Several decades ago, my naturopathic doctor at the time, Marleen Haverty, invited me to join her and a few others in a sweat lodge.
“I think you’re ready,” she said. Ready for what, I didn’t ask. Instead, I jumped at the chance. Being me, however, I spent more time worrying about was I really ready than looking forward to it. And had to go on the internet to get an idea of what was in store for me. I learned that to Native Americans, the Sweat Lodge symbolizes the womb of Grandmother Earth and the heated stones represent her body, which supports all life.
The sweat is intended as a spiritual ceremony including prayer and healing, and led by elders who know the associated language, songs, traditions, and safety protocols.
Marleen’s invitation wasn’t appropriating someone else’s culture or a one-off, cool experience. She participates in her Lakota Sioux nation’s rituals and customs and draws from many non-western medicine approaches in her practice. Back then, her office was in Poulsbo, WA; the sweat lodge was located on local tribal property about an hour away from my home.
I arrived dressed, as advised, in loose cotton clothing even though the temperature was in the high forties. “You’ll be warm soon enough,” a veteran of the experience told me as I shivered—more from nerves than the chilly air. The fire is used to heat the rocks that represent the light of the world and the source of all life and power.
A fire was already blazing outside the lodge, maintained by a stone keeper. She would open the lodge flap at intervals to let in air and to bring in more hot rocks. The stones are placed in a hole in the middle of the lodge; pouring water over the rocks produces thick, very hot steam.
In we went, a small group of women along with Marleen and her medical practice partner. The lodge, set in a wooded clearing, was a large canvas tent-like structure—not really a teepee but served a similar purpose.
As best I can remember, Marleen and another woman opened the ceremony with words of intention, some drumming, and a traditional Lakota song while pouring water over the hot rocks.
We went around the circle offering a prayer for self, others, and simply gratitude for being there. With each round, when the flap was drawn back and fresh air let in, we had a break but soon the fire keeper brought in even hotter rocks. She left and Marleen poured water over them and the steam quickly filled the space.
We went four rounds, to the four directions – north, south, west, and east – represented by spirit guides and other elements. There was singing and drumming which each round. This was the only time I felt uncomfortable, like something of an imposter but did my best. By the last round, I was singing away.
The hot steam inside the lodge grew with intensity. By the time we were at the fourth direction – east – I was lying with my face flat in the dirt trying to use cold earth as relief from the steam. That is all I remembered then and now – except this – while I didn’t pass out or feel in danger, I went somewhere beyond my conscious, physical being. And have no idea for how long I was “away.” I’m guessing a few minutes. I “returned” to the present when the flap was opened and the light poured in from the outside.
We went around for the last time and when Marleen got to me she asked: “Did you go somewhere?”
Without a pause I said: “Somewhere with an eagle,” and then felt self-conscious.
“I know,” she said, smiling at me, “Your right arm was slapping the earth like a wing in flight.”
Afterward, we gathered at someone’s home for a potluck. For me, trying to be social when all I could think about was where I’d gone didn’t work. I wanted to be home, take a shower and get the dirt off my clothes, hair and under my fingernails. And stay as long as possible with the experience. I lasted a few minutes, thanked Marleen and our hostess, and left.
On my wooded drive home, I noticed an eagle in flight and a pair sitting in a large tree. I would thereafter have a certain sense when an eagle was near and feel great appreciation. I hesitate to say eagles are my spirit guide but I love seeing them and the feeling it gives me.
And, of course, being me once again, for days I couldn’t get this refrain out of my head from the Steve Miller Band:
“I want to fly like an eagle
To the sea
Fly like an eagle
Let my spirit carry me.”
Note: You can find out more about Dr. Marleen Haverty’s diverse medical practice now in Portland, OR at https://www.sevencirclesnaturalmedicine.com.
Photo credits: Flying eagle – matthew-schwartz, Campfire – Jason-leung, Eagle in tree – ray- hennessy.