The Sweat Lodge

I stand in the moonlight barefoot in my swimsuit, a towel around my waist, watching the sacred fire heat up the stones. The fire is controlled and powerful as it was meant to be. I pause to look into it and remember my reason for being here.

My grandmother stands beside me as I remember the sacred fires made by my ancestors. How they carried the earth’s knowledge and blessing. They knew the healing herbs and the best time to plant and pick the wild plants. They walked barefoot staying connected to the earth and were made fun of for their devotion. I’m here to heal that shame.

The idea of building a lodge was Tom’s suggestion. He’s a member of our Healing Society. We were all sitting at Vin’s kitchen table. We’d been together as a group for over a year. We learning and worked with healing techniques Vin shared with us.  We took requests from friends and family and then worked out a plan to heal the person. When we needed to tackle difficult healing, we stopped, learned something new did the healing.

You know how sometimes you really don’t know what you’re getting yourself into but you can’t stop yourself from doing it? This sweat lodge project was very much like that. The Creator had tapped us on the shoulder and made a request, so we went for it.

I was familiar with the basic sweat lodge ceremony. Now, I wanted to help construct the lodge and prepare the materials. There were rocks, saplings, and firewood to gather. We needed saws, tobacco or cornmeal for offerings, and a car. The car would get us to and from the lot we were gifted to use for the ceremony. The tree harvest became a crucial learning for me.

The sweat lodge is a ceremony that takes a lifetime to master. However, most of us had never built one.  The decision to undertake this task was going to challenge us all. It’s one of the most powerful tools the Creator has given us. It’s about cleansing and sweating out impurities. Its purpose is preparation for more serious and powerful challenges.

My mind drifts to the conversation I had with a fellow traveler a few minutes ago. She pointed out a young woman in shorts and a t-shirt, telling me that she’s a cop. We were changing in the shed and she was watching us. I don’t know why the police were interested in our sweat lodge ceremony, but I had more pressing matters to take care of before the ceremony. I was in charge of greeting the guest taking part in the sweat.

In the lodge, a ladle full of water is poured on the stones. At first, the water is at odds with the rocks, dancing above them. Until they burst into steam that fills the small structure. The lodge mimics the womb. We sit in the warm, misty, moist fragrance of steam coming from ancient stones and herbs. I close my eyes to feel and breathe in the moisture. When I open them, I see the others shifting to make themselves comfortable on their blankets. I’m touched by my neighbor’s knee and reach out to her for comfort.

The close quarters are starting to affect me. I’m tense. The familiar panic that accompanies an anxiety attack is threatening to overtake me. My throat is closing and I know I won’t be able to breathe in a few seconds. I look toward the door for a way out. I begin to talk myself out of the panic. I helped construct this lodge and I know how to exit through the wall if I lose all control and scramble for the nearest exit. All I can think of is fresh air.

Vin’s leading the ceremony. I haven’t told him I’m claustrophobic. If I need help, he’ll help me. If I need to run out of the lodge he’ll understand. I’m sitting furthest from the door. I guess I didn’t think things through before coming into the lodge. I ask spirit for help.

The stone people are ancient. They have seen many things over time. Their wisdom is sought by many. In this ceremony, they share their knowledge with the travelers. They share what they have seen. They will give up their lives for the people in the ceremony.

I remember the Saturday we jumped into 3 cars, bursting at the seams with people. We were on a mission. We drove for about 30 minutes and wound up with a lot filled with saplings. Our car doors flew open and we spilled out onto the pavement. We gathered around Vin for final instructions and were given a few extra saws. I had my own folding saw from my days as a civilian park volunteer.

We would have to connect with our inner vision to select the 14 trees that would make up the lodge framework. Each sapling would have to be communicated with and an offering given for its sacrifice. I had made offerings before, but this time, I felt an urgency and commitment I hadn’t had in the past. This time, the ceremony was for a group of us, not just me.

The lot belonged to Roy, a traveler, and friend.  He was happy to let us have the saplings. I remember the sun shining down on hundreds of young ailanthus trees. Ailanthus trees are an invasive species and these were struggling for space, each one casting a shadow on the other.

I move carefully and gently between the trees. I find a few that are willing to come with me. I give my offering. As I cut the trees down, I feel a physical release, as if they are saying, “I’m okay. I will sacrifice for this ceremony.”

