The following is a journal reflection on my time at a recent retreat at the Esalen Institute.
As I sat on the cool damp grass outside the sweat lodge at the Esalen Institute, I prepared to enter this sacred ceremony. I didn’t know what I would discover, but I felt a sense of anticipation of something new being birthed from this ritual for everyone involved.
The ocean waves rolled in and out over the rocks in front of us, and the river water tumbled down the hillside to the side of us. Mac, our firekeeper, tended the burning logs that enveloped the rocks carefully selected for this ceremony. Erica, a medicine woman, stood in front of a low-domed tent covered in heavy canvas. Her long gray hair gently moved in the breeze as she explained the ceremony to us. She conveyed a sense of steadiness and safety.
We began the ritual by each taking some tobacco. I held my handful close to my heart, focusing on my intention to continue to grow and heal myself. I breathed in, praying to access the support of my ancestors and to bless the land. Erica would later throw all of the prayers held in the tobacco into the fire when the ceremony ended. Following her instructions, I walked around the fire before getting down onto my hands and knees to crawl into the sweat lodge. I felt like I was crawling inside a turtle shell.
As I entered the sweat lodge, the earth felt cold and damp under my hands and knees. “Thank goodness the earth is cool, I’m going to need that,” I thought. My fear of not being able to tolerate heat picked up speed. What if I pass out or feel like I’m going to throw up? There are twenty of us nestled into this lodge made around a hollowed-out pit in the earth. It was a tight fit with little room to move. My fear of being crammed in small dark places begins to join in the cacophony of doubt about this whole experience as my throat constricted tighter.
Erica settled into place, “This is a very special sweat lodge that I am honored to be leading because it’s the first one in three years at Esalen,” she explained. “It follows the land acknowledgment ceremony that took place here three days ago in the spot where the Esalen Institute and the Esselen Tribe honored the Esselen ancestors and furthered the ongoing healing and reconciliation work.”
The significance of this moment in time caught my attention and quieted my anxiety.
Mac Murphy, our firekeeper and fourth-generation member of the family who owns the land, announced the arrival of the first molten hot stone. He delivered it at the entrance of the lodge on a pitchfork. At the entrance sat Doug, co-leader of the workshop, who scooped up the glowing rock with antlers and delivered it safely into the carved-out bowl in the center. After seven grandmother rocks were nestled into place, the flap was lowered creating complete darkness with only the red glow of the rocks.
“Here we go,” I thought to myself. “Let’s see how long I last.”
I leaned fully into trusting Erica as she led us through the first round honoring the direction of the East with sage sprinkled onto the rocks followed by prayer and song as the heat in the lodge rose as she poured scoops of water on the rocks. The rocks sizzled and steamed, mimicking the sensations felt within the cells of my body as they purged with sweat. The flap lifted bringing in blessedly cool air and light. Erica announced, “The first baby round is complete!”
“Oh goodness, three more rounds to go. How hot will the last round be?” I thought to myself.
The next round began with the presentation of seven more rocks, fresh from the fire. This time we honored the direction of the South, with a different herb, called Palo Santo, sprinkled on the fire. We shared a prayer for healing and continued with a song sung by Doug from his Māori ancestry. The vibrations traveled down through my spine releasing into the earth as I invited healing into my being. The sweat rolled off my body as steam filled the space again.
The rhythm of the ceremony as we traveled through the directions of the West and then to the North carried me through. My concern about the heat and tight space forgotten. As I crawled out from the womb of the earth, every nook and cranny in my body had been washed through, my face glowed red. The cleanse was completed by a dip in the cool freshwater stream.
I returned to the lodge as Mac, Doug, and Steve, a member of the Esselen tribe, emerged from completing a fifth round. They represented the reconciliation that was taking place between the Esselen tribe, the Esalen Institute, and the Murphy family, the landowners. Seeing the three of them hug at the end filled me with great hope for humanity.