The story of my transcendence begins with me, John, collapsed on the dirty Alaskan ground of a rock quarry, head held up by double fists, gasping for a breath which was not coming.
How did I get here? By choice of course. I chose to come along with the “other” group. I chose to agree when they said “give us a hot one for Sunny,” and lastly, I chose to move; something that eventually resulted in my aforementioned prostration.
The place in which I found myself, while this was going down, ’twas a 10′ X 10’ft dome, covered in blankets, furs and a blue tarp. There was an Indian dude – from Montana not India – inside, named Leonard. I was also surrounded by the “outdoor” volunteers – a weird manual labor faction of the Americorps program that I was doing. They were a part of the “unprofessional” wing, relegated to building trails in the natural beauty of Alaska, rather than the cramped confines of a regional boy scout council office, like myself.
We sat in a circle. Super-heated rocks were placed in a hole on the ground. They glowed in the dark. Then, Leonard poured water on the rocks and the lodge got hot. Round after round we went, taking pause between, opening the door cover and sometimes even wandering outside. However, my outdoor friends had a curve-ball that they had yet to pitch.
“We want to do a round for Sunny.” “Yeah, Sunny really wanted to be here and do this because he misses his family up north, so we want to do a round for him.”
These statements created in me no sense of alarm. Rather, maybe they just revealed the importance of this experience in the mind, and the emotional state, of another. Interpreted by Leonard however, “(doing) a round for Sunny,” a native Inuit kid from the polar reaches up in northern Alaska, obviously meant something else – most likely; “jack up the heat of this next round to ‘hell level 4: hallucinations of dead relatives and wavering consciousness.’”
As we began this last round, sitting there, breathing hot fire, what really became apparent to me was that my ankle, ravaged only a month prior by a misplaced footstep on a basketball court, was not happy. I say not happy, but what I really had was a 3rd degree ankle sprain – ripped tendons and all. Consequently, sitting in one position for a long time, as one does when enduring a forced meditation in a sweat lodge hot enough to fry a dog’s brain, was an impossibility. Movement wasn’t an issue in the rounds prior though. Why was it such an issue now? Please reference the following description of the heat and be learned.
It was so hot that, if I breathed on myself, the air that was hitting my skin seemed to burn. Mind you, this was processed air. Absorbing all this heat, it was all I could do to regulate my breathing and drink lightly from the cup of available oxygen. Sadly, all it took was a bit of movement to disrupt my tee-totaling. Rearranging my legs, I was off the wagon. The movement was just too much. I needed more air.
Mind panicking, I tried to get back to my slow rhythmic breathing. However, the air wasn’t there. I was suffocating in the pitch-blackness of a light-less dome, no further than 6 inches away from the person sitting next to me. I made it one or two minutes before I turned to collapse.
Now Leonard, vetted expert in the ways of all things hot and domed, had anticipated possible instances like this, where those under his care might be dying, and had previously made mention of the following idea; that the point where the dome contacts the ground – on it’s outside edge – is in fact the coolest point in the lodge and perhaps a good place to seek out air that actually carries some density if one should have a problem.
Cue John, crumpled on the ground, with his face as close as possible to the edge of the dome. Lying on my side, the only way I could breath was to suspend my head on my two fists so as to breath without exerting any unneeded effort.
Therein, my thoughts began to wander. My grandmother, a half blood Sioux – or perhaps it was my mother – told me a story of how my grandmother had once seen a wolf on a hill behind her school when she was a girl. She turned and ran without anything happening. This story had little bearing on me until my moment on the floor in the sweat lodge. I walked in fields. I walked to the rise of a hill. I looked down and saw a girl. I was the wolf.
Delirious thoughts like these came and went. Perhaps I was influenced by the spirituality of the Native Americans as presented by Leonard during the experience. Perhaps my brain was becoming like the brain of the cliched “dog in the car.” In any event, after struggling to find breaths for what seemed like an eternity, the round ended. The tarp was pulled back, allowing the cold, fresh air from outside in.
I was lying on my back at that point, on the ground of the lodge, when Leonard asked: “How do you feel?”
In the lifetime that passed then, and really in every instance I’ve tried to write about this experience until now, I have examined, and did examine, every possible way to define the peace with which I was overwhelmed in that moment. I couldn’t …and probably still fall short. Any attempt I’ve made to make that moment sound good, or describe its fullness, has always seemed cheap or arrogant. So with this and that, I went, and have gone, with the one comment I knew that could be all encompassing: “I feel nice.”