I stop to take a break. My eyes are drawn to 2 dark trees with rough bark. I realize they’re sassafras trees. They’re not invasive but they want to come and be part of the ceremony. I’m torn.  This is not the plan. I struggle for a while and ask a traveler working next to me what he thinks. He shrugs. I take a deep breath and take the 2 trees.

We load the saplings onto the pickup truck Julian is driving and head for the ceremony site. We walk into the woods and find a large clearing. The site is mapped out and the measuring begins. The circle for the lodge is marked off using string and a center pole. The pole holes are marked with an x. Then we begin to dig.

In the lodge, it’s time to make a decision. Do I run out of the lodge? I hear myself say, “How much do you want this?” A feeling of calm reaches me. I begin to feel peace enter my body. My thoughts return to my hopes of healing the shame of poverty infused into my family history. My grandmother’s shame of walking barefoot on the muddy trails, of being hungry while others shoved food in their mouths.

When another ladle of water touches the stones, I remember that I’m not here for me. I’m here for my people. I feel pieces of doubt, jealousy, and shame sink into the earth. The rest evaporates into the mist.

The saplings go into the ground, we begin to see the structure appear. Julian and I grab the saplings and bend them to meet in the middle and tie them together. The rest of the saplings are joined and a dome forms.

We continue working on strengthening the walls of the lodge. In about an hour Vin declares the framework finished. He stops and asks if we have one more sapling for the entrance pole. It’ll hold our personal items as a declaration of our commitment.

The only saplings left are the young sassafras trees. Julian takes one and attempts to place it in a hole but it breaks. The hole is deepened and the second sassafras tree goes in without effort. I feel satisfied that I honored my inner vision and selected the 2 trees at the lot. I was listening to my ancestors and honored their request to include the sassafras trees.

We had many sweat lodge ceremonies that year. Before one of them, I remembered to ask about the policewoman that came to our first sweat. Julian leaned over to tell me he thinks. “She was with us because our lodge is built behind the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison. On December 1980, two inmates tunneled out of the prison and escaped in a car – John Nappi, 26, and Daniel Chiarello, 29.” I guess the police wanted to make sure we weren’t going to help anyone escape. She did stay for the ceremony but she never came back.

During one of our meetings, we decide to include the prisoners from the prison in our prayers at the next ceremony.

I feel a cool breeze and the outside world slowly slips into my thoughts as the lodge door opens. I wait my turn to crawl out and back into the moonlight. No one is speaking yet. The steam is lifting from our backs as if feathered wings were forming. We’re the travelers, willing to walk a little-known road to freedom.

 

The Sweat Lodge

I stand in the moonlight in my swimsuit, a towel around my waist, watching the sacred fire heat up the stones that give steam as water is poured on them in the lodge. The fire is unified, controlled, and powerful in its heat and light. I pause to look into it and remember my purpose and reasons for being here.

The idea of building a lodge came to us as I sat at Vin’s kitchen table with the rest of the travelers. We’d been together as a group for over a year, learning and working on healing. We took requests from friends and family, and then worked on a plan to heal the person in need of help. When we needed new skills to achieve decisive healings, we stopped, learned and practiced new techniques. These plans were sometimes elaborate.

You know how sometimes you really don’t know what you’re getting yourself into but you can’t stop yourself from doing it? This was very much like that. The Creator had tapped us on the shoulder and made a request, so we went for it.

I had been in a sweat lodge ceremony before and was familiar with the basic rituals. What I wanted to focus on this time was the construction of the lodge and preparation of the materials. There were rocks, saplings, and firewood to gather. We would need saws, tobacco or cornmeal for offerings, a car to get to the lot we were gifted to use for the ceremony, and the trees we would cut down for the framework. The tree harvest became a crucial learning for me. The sweat lodge is one of those ceremonies that takes many years to learn and many more years to master.

The decision to undertake this task was going to challenge us all. It’s one of the most powerful tools the Creator has given us. It’s about cleansing and sweating out impurities. It’s preparation for more severe and compelling challenges, but most of us had never built one before.

