, our insights, our journey and our joy and what we were looking to get out of the Lodge. The rest of the time was spent slowing down, relaxing, unwinding, learning to wait and getting to know the other participants.  We also collectively constructed the Lodge and made it ready for us to inhabit it.  It was a beautiful summer's day.  

There were four rounds in the Lodge: one for Purification, one for Prayer, then for Love and finally for Gratitude. Once inside and positioned (women on the left as you go in and men on the right) the Lodge leader asks for a number of Grandfathers to be brought in which are then placed in a pit that is dug out in the middle of the space.  They are welcomed, sprinkled with Mugwort and we all smudge ourselves again.  When the round begins and the door closes it becomes completely dark but for the glowing red rocks that quickly fade as water is splashed over them.  Being in the Lodge is likened to being in the womb of Mother Nature and that is an apt analogy.  Each round was accompanied by a story or an explanation of Native American symbolism that could be contemplated on, for example the Eagle with its vast perspective, yet ability to see the smallest detail and the Buffalo that herd together in a storm and walk though it into better weather. During each round traditional songs were sung and drums played.   The heat, the blackness, the singing, the drums, the mind: it was wonderfully intense!

I had never sweated so much in all of my life and it felt absolutely amazing to do so.  Between rounds I was either buzzing with energy or laid out on the lush green grass, staring at the blue sky as wispy clouds past over. 

At the end there was a pipe ceremony to seal the Lodge. My first Lodge experience felt great!  It was physically and energetically purifying and it took about two weeks for that feeling to completely wear off.  Also I have never felt so connected with nature and there was a primordial sense of remembering how we used to be.   

The second Lodge I attended was different as I was in different head space, there were more practitioners that were dedicated to the Lodge as a spiritual path and so it seemed to go deeper; bring more up for me personally.  That day I gained an appreciation of just how powerful the practice can be.  The group leader explained it helps reveal you to yourself, warts and all, like a kind of spiritual fast track so that you can then be clearer about what work you need to do on yourself.  It reminded me of sitting in the presence of Masters that embody a strong sense of presence and awareness and how they can act as a mirror to help one see exactly what is going on inside.  That kind of space helps bring all of the mind's habitual tendencies to the surface of our experience, and then by allowing them to bask in the presence of pure awareness helps weaken and therefore purify them.  What a rush! 

After the lodge we all ate the food we brought in the morning and by now a full moon was dominating the clear sky.  A fitting end (especially as not much but liquid is consumed throughout the day) to an amazing experience!

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