Heart Technology—The Native American Sweat Lodge

By Emery Vaillant

When we think of technology, we usually think of brand new machines— computers, cars, guns—stuff that is shiny and expensive and powerful. Modern medicine. Virtual reality. High tech. These phrases get us hot and bothered, eager to reach for our wallets. Or, perhaps, frightened, ready to run. The word ‘technology’ inspires awe of the new and scorn for the past and, in its glare, we easily forget where we came from. Too often we forget that today’s technology is the child of yesterday’s clunker, that the long slow path to the laser beam began with a stone hammer. In the same vein, when we talk about technology, we are usually talking about what the mind can do, especially the left brain: what can be quantified, prioritized, controlled, profited from. The words ‘heart’ and ‘technology’ rarely appear in the same sentence or even on the same page. In fact, in most rooms where technology is discussed, and certainly in the rooms where it is developed, there is no place for ‘heart’ at all.

Although few people would choose Paleolithic tools over modern gadgetry, there was a wisdom in the stones that we have lost sight of in our rush for the latest device. Some would say it is no accident that the main ingredient in silicon chips is sand, very small stones, and, of course, all steel comes from iron ore, i.e., rocks. Just the same, “stone age” is a term almost universally used in our society to denote what is primitive and undesirable, and rarely do we remember that without our stone-using forebears there would be no us. Their mastery of technology, their knowledge of skills to manipulate the world around them, opened the door for agriculture, mining, medicine, all the technology of the twenty-first century. Every time we push a button, our rock grinding ancestors smile and say, “We knew we were on to something.”

My own introduction to these ancestors came when I was seventeen and traveling by bicycle in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. I met an old man along the road who asked if I’d ever heard of the Standing Stones of Callanish. When I said I hadn’t, he raised an eyebrow and whispered, “Four thousand years ago there were men far wiser than we are today. We may have computers now, but they had the standing stones.” He explained how the stones were used to track the stars and determine times for planting and seasonal ceremonies. He told me that the Callanish circle was second only to Stonehenge and gave me directions to it. I reached the site later that day and made my way to the center of a perfect double ring of standing stones, each between six and eight feet tall. As the sun set over the Atlantic, the silhouettes of the stones darkened and grew until I sat surrounded by a circle of hooded figures. I knew I was in the presence of power, yet I had no idea how to communicate with it.

Fast forward twenty years. I am talking on the phone with a friend from Utah and she suddenly says, “Either you can come and do sweat lodge with me or I can come there. But you have to understand—if I come to you, I will have to teach you to lead sweats.” Just as with the old man in the Hebrides, I had no idea what she talking about. I didn’t even know what a sweat lodge looked like. But, later that day, sitting under an old apple tree in the meadow behind my house, the future site of my first lodge, I once again had the sensation of being in the presence of power and, this time, someone was offering to teach me how to speak with it.

The technology of sweat lodge is simple. Cut twenty or thirty saplings, preferably willow, no thicker than your thumb. Stick a dozen of them in the ground in a circle ten feet wide. Bend them in until they meet and tie them together. Picture a small round wigwam, maybe four feet high. Cover the saplings with skins or blankets. Dig a hole in the center of the space. Gather twenty eight rocks, each the size of two fists, and heat them in a fire until they are red hot. Carry the rocks into the lodge and place them in the hole. Pour water on them. That’s it for hardware. For software, you have songs and prayers. The purpose of this technology is to purify the participants. However, unlike much modern technology, which primarily serves to manipulate the physical world, sweat lodge purifies both physically and spiritually. In a sense ‘spiritual’ here corresponds to the ‘virtual’ domain of computers. Both technologies provide portals to worlds which cannot be grasped by human hands.

My friend, who apprenticed to medicine people of the Apache and Ute tribes, taught me the technology of sweat lodge four years ago and the stones have been teaching me ever since. The first great teaching is what I call the lie of the eye. In our modern world, we are taught to revere information provided by the traditional five senses, especially what we can see “with our own two eyes.” The expression “prove it” usually requires some kind of visual information. By contrast, it is pitch black in the sweat lodge. You can’t see anything. Whether your eyes are wide open or tight shut, the same images dance in your mind. The only way to see is with your inner eye or your heart.

Sitting in the darkness, I hear the flap of the lodge pulled back. The flash of firelight bursts in and, one by one, seven glowing orange rocks slide across the earth floor. Once in the hole, they crackle and glimmer. Faces appear. A snake’s head. A crow. The leader welcomes the ‘Grandfathers,’ as the stones are called, and thanks them for making the earth which feeds us, thanks them for sacrificing themselves to warm us, to make us new. She then thanks the trees which provided the wood to heat the Grandfathers: “For you too are our ancestors, for do you not make the air we breathe, the houses which shelter us, do not your leaves go to make the soil from which spring the plants and animals who feed us?” She then pours water onto the Grandfathers. The stones whisper and sing in reply.

