How I found sisterhood in a sweat lodge

 

 

Heating stones for ‘sweat bath’ in Supa. Circa 1924. Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection

It’s a work day and after blowing off a meeting, I drive out of town where lantana rambles on the road’s edge. The first sign of smoke comes from a fire started at daybreak on a flat terrace. I stop by a Balinese-esque building and walk through wooden doors, stepping into another world.

Though it’s Thursday, a group of women have managed to claw some precious time to come together for a “sweat.” My first, and I’m feeling intrigued with a mixture of reverence and rebellion about a daytime meeting when I could be taking care of other duties.

We change into sarongs, the only clothing we will be wearing for the next few hours. I look around at the other women—a yoga teacher from the city, and a Spanish mum of three young kids down from the coast “who’s not sure why she’s come, but she has,” and other faces I’ve met before briefly. We sit and gather in a comforting circle.

Laurel, our Shamanic facilitator opens the ceremony with her flute. We each pick up an instrument laid out on the floor and begin to drum a beat. A tune forms quickly, energetic and curious.

After a light safety induction, we walk in silence toward a domed structure lined with thick canvas. Think of an igloo with a flat top, willow saplings holding up its walls. We pick mugwort and set intentions for what we wish to get clarity on during our sweat.

Native American cultures have used sweat lodges as a sacred ceremony for purification, however, there is evidence of other indigenous cultures practising similar rituals. It symbolises a kind of birth, death, and rebirth, much like a snake shedding its skin.

I crawl through the small opening, the sand surprisingly cool under my palms. The air is stale and so different from the vibrant wind whipping the tarpaulin outside. In single file, I find my place opposite the door. Our firekeeper, a practical lady called Luna brings the hot rocks known as the Stone People and places them into the pit. Sweetgrass incense sizzles when thrown on top. The four directions are noted. I realise I am due north, the place of moving into and through difficulty. I puff out my chest trying for courage and endurance as I feel stirrings of nausea.

It is very dark, and I can’t see anyone next to me. We take turns acknowledging ancestors and sharing sorrows. I am unsure who is speaking, nor remembering what is said—it is like a long trail of emu footprints across a desert. My back screams from lack of yogic fitness or just plain revolt. I feel the pull to lie down and surrender. Blackish sand marks my forehead as I curl up like I’m inside my mother again.

We welcome the last round of rocks mottled black and red as the older rocks cool dark. Drinking water is shared around the circle. I slurp hungrily out of my hands; forgetting to wash the sand off, I get grit in my mouth. I don’t care, I’m saved by its sweet relief. Gratitude rushes over me—I have never been this thirsty and lucky.

Photo credit: Valerie Everett

As the drum beats slow, Laurel begins to walk us safely home. We all lay together on the sand. I feel a hand reach for mine that awakens vague alarm, but I don’t pull away. Firmly our fingers close around each other and love washes over me. We stay like this until the end of the ceremony when the daylight pierces us from the door.

Michelle, the yoga teacher, swore she heard the prompt to hold hands inside the lodge though no one else did. But by reaching out her hand, the Spanish mum uncertain about being touched after a rocky start to life, felt her heart burst out of her chest. I also felt touched deeply by sisterhood and how we are never alone, no matter how hard it can get.

A Lakotan saying, “Mitakuye Oyasin,” which is loosely translated as “all my relations,” meaning all plants, animals, minerals, and humans are interconnected. This philosophy sits snug with me as I emerge feeling lighter, clearer and profoundly quieter.

As I retreat back into my routine, I feel more gratitude for my sparky family and thankful for a clean shower and a yummy salad. I may not see Michelle or my other sisters again though I hope I do,  I’m left feeling connected and realise by reaching out to others we can lessen any feelings we may have of loneliness or isolation.

This piece was featured on Elephant Journal

Learning to Love

Life is sometimes murky. Not always perky.

This content may be depressing for readers. Read on at your own discretion.

This content may be depressing for readers. Read on at your own discretion.

I get this zipped up feeling in my belly and my head cogs get stuck on sticky tape when I hear the word depression.