As I walk away from the fire, my mind drifts to the conversation I had with a fellow traveler a few minutes ago. The traveler pointed out a young woman in shorts and a t-shirt, telling me that she’s a cop. We were changing in the shed, and she was watching us. I don’t know why the police were interested in our sweat lodge ceremony, but I had more pressing matters to take care of before the ceremony.

Inside the Lodge

In the lodge, a ladle full of water is poured on the stones. At first, the water is at odds with the rocks, until they unite to produce the moisture that fills the structure. The lodge mimics the womb. We sit in the warm, misty, moist fragrance of steam coming from ancient stones and herbs. I close my eyes to feel and breathe in the steam. When I open them, I see the others shifting to make themselves comfortable on their blankets. I’m touched by my neighbor’s knee and reach out to her for comfort.

The close quarters are starting to affect me. I’m tense. The familiar panic that accompanies an anxiety attack is threatening to overtake me. My throat is closing and I know I won’t be able to breathe in a few seconds. I look toward the door for a way out. I begin to talk myself out of the panic. I helped construct this lodge and I know how to exit through the wall if I need to leave and breathe outside in the open air.

Vin is leading the ceremony. If I need help to leave, to run out of the lodge he’ll understand. No, I haven’t told him I’m claustrophobic. I’m sitting the furthest from the door. I guess I didn’t think things through before coming into the lodge.

The talk of stones was fascinating. Vin spent at least a week researching and looking for the right stones to use. He looked at lava stones but they were too fragile and would break down easily. In the end, he and the fire keeper chose large granite stones from a local quarry.

The stone people are ancient. They have seen many things over time. Their wisdom is sought by many. In this ceremony, they share their knowledge with the seekers. They share what they have seen. They will, however, give up their existence for the people in the ceremony.

The fire keeper will work on the fire and dig the trench that connects the lodge to the fire pit. He maintains the fire throughout the ceremony and delivers the hot stones to the lodge when the time comes.
I remember the Saturday we jumped into 3 cars, bursting at the seams with people on a mission. We drove for about 30 minutes and wound up at a lot filled with saplings. Our car doors flew open and we spilled out onto the pavement. We gathered around Vin for final instructions and were given a few extra saws. I had my own folding saw from my days as a civilian park volunteer.

Inner Vision

We would have to connect with our inner vision to select the 14 trees that would make up the frame. Each sapling would have to be communicated with and an offering given for its sacrifice. I had made offerings before, but this time I felt an urgency and commitment I hadn’t had in the past. This time the project was for a group of us not just me.
The lot belonged to Roy, a traveler and friend. He was happy to let us have the saplings. I remember the sun shining down on the hundreds of young ailanthus trees. Ailanthus trees are an invasive species and these were struggling for space, each one casting a shadow on the other.

I move carefully and gently between the trees and find a few that are willing to come with me. I pray and give my offering. As I cut the trees down, I feel a physical release, as if they are saying, “I’m okay. I will sacrifice for this ceremony.”

I stop to take a break. My eyes are drawn to 2 dark trees with rough bark. I realize they are sassafras. They’re not invasive but they want to come and be part of the ceremony. I’m torn. This is not the plan. I struggle for a while and ask a traveler working next to me what he thinks. He shrugs. I take a deep breath and take the 2 trees.

We load the saplings onto the pickup truck Julian is driving and head for the ceremony site. We walk into the woods and find a large clearing. The site is mapped out and the measuring begins. The circle for the lodge is marked off using string and a center pole. The pole holes are marked with an x. Then we begin to dig.
In the lodge, it’s time to make a decision. Do I run out of the lodge or take part in the ceremony? Something reaches out to me and calm enters my body. I hear myself say, “How much do you want this?” My thoughts return to my vision, my life, my hopes and my dreams. When another ladle of water touches the stones, my panic evaporates like shadows in the mist. I open and shed pieces of doubt, jealousy, and fear. An assortment of impurities falls out of me and disappear into the soil beneath me.

The Structure

As the saplings go into the ground, we begin to see the structure appear. Julian and I grab the saplings and bend them to meet in the middle and tie them together. The rest of the saplings are joined and a dome is formed.

We continue working on strengthening the walls of the lodge and Vin declares it finished. Then he stops and asks if we have one more sapling for the entrance pole. It will hold our personal items as a declaration of commitment in the ceremony.

