Rivers pour off me as if I’m in the shower, but my own pores fuel this deluge. My lungs strain to wring oxygen from murky air thick with sweat and smoke. My eyes squint to discern the faintest outline of my many companions. My folded limbs ache, constrained in this cramped enclosure, the roof so low not even a toddler could stand. The stench excreted by the mass of half-naked bodies, jam-packed in this Hades encased in black plastic, adds a repugnant je ne sais quoi. Every survival instinct in my psyche urges me to flee this suffocating space tended by a madman muttering over red-hot rocks.
How could I have ever believed such misery would lead to my spiritual awakening? Only one person crouches between me and the escape hatch. She’s small and I think I can take her.
The events that brought me here flash before my burning eyes, like the “Life Review” of any near-death experience.
“Come to retreat,” my teacher had said.
“Go to the desert in the summer?” I had scoffed. “I can’t take the heat.”
“You can,” she had said.
“But I shouldn’t spend the money,” I had protested.
“Go,” my husband had encouraged.
“But I have young children and a store to tend.”
“I’ll help,” my mother had offered.
“But I don’t want to go alone.” I had pouted.
Then my friend Mary Frances said she’d run away with me.
And so we did.
All the way here, I’d been sure I’d made a terrible mistake. Until, that is, we left the airport and the interstate behind, and the expanse of red rocks lured me like a soak in a sudsy, warm bath. We cranked up the Ganesha mantra music, chanted 108 times to clear obstacles, and soared into Sedona. A bevy of beauties cheered our arrival, and I surrendered my remaining resistance.
Armed with all the water I could carry, I survived the day hike in the desert heat. I relinquished all self-restraint and writhed and whirled to the drumming of Sara Eaglewoman. Sure that I had no sweat left to give, I willed myself to the sweat lodge this morning. Where all my resolve evaporated like a bead of sweat in this arid heat.
“I’m terrified. I can’t do this,” I whispered, my face blanched white, and crumpled to the ground before I fainted.
“You’re here on Purpose,” my teacher soothed.
“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. . . ” I moaned, rocking.
“Well, I MUST sit by the door,” I implored. I hung back as the brave souls before me crawled into the womb-like space, disappearing like ants into soldiering into an ant hill. I crept in last . . and then moved over one space to accommodate the only soul more visibly shaken than I.
It’s a consideration I now regret. My heart pounds as it did when my first labor pains began, fearing the great unknown yet to come.
Just as I’m wondering if I’ll ever see my babies again, my neighbor, the small one, bolts out the door. My heart leaps, as my smoldering mind processes the miracle. But before I can work free my cramped-up limbs, a hand emerges from the tangle of bodies before me and presses my knee.
“Stay,” commands my teacher. I hesitate, and the fire tenderer outside the lodge seals the flap before I can make my move. Groaning, I sidle closer to the exit. Just in case. A wisp of cool(er) air wafts over me, and I realize that I’m fine. I’m going to live.
That first experience in a sweat lodge—and that one-word command—keep coming back to me lately. Reading the Daily Deluge of Bad News for Life on Earth inspires the same sort of panic of that sweat lodge provoked. Opening more native lands and national treasures to drilling, mining, forest clearing. Rolling back standards essential to clean air, water, wildlife, food. Repealing restrictions on access to firearms for mentally-ill citizens. Such heartless irresponsibility in the face of mass extinctions, global CO2 topping 400ppm, warming oceans, polluted drinking water and mass shootings, I cannot comprehend.
The arrival of my 18-year-old son’s notice from Selective Service—at a time when the Commander-in-Chief toys with war-making—leaves me shaking, weeping, and gasping for air as I was that day in the sweat lodge. It all feels like too much to bear, and I want to flee, sink into the bottom of a vat of wine or plug my ears and rock. And then I feel my teacher’s hand on my knee, and I hear her voice.
So I unclench my jaw, chant a few “this too shall pass” mantras, and get back to work. Doing what I can, when I can. And entrusting the rest to everyone else who is working to effect positive change. I remind myself just how many of us have been inspired to greater contribution by threats to all that we hold dear. Perhaps that is the greatest gift of the heat and pressure of these disturbing times.
I still keep my seat by the door where the occasional whiff of cool air seeps in. Read something uplifting every day. Steep in deep meditation. Envision the more compassionate world I want to help manifest. Admire the intricacies of nature when I walk. Journal out the venom, the fury, and frustration. Watch a video of otters holding hands when all seems lost. And hug my loved ones every chance I get. Savor every breath of cool air.
Turns out, my teacher was right. I can take the heat. I’m here to STAY.