A sweat-lodge needs time, esp. if you not only conduct but also build one. Every few years a new sweat-lodge is being built, and the old one is burnt on the fire for the new one. When you build a sweat-lodge, you need the right kind of branches, which need to be flexible, supple and strong. They need to be long, ideally 3m long. Hazel is a good choice or willow. In the case of our last sweat-lodge we built (just a few weeks ago for Beltane) we used a mixture of hazel and willow. The sweat-lodge starts with the preparations and ends with putting away the blankets, put stones back into place or dispose of the broken pieces and the ash the next day. The night, the sleep, the dreaming between these two activities belongs all to the experience.
The sweat-lodge creates a space in which everything which before, during and afterwards happens has its own unique place. It is a sacred space, the space for a ritual, in which every action is bound up in a net of meaning. In this way space and time during the period of the sweat-lodge attain a peculiar density and quality (I experience this as a combination of excited anticipation and deep stillness).
When you conduct a sweat-lodge you do this with the consciousness of the BIG Time and the BIG Space: it is done with the consciousness that everything is connected with each other, that everything mutually determines and penetrates each other, in terms of time and space. The cutting and collecting of the willow and hazel branches is done with the consciousness, that the branches are living, sentient beings. The construction of the sweat-lodge happens according to a precise plan, which is functional and symbolic at the same time. There is East-West orientation, which is at the same time the Father-Sun and Mother-Earth axis. North-South is the realm of the plants and animals. Just as all actions to do with the sweat-lodge are connected with each other, so also all the branches, which are used for the construction of the sweat-lodge, are in contact with each and interconnected. Again, the overall effect is that of density, compactness, solidity and strength.
The conducting and building of a sweat-lodge is not a linear event, but is done in parallel stages: building of the sweat-lodge proper, creating an altar, building a fire, preparation of the ritual herb-cleansing bath for afterwards, fetching water – these all happen in parallel, done by different people. Everybody finds their role in this without much prior coordination naturally. The activities are concentrated, intense, meditative and busy all at the same time.
The defined space of the sweat-lodge has three focal points: the sweat-lodge itself, the fireplace and the altar. The first two are the big focal points, while the altar is the smaller one. The sweat-lodge and the fire-place are related with each other, in space and symbolically. It is important the keep the connection between these two during the ceremony which means that the path between these two must not be crossed by the participants (apart from by the fireman/-woman). The sweat-lodge is being heated by stones which are being ritually prepared for this purpose. Through the stones the different spirits are being invited into the sweat-lodge: the directions of the sky, the animal and plant realm, the ancestors, the dreams and the creators of dreams, the planets, human consciousness and many more. The stones can also become carriers of specific messages, wishes and desires. Just as the sweat-lodge and the fire are connected with each other so are the fire and dance chief connected symbolically. The fire symbolises the male, active principle while the sweat-lodge represents the female, receiving principle. The heat of the fire is carried (via the stones) into the (as yet still cold) sweat-lodge. Through this process the sweat-lodge is being fertilised, and is ready to bring a new life into being.
The metamorphosis of the sweat-lodge from a framework of willows and hazel (covered with three or four layers of blankets) into an infinite and unlimited time-space world is for me the central mystery of the sweat-lodge. The space in the sweat-lodge is alive, full of potential, a place of dreams, visions, spectres. It is the universal echo of one’s own individual consciousness. In the sweat-lodge one can experience the delimitation of one’s own consciousness, one can experience directly how matter is being infused with spirit.
The space is hot, sometimes very hot. Sometimes so hot that one has the sensation of breathing in fire (and yet, the experience of heat is completely subjective: where some find the heat unbearable, others experience it as just warm. One rule is: the more resistance we put up against our transformation in the sweat-lodge, the hotter we will experience the space to be). And the space is dark. In fact, so dark like the night being rolled up into itself several times, it is a multi-layered darkness. And yet, this darkness is full of light, the light of the individual and universal consciousness which shines all the brighter in this complete darkness. The absolute darkness activates the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual experience in a very intense way. Part of the intensity is the impossibility to escape, to simply walk out of the door (as if in a sauna), the inability to distract oneself. It’s the individual exposed to external darkness and internal light. Since the exit is barred (within reason – if somebody suffers real distress, he or she can of course leave the sweat-lodge, but will then stay outside and continue the process there), the only way is the path into one’s own mind/soul. This path into the heart of one’s mind/soul can be compared with mythological descriptions of descending into the underworld, which leads to transformations, which are experienced immediately and consciously as epiphanies or which work subconsciously for days, weeks and months after the sweat-lodge.
The comparison between the descent into the underworld (dying while still alive, the experience of the ‘twice dead’ Homer talks about) and the sweat-lodge is not far-fetched, because also in the sweat-lodge we encounter shadowy figures, chimeras, visions, personified fears, but also (in contrast to the underworld), phenomena which make one happy, inner ecstasies. The body sweats, dissolves in sweat, liberates the fine textures of matter, the light, pure energy. The sweat-lodge is a deep cleansing of the different bodies (physical, emotional, mental). For me, the sweat-lodge is a place in which one can experience universal truths.