I died! metaphorically speaking. okay not really. Sweat lodge ceremony is more accurate

Almost every year I go out to a friends ranch in Ramona for the winter solstice. They have a Kiva and a sweat lodge ceremony is held. They do this in the summer too, but I rarely make it to that one. These ceremonies provide an opportunity for people to meet in community and to support one another in looking deeply at their lives, their paths, their healing and their communities. Some get more out of it than others, some merely come for the community and the ceremony, some come to be broken down and to suffer. Some years are more intense than others. My first ceremony was five years ago and I was terrified. I’m not very good in the heat and all I knew was that a few hours in intense heat might just kill me. I think it was that fear that made me open to the vision I experienced, a vision that I still remember vividly to this day, though I do not yet know the meaning of it, or if it has a meaning. As you circle into the dark kiva, hunching over, sitting in the straw and dirt, unable to control the temperature or the response of your body a surrender happens that is similar to alchemy. All the complaints of your body and mind eventually melt and all you can do is breath. Do this for long enough, sing loudly enough, beat your body like a drum and yell your heart and fear and anger, and some memory is erased, something feels purified. Some tension disappates, things may begin to move in your body. This is the potential of the sweat. My voice gets caught in my throat and it is important for me to yell, to feel that energy begin to move, others have to let go in other ways, the key is to seek the tightness and let that place get reealll hot.

In the sweat all the ritual is around the sun, water, air and earth. Once we enter the lodge you do not cross the east-west line from the fire where the stones have been heating to red hot for 36 hours, and the pit in the center of the Kiva where the rocks are dropped and splashed with water using a bundle of sage. We call this east-west line, the line that the sun traverses, the heart-line. Each direction has an animal, a color, an element, a story, a song and a purpose. It’s a beautiful tradition.

I arrived early and Don approached me and asked me to speak for the south. I had always wanted to do this, but certainly wanted to wait to be asked to that honor. So even though I could barely speak and felt more weak than usual I agreed and he walked me over to his trailer where he had temporarily set up home since the house had burned. He gave me a sheet that I had read before and wandered off to let me soak it in. I thought he might sit down to discuss it with me, what the ideas were, what I was expected to do, but there were people coming and parking in the orchard already who needed to be greeted so I was on my own. He asked me to share some personal stories of vulnerability because the south is the first direction to speak, and it is the direction of giving up self-importance. I was a little nervous, but I knew that he wouldn’t have asked me if there wasn’t some reason that it was time for me to take some leadership, so I asked my ego and fear to get out of the way so that my spirit could take over and make a way for people to really hear the message of the south. As my time came to speak the hot moist air made it hard to breath and speak, so I had to speak slowly, which was a blessing because I was more thoughtful about the connections that I made. I heard heartfelt “ho’s” as I spoke and I knew that it was coming through. My heart was beating so hard to keep me up, breathing, thinking and speaking that I thought I might pass into the rocks and sustain third degree burns. But I didn’t! Go me.

Don said, when the native’s did these ceremonies, people would weep, and asked if anyone wanted to weep. He was looking for more depth this time, and I don’t think people were up to it, but if I am asked to speak for a direction again, I will do my best to elicit more soul searching from people. He said there were things we could only do in community, to bring our hearts to what we were asking for and I think this was the first time I knew what he meant. I wanted to suffer more in this one, I stood up, I sang louder, I got dizzy, when things started moving around in my belly I breathed into it instead of leaving. Instead of asking, when will people be okay with me leaving, I tried to stay in as long as I could. I was afraid of passing out but I knew as long as I focused on my breath I could endure it. I laid on the stone shelf covered in straw and felt things moving around in my belly. It felt like the organ massage I get from Esteban, so I knew that I would not immediately be cognizant of what was happening and that part of giving up self-importance is about not knowing all the answers and being open to what is unknown, trusting that our bodies and spirits seek their own healing and sometimes our job is to merely hold space for that healing. Physically when I emerged from the sweat I could barely stand, the light from the late afternoon sun was blinding for minutes, everytime I moved I felt pulses of energy and blood surging through my body and I would just have to stand and breath to maintain consciousness. Eventually I could stretch but even pulling my arm across my chest made my blood go crazy. I was soaking wet, wearing a bathing suit top and shorts barefoot in the earth, covered in dirt and straw in the 45 degree december afternoon, skin pink and red and I can’t think of a time I have felt more alive, my entire body vibrated with energy such that I couldn’t talk, just feel my body moving and pulsing. Thinking now, it actually felt like being born. In spite of the most intense nausea and headache that hit me minutes later, this was the best sweat I have ever been to. Perhaps no fasting the day before though next time.

