Spring Sweat Lodge and Medicine Wheel Ceremony
Sevenoaks Retreat Center
March 21, 2017
My partner, Don Harvey, and I recently conducted a Spring Sweat Lodge at Sevenoaks as an opening ritual for day-long equinox ceremonies and workshops at the Sevenoaks Retreat Center in Madison, VA. The theme for the day’s gathering was “Ancient Wisdom for Our Time” and featured a Medicine Wheel Ceremony in the late afternoon, led by Susan Thesenga, co-founder of Sevenoaks.
The sweat lodge is an ancient Native American ritual that we have been enacting at Sevenoaks for over three decades. It allows for deep, intensive physical and emotional purification within a context of prayer, reverence for the Earth, and the formation of a healing community.
A medicine wheel is a sacred alignment of large stones in a circle, with the largest “Earth Stone” in the center, with other large stones serving as direction indicators — a kind of sacred compass, with additional aspects of a sacred calendar. The medicine wheel serves as a ceremonial ground for guided, intuitive unfoldings of wisdom and energy within co-created ritual.
When performed together, the ceremonies can work synergistically to maximize inner awareness and healing.
I’d driven down to the Center in central Virginia from my home in the DC area the day before to help out with the preparations. As I drove, the sun fell behind the clouds around mid-day and I could feel my spirits start to wilt from all the dire news being reported on the radio. I decided to turn it off, and sing some of the songs and chants that I would be leading in the lodge the next day. Singing for an hour or so as I drove definitely lifted me and I arrived at the Center inspired to get to work.
As it turned out, the Center grounds manager, Alex Comer, had just completed his last preparatory task for the lodge, splitting a large pile of dried pine, cedar, and locust logs for the lodge fire the next day. Alex shared the work status with me before leaving for the day. I unloaded my overnight things into my assigned room in the large Center Building and proceeded outdoors for the short walk down through the pine woods to the ceremonial lodge site, overlooking a pond at the bottom of a wooded hill. I like to spend some time before conducting a sweat lodge within the subtle but real vibratory presence of the physical space: the woods, the pond, the lodge itself, its earth altar, and fire pit enclosed by three decades of spent rocks from previous lodge ceremonies here.
As I descended towards the pond, I was taken with the clear vistas opened by Alex’s recent landscaping project there. Removal of many dead trees and bushes had opened the view to the pond. The impression was like seeing an old friend with a fresh, flattering haircut.
The whole lodge site felt similarly open and fresh. The sun had re-emerged from the clouds and even the usually murky pond waters seemed to sparkle. Alex had reinforced some of the cedar poles of the main lodge and covered the whole with clean blankets and a new white canvas. The freshly cut wood was neatly stacked near the fire pit. I felt light and happy as I gathered kindling for the lodge fire, raked the lodge interior, and exterior pathways, and hung a new earth flag that my spouse had lent me for the ceremony. I was able to hang it at eye level from two saplings standing just behind the fire pit to the east of the lodge. When I finished my tasks, I proceeded to conduct a sacred pipe ceremony within the lodge itself, with its door opening to the lovely blue earth flag. The tobacco smoke from the pipe helped to open my heart and mind to the beauty of this sacred place.
My partner Don arrived late that evening and we had breakfast together in the Center dining room the next morning before setting out to work around 8am. We loaded a cart with everything we needed: gallon water jugs, bag of fruit, towels, lodge-door, hand drums, and our own gear, consisting mostly of sacred objects and herbs used in the ritual. As we hauled the cart through the parking area to the footpath down to the lodge site, a car pulled in and I checked in with the driver. He was indeed here for the sweat lodge and eagerly joined us.
Laying the Fire
It was still lightly overcast and the ground was wet from a light rain overnight. But it looked to be clearing and the temperature was already in the mid-40’s, with a predicted high of 65 for this first day of Spring. It was good having the new man join us in guiding the heavy cart down the narrow, twisting footpath through the pine woods. He had just driven over the Blue Ridge from Harrisonburg to be with us for his first sweat lodge and his enthusiasm was palpable.
Conducting a sweat lodge is about a 6-hour affair, starting with about three hours for laying, lighting and tending a bonfire sufficient to bake about two dozen large stones to a red glow. The ceremony inside the lodge lasts about two hours. And the dismantling and closing communal meal is another hour.
