So sorry about the cell phone quality images – I didn’t want to leave my DSLR outside the lodge, exposed to the elements, for four hours.. kinda wish I did though. Headed to Ecuador? Here’s what I packed.
I’m finally sitting down, sifting through photos and beginning to mentally unpack the year I’ve had thus far. An experience I keep coming back to is that of the Andean sweat lodge in Ecuador at SachaJi Ecolodge and Wellness Center. I had never participated in a sweat lodge ceremony before and I had no idea what to expect before entering the small tent where the ceremony would take place. Once I saw how squat and confined the lodge was, I certainly felt a twinge of apprehension, but after spending a few moments in the tent with our ceremonial leaders, I felt at ease.
In all cases, the sweat experience is intended as a religious ceremony. Participating in a sweat is likened to entering earth’s womb, it’s a prayer for healing and should only be undertaken with experienced leaders or elders who know the language, songs, and traditions of the sweat lodge otherwise the practice has a potential to be dangerous to both your physical and spiritual being. Entering into a sweat lodge should not be taken lightly. It’s a sacred space of respect and ritual.
Immediately upon walking up to the sweat lodge, I could feel the calming energy of our leaders Maike and Mauricio as well as the fire keeper and Maike’s lovely little child. As other retreat goers buzzed with nervous energy, Maike and Mauricio stood at ease offering comfort where they saw apprehension. We were all instructed to place our jewelry on the altar and to remove as much clothing as we felt comfortable with before entering the lodge.
While I didn’t expect a lodge, I also didn’t expect a squat, dark, canvas tent, but that’s exactly what it was. The grassy floor of the sweat lodge was covered with bamboo mats and in the center sat a shallow pit into which the hot stones were placed. While each sweat lodge is different, ours stood about three to four feet high and there was just enough room around the central pit to crawl around the circle and find a comfortable seated position. Our group was quite large making for a cozy sweat lodge circle.
Before we started, our leaders graciously thanked us for their role in caring for our lives and self-purification process. They then offered prayers to their ancestors and pacha mama before adding seven stones from the fire outside into the pit in the sweat lodge. Maike and Mauricio placed offerings of dried plants and herbs onto the hot stones. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the smell of the first waft of sweet herby air. We then passed around a seashell full of tobacco water, which we snorted up each nostril. You know the feeling of liquid going up your nose, doing it voluntarily was a new experience, but with each round of tobacco snorting, I became a little better at having it travel upwards instead of dripping down into the back of my throat. Some people felt a nice buzz from the tobacco, but I didn’t notice a change.
After the initial prayers were said, our leaders introduced themselves and their goals for the sweat lodge and we were all asked to do the same. I was touched that both the leaders’ goals were to guide the group through the sweat lodge without injury, but also that they asked the great spirit to attend to our individual needs and intentions throughout the ceremony.
During the sweat, we focused on honoring the four elements: air, fire, water and earth because of this, our guide had us envision the sweat session in four rounds, with fire being the most intense. I think breaking it up like this mentally helped those in the lodge who were having a really hard time dealing with heat, fear of darkness and claustrophobia. After the first round, we all had an idea of what we needed to endure to make it through the next three rounds.
After Maike and Mauricio finished with their introductions, prayers, offerings and songs, it was time to close the door flap. Once the flap closed, I experienced the most confining darkness. I waved my hand in front of my face, but saw nothing. The smoke, heat and darkness completely enveloped my being and for a few moments I felt the urge to tear open the sweat lodge, to jump up and run away, anything to take a breath of fresh air. I envisioned being free of the heat, but that seemed to exhaust me so after a few moments, I took a deep, boiling hot, inhale and closed my eyes. All of a sudden, I felt the complete opposite of a moment before, an overwhelming expansiveness like I’ve never known. Honestly, after that one moment, that quick, yet overwhelming transition of my body’s whereabouts in space, I had an incredibly comfortable experience in the sweat lodge.
Between each round, we opened two small flaps in the sweat lodge, this was to ventilate the space, but also to allow more hot rocks, carried from the fire by Maike’s son and passed from shovel to antlers by Mauricio and placed with the utmost precision into the pit. Once the flaps were closed, more offerings were sprinkled, smudged and burned on the rocks. We wafted the sweet smoke towards our heads and our hearts and then settled in as more water was poured over the rocks, creating immense heat and impenetrable steam.
In total, we spent over three hours in the sweat lodge, but it didn’t seem to last that long. We passed the time by listening to the beat of Maike’s drum, the sound of Mauricio’s songs and prayers and our own rhythm as we were all handed some type of instrument when we entered the lodge. At some point during the ceremony, I remember wanting to weep as I sat there enveloped in the most beautiful songs and chants. I was surrounded by people of different ethnicities and religions, all of them strangers to me before this week, and while we were all teaching, learning and sharing in each others’ different languages in the dark, I felt an immense bond, something that felt ages old to me and something I haven’t found a way to put into words just yet. As we sang and chanted in Spanish, English, Hebrew and Sanskrit, I felt our connection and support for each other in this experience deepen.
Once the ceremony came to a close, we all had an opportunity to say something. Most of us offered our utmost gratitude to the sweat lodge leaders and facilitators and we thanked each other for the shared experience, but when it was Mauricio’s turn to speak, he asked us to not feel disheartened by the activities of the world, by war, by negativity, by Donald Trump.
Wow. Somehow hearing this man’s name come from Mauricio’s lips shifted all the energy in the sweat lodge. We collectively went from heads in the clouds to feet planted firmly on the ground. I walked away with an overall message that yes, this is our reality and while we may not agree with it, we can’t let it dampen our life experience, lower our vibration or dim our happiness. We must push on. We mustn’t let temporary trends cloud our ancient and universal knowledge of love, compassion and inclusion. We are all one, we are all the same and we all want the same comforts of love and kindness. I wonder if I was sharing a sweat lodge experience with Trump, would I feel that immense, ages old, soul level recognition? As much as I’d like to say fuck no, who knows, after all I believe the likeness in all of us is much greater than the difference even if it’s incredibly hard to recognize.
As I crawled on hands and knees out of the sweat lodge, re-birthed if you will, I felt a renewed sense of purpose. I felt a responsibility to spread love and light when so many of us are caught up in the darkness of our perceived reality. Yes, Trump is the president (WTF), but instead of hanging my head, I should march on, smiling, showing each person I meet that there is value in kindness and compassion. After a final prayer and cleansing smudge, I slowly stood up and there behind the sweat lodge was the most vivid sunset I saw during my two weeks in Ecuador.