Saying “nice” gives me a bit of pause, even now, as I think about the implications of my sweat lodge experience – and of using such a small word to describe such a large thing. Normally, I’m want to describe an event as specifically as possible – or at least with the most vibrant and fervent words I can cultivate. However, perhaps sometimes only a small word, with a big meaning, can describe something more. This has become “nice” for me.
I felt nice as I lie there, just reveling in the peace of the pain being over. My body was done. It took me a moment or two to get up and make my way outside; a steamy semi-dead swim-suited hopping hobbled man, emerging to the cold (40F) of wild Alaska like a baby being born.
Rain was falling. My eyes didn’t tell me this, but once perched on a nearby log, my body did. Each little misty drop felt important as it splashed down. Each exploded outward from its point of impact and it seemed the world was dancing on my skin.
Handed some water, I had a benevolent “shining” moment. You know the one from the movie; where blood just pours out of the elevators and drenches everything around it.
Well imagine if you can, the awareness and feeling which drinking cold water, after almost dying via meditative sauna, provided. I felt this normal stuff, of which everyone partakes of daily, flood my mouth, then my throat and then my stomach with a crisp calm life. When the water hit my stomach, I felt it absorb. Then I felt it’s gentle rejuvenating coolness travel into my blood stream and then rifle out to my arms, legs, hands, feet, fingers and toes.
Looking up, the land around us was in peace. Trees and mountains were still. And in the sky, up above, were 6 bald eagles circling.
Other bird omens I’ve been privy to will now be listed for want of continuity and proof of spiritual overtones:
- On the National Mall in Washington DC, for the dedication of the Native American Museum, a legitimate circle of blue sky cut from the surrounding clouds, dotted only with the vision of one or two eagles flying overhead.
- Meditating on a tree stump, in the midst of doing some training for a volunteer position – an Eagle flies up and lands in the tree overlooking me.
- Attending a Pow Wow in Anadarko, Oklahoma with my mom, circles of people sat around a fire singing and beating drums, an Owl flies over everyone and lands in a tree directly behind the fire, reverently hushing the crowd.
However, I don’t want to digress too much, so back to my sweat-lodge…
I had suffered and the eagles were circling overhead. The raindrop showers and water rejuvenations were complete. Our rounds were done. The sweat lodge was over. I was born again. We went home.
Two days later I was in my bathtub.
Yes, I hadn’t immediately showered after the sweat lodge because …I just smelled too good. For it seems that the ritual burning of incense over rocks was included in the price of my suffering. This gives the dome a nice wholesome smell as agony is gently ushered in at the hands of wet-heat. Consequently, I left this smell of spiritual enlightenment to permeate in the time after… and I was not keen on hastening its dissipation via shower.
So yes; finally sitting in my bathtub getting clean, I was recalling the beauty of almost dying in darkness, then being reborn, when I started thinking about going to the gym with my buddy Tim. I had promised him I would call to set up a time. Two seconds later, I hear the phone ring. Then there are steps trudging up to the door of the bathroom. Finally my housemate Angie knocks on the door and says “Tim’s on the phone. He wants to know when you can go to the gym.”
Hmmmm, that’s weird.
“Sure that’s cool” I say, and it’s back to bath day-dreaming about other things, sychronicity averted. However, another thought soon popped into my head; specifically that I should call my first love, Karen, whom I was still in contact with at the time. Again, but perhaps 3 to 5 seconds later this time round, I hear the phone ring, steps trudge up to the door of the bathroom and finally my housemate Angie say “Karen’s on the phone for you.”
Synchronicity no longer averted.
Imagined thought proceeding physical reality really does have a way of resonating. Consequently, these two phone calls were, and have been, all the evidence I’ve ever needed. Proof that I experienced something larger in that sweat lodge; lying on a bunch of cold dirt-covered rocks in Alaska, gasping for breath in the midst of the hottest environs I have ever experienced.
It sounds like what a fish might describe when talking about the sensation of having just been pulled from the water. It’s new, it’s super different, and you can’t breathe. It’s not having breath under these circumstances that helps one to learn the existence of a tangibly different life, whatever that means.
My learning was instigated under the pretense of suffering for others, as a sweat-lodge baked my body down to its basic level. There, enduring the pain of “Sunny’s round,” I made my way from one understanding to another. A “Fight Club” type of forced change, in a dome, as it were.