I pulled over after leaving the sweat and opened the roof, leaned back and had a date with the stars. It was so quiet. I say that sighing, I’ve longed for that quiet, and there is no striving out there for it, it simply comes when the sun sets. Next time when I go out there I want to stay the night after in a tent and soak in the peace. Leave the gathering of friends around the fire drinking warm beverages and singing, after awhile, and meander up the road in the darkness underneath those stars, perhaps with a friend, and lay back on the hood of a car or a mat, in a warm down jacket and watch the stars. It’s not just that, but walking back to the fire, under those hundreds years old oaks, to where the house burned down two years ago and all that left is the concrete slabs, the stone walls of the round room, the stone fireplace where the den had been, there is an intimacy among this tribe that has held and supported and honored Don and the space in spite of the humbling crush of material destruction. It is an intimacy born from when we test our belief of what really matters. It is easy to say we have our health, but when huge destruction happens and inner strength is truly elicited, it is a deeply beautiful and abiding connection that can be borne out.

It was so…peaceful to be under the milky way, in the brush on a small road with deep grooves cut by the water from the rains. A stillness that steals into your breath, makes you think more slowly and thoughtfully. So many stars that I felt sad to think that most every night many of us can’t see these stars, the light pollution from the cities and towns fills the sky, orange-ish and smoggy, claustrophobic. We forget that we belong to the stars, that we are made of energy from stars, that we are children of stars. Walking under stars the knowledge that we are small, blinks of an eye in the eons that pass in the time of the stars, dwarfed by the sky, the darkness, the vastness, that knowledge fills me. But that pervading stillness is not an absence or a lack, it has an energy that fills my body, like all the atoms in my body suddenly are aware of their home, sense the vibration of their origin. Maybe you surf, maybe you run, maybe you give massage and maybe you make music. When you feel most alive it is like your body recognizes it is home. Your soul sees through your eyes for those moments and the world looks different. In the sweat we talk about how getting muddy brings our body-mind-spirit connection to the fore, and that is why people who know, come back. But your kiva is anywhere you feel the crashing of your soul into your limbs; when suddenly you are one. Not seeking but riding, not thinking but being. It’s an addictive feeling.

The absence of buildings and asphalt, the elegant lines of rock and ground against a sky clearer in the day and in the night. Have you ever walked in a city in the winter in the afternoon and realized that the sun barely makes it down to the ground? You are walking in the shade catching glimpses of the sky as you scurry across the street avoiding being killed by homicidal taxi drivers. Have you ever tried to watch a sunrise or a sunset in a city? That is something that fills me with a sense of loss. Even if you live in the suburbs, where the buildings aren’t as high, you watch it rise over rooftops, you catch the clouds in the sky maybe, but the moment it dips below the real horizon is obscured, stolen by structures of glass and steel. Watching the sun rise over hills, with green in between it and you is one of the most completely life affirming moments of a day. It enlivens joy in me. The sun is the best stand-in for God that I know. Perhaps that sounds cheesy, but consider it please. Every one of our atoms was forged in the sun, and though the earth provided the raw materials, the sun gave the spark. In our culture it is common to relate to the world in a self-centered way. Nature exists in its impact on our daily lives, and when all is easy we take for granted the powerful elements that make life possible. The winter can seem inconvenient because it is cold, weather is less predictable, the elements can make movement difficult, and even dangerous. We long for the summer sun and the freedom of longer days. And when it comes, how soon do people begin to take the sun for granted? Noticeable to many minds more in its absence then in a deep gratitude for its presence.

Last winter I started to watch the sun rise in the mornings, slowly making its way across the hills. On cloudy days I watched the sky lighten, the sun burn in certain spots, the subtle changes in feel of light. We take it for granted so it may seem that something as concrete and reliable as the sun, for those who don’t believe in or know god, could not possibly be a stand in for something we don’t even know exists. But this is truly an issue of semantics. We, and all life on earth in the most basic and scientific way, would not exist were it not for the sun. Beauty, power, truth, purity, warmth, love, are ideas we have cursory understanding of. If you build a relationship with the sun, a relationship that is yours, where you greet it in the morning, you will develop an intimate knowledge of these ideas; as they exist in the world and in our own cores. I believe that.

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