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A Fire Tender’s Lesson, Part 1 – Surrender and the Sweat Lodge

A Fire Tender’s Lesson, Part 1 – Surrender and the Sweat Lodge

“Will we see you at Sundance this year?”

The words took me by surprise. I had neither anticipated nor sought them out. As I stammered “Uh, well, uh…sure” in response, I had a rush of fear because I knew that this was not a question or a request, it was a directive. And the directive was not from this man called Godfrey; it was from Spirit.

About a month and a half earlier, in 1990, after a ten-year involvement in various Twelve-Step programs based on Alcoholics Anonymous, I had come to an unusual realization. For the first time in my life, I found myself expressing a desire to have a Teacher that would help facilitate my spiritual path.

I was never one to follow anyone in my life. I knew that “following” wasn’t what it all was about. I had no idea what such a Teacher would look like. I simply longed to be able to sit at the feet of someone of flesh and blood for a change who could perhaps model what a well-rounded relationship with Spirit was, perhaps just talk to me about such things…who knew? The gist of it was that I was tired of having my spirituality so deep inside me that it had no form.

Within two weeks of expressing that intention in my prayers, I was at a local coffee shop and saw a makeshift poster announcing a “Cannunpa (Cha-nupa) Ceremony,” a ceremony with the Sacred Pipe by a Lakota family, who was in town. With no particular investment, I went to the address, only to find that it was at the home of a friend.

I found myself in a circle with about twenty people, and quietly watched the proceedings. Curious. The family was named Chips; a mother and her three sons, with a couple of assistants. It was all very simple. The eldest brother, Charles, led the ceremony after talking a little bit about their lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He said nothing at all astounding or earth-shaking, and I suppose what I appreciated most was that he seemed very aware, and happy to be alive.

He said they were there doing healing ceremonies for the sick, that they had been invited, or “sponsored” by a local family, with whom they would be staying for a month or so. He spoke of the Yuwipi ceremony where Spirit comes through his younger brother, Godfrey, and directs the people seeking healing. Through Yuwipi, Spirit tells them what they need to do in order to restore their health.

Having been involved in conventional medicine for sixteen years, and having had my own deeply Spiritual experiences with life and death, I was more than curious; I was determined to be a part of what they had to offer. In my typical way, after we had all prayed and shared the Pipe and most of the attendees had left, I lingered and queried as to what it would take to be a part of a ceremony. Of course I thought I might be able to step right in, and of course what I found was that such sacred things are not spectator sports.

After a couple of weeks of maintaining contact with my friends–and, embarrassed as I am about it, lobbying to be a part–I was told that the family would be asked if I could attend an Inipi, better known as a purification or sweat lodge. I was told that there, Godfrey would “know my heart” and only then would I be invited to get more involved. Or not.

The Twelve Steps had taught me about surrender, and even with all my enthusiasm, I knew that the best I could do was to open myself up completely to what was happening and leave the rest up to powers greater than myself. So that’s what I did. After a while I was invited to an Inipi, and then another and another, until I did four nights in a row. My world was rocked.

I went through what felt like the successive stages of a human being’s spiritual development. There was little thought during the ceremony itself. In the midst of the ancient songs and drumming and prayers and heat and fear and relief and sweat and pain and expansion, contraction, deaths and rebirths, it felt as if my insides were re-ordered–every part of me. I had been brought from the visceral experience of the first person looking up and perceiving the moon in wonder to the expression of humanity that I was on that fourth day of ceremony in 1990.

Next: Intention in action.