I was concerned, sad and appalled to read about the recent press regarding James Arthur Ray's Spiritual Warrior retreat tragedy. You may be familiar: three people died and some reports say 21 people were taken by emergency vehicle to hospitals in serious condition. Two people were pronounced dead upon arrival and the third died this week. The lodge was overfilled with people - maybe up to 60 people and it was covered with plastic tarps. A native sweat is never done like this.
My concern is that someone like Ray, known for a hard driving motivational message, taking people into a sweat. Clearly, he doesn't understand the purpose of a sweat.
It's not a sporting event. It's not competitive. It's not an achievement.
The sweat lodge is a place to go within and get right with source. To feel "at one" with great spirit and make the right decision or release what may be bothering you. It's sacred.
I've participated in sweat ceremonies many, many times. I only sweat with native people leading. The leader is a pipe carrier. Being a pipe carrier is a responsibility to "walk your talk." They are chosen for spiritual reasons, not, for any other man-made western-achievement oriented purpose. They are very humble people and their job is to lead the prayers and be there for you.
A sweat is not a challenge. It is a place to communicate with spirit. If I don't feel well, I am free to leave. I actually did that on my first sweat. I was overcome with the heat. My fear drove me out. But, as soon as I caught my breath, I went back in and finished up the rounds of prayers. After that first sweat, I was never afraid again.
The preparation for a sweat actually takes a few days to get underway.
We went down to the river to gather red willow branches and hauled them back to the spot we'd chosen for the sweat. The construction of the lodge is sacred. We built it with drummers drumming and prayers being said. We were respectful of the sacred while putting up each piece of the lodge. We covered the lodge with old wool blankets and quilts. That's all in a days work believe me.
The day of the sweat, we fasted. No food and plenty of water because we knew, we would sweat. No more than twenty people would sweat together. Usually there were around twelve.
We had special sweat dresses that we wore and I've never sweat with both men and women. Just women. The dresses weren't specific to the sweat, we just wore something light weight and easy to move around in. We would be pretty grimy afterward.
If we had our moon time, we didn't sweat. No need to during moon time.
Sometimes I would volunteer to tend the fire. That was an all day job and big sacrifice. I would be available to the sweat leader when he called for more hot rocks or water.
The sweat lodge itself represents the "womb of the earth." Now, think about it - there's no rock and roll going on in a human womb right? The womb is a place where nurturing happens. Where life is grown and sustained.
The womb of the earth is the same. In the womb of the earth you meet Spirit, face to face, eye ball to eye ball. You breathe Spirit in and connect. You dream and vision. You get right inside. You are humbled by the power of it. You come out renewed.
After a sweat - IT'S TIME TO PARTY!! We shower, put on clean clothes and greet a new way of being. There's a big feast. Everyone brings their best dish. There is much to celebrate.
In my experience, the men and women came together at the feast. While the sweat took place in two different camps, women at one and men at the other, the feast was a joint affair. There was much frivolity, laughter and appreciation for life expressed.