The only saplings left are the two young sassafras trees. Julian takes one and attempts to place it in a hole but it breaks in half as he lines it up. The hole is widened, deepened, and the second sassafras tree goes in without effort. I feel very satisfied that I honored my inner vision and selected the 2 trees at the lot. I’m delighted I was listening.

We had many sweat lodge ceremonies that year. Before one of them, I remembered to ask about the policewoman that came to our first sweat. Julian leans over to tell me what he thinks. “She was with us because our lodge is built behind the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, a medium security prison on Staten Island. In December 1980, two inmates tunneled out of the prison and escaped in a car – John Nappi, 26, and Daniel Chiarello, 29.” I guess they wanted to make sure we weren’t going to help anyone escape. She did stay for the ceremony but she never came back.

During one of our meetings we decide to include the prisoners from the prison in our prayers at the next ceremony.

I feel a cool breeze and the outside world slowly slips into my thoughts as the lodge door opens. I wait my turn to crawl out and back into the moonlight. No one is speaking yet and we are all emerging from within ourselves. The steam is lifting from our bodies as if forming feathered wings that open from our backs. We are the travelers, the seekers, willing to walk a little known road toward enlightenment.

The Night Sit

Greenbelt Staten Island

Greenbelt Staten Island

I dressed warmly, slipped my knife on my belt, made sure my sister knew I was out of town for a few days, and headed to Vin’s. We were going to the Greenbelt, a remote, wild area on Staten Island, one of New York City’s 5 boroughs. We decided to leave from Vin’s house to avoid taking two cars and attracting any unwanted attention. I had an important question that needed answering, and I was feeling called to the wilderness for the answer.

I telephoned Vin a week ago. “Vin? I’m struggling with a problem and I want a night sit to help me see what direction I need to take to continue on my spiritual path. Will you help me?” He said yes.

A night sit is one night in the forest without sleep or food, asking the Creator to help clarify a part of your vision. A vision you uncovered during a vision quest. The vision quest usually takes four days depending on your teacher, but you need time to prepare. The preparation and quest most often adds up to seven days.

The concept is to place yourself in a situation that will allow you to listen to the Creator. It is said that your first quest tells you everything about your vision. If you quest again, and many people do, it will clarify the first experience. If you can’t quest for four days then you might opt for a night sit. The sit has a meditative quality but is not a meditation. It’s more of an opening into a waking dream.

We packed light. No sleeping bags, no fire kit and no food. We planned on setting up camp for one night. There would be one night and day to prepare for the sit and one night for the sit itself.

We found a nice size clearing deep in the Greenbelt. The area Vin chose was near Heyerdahl Hill. The park is 2,800 acres, and if you know where to go it can seem millions of miles from civilization. The fact that the Greenbelt runs along the midsection of the island makes it a great place to explore. The forested hills, wetlands, and kettle ponds give the park a diversity of habitat and lots of nooks and crannies to take refuge in. It’s also about 410 feet above sea level. We, however, had something specific in mind, a night sit.

The geography is much like other New York parks due to the Pleistocene glaciers that moved through this area, but the schist, sandstone, serpentine, magnetite, and iron oxide give this park its distinction. They are the result of tectonic activity from a much earlier Paleozoic era.

I found out that my favorite transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, came to Staten Island in 1843 to tutor Emerson’s nephews. He must have loved the landscape and taken lots of walks into the greener parts of the island. Who knows? I might have stepped in his boot prints as I traveled the trails.

As soon as we arrive, we begin making our camp. Our scout beds, made of dried autumn leaves, were colorful and crunchy. We piled them up about three feet high in the shape of a single bed. Sleeping directly on the ground would cause our body heat to leech out into the earth. Without insulation, the cold could lead to hypothermia. The leaf pile was perfect for keeping us warm. Besides, the weather was pleasant enough to not require us taking the time to build a shelter and, for the most part, we were fasting.

We decided not to build a fire so meat and tea were not on the menu. Our water bottles would have to be filled at least once during our two days. We called a friend whose property butted up against the Greenbelt and asked him if we could stop by to fill us up on water. Don knew we didn’t want contact with people before a sit, so he set up a hose in his back yard and pointed us to some edibles in his garden. The water came in handy to prevent dehydration. Without a fire, we couldn’t find water in the Greenbelt and purify it by boiling. So hurray to Don for his help and understanding of the process.

