California Sweat Lodge
--from Quest California
By Oscar Burley
"Oscar,” says Ghost, now living down here in the valley of Central California, “if you want, you can sleep for a few weeks in the old gardening shed out back."
Old gardening shed? Out back by the alley? Perfect.
The neighborhood consists of rows and rows of 1950's style California homes, built mainly of concrete, brick, and brightly colored tile counter tops. It's currently the week of Halloween and I find it both spooky and nostalgic to ride a bicycle through the corridors of trees draping their large branches over the long rows of avenue. Branches shedding waves of fallen brown leaves to the autumn wind. Very fall-like, the air cold and gray, I come barreling through the fluffy drifts collected besides curbs, on sidewalks, and beneath trees upon many a front lawn; crunchy leaves flying everywhere.
Today, in preparation for sweat lodge, I have been briefed on how not to behave, (like a loony, idiotic, obnoxious buffoon; myself, basically,) and have performed a partial fast, drinking only loads of juice and herbal tea.
Into the sunset we drive out of town and onto straight roads spanning an ocean of garlic and grape fields. Legend has it that before the cometh of the white man this central valley was a gulf blanketed in live oak trees; hardy and slow growing, full of shade and fruit, irreplaceable for generations to come, if ever.
A nation within a nation, a Native American Reservation complete with a neighborhood built of plywood and fiberglass insulation, the good-ole modern American way, now exists on this soil. Within it, I feel thankful and reverent to be standing here by the fire before the sweat lodge, a domed tent constructed of willow tree branches, clothed in wool blankets.
With dusk upon us, wearing only shorts and bare feet, we face east and make offering to the fire. Tobacco, a prayer, anything meaningful. Just before entering the rounded structure, one by one, we are smudged, purified by the smoke of sage plant; pungent, virtuous, distinctive, and forgiving, provoking memories of something ancient and eternal.
Granted permission to enter, we crawl into the lodge on knees and hands, file in clockwise and sit on the packed earthen floor. Following which, a pair of deer antlers are used to remove the first round of seven glowing bright-orange rocks from the fire and place them in the pit in the center of our circle.* Silhouettes of feathers and animal antlers hang from the low ceiling.
With the door of the lodge closed, darkness is illuminated by a faint orange glow. Twenty of us, men and women, sit shoulder to shoulder, watching as the sweat leader sprinkles cedar, sweet incense, on the rocks, filling the air with scented beauty. Orange sparks, like time lapsed developing star formations, glitter on the baking hot magma before us. Thus we are reminded that "these rocks have been on this earth far longer than we have," that "they are our ancestors," and how they are a channel to the fundamental spark of life, your own very heart.
As water touches rocks, crisp steam echoes throughout the space, and almost immediately the heat is intense, the air so hot that it burns the soft tissue within my nostrils. Taking deep breaths is painful, yet by holding a handful of sage to my nose my lungs are able to fill with warm minty oxygen, and I find the heat comforting. “Thump thump, thump,” go the drums as prayers are sung, crying out in native tongues.
With time, each of us has our opportunity to speak, here where it is appropriate to spill your heart and mind to the eyes of the Creator glowing in the pit before you. People cry, people laugh, people make animal noises, people's hearts are humbled as we touch deeply our own souls; often praying for the welfare of the earth and all those who suffer. Each, after saying our peace, respectfully says the word Mataqusae, meaning “all of my relations,” acknowledging that all life is interconnected.
Between rounds the door is opened, steam escapes, and hot bones welcome the cool wind. Now is when the sweat leader makes jokes, makes us laugh, gives us pep talks, reminds us of the qualities of Turtle, the earth we sit on, of Eagle, who carries our prayers to the heavens, and of Bear, a wisdom being similar in many ways to us people beings.
In the tradition of this lodge we perform four rounds of sweating, until all twenty-eight rocks are glowing brightly within the hub of our circle. With each round the air becomes hotter and hotter, we sweat more and more profusely, drink more and more water, as our minds and bodies are cleansed more and more of negative patterns.
“Hey-yaw, hey hey-yaw hey,” the Eagle Song reverberates in a mighty chorus sung by all present, and in the end we can't help but leave feeling refreshed, crisp, empowered and humbled. It's now time for a feast of beef stew and grape soda.
I suppose that in times past, in these moments, we would be eating acorn bread and deer blood stew. Honestly, I would rather drink deer-blood soda than grape soda any day, as it is my genuine wish that what is left of North America’s Native People survives and flourishes, free from beer, soda and fast food; full to the stone-ground rim on genuine acorn bread. “A-ho,” (yes.) Yes indeed, my good friend.
(*Warning: When heated, the wrong type of rocks can explode.)