Death and Rebirth: The Transformative Power of the Sweat Lodge
Monday, July 15th, 2002
Since the beginning of time man has looked for ways to cure and prevent disease and has undertaken practices to promote health and wellbeing. In many diverse cultures, from the ancient Maya and Aztecs, to the North American Alaskan Indians, to the Scandinavians, versions of the curative steam bath have existed. Even in Britain, charred volcanic rocks have recently been discovered without any evidence of cooking vessels nearby, suggesting that the sweat lodge may also belong to the pre-Roman Celtic tradition.
There are as many different types of sweat lodge as there are native traditions, and regional variations depend largely on local materials, climate and customs. The North American Indians typically use a hemispherical structure made from driving pliant boughs, such as willow, into the ground, covered with blankets or skins. Volcanic rocks heated on an external fire are then brought into the lodge and sprinkled with water and herbs, filling the lodge with medicinal steam. Further South the Aztecs and Mayas built more elaborate rectangular sweat houses from rock or adobe, with a fire chamber inside, and a chimney to allow the smoke out. In both cases a shaman or elder presides over the ceremony, mediating between the human and spirit worlds.
Here in Mexico, the most common name for the sweat house is temescal, an Aztec word derived from teme, to bathe, and calli, house. The largest Mayan dictionary, compiled shortly after the Conquest, gives the word for sweat bath as Zumpul-che, “a bath for women after childbirth and for sick persons used to cast out disease in their bodies.”
Essentially, it is a natural steam bath, and its main purpose is purification; it relieves stress, cleanses toxins from the body, provides a cure for illness, revitalizes one’s life force and releases negativity stored in the mind and body. A Navajo who fought in World War II said he came back for a sweat lodge “to rid himself of evil accumulated during war.”
According to the mythology of the Highland Maya of Chiapas, where I apprenticed as a Curandero (Maya Healer), the sweat lodge came into being when the sun banished the moon from the sky after a quarrel and sent her down to earth. The stars, their children, built the moon a home, as she had nowhere to live, and so her new home became the sweat lodge. Protecting the moon in a warm, moist, dark space, the lodge is often described as the ‘womb of the earth,’ and is nearly always associated with fertility and death, rebirth and rejuvenatation. Although a life-giver and healer, the lodge Goddess also has her wrathful side when angered, and may well punish participants who fail to show her the proper respect. Due to the dual nature of the female deity presiding over the lodge, great care must be taken in all aspects of the construction of the lodge and the preparation of offerings.
The lodge is responsible for expelling the ‘cold’ and harmful winds of the earth from the body, and re-instating warm and vital energy. Since women are particularly susceptible to these cold winds after childbirth, both mother and child are traditionally taken in to the protective custody of the lodge by the mother’s female guardians immediately after giving birth. Inside the warm and moist lodge the mother heals her body and the child is cleansed and prepared for his final entrance into the outer world. In some communities the child’s placenta is buried under the family lodge and if later in life the child becomes sick he is summoned back to his birth lodge by the shaman, and taken back into the womb for healing. At death all souls are said to pass through a final sweat lodge in the belly of a turtle under the sea, burning up their sins before entering into Xibalba, the Maya Underworld.
The basalt rocks used to heat the lodge are collected from river beds and are called abuelos or ancestors. These robust and ancient bones of the earth contain the volcanic matrix of life and symbolize the state of being, immovable and steadfast, the dwelling place of all. The spirits of all of our ancestors are believed to dwell in the stones, and roused by the heat of the fire, they proceed out of the stone when water is sprinkled on them. Emerging and mingling with the steam they enter the body through the orifices and skin moving up and down, and all over and inside the body, driving out everything that inflicts pain. Before the ancestor spirits return to the stone, they impart some of their nature to the body. That is why one feels so well after having been in a temescal.
I first came into contact with the tradition of the sweat lodge during my training in Maya Medicine in Chiapas. Acting as a catalyst in the healing process, the lodge provided a safe and sacred space for people to come together and help one another in a time of crisis through their various problems or illnesses.
In keeping with the Maya tradition, participants are asked to prepare themselves several days prior to entering a lodge, by abstaining from alcohol, making offerings and sometimes fasting. If one has a clear idea of what one wants from the lodge and enters with the right intention, the energy will respond accordingly.
Sitting in a circle in the womb-like darkness we are warmed by the glowing ancestors. This lulls us into a state of childlike openness, where our protective armor and resistance melts away, giving rise to a return of our natural state. The door is closed and water and herbs are sprinkled onto the rocks; the ancestors hiss as an intense rush of steam fills the air giving the senses a sharp wake-up call. We ground in our sitting pose and expand upwards and outwards, breaking through our cocoons. Generating great light from within and opening up the space in our hearts we begin to let go. We cleanse through breath and silence, and slow everything down, so that the mind may dwell in the nature of the rock, in the nature of itself. Emotions — joy, fear and pain — stored away for years may be released, the tension with which we hold ourselves may flow away and we undergo a death-like process. We cannot fight the heat so we must surrender; we cannot fight ourselves so we must accept who we are. The play of the elements (earth, fire, water, air, space) mirrors our struggle to free ourselves from the bonds of suffering to find peace and happiness.
If we relax, the energy finds where it needs to go; soothing a painful back, clearing out congested lungs, breaking down an insatiable desire to control, or melting a heart full of anger, guilt or remorse. We can mourn the loss of loved ones or send energy to the living; we can come to terms with the past or ask for guidance and protection. Through clapping, singing, shouting, chanting, praying or storytelling, we can purify our souls of evil accumulated through our past negative actions. The more one needs to cleanse, the hotter it feels. The new round begins with more rocks being brought in, and the temperature rises gradually so that towards the end we are meditating on snowfields and ice in order to lower the body temperature and counteract the searing heat. The lodge ends when all the rocks from the fire are used up, and we file out of the darkness into the light feeling rejuvenated, reborn and ready for life’s challenges. Having emerged we are welcomed back into the outside world with an ice-cold bucket of water which closes our pores and wakes us up. Every good lodge ends with a communal feast around the fire, where one has time to process the experience in a friendly and supportive environment whilst gently coming back into the body.
The lodge is place of truth, a test of courage where we confront our fears and face up to our responsibilities. In the darkness of the lodge, we are faced with our own darkness. The heat and womb-like energy of the elements open us to what we are, stripping us of what we are not. There is nothing to look at, nothing to distract us, save our own world in front of us. Although a very individual experience, where one’s inner processes are given space and time to unravel, the strong sense of camaraderie born from the shared experience is both comforting and nurturing.
In altering our normal perception and state of being we can look once again at life in a clearer and more simple way, identifying our weaknesses and turning them into strengths. The power to transform energy lies at the very heart of the temescal: from raw evil comes good, suspicion turns into trust, cowardice into courage, hate into love. As we embrace our birth in the lodge we are challenged to embrace our death without fear or sadness. Our own death can be our greatest teacher showing us how to live in the here and now, in this precious place, in this precious time.