Recently traveling through Arizona when visiting, I was assaulted by news reports concerning James Ray and his debacle of that fateful sweat in Sedona some time back. His lawyers are claiming he is innocent and he declares this as well. The legal system is certainly not the place where responsibility will be found, nor encouraged. It is a game played by the fools who think they can win. There is no truth in a court proceeding. These daily articles that I heard, which I do not hear on my home NPR station, made me react in a visceral way, mostly with disgust. I have stayed silent concerning this issue for some time, but recently people have asked about sweats and I am compelled to write.
As many may know, sweat lodge is probably the oldest ceremony, let alone structure that humans have lived in. We know for sure that these temporary domes and spaces low to the ground were around for over 35,000 years. Beyond the cave, this is our oldest home structure. We also know that they have been found all over the world, no exception. Sweats, or the like, are in just about every culture too with numerous variations and styles. So to claim that sweats belong to any one culture or tribe is a fallacy. Sweats and sweating belongs to the human race. But at the same time, to claim that one can throw up a sweat in a weekend, heat some rocks, pour water and call this a ceremony of any depth is also flawed in its conception and mind set. One cannot follow a cook book to create and lead a sweat. For this reason, I am driven to write.
Sweat lodge is probably the most powerful experience that I have had. Even the worst sweats, in terms of who the people were and how they acted, were some of the most powerful in terms of intention and prayer. The best sweats were a wonderful union of community, vision, intention and rebirth. People share in such amazing simplicity, earth, water, fire, air and songs. People enter sweats with a ton and leave with only what is essential, their breath and their lives. People connect with each other and drop what separates us from our hearts and our connection to the earth and sky. People sit in awe and wonder and return to their source. While everything we do at a sweat is utter simplicity, it is not in any way a simple thing to lead and create. It is a thing of extremely complex intention and responsibility. For this reason the experience that those who shared that fateful sweat in Sedona should point squarely at its water pourer and leader James Ray for killing those people in that lodge.
What a water pourer does cannot be summed up even in this brief written statement. A water pourer is a person who is called to sweats from their own spiritual tradition, a tradition we hope is deep and abiding with teachers and elders. Many pourers are called to pour because it is a part of their tribe’s or family’s tradition and knowledge. They have been around these ceremonies their whole lives. Some are called in visions and dreams. Some are called by the needs of their family or the community they serve. But the essence of any leader’s work with the lodge is they seek out, humbly, a teacher who will share the necessary knowledge and training to be responsible for those who participate in the lodge. A leader of sweats knows that they are responsible for everyone in a lodge; they are ultimately responsible for the lives of everyone there. No law or court case can change this fact.
The lodge is a place where heat rises and falls with time. We open the door anywhere from 2 to 7 or more times. More hot rocks are brought in with more water. As water is poured on the rocks and the rounds increase, heat increases. People begin to shift because the largest organ of the body, the skin, is eliminating what it no longer needs. The lungs are pushing out toxins and replacing this with the purity of the steam, which we acknowledge as spirit itself when the door is closed. This very clean air is purified by the hot rocks. People are sharing breath, which brings them together. As heat rises and prayers and songs are sung, our ego’s run away, leaving the purest intention of our hearts.
This experience can be difficult if anyone who is not ready for it. Our ego can struggle and cause us to panic. Our hearts can begin to rapidly beat as the heat is being worked with and brought into our center along with steam. Our skin can run out of electrolytes. We never force anyone to stay in a lodge. To do so is an affront to anyone who practices these traditions. At the same time, some leaders warn that their preference is to stay until the door is opened, or ask for help when one is overwhelmed. As leaders, we are obligated to move through the ceremony only as fast as the slowest and weakest person can move. Often lodges have come to a complete halt in the middle of the process so that one among the whole can be given care. As my elder noted, it is not about how hot it gets, nor how much we can endure the heat, it is about the simplicity of prayer and being open to spirit. And one is not a warrior for how much abuse one can handle, but rather how much tenderness we can hold for ourselves and those around us. Tenderness is our strength and this is what lodge is about, returning us to our tender open hearts.
A leader is not trained in a weekend. It takes years to come to a full understanding and knowledge of the responsibilities of leading a lodge. Leaders start slow, often by participating in numerous lodges of their elder. At first, leaders will only pour for their closest relatives when and if they are called to do so. This family-oriented leadership slowly grows a leader with spirit at their side. We can see our family and care for our family more easily than we can a stranger, so we learn from our family how to care for the world. It is only then that a leader will open to friends or to others. A leader is a warrior of spirit with the tenderness of a mother caring for a child, the lodge. As they grow with the lodge, they will often go on vision quests, ask questions of their elder and constantly return to their elder’s lodge to deepen their understanding and knowledge. A leader becomes very subtly tuned to even the slightest shift in the people he or she is sharing this ceremony with as it progresses. A leader reads the energy of the group and the individuals within the tribe. A leader is the ultimate follower; they follow their community through the ceremony of a lodge.
A law could never be created to guide, manage, or authorize a sweat lodge. There is no one way to create the ceremony nor the qualifications of what a leader must know to lead. The elders know this as truth… the people who enter lodge must be aware of the leader’s knowledge and experience. James Ray knew nothing about lodge… every tribe, water pourer, and person associated with the lodge knew this from the reports. The lodge must breath; plastic coverings are dangerous to overwhelming heat, especially in a desert. The fire must be pure wood because anything else could damage the rocks chemically and what people will breath in the lodge when the stones are brought in. Accelerant like gas is anathema to a lodge. A water pourer is responsible for all parts of the lodge.
Like all things that the state gets involved in, people die and a law is made. Lodge cannot go in this direction. So it is important that everyone understand this, know your leader, and know yourself… understand the traditions and the ceremony before participating in any sweat. Know what anyone who has done these ceremonies does; go with a friend the first time that can help you understand. James Ray may or may not be guilty in terms of the law… he may or may not be found responsible, but for those of us who pour sweats, we know without a shadow of a doubt that if you touch water to hot rocks in an enclosed space, you are responsible for everything that happens until people are fed and rehydrated ready to return to their normal lives. James Ray is guilty.