It’s like being at a party and you put your foot in it, the saliva dripping off your toes. There’s that pause, shuffling feet moment .That’s what depression can feel like….awkward, anxious, uncomfortable.

And what sucks ball is that it isn’t easy to laugh.

There is nothing better than just after you’ve shoved your foot in it, by stating your dislike for someone or something (not realising the familial connection) they agree with you or were playing you… and there’s that raucous release as everyone recovers. And usually a closer connection has been made. Humour being the best bloody medicine.

Well it can be hard ..

To get out of one’s head.
It’s often easier to get off one’s face.

I’ve spent most of the last decade riding the roller coaster that is becoming a parent. The new level of responsibility that dawned on me when I first held my little prince. And from the moment I was taken back to the maternity ward, and spent that sleepless, exhilarating first night alert and buzzing with disbelief and happiness that this holy baby was ours.  I felt so much and slept so little. And questioned what I did and was I doing it right? And what if he got left to cry, and I didn’t want that so I remain forever vigilant. On duty. Poised for action.

And all this responsibility. Giving and responsibility. Two things that a parent is expected to do into eternity. And sometimes you just don’t feel it, or have it or feel overwhelmed by it.

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My shoulders grew wide balancing the dumb bells, scared to look up in case they fell and snapped my neck. So I ploughed on trying to keep busy in case stopping meant they fell. I sought help in the conventional avenues. Shopped at therapy world. Became a Eastern medicine consumer. Regular dives in chlorinated waters connecting with my inner dolphin. All of which have helped and remain in a tool bag. I haven’t taken medication but it is another useful tool to get out of a rut.

At first, I basically didn’t want to hear anything about depression. What good can come of dwelling on it by talking about it. I grew up in a family that bloody well got on with it. No point in talking about something that doesn’t exist.

You’re a “Wilson” and we’re Aussie Battlers.  Herefords with thick hides.

One can live or half live trapped in a man size zipper, your throat choked, even if a smile is plastered on your face. You can see the beautiful people in your life. It’s like having a curiosity cabinet full of quirky, artistic trinkets and beauty right in front of you, but it ‘s behind glass. And you, fogging up the glass wanting to reach out and embrace them but can’t. And the more the word can’t is parried around, mostly silently to yourself, your feelings of self doubt and failure grow in the quiet, dark places.

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It is hard to understand this unless you actually been there. And if you’re there, it’s not an easy place to even recognise.

You feel like a cold fish in a warm pond.  And knuckles white like Santa’s beard. And you’re wishing for Christmas to come and maybe with enough wishing and hoping, they’ll all come at once to jumpstart you into action.

Coming to Cambodia was part of this action- fulfilling a long held dream and a fresh canvas. In many ways it is providing a space for self reflection (as you can read!). A space I expected to fill with giving and volunteering and thinking about others. As an antidote to depression, giving to others helps. It does. When I am with the kids at work, I feel joy. I get cuddles and smiles, contagious ointment for my mossy soul. But then the old feelings arise again, I head for the fridge to soothe my fears. I eat fast, trying to choke down feelings of inadequacy.

It is such a waste. If only….if only I could snap out of it. And there are daily moments I do, seeing a bubbly cloud in the sky and a flash of warmth in a smile. Hearing the kids call ‘hello’ as they wave and run behind my bicycle. I am very lucky to be here in Cambodia. And that gratitude has a positive effect.

 

The concentration of lego sessions- 13 kids joined us last week

the concentration of lego sessions- 13 kids joined in last week

I see I have a responsibility to admit to myself (and now to the world) that yes. It is real and it follows one wherever they go. So no more denial. It is a process of learning to breathe through the uncomfortable feelings when they come. Often by slowing down rather than speeding up.

And finally learning to love, truly love myself and the darker side of the moon moments. Because the fighting, running and hating only fuels rather than forgives.

My friend who has battled the black dog for many years once told me, ‘You have to work on yourself.’ No one else can do it for you. And you have to stop and look at the pain, embrace it, love it and from there, you can begin to let it go and move on.

Thanks for listening dear friends.