But the work is all performed within ceremonial time, rather than by the clock. Our first order of business on arriving at the lodge site was to burn sage and smudge the site, and ourselves, within its purifying smoke. The new man knew about smudging and entered into a calm, relaxed presence with Don and me as we consciously cleansed ourselves, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, for the work ahead.
We then turned our attention to laying the fire, and carefully placed a platform of six logs to support the stones. Three new women joined us as we turned to the stone pile. Don proceeded to smudge the women and we each selected a head-sized stone to lay on the platform within the fire pit. One of the women placed the Mother stone in the center of the platform, and the rest of us placed stones for the East, South, West and North around the Mother stone. The Father stone was laid as a capstone for the essential template that grounds the energy of the stones within the fire.
We then placed the remaining eighteen stones on the platform, surrounding and on top of the six template stones. Each of the additional stones was consciously offered and placed, with the naming of a desired quality or spiritual force. In the lore of the lodge, each stone represents a “Tunkashila” or Grandfather Spirit, which is activated as it is heated. The heated stones carry the energy of the fire into the lodge, where that searing heat can be tempered to serve the real needs of human beings for physical healing and spiritual renewal.
As this process continued in a deliberate manner, more people kept arriving at our ceremonial site and Don would go over to greet and smudge them. The ritual washing in the smoke of burning herbs, like sage, is intended to encourage each entering person to step into an awareness of common commitment to what is sacred and holy on this Earth. Sage, in particular, has a sharp, cleansing quality that can help penetrate any psychic defenses.
After the 24 stones were laid, we proceeded to place the kindling branches and sticks around the platform in a teepee shape, stuffing newspaper in between the sticks and the stones. All 10 or so of us, men and women, joined in on this task, and followed it with laying the split logs all around the base, and then in a second vertical layer on top of the first. Aesthetics matter in all sacred ceremonies, and we worked together to create a satisfyingly symmetrical teepee of stones, wood and paper.
New people continued to arrive as we invited everyone to form a circle around the fire pit. I sent a pouch of tobacco around the circle and invited everyone to take a pinch of it. We then proceeded, one at a time, to each offer a prayer of intention with our tobacco, sprinkling it on the wood-and-paper teepee. Intention is the key to benefiting from any conscious ritual. As each person spoke from the heart to affirm their reason for being there, I sensed a current of common spirit and purpose forming within our human circle.
With this initial prayer circle completed, Don came forward to begin lighting the fire, using a paper-torch to ignite flames in each of the four directions. The fire began to rise rapidly all around the circumference. I’d begun a slow drumbeat and others joined in with other drums and rattles. As the inner kindling and paper quickly ignited, we offered the first of many sacred chants together:
Oh, Great Spirit,
Earth, Sun, Sky and Sea,
You are inside
And all around me.
Inner and Outer Preparation
It takes about two hours to bake the stones to a glowing red. It can be a rich time for all participants. We encourage an ongoing drumbeat throughout, and sometimes a lively drum-and-dance circle is formed, with anyone free to lead chants and songs, or to move around the fire pit with simple dance-steps.
This can also be a good time to walk in the woods, to meditate or pray, or to converse consciously (not just chatting) with other participants. I’ve learned from doing this work that, after some initial unease, most people enjoy free time outdoors, unplugged from their phones and daily responsibilities. Learning how to just “be” in the natural world is a worthwhile practice in its own right, helping us to calm our nervous systems, bringing our focus back to simple presence.
As a “water pourer” for the lodge, I have some additional tasks to attend to during this time. These include readying the lodge structure itself, and ensuring the close proximity of water, bucket, ladle, and herbs. In damp weather like today’s, I prefer to line the earthen floor of the lodge with cardboard, tarps, or some combination of both. I’m also responsible for attaching a sleeping-bag-door to the only entrance, in the East. On a good day, like this one, there are many offers to help and we make quick work of it.
The last thing I like to do before we all enter the lodge is to call everyone into a big circle in the wide-open, adjacent beach area of the pond. Although the announced start time was 8:30, people have been arriving throughout the morning and the group as a whole hasn’t had a chance to congeal. We start with a round of first names, with the whole group echoing back each person’s name.
