I’ve had the honor to participate in three Carrier First Nations sweat lodge ceremonies. They were profound spiritual and cultural experiences and I’d like to share them with you.
Sweat lodge ceremonies have been a First Nations tradition since time immemorial and they serve all people, not just the indigenous. Sweats ceremonial clean and heal the body, 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 deep and natural connection to the universe and the realm of spirits.
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 story telling. 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 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 before the spiritual world and even more blindness to the physical world.
Extensive symbolism is practiced in sweat lodge ceremonies. It’s a place of transformation and purification through sensory deprivation, extreme heat, steam, prayers, pipes, rattles, drums, and song. Enlightenment is attained through 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.
In the purification of your spirit inside a sweat lodge, all sense of race, gender, and religion is set aside. As in the Mother’s womb and the Father’s eyes, we are all the same. We are One. Each of us has the equal ability to sit with the Creator himself.
The entrance to a sweat lodge faces the East and the sacred fire pit where rocks are heated in a wood fire. This has very 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, while 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 for an entire day, especially avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and other unhealthy substances. Prior to entering the lodge, participants smudge with sage, sweet-grass, or cedar smoke as a means toward ritual cleanliness.
Inside, participants sit in a circle around the central pit into which white-hot rocks are shoveled-in by the fire-tender. Modesty is expected, but any material objects such as 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 only by the glow of the rocks, the leader begins by pouring water from a wooden bucket onto the rocks.
When the steam and temperature rise so do the senses. Messages and vision from the Creator, or Infinite Intelligence if you’d like to call it that, are received through the group consciousness. One at a time, as a talking stick is passed, all inside get an opportunity to speak, to pray, and to ask for guidance and forgiveness from the Creator and the people they have hurt or who have hurt them. As they go around the circle, they tell who they are and where they are from, so the Creator, the Spirit People, and all there can acknowledge them.
A sweat is typically four sessions, called rounds or endurances, each lasting about 30 to 45 minutes. The round ends when the leader announces the opening of the door.
The second round is for recognition of courage, endurance, strength, cleanliness, and honesty, calling upon 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.
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 all of our growth.
Respect, sincerity, humility, the ability to listen, and the need to slow down and think about what’s important in life, are the keys in growing through the sweat lodge ceremony.