On New Years day I went to a sweat lodge ceremony out in Ramona that I have been going to for several years now. It’s a pretty old place with big old oaks, eucalyptus trees, orchards, outdoor sculptures, mountains rocks flowers dogs chickens and all manner of life. And there’s a new home built where the old one burned in the fire two years ago.
Anyway, it’s beautiful. Wood, tile, stained glass, and a flowing sense of the outdoors welcomed in. The kitchen has one wall of doors that pull back completely and lead out to the brick patio. Every year after we feast and watch the sunset we tell coyote stories around a fire there. People arrive, place clothes in the round room, food in the kitchen, greet each other, wander the earth, visit the familiar spots and touch the ground that holds space for us here every six months.
Eventually Don calls us to circle. We sit on benches and chairs in a patch of green under the oaks. Don places those who speak for directions in the four “corners” and allows people to fill in the space, and find their places. Everyone takes noisemakers and uses them. It’s a beautiful circle with old friends, newcomers, children, young adults, the middle aged and always a few elderly. Under the open sky and those trees we go around one by one saying who we are, touching our connection to the place, and our intentions for the day. The act acknowledges the past that brought us here first, and the present that asks us to return again, honor this community, and seek something. Many people fast for the day.
The kiva itself is a wooden structure, that we built ourselves after it too burned in the fires. It sits on the ground above a dugout pit and around a stone bench that is covered with straw and sage leaves. Outside the kiva directly to the east in line with where the sun rises the fire blazes for at least a day in advance heating large rocks so that several inches thick when they split in the ceremony they are red hot to the core. Between the fire and the kiva is an altar with a few objects on it. Every object and every aspect of the ceremony has meaning that connects it to the way we believe the world works.
This year Don asked me to speak for the South. It is the first direction to speak after the creation story and the first stones are placed in the center of the kiva.
I was a little nervous about speaking for the South, though I had done it once before. The people who speak for the directions are there to set the container for the other participants, and it is a responsibility. When those who speak for the directions do well with what they hold, the circumstances are right for those inside to feel liberated to be vulnerable and open on their kiva journeys. We don’t know the specifics of what each person really needs, though we are all present when we set intentions, but when people feel safe, they can access deeper parts of themselves, heal more, be more honest with themselves, and share more authenticity with others. This energy builds and everyone shows up more fully. But for them to do that, I, and the others who speak, need to speak honestly and from the heart.
In the direction of the South we bring in our ancestors and families and we recognize the greater communities of which we are an integral part. Each of us has unique seeds inside us planted by the creator. Our job in this world is to tend to the growing of those seeds, for ourselves and for this greater community. Weeding the garden represents the repetitive act of soul maintenance that is giving up self-importance. And the integral relationship between giving up self-importance and being in right relationship with community (ancestors, family, future generations, etc.) is at the heart of the first round.
Why is it important to strive to give up self-importance? Self-importance interferes with our ability to see our accomplishments and failures as part of a fabric, and our skills and talents as servants of community. Self-importance is the coyote trickster and it shows up in the darnest places if we’re not paying attention, like when you’re talking about the importance of giving up self-importance, all the while feeling kind of self-important for getting to hold the lesson.
With each new chance to serve (chance to work, opportunity for “advancement”) self-importance rises, and that is totally normal, supremely human even. But if I’m unaware of self-importance when it arises in me, I am unable to be completely present and I lose some of the experience. I also don’t perform/create/think as well because I’m caught up in pride or thinking about what is special about what I get to do. Finally, though my intention is to serve, I don’t serve whatever I’m doing with every part of myself if ego is driving. Whatever the event, being caught up in the self-importance story interferes.
Giving up self-importance, the act of the South, isn’t like giving away a car that you don’t want anymore, though sometimes I wish it were that easy. And self-importance isn’t all bad either, as you might infer from the act of giving it up. Indeed, I think the return again and again to seeing it arise is part of what it means to be human, and it is a challenge that humbles me and brings me humor, patience, forgiveness, and thoughtfulness about my intentions. In developing my ability to notice self-importance I have been humbled to realize that it is a challenge that I will never overcome or be past, and that is in essence how much of life is. We act knowing that some things don’t change, yet it is right to struggle and act all the same.
I was deeply honored by Don asking me speak for the South. But of course, self-importance showed up all the same. And it distracted me, and gave me some anxiety, and in the end, again, it humbled me. I wasn’t able to fully let go of it by the time I was asked to speak, but I was aware of it and my desire was to serve, and I prayed that whatever was there wouldn’t interfere but could maybe be of service in some way. Perhaps that is all we can ever do, pray to serve well and move forward knowing we live in states of imperfection, all the while taking part in perfection…