Facing myself in a sweatlodge

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by James Eke (from Podcast #50)

All my relations.

That is how the sweat lodge started.

All my relations. 

That is how the sweat lodge ended.

When you think of a sweat lodge you might think of a whole lot of different things about where or what an indigenous people’s healing and spiritual place of growth and practice should be like, but perched on a rooftop of a boutique First Nations art gallery hotel a block away from Vancouver’s infamous Pigeon Park known for the failing of a city and a province to the problems of poverty and addiction is probably not what you’d have in mind. Yet there it was. A small dome of bent willow and other tree branches, covered in blankets just big enough for six people to sit cross-legged in while red hot grandfather rocks are brought in, lifted into place in the centre of the circle with two deer antlers and brought to life with a sprinkle of tobacco or sweet grass.

All my relations, Shosoni healer and elder Old Hands, said, explaining that the sweat lodge while an Aboriginal healing and spiritual practice is something that transcends North American First Nations beliefs and is something far more ancient, and practiced by many of Earth’s people for all of human existence up to current day. Except for one thing, most have forgotten. Others have watered it down and made it into a spa or sauna but a true sweat lodge is something far more than that and nothing to be trifled with.

“This is going to be something you remember. The sweat lodge has power that changes you, heals you. Remember that all of your ancestors want you here, today. They sacrificed for you to be sitting right here. There are a long line of people who want the best and happiest and healthiest life for you. They want to see you have a life that they could never have believed possible. And they are here with you today. They are with you always. That is what some of what All My Relations means. You are here for a reason — a lot of things have happened to get you here right now. You are meant to be here.” 

The sweat lodge brings these different worlds together. The past, yesterday and more ancient, the present, with all its baggage and turmoil we carry, and the future that we hope will be brighter and better than today for ourselves and our own children and future generations.

All of this binds together as you crawl into the sweat lodge, which Old Hands said is symbolic and physically like crawling into the womb of Mother Earth. The mother that gives us all the lives we have.

The sweat lodge I took part in was divided into 4 parts, each with drumming, chants and plenty of heat, steam, smoke, darkness and light. Central to it all was bringing unity to the people who came before us, those who want us all to succeed and be strong and healthy and with a clear understanding and indication of what it is that we want for ourselves and our lives and what healing it is that we need to move on and be stronger for ourselves and those around us.

One aspect that kept coming up in the words of the elder was that if you want to truly help others you need to help yourself too and do what needs to be done to get you to a place all your relations — your ancestors — want for you.

“Turtle doesn’t go anywhere until he sticks out his neck,” Old Hands said more than once. We have to take responsibility for our lives, for our health, for our wellbeing and for our own healing and everyone needs healing. 

We need to make the steps that are required in this life to make sure that we are getting to where we are headed, whatever that may be.

For everyone, the sweat lodge ceremony is different. And for some, it is so much more.

I didn’t quite know what to expect when I decided to take part.

I try in this life to be at least open minded. What I don’t always expect is to have my life radically altered from a two hour experience like the one I was on from atop that East Vancouver rooftop.

When I crawled through the door of the blanket wrapped dome I thought I was in for a neat cultural experience at least and at best something similar to the time I’ve spent in various Zen and Tibetan Buddhist temples, meditation and listening to chants and just otherwise vibing along as I practiced mindfulness, calmness and breath work.

Well, I did all that. 

What I didn’t expect was the deeply moving, humbling and transcedental experience that happened.

At the start of the sweat lodge, as the first six large and glowing red rocks were placed in the center of the circle we’d formed and Old Hands started to slowly beat his drum and sing the songs he told us he learned from the old ones back home, I can only describe what happened next as feeling ancient and somehow far removed from the inner city I was in, I felt like I was in another place and another time that somehow felt not just right but familiar. Then, as strangely as it sounds, I felt a connection or the company of not only First Nations archetypes but old Norse ones. It was Odin, the all-father there beside me, Thor and Loki. I was sure, as the temperature increased and the smoke and heat blanketed me that what was being chanted or how it echoed in me was not what I was hearing but some song, some beat, some words that had been sung to my ancestors long before I was born, long before any of them could dream of me in this West Coast Canadian city, words that had power, a beat that hit a rhythm that matched something not just inside of me but inside of us all.

I felt the pitch black space around me alive with crows, with an eagle and with that wolf I’d fought in the woods.

As the first hour turned into the second, and more rocks and more steam and more smoke filled the space and we called upon all our relations to be there with us, to help us, I actually felt the physical feeling of being surrounded by people who knew me but I didn’t know myself. I felt them in touch with me in a way that now, talking about it, doesn’t entirely make sense. But at that moment made all these sense in the world. They were there, blanketing me in their presence, their love, their understanding. They were giving me their strength and their hope.

I realized that for me to be in that place meant that all of them, for hundreds and thousands of years fought and suffered through more than I can conceive all so that I could sit on that rooftop, in that sweat lodge and have the life that I have and do all the things I have done and will do.

I am here, even now, doing this podcast because I come from a long line of warriors and fathers and mothers and simply amazing people who suffered and persevered with the dream that one day there will be someone, maybe someone like me, who will live a life that they couldn’t even dream possible. The same dream any parent or grandparent has for their children. And I could hear them whisper to me in that hot darkness that if they could make it, that I would too because I am made of all of them — every one of them that faced the terrors that at one time crawled in the darkness of night, every one of them that fought to keep their tribe and their family safe, every one of them that suffered in ways that even my worst Army stories don’t come close to all so that I can be right here. Right now.

And I felt all this. Not in some weirdo fuzzy, new-age way. It was real, physical and tangible. I sensed them around me right there just like you are feeling all the things around you right now. 

Wherever you are listening to this, whatever your background, whatever your path, I think, after my experience in the sweat lodge that you need to try this. There is something that just made sense as a human being at a very core level in the ritual and the process and I can’t see anyone walk away from it and not be changed for the better. And in case you are worried, there is nothing overtly religious about it if you are worried that it will somehow interfere with your own beliefs. If anything, I think that the organic and natural balance to it will only amplify what you already believe and practice.

There is something very old and yet very new about the sweat lodge. Something simple and yet profound. 

In terms of training for you martial artists, you are not going to find something as physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally intense as this on the mats. Think of it in Jiu-Jitsu terms, this would be like trying to roll with five black belts who were all pinning you to the mats and the simple act of breathing and relaxing would be the most you could hope to do, all the while learning massive new lessons on how to do this, how to do that and how to simply deal with what these mat sharks were throwing down.

It would leave you exhausted, worn out and yet somehow new, fresh and alive with possibility.

There are things in this life that have been given to us as amazing tools — vehicles to get us to somewhere else. To make better, stronger versions of us. That isn’t something to be trifled with. It isn’t something to judge. Sometimes, when you find something that amplifies and takes your training and who you are to a whole new level we need to just smile, nod and give deep and grateful thanks to the universe for placing something like this in our path and to understand that you are exactly where you should be. Where all your relations wanted you to be. Where all my relations led me, finding who I am, what I am and who I want to be.

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