Steam fills the space, hot and wet in my face, thick in my lungs. People murmur, some with pleasure, some with anticipation. The leader’s drum rumbles and the song to the East begins. Just as rocks and wood become living beings in the lodge, so do the directions. As the Inuit poet wrote, “Everything that is is alive!” This song honors the gifts of the East: Dawn, new beginnings, the eagle with his clear far-seeing vision. With the third and fourth dippers of water, the glow of the rocks disappears into darkness and I cannot see my hand in front of my face. The blackness goes on forever. I might as well be floating in space. But unlike the night sky we look up into, this darkness is above, behind, within me. Am I looking into the farthest reaches of the cosmos or am I peering into myself? The man beside me begins to pray. His mother is dying and this son is asking for help, praying to the spirits of birth to aid the one who gave birth to him. He begins to cry and others snuffle and murmur in response. Soon we are telling each other, some of us complete strangers until this moment, all kinds of heart truths. In this darkness, we are one.

This heart technology was once common place across the northern latitudes around the world. On this continent, many tribes had a sweat lodge and everyone knew what it was for. The womb of the earth, many called it, a place to go to be reborn. And truly, when you see those stones glow red, like a new-made mountain or the earth’s core, you are in the presence of the Beginning. Across North America, people entered the lodge before any major undertaking— vision quest, expedition of war, healing session, hunting trip. The lodge made you clean, ready to begin new things. And not just in America. The Scandinavian sauna is a sanitized remnant of the sacred Viking sweat house. Before they were suppressed by Christian missionaries, these sweat houses were used by shamans and midwives alike to cross the threshold between lives and to help others do the same.

The origins of sweat lodge are lost in time. There is no copyright or patent. It certainly goes back before Neolithic times, predating Stonehenge and Callanish. It is found wherever it gets cold. I was told in a dream that sweat lodge was invented when a man spilled soup on the lodge fire one winter night. An exasperating accident became a deeply pleasurable experience when the resulting steam worked its way into his aching joints. He tried it again without the meat and soon was hailed as a wise man in his tribe. In another dream, I was told sweat lodge was a gift from Bear. Who better to teach the mystery of going into the earth in winter, seemingly to die, but in truth to be reborn? Who better to teach the mysteries of medicine dreaming in darkness? And sure enough, if we look across the planet, lodge is found wherever bears are found. Where bears have been driven into extinction, Northern Europe for example, sweat lodge has been eradicated, and where bears are returning, as in the Taconic Mountains, so too is the lodge.

We are in the third round now, honoring the spirits of the West. The sweat leader is praying to Bear, guardian of the West, thanking her for the gift of dreams, for sheltering those things inside each of us that lie just below the surface, waiting to spring forth. I am entirely covered with sweat, but at the same time I feel no beginning or end to my body. A woman across from me tells of her longing to write songs and shares the words of one recently inspired: “Peacefulness in front of us/ Beauty all around/ Love and light above our heads/ And sacred is the ground.” One by one, we join in and as we learn the words, the song grows until it is pouring out of each of us. Our voices swirl and meld in the darkness. Two women find a harmony and soon overtones are spilling out of the blending of our voices, the strands of sound both filling my chest and suspending me in this thick, rich blackness. Now we are holding hands, the energy running through our fingers, pouring out of our mouths. The words we sing are words no longer, but something much larger, holding us, making it possible for us to exist. In the lodge, we become one heart.

A great debt is owed to the First People of this continent for preserving the heart technology of sweat lodge. Our European ancestors, not content with having driven earth medicine practices into extinction in their homelands, came here and began to eradicate them. When four centuries of genocide failed to eliminate Native traditions here, they were outlawed. Conducting sweat lodge was a violation of federal law for almost half of the last century. In spite of such overwhelming opposition, the medicine people of many tribes across this continent struggled heroically to preserve their knowledge, conducting the ceremonies in secret at risk of imprisonment. Now this hidden knowledge is once more returning to the light and provides medicine for the children of both the conquered and the conquerors. I do not know how this debt can be repaid. I know only that I am on my knees in gratitude and that is why I charge no money for the monthly sweats I offer. As the stones teach me, the deepest gift of lodge lies in the giving.

We live in a time where our way of life, driven by ever more complex technology, cuts us off increasingly from the earth which sustains us. We spend over ninety percent of our time indoors, sitting at desks or behind computer screens, watching TV, driving cars. The seasons have become something to complain about or protect against with oil heat or air conditioning. Seen with the heart, our Western way of living resembles a child who sells his mother’s body for toys, who spits and defecates on his father. This child has forgotten his family. This child is blind. We need a miracle to cure this child and, I believe, technology can help provide this miracle, but it must be of the heart. Clearly, sweat lodge is not the only form of such technology. Drumming, labyrinths, Reiki, and many others exist to awaken us from our machine sleep, to help us recognize that we are linked to everyone and everything by invisible strands of spirit. The challenge facing us in this new millennium is to combine technologies of mind and heart so we can still make use of our Western knowledge and yet have each instant of that use imbued with compassion. This is what the stones tell me.

Emery Vaillant leads sweat lodges and vision quests in Shaftsbury, Vermont. Together with his wife, Tracey, he is co-creator of Spirit Hollow, a center for shamanism and spiritual ecology where they live and conduct private healing sessions, trainings, weddings, and seasonal ceremonies. Emery can be reached at 802-447-3895 or by e-mail at spiritho@together.net.

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