Day one was filled with deer sightings and plant identification, along with some discoveries of the human kind – lovers kissing, dogs playing, people hiking. We had moved into the more populated areas of the trails in order to get ready to quietly cross the road to Don’s backyard. Our intent was to avoid people, dogs, cars and any other distractions that might arise.

When there are few man-made things in your day, and nature surrounds you, you lose your sense of time. Your steps are smoother and longer. You notice the breeze move your hair, and the sun on your skin. Your heart looks for things that give you peace. My heart was peaceful.

The sun began to cast its bluish and purple colors on the horizon and declared it night within a few minutes. We were going to Don’s for water. As we started out, my adrenaline shot up to military/Special Forces level. The full moon aided our night trek and we easily made it across the road, over the fence, and onto Don’s property.

We turned on the hose as quietly as we could, using other sounds to mask the turning of the squeaky faucet and rush of water through the hose. After filling our water bottles we headed to our camp. On our way back, I had to get my breathing under control. I didn’t realize how full of energy I was after our short jaunt to Don’s. I climbed onto my bed and looked up at the night sky with all its stars. Even in Staten Island’s light pollution, you can see stars at night. The moonlight filled our camp. After a few prayers of thanksgiving, my eyes began to close.

After we broke camp on our second day and spread the leaves we used for our beds on the ground, we walked the trails and did some tracking. We avoided people as much as we could, but mostly we sat and thought about the sit. My job was to form a clear question and be ready for the Creator’s answer. Vin would be my protector. I took time to look for a spot for my spiritual sit. I found a secluded area with pine trees and chose a pine as my night partner.

My thoughts were filled with confusion. Do I stay the course and keep teaching in the school system or do I have something else to do to travel my vision? I had an opportunity to attend Columbia Teachers College and get my Masters in education. It would be a monumental task with the limited resources I had at the time. There were too many reasons not to go, but I felt the pull of this trial.

The sun began to go down and I sat with my back to the pine tree and began to clear my mind. A night sit is a small version of a vision quest. All the same rules apply. The quester does not leave the designated area, they do not eat food, and they avoid distractions. This last one is the hardest of all. Coming from a culture of distraction that emphasizes computers, televisions, phones, and talking, turning off the mind takes effort. It does help if you practice every day but even practice sometimes fails you when you purposely sit to find answers to life questions.

I would have to depend on nature to send me messages and tell me what the Creator wanted from me and my life. I would have to depend on Vin to keep me physically and spiritually safe, as I listened to God. I would have to stay open to nature. Trust was vital.

Each time my mind drifted I pulled it back to emptiness. The night became colder and colder but I had to let that discomfort go to hear the Creator’s voice. My legs would fall asleep, so I adjusted and straightened my spine. Doubt rushed in when I least expected and dared me to stay the whole night. Then it began to tear away at my confidence. How could I finish such a vigorous educational program at one of the best schools in the country while working full time? How could I hear the Creator’s voice in the forest?

But before doubt took the reins, fear crept in the back door and heightened every sound in the woods, creating danger where there was none. Vin was out of sight, hidden. I was alone in the woods with raccoons, opossums, bats, birds of prey, black racers, and who knows what else. My nerves almost overtook me, until I remembered that I was a part of the forest now, that after two days roaming the trails I had joined with the wildness. The final revelation was that the messengers of the Creator come from the creatures and even insects living in the wilderness. The fear lifted.

The battle to stay quiet and listen without distraction continued throughout the night. There were times I wanted to sleep and would slump to the side. I heard my teacher’s voice in my mind saying, “How much do you want it?” That thought floated into my sleepy head and I rallied. I knew I wanted this answer badly. It was part of my vision. I lost the concept of time. When the sun began to rise I was surprised but welcomed it. I had my answer. I would leap into the abyss and enroll at Columbia. I was sure of my answer and ready for the two and a half year journey.

Vin waited for me to stand and walk around before coming over. He had hidden in the bushes just to the left of me. I hadn’t seen him all night. We hugged and headed for a light breakfast to break our fast. You can do anything in a city called New York, even a night sit.