Sweat lodge ceremonies have been a First Nations/Aboriginal tradition since time immemorial. Today, they serve all open-minded people -- not just indigenous.
Sweat ceremonies clean and heal, both physically and mentally. They purge the mind, bring clarity, and test participant's endurance, strength and courage. They're holy places where people renew their inherent deep and natural connection to the universe.
Though usually associated with healing, each sweat holds different purposes and each leader conducts their affairs a bit differently.
One session might work out family or community problems. Another might handle addiction or other health issues. Some pass on oral traditions through storytelling. But all ceremonies aim to purify your mind, body, spirit, heart, and mend your "dis-ease" -- be it physical, emotional, directional, or spiritual. It's much like a dialysis of the soul.
"Sweat lodge" essentially translates into returning to the womb and the innocence of childhood. Entering the dome-like structure and crawling through its shallow, earthen pit is representative of passing the womb of Mother Earth. The lodge is dark, moist, hot, and safe. The darkness relates to human ignorance of the spiritual world and blindness to the physical world.
Sweat ceremonies practice extensive symbolism.
It's a place of transformation and purification through sensory deprivation -- extreme heat, steam, prayers, pipes, rattles, drums, and song. Enlightenment is attained through controlled breathing, meditating, journeying, and sharing words and song. It's a unique and profoundly personal experience where your body is cleansed of toxins, stress is removed, and your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual wellness are aligned.
Inside a sweat lodge -- all sense of race, gender, and religion sets aside. As in Mother's womb and Father's eyes, we are all the same.
We are One.
Each of us sits with our Creator.
The entrance to a sweat lodge faces the East -- and the sacred fire pit -- where rocks are heated in a wood fire. This has significant spiritual value. Each new day begins in the East with the rising of Father Sun -- the source of life, power, and the dawn of wisdom. The fire heating the rocks is the undying light of the world -- Eternity.
It's a new spiritual beginning; a new day that's sought in the ceremony.
Central to the sweat is the ideal of spiritual cleanliness. Many sweats start with fasting, especially avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and sugars. Prior to entering the lodge, participants ritually smudge with sage, sweet grass, or cedar smoke.
Inside, participants sit -- circling the central pit. White-hot rocks are shoveled into it by the fire-tender.
Modesty is expected, but material objects like jewelry, watches, or iPods are discouraged. This is a sacred place to pray, meditate, learn and heal, and that must be the focus.
With the door shut... and the lodge lit by the glow of rocks... a talking stick is passed. One by one, the participants tell who they are... where they're from... what purpose they're seeking from the experience.
Each has the opportunity to speak, to pray, and to ask for guidance and forgiveness from our Creator -- and the people they've hurt -- or give forgiveness to those who've hurt them.
A sweat ceremony typically has four sessions. They're called rounds or endurances. Each lasts thirty to forty-five minutes and the intensity of heat and sensory deprivation increase exponentially. The round ends when the leader announces the opening of the door.
Outside breaks are taken between each round. They last as long as people need cool off and recharge. The rounds are physically and emotionally exhausting.
The leader begins each round by pouring water from a wooden bucket onto the rocks. When the steam and temperature rise, sensory deprivation begins. In order to bypass the physical discomfort, you're forced to concentrate on your purpose in the sweat.
This elevates your mind into an altered state of consciousness where you're receptive to informational messages -- vision from our Creator, or Infinite Intelligence if you'd like to call it that -- and it's amplified through group consciousness.
The first round is recognition of the spirit world, which resides in the Black West where the sun goes down. Here our Creator may be asked for a "spirit guide" by some participants.
The second round is recognition of courage, endurance, strength, cleanliness, and honesty -- calling on the power of the White North.
The recognition of knowledge and individual prayer symbolize the third round -- praying to the direction of the daybreak star and the rising sun that we may gain wisdom and that we may follow the Red Road of the East in all our endeavors.
Fitting, the last round centers on the Yellow South and stands for spiritual growth and healing.
From spirit guides of the west -- from the courage, honesty, and endurance of the north -- from the knowledge and wisdom obtained in the east -- we continue the circle to the south from which comes our growth.
I've had the honor to participate in three Carrier First Nations sweat lodge ceremonies. For me -- enduring sweat lodge ceremonies were profound spiritual and cultural experiences.
I believe in the process and going with the flow. I've learned, grown, and gained from it.
Respect, sincerity, humility, the ability to listen, and the need to slow down and think about what's important in life, are enduring keys to unlock a sweat lodge ceremony's power.
And a caution -- you can't endure a sweat lodge ceremony with a closed mind -- you'll be uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and you'll probably just claw for the door to puke-out your guts.
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Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner, now bestselling crime writer. Garry lives on Vancouver Island on Canada's west coast and hosts the popular blog DyingWords.net.