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Sweat Lodge Expert Answers Important Questions: Indigenous, Interfaith and New Age

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Since the horrible tragedy involving the deaths and more than 20 injuries relating to a sweat lodge at a James Ray retreat in October of 2009, I have been contacted widely for commentary and education about sweat lodges and ceremonial steam baths. I continue to get questions by email and from the media and so I am posting here my answers to some of the more common and critical questions. You can read my answers and come to your own conclusions. If you know someone who has been hurt by a lodge or has fears about lodges and you think I can be of support, they are welcome to contact me through my website jonathanellerby.com.

What went wrong at the James Ray event?

Having not been there, nor had a chance to meet or interview witnesses or James Ray, there is really no way for me to be able to know for certain what when wrong. I don't know what tradition of Lodge James Ray was trained in and I don't know how long he has been running these lodges. I also don't know enough about the other events during the retreat that may have been even bigger factors in the deaths. All I can say is that there were many elements of the process that he led them through that appear, from the outside, to be extremely unusual from the perspective of a person who has been involved in wilderness fasting and ceremonial steam baths for over 20 years.

How did you become an expert on Sweat Lodges?

First off, I don't call myself and expert on Sweat Lodges. The media calls me that because according to western standards I have all the qualities of an expert: I have been personally involved in nearly a thousand sweat lodges for over 20 years, I have participated in a wide number of cultural variations of lodges, including in Mexico, South Africa and Zimbabwe. As a part of my graduate work in Comparative Religion I have studied the history and anthropological literature on ceremonial steam baths in cultures around the world. And, I was "recognized" by an established Native American community and mentor as being "qualified" to run Lodges about 6 years ago.

I run two types of Lodges, a traditional Lakota Inipi, which I only do with and for my own Native American extended family and friends (not for non-Native people and never for a fee), and I run an interfaith form of Lodge which is similar to a Native American Lodge, but is also distinctly separate and draws on my training in African Lodges and as an Interfaith minister. The interfaith lodge I run is for all people of all cultures and is not a simple copy of a Native American Lodge.

Who is an expert on lodges and what are the qualifications?

In the traditional cultures of the world, lodge leaders were usually either healers, recognized and well established spiritual leaders, or people who had been recognized by the community, tribe or a mentor as having been properly prepared and trained. Training and preparation just to run a lodge takes years. For me it took more than a decade of helping, training, learning, watching, and experiencing before I was even close to ready accepting such a responsibility. This is all in addition to my training as a chaplain, counselor, and interfaith minister.

My mentor always reminded me of the dangers of being too ambitious spiritually or trying to rush into matters of energy and spirit. He would remind me, "The power in a Lodge is not yours. You are just the facilitator, the helper. You are there to serve the people."

Being able to run a lodge, however, still does not qualify a person as an expert. In the traditional cultures of the world where lodges are still common, such as in Latin America, Africa and Native America, the title of "expert" is not easily given and is usually reserved for people of advanced years. Because a lodge is viewed as something so complex and spiritually rich, it would seem naïve to suggest that anyone would really ever know everything there is to know. It's different every time.

Are all sweat lodges based in Native American culture?

No. Native American sweat lodges are the most common and the original form of ceremonial steam bath in the United States and Canada, but there were ancient forms of lodges in Latin America, Africa, Greece, Turkey, Rome, Japan, Russian, Finland and likely other places I am not aware of. The use of a small setting of steam and darkness for physical and spiritual purification and mental clarity is a global tradition and as far as anyone can tell, its timeless.

Most sweat lodges in America today are Native lodges or are based on Native styles of lodges. There certainly are non-Native lodges and interfaith lodges.

Should non-Native people run lodges?

No and yes. (Generally) I personally do not think or feel that non-Native people should run Native lodges. Too many Native traditions have been borrowed and stolen from Native Peoples only to be misused, sold or poorly conducted. These are very powerful and culturally sacred practices and it's a deep act of disrespect just to "copy" the practices of another tradition. You wouldn't see a group of Native people pretending to be able to read Hebrew or making up fake Hebrew sounding songs in a building they called a synagogue. It's absurd. Worse, Native people have been the victims of cultural appropriation and attack for 500 years. To take without permission, training or blessing is just an insult.

However, yes, I do think that ceremonial steam baths have something to offer all people and if done well, a non-Native "sweat lodge" for non-Native people can be a very important, healing and beautiful thing. Just as its absurd to "pretend' to run a Catholic mass if you aren't catholic, it's also absurd to tell people that they cannot or should not pray in groups, sing devotional songs, or meditate together. There are basic spiritual practice elements that are universal. The practices are universal - the culture of the practice is not. In fact, I think we need more properly trained and respectfully conducted Interfaith lodges. This way we'll have less people stealing Native tradition, or getting hurt doing things from other cultures. That's why I am always willing to train non-Native people to run a non-Native lodge (if they have the right character and intent).

