My Sweat Lodge Experience
I mean, how would Christians feel if a bunch of Hindus merely served coffee and doughnuts after praying to Shiva, and said, "Now I know what it's like to go to a Christian church"?
In light of the horrendous story of the people who have sickened and died as a result of paying $9000 - $10,000 to participate in what they thought was a "sweat lodge," I recall my own experience at the Rainbow Gathering in 1990.
I rode up to northern Minnesota with some people that I met through a notice I placed on the bulletin board at the Seward Cafe. After we parked, we had to trek about five miles with our gear to the actual camping site. After about three miles, I became tired and needed to rest - and I lost track of the people I had ridden with.
Several other people caught up with me and helped me repack my pack so that the walking was easier. We walked along talking until we encountered some Lakota guy who was stirring rice in a huge pot. He did not say a word, but simply offered us rice sweetened with honey and apples. One member of our group tried to engage the man in a conversation about crystals and the Tarot (groan!). I cringed, but the Native American just shook his head and said, "No, man."
"You've never heard of the Tarot?"
"Nope." And that ended the conversation. I grinned at him over my rice, but he was too busy cooking.
The food that he gave us perked me right up so that I could complete that long, hard trek to the campground; talk of crystals doesn't cook rice. And that is a big key to understanding so-called "Native American spirituality" right there. Hold that thought.
Upon reaching camp, I befriended and joined a group of strangers, then set out to find the people I rode in with - yeah, great idea, since there were only 10,000 people distributed among this expansive state park! I was feeling anxious and alone, wandering around in the growing dark among all these people, when another guy took my arm and said, "Hey, you seem to be searching for something." Doesn't that sound spiritual? But he didn't mean it that way. Leo listened sympathetically when I explained that this was my first Gathering, I was here alone, had lost my travel companions, and wasn't really having much fun.
"Let's hang out," he said. "Come with me and we'll get some food. Quit worrying about finding your friends, we're going to be here a week and someone else will give you a lift back to the Cities, if it comes to that. I'm looking for a good sweat somewhere. Besides, I'm Choctaw and I can find anybody." He said it humorously, as if the opposite was true. He didn't sound profound or "spiritual," he sounded like some friendly man with a sense of humor. If anything, he looked at this crowd of earnest idealists with a jaundiced eye. "One thing about these things, there's always good food," he said, "even if a lot of the people are stupid."
We did find something to eat; and we even found a "sweat lodge." It was small, intimate, and dark. (No light bulbs in a northern Minnesota forest!) With only the fire outside for illumination, we undressed and sat in the hot half-darkness. Everyone was extremely polite, offering each other water and counseling against the symptoms of overheating: light-headedness, agitation, etc. The one exception was this one obnoxious man who cajoled (almost ordered) us to stand in a circle, hold hands, and recite "this powerful prayer," which included statements like "Let Christ return to earth," and such. When the voices dropped off, he berated us for not showing enough enthusiasm. "Wow, this is really powerful," I muttered as we sat down again. "Some people should shut the fuck up," Leo agreed in my ear. We left not long after that.
So there you have my "sweat lodge experience" - mostly disappointing, pretty much a spiritual bust, and yet what I remember is the taste of good food made even better by the long walk in, and the companionship of a humorous guy who laughed about it afterward and gave me a backrub. "We had a good sweat, and that's all I care about!" he chuckled. "You need a good hot fire."
I groused about the "Christ return to earth" bit.
"Oh, well, lots of us combine our rituals with Christianity these days." He shrugged. "It doesn't mean what the die-hards think it means. Different tribes got together in the old times and combined their stories and dances and shit. What matters is what you do, not what you talk about. If you don't like something, just walk away. We don't fight about religion - we're not religious like that. It's not a ritual like that. A real sweat is supposed to last three days, anyway, and you smack each other with pine branches, but I usually don't do the whole routine."
What did I learn? What profound knowledge did I take away from my time with Leo? For something that didn't cost me a cent, I learned that I don't necessarily like sweat lodges - I can't take the sauna even for more than a few minutes. Leo laughed when I told him this. "Lots of people don't like them." I also learned that Native Americans chafe at the sight of their ritual and beliefs - which for them is a practice inseparable from belonging to a community of people that they know and love - being appropriated by these "gurus" for commercial purposes.
I learned that whatever "Native American religion" is, it's something done rather than talked about, and not done with strangers unless that person is taken under someone's wing, as I had been by Leo. It's not evangelistic, like that bossy kid in the lodge. Ideally, it's not puritanical or judgmental. You're not supposed to compete with others or "last the longest" in the sweat lodge.
Eat when you're hungry, sleep when you're tired, pay attention to your own damn business, expect disappointments in life, and treat the earth with respect - that's basically what I got out of my "sweat lodge experience."
Nevertheless, I did have fun at the Rainbow Gathering. I met a lot of hippies - real ones, poor, poor, poor - who spent the whole time cooking and feeding people, because they wanted to. I met a lot of Native Americans, who are more interested in talking about life, their friends, their families, their careers, and hunting than about their "religion." I swam and ate and danced to great drumming (if I have a "spirituality" it is dancing to a drumbeat), and even hung around the Hare Krishnas - for a while. (They have great food, but when they get out the tamborines, you beat it!)
Nothing profound - or maybe it was, depending on your point of view. If I say that there was something Zen about it all, I'm going to sound like I'm saying the opposite of what I really mean, aren't I? I'm going to sound all woo and I hate woo (and Leo hated it, too). Maybe that mangled ideal, "spirituality," is all about living without, you know, spirituality, and just accepting things as they are, because you're not longing for things that don't exist.