All My Relations (My Sweat Lodge Experience) An IgNITE Magazine Story of Inspiration
All My Relations (My Sweat Lodge Experience)
By: Douglas J. Caputo
“Pray for yourself first…you are no good to anyone if you don’t take care of yourself first.” At least that’s what I remember hearing from the Paiute elder that was to carry the rocks and pour the water. His movements were deliberate, his manner quiet. I was nervous or perhaps uncomfortable in the spaces without words or chitchat. “Second, pray for your loved ones, then your shadow side…your challenges…your enemies and finally pray for gratitude…give thanks to Spirit.” These prayers made up the four “rounds” of the sweat lodge ceremony that would become an essential part of my life.
It was evening and the sun had set. Lit by the fire where dozens of rocks were absorbing the heat, our shadows danced along the surrounding pinions, juniper and sage with wild abandon. It was cold. The rocks radiated a red-orange glow as they were harvested from the fire and placed in the center of the lodge. We were smudged with the smoke of the White Sage. “Enter the lodge from the east, don’t step over the alter, follow your left hand and move clockwise…don’t move backward!” I entered the lodge and lowered myself on the cold soft ground. A towel around my waist, no water, no shoes just my companions and me. The elder was the last one in; pulling the door flap closed which made a sound like a sail when confronted by a strong gust of wind as it sealed us inside the lodge. The ancestors were called and blessings were uttered. The sweet smoke smell of Cedar sprinkled on the rocks flowed over me as I was instructed to “… pull the smoke toward yourself…bless yourself.” A crackle of hiss and steam filled the lodge as water vaporized when poured on the vibrating stones. Songs were sung and prayers were sent to the corners of the universe and beyond.
Entering the lodge for the first time is confronting. The unknown is fertile ground for the imagination. Fears rise, fall and rise again. Waves of moist heat tumble over me. The smell of Cedar and Sage carry me out of my head. We sing. Songs that call spirit, songs that call bear, deer, ancestors, coyote and stars. The songs carry my prayers to those I love. The air is heavy, black and wet. It is so heavy that I wonder if it is air at all. My mind is unaccustomed and a weighty panic fills my lungs as they crave the light air they know. The air that does not ask anything from me, the air that I take in without thinking, the air that allows me to be distracted from myself. The air in the lodge forces me to pay attention. I think of those who came before me and the trials they must of had. I see those who will come after me and wish for things to be easier for them. All my relations…past, present and future are here in this lodge with me. Pushed down by the weight of the heat and darkness, I begin to crave relief. I am saturated and spent as I lie on the floor of the lodge searching for the air that does not ask anything of me. I press my face near mother earth and find a cool respite just below the surface. I am digging a hole, a tiny area where my lungs collect enough solace to calm me and still I sing. Just before I am ready to cry out in surrender, the songs stop and the flap opens. Plumes of steamy, slightly sweet mist billow from the door of the lodge and seem to travel up a ray of silvery moonlight toward the sky. It is snowing. Large crystalline flakes turn to water as they fall gently on the warm shell of the lodge. Little fingers of frigid air make their way to me, I have what I need. I am back or at least close enough to see where “back” is. The pipe is brought in, lit and again I pray and give thanks as the smoke from the pipe carries my prayers away. We sing a final song and exit to the left, clockwise, I step out of the lodge into a world that will never be quite the same for me.
Before that weekend was over there would be three more sweats. Each sweat was unique. As I became less fearful and more receptive to the rhythm, I began to settle into a peaceful trust. I allowed the lodge to look after me, to hold me in the space that I needed to move in.
That was nearly 15 years ago and I have attended hundreds of sweats since. I have sat and shared the sacred circle with many regulars time and time again. Sat with even more who are passing through, who don’t make it back or just move on. What is it that would call someone into a pitch black, sweltering, small confined space with any number of strangers? I’m sure the answer is as diverse as those who attend this centuries old ceremony. For me it was and is an urge for discovery. To see what I would find on the other side…to see what would happen. The other side is full of surprises. The other side is not what I expected. Now I know better than to expect anything in particular. I used to pray for “things”. The elder would say ”…be careful what you pray for.” Now I pray for the gift of gratitude. I pray for the strength and wisdom to live my life in a way that makes the journey worthwhile. For years I prayed for myself, my loved ones, my enemies and gave thanks to Spirit. Now I know that there is no separation. I am all of those and they are all me. In the lodge I know this, in the lodge is where I now find refuge. Where I go to be reminded that I have more than I need. A gentle cooling breeze, food in my belly, people and beings to love. “It’s easy to be spiritual” the elder reminds me “it is difficult to be human.”
In those all too rare moments, when my guard is down and I have (usually) unintentionally slipped out of the constant chatter, inner commentary and endless judgment and criticism, in those moments…there is only thanks. I find it true for me that “it is easy to be spiritual, it is difficult to be human.” It’s difficult to embrace those aspects of myself that are my shadow side, that are my enemies. But when I give thanks and inhabit gratitude, I understand that those facets are a part of the me that is in everyone. The part of everyone that is in me…and I am grateful.
I’m not sure if the lodge has changed me. I came to the lodge when I changed where I lived and discovered what was important to me. From city living and chasing goals to wide-open spaces and struggling to find how I wanted my life to be in this moment.
Perhaps the move changed me. Perhaps it was the move and the lodge. Really, it does not matter to me. Now, I love those I am lucky enough to share time and life with. Now I enjoy walking with my dogs. Sometimes I follow them, other times they follow me. I cherish quiet moments, the way the sun bounces of the cliffs in the forest where we walk, the cut of a brisk wind on my face. I love those walks. That is what the lodge is to me now these 15 years later. It’s a walk. Sometimes I follow the lodge, other times it follows me.
Douglas Caputo is a Realtor and owner of Workshops for Actors, Artists and Professionals. He is co-founder and past Artistic Director of The Space Between Theatre Company, a student of the Eric Morris System for Actors and fan of The Path of Least Resistance and Your Life as Art, both by Robert Fritz. Douglas lives in the high desert of southern Utah.