What is the goal of a Lodge?

There is rarely a single goal to any lodge and there can be many reasons why a person goes to a lodge. Generally speaking lodges are places of purification, renewing inner strength, learning about one's self, emotional release, centering the mind and connecting with God and the spiritual world. Some lodges are more about connecting with the spiritual world and some are more about healing the ills of the participants. Some are like a church service and some are like a 12 step meeting. What they all have in common if uplifting and empowering the people that attend. In my experience they are not meant to be endurance contests. Native American spiritual leaders have told be time and time again that such an approach is missing the whole point. I have been told "If you are really working with spiritual power, you don't need physical force to make people have an experience. It's not the heat, it's the Spirit that heals."

What is the role of the Lodge leader?

I suppose this varies from lodge to lodge, but in my opinion, the common role of lodge leaders is to act as a facilitator connecting participants to the natural healing powers of the ceremony. The lodge leader is responsible for every facet of the ceremony. Even if they delegate duties, the lodge leader still holds the seat of accountability for the type of stones used, the lodge frame, the fire, the heat and the health of the participants. From the time the lodge is called to the time it ends, the lodge leader is spiritually connected to that ceremony. I believe the lodge leader must act like a loving parent or grandparent for the participants. Yes, they can test and challenge the attendees, but they must also love them, respect them and ultimately seek their highest good.

How long does a lodge last?

This also varies from culture to culture and place to place, but it is common for the time in the lodge to last from about 2 to 3 hours. This includes breaks between rounds, which can be as long as they need to be. In some cultures people leave between rounds and in other cultures people don't. Water is often given during one of the breaks.

What are rounds and what is normal?

A round refers to one period of time in which the lodge door is closed and the people are in ceremony ion the heat, dark and steam. After a period of time, typically 10 to 20 minutes, the round ends and the door is opened to let fresh air in. It is also a time when people can express their needs to the lodge leader. The breaks can be a time of rest, teaching or even humor. 4 rounds are most common in the American lodges. Between rounds new hot stones are usually brought in.

What materials are normally used to build a lodge?

Usually the materials are as natural as possible: tree branch frames, wool blankets, cotton canvas tarps. In some cultures they are made of clay or stone. Plastic tarps are less common, but not unheard of. There are usually culturally specific teachings behind the selection of materials. Safety and spiritual significance are always key factors.

Are lodges safe?

I have absolutely no doubt that lodges are safe. Some lodge facilitators or settings might not be safe, but lodges have been around in cultures around the world and for thousands of years because they are safe. Remember, they are meant to health promoting. They are not an extreme sport or macho endurance test - they are sacred healing environments.

What are the risks?

A lodge can be unsafe for people with pre-existing medical conditions that would have contraindications for heat, steam, dark spaces or sitting for prolonged periods. For such people a spa steam room or a closet might also be unsafe.

A lodge can become unsafe if used poorly, much like a church can promote help and healing in the world of hatred and violence. A priest can offer guidance and wisdom and yet abuse and sexual assault are not uncommon stories. We have to separate the tradition from those who abuse it.
If a lodge leader turns a lodge into an oven or an asphyxiation chamber of course it can be dangerous, but at that point, to me, it ceases to be a ceremonial steam bath or sweat lodge.

Why should someone attend a lodge?

People attend lodges for many reasons; emotional release, spiritual connection, personal growth, physical/emotional/mental healing, dealing with change, dealing with loss, celebrating change or success, grieving, inner strength, invigoration, spiritual fellowship and community, emotional nurturing, prayers for specific help, quieting the mind, opening the heart, physical detoxification, feeling gratitude, and much much more.

How do you know if you are going to a safe lodge or an experienced leader?

It should not be difficult to ask about the history of your lodge leader's experience. Many will be happy to personally tell you about their history of training and experience. If you ask a Native leader be sure to ask with humility and even offer a small gift as a sign of your respect. You are not asking to challenge them, but to understand better what you are participating in. If you cannot ask them directly, there should be several people associated with the lodge leader who could tell you his or her history of training and experience. The different answers you get from different people should be consistent. If you feel like the credibility is not there, the answers are vague and you can't get clear answers from past participants, you probably need to move on, or attend one once as a helper on the outside.
What if you are in a lodge and you really think it's not for you or you don't feel well.

First ask for help and guidance. If you don't get the support you need - leave. If you are shamed or pressured in a ways that feels uncomfortable, leave quickly. That is a sure sign of a leader without kindness, self-awareness, or your health in mind. It is not a setting you need to be in. If you are a spiritual seeker, remember your first relationship is with God, the Spiritual World and your Self - not the lodge leader.

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