This is what it looks like inside a Native American sweat lodge. The fire burns outside of the heavily blanketed mound, and hot rocks are brought in so people can sit in the dark and sweat, pray, meditate.
My first sweat lodge was an accident of fate. Hoosier National Forest in Southern Indiana allowed the Lakota Sioux to have a Sun Dance in the park. The Indians took this very seriously, but in order to gain permission, they had to agree to allow parkgoers to watch. The Sioux resented this. I resented their resentment. The Lakota are as native to Indiana as I am. I also resented that they had a lot of unwritten rules that I promptly broke because I didn't know what they were. Alright, it's common sense not to drink pop in front of people who are fasting, but I didn't know they were fasting. I didn't know that I shouldn't pee in the sacred Port-a-Potty (reserved for dancers), or walk in front of the dancers when they weren't dancing. If they'd clued me in about any of this, I would've obliged. As it was, the Indians were annoyed, I was annoyed, but the Sun Dance went on with young men tearing the flesh on their chests where it was attached by thongs to a central pole and the drums beat and beat and beat throughout the heat of the summer day.
As I was setting up camp in the evening, my Blackfoot girlfriend came running to say we were invited to join the women's sweat. That sounded like Greek to me, but I'm game for new experiences. I ran after her, ducked inside the sweat lodge, sat down, and waited for something to happen. Hot rocks were brought in from the fire and put in a central pit and the opening flap was closed. In the pitch black, sage was put on the rocks for cleansing, and the aromatic smoke filled the cramped space in a pleasant, choking way. Water was ladled onto the hot rocks, and a cloud of scorching steam burned my nose and throat. I quickly decided that I had just allowed myself to be trapped in hell. I buried my face in my shirt to try to lessen the pain and misery while I became acutely aware of sweat gushing out of pores I had never bothered to acknowledge before. This is not an activity for people with heart problems or claustrophobia.
Eventually the pain and misery lessened, and I got tired of waiting for something to happen. I let my mind wander, and interesting things surfaced in the wandering. More sage was added from time to time, more scorching steam, and I had resigned myself to my entrapment. Then the prayers started. The leader of the circle stated the intent of the sweat. She said an opening prayer, much of it in the Lakota language. The Sun Dance was for preserving sacred places, and the Indians wanted patience in dealing with the white people. Okay. Asking for blessings for the preservation of the land is something I can go along with, and sometimes I need patience dealing with white people too. I was lulled into an interesting state where my body didn't feel real any more.
Then the next woman in the circle said a prayer. I had the first pains of panic as I realized they were going around the circle with prayers. How was I supposed to say a prayer to their God, for their purposes, without betraying my own beliefs?! I thought fast and hard while the disembodied voices crept closer to my place in the circle. I must've been exceptionally eloquent because the women slapped their thighs and voiced approval. I slumped in relief. I felt like I had just run a gauntlet. Then I realized they were working on another round of prayers, and I had used up all my material. Back to thinking hard and fast for another acceptable prayer. And on and on.
I had a glimmer of hope of escape when the flap was raised, but it was just to bring hotter rocks in. More scalding steam, more sage, more prayers. I wrestled between my feelings of entrapment, physical misery, and an increasing sense of the spiritual rightness in the universe. I quit working so hard on my prayers and just let myself flow with the movement of the spirit combined in the efforts of this small group of women. My meditation in the silence reached levels I hadn't considered seeking before. I quit thinking about my imprisonment and felt the moment suspended in an alternate reality of now.
When I was finally released, I suddenly realized I was the only one sitting in the dark fully clothed. My jeans were soaked through with sweat as if I had just gone swimming in the river. My husband of the time smelled me, and said my sweat smelled sweet and clean, more like rain water than sweat. I drank a gallon of water then slept like a rock in my sleeping bag, with dreams that built on my meditations.
The next day, my face shone in a different way. The surly shaman actually smiled at me. The women offered me breakfast. I peed in the right Port-a-Potty, and the Sun Dance made more sense to me.