I know from experience that it can be a physical challenge for many of us to just sit for two hours within a confined space. It can really help if we allow ourselves lots of full-range bodily movements beforehand. All the Pathwork Helpers at Sevenoaks get training to lead movement classes, and I call on that training, and on my fellow Helpers in attendance, to lead the group through some grounding, bending and stretching exercises.
I also lead a simple “trust circle” in which all 18 of us take hands in a circle. I then invite everyone to take a step back. This creates a tension within the connecting hands and arms that allows each person to lean slightly backwards, supporting and being supported by the people on either side. I invite people to experiment with more or less tension, more or less leaning back, paying attention to sensations of both supporting and being supported. This usually becomes fun and playful. It also can induce feelings of both active participation and surrendering to the group.
The sun emerged through the clouds and I encourage everyone to turn and face “our star” on this day of Equinox. I invite an arms-raised posture to really receive the light and warmth from this magnificent celestial furnace, and to express a “sun salutation” in whatever physical form felt right.
I thank everyone for coming to the sweat lodge this morning and encourage everyone to stay on for the aftternoon Medicine Wheel. About a third of the participants are here for their first lodge, and I invite the new people to bring their full attention to their experience, with a minimum of pre-conceptions or expectations.
Don and I communicate that there will be four rounds to today’s lodge ceremony, each round with a theme. At the end of each round, the door would be opened and drinking water would be circulated. If anyone needed to exit the lodge, it was best to do it between rounds. T-shirts and shorts were the prescribed attire for this lodge. Women would enter first, by order of age, to occupy the north side of the lodge. Men would enter next, by age, and occupy the south hemisphere. I noted the native practice of honoring the Elders by allowing them first entry into the lodge. We wished everyone a good sweat and prepared to enter.
Round One — The Powers of Creation
As “water pourer”, I enter the lodge first, on hands and knees, putting head to ground at the entrance and offering the prescribed Lakota prayer for entering and leaving: “Mitakuye Oyasin”, translated as “All My Relations” or, “We Are All Related”. I circle to the left around the central stonepit of the lodge as the women follow, arriving at the other side of the door, where I sit and shake my rattle at a slow, deliberate beat as people continue to enter.
I learned the protocols for the “All Nations Sweat Lodge” during a five-year informal apprenticeship I served some 25 years ago. My teacher had a connection with a Lakota “Uncle” who had authorized use of the “All Nations” lodge by serious-minded non-native people. Tradition and lineage are still important to me. Following the prescribed forms helps me to stay grounded within an awareness of the Native American traditions that sweat lodge comes from.
After everyone has entered, I communicate with the two “firekeepers”, a woman and a man who have volunteered to stay outside, to begin bringing in hot stones, one at a time, on a pitchfork. One firekeeper digs out a hot stone from the base of the fire and the other uses some lashed-together cedar boughs to brush off any ash residue. Each stone is greeted with a “Welcome healing stone” as it is brought in and as I guide the pitchfork over the stonepit, depositing the first stone in its center. This is the “Mother Stone”, representing Earth herself, the foundation of the lodge ceremony.
Additional stones are brought in, continuing with the four direction stones, and the Wakan Tanka (“Great Spirit”) capstone. Each stone is blessed with sacred herbs as it is placed in the pit, sweetgrass first, followed by sage, cedar or other appropriate herbs. The sweet aroma of the burning sweetgrass and other herbs soon fills the lodge.
With the stones forming a glowing presence in the center now, I request the water bucket and dipper from a firekeeper and ask that the door be closed. It’s a special moment when the door falls over the opening, enclosing us in a warm, dark, moist environment that is intended to evoke a feeling of our mother’s womb.
The first round of the All Nation’s Lodge brings our attention to the ongoing creative forces of the universe as expressed in the Lakota “Wakan Tanka”, which can be translated as “Great Spirit”, “Great Mystery”, “Creator”, “Divine Source”. A translation that resonates most profoundly with me is “Great Spirit-ing”, acknowledging the ongoing activation of the Creator.
As I pour small amounts of water onto the hot stones from my dipper, heat and steam rise in the lodge and I invite everyone to take in “Grandfather’s Breath”, the healing energy of the stone-people. It’s important to orient oneself to the healing properties of the heat and steam and to welcome its penetrating and softening energy within any stiff, hard places of body or mind.
I’ve learned over the years that the experience within the sweat lodge is often enhanced by deep and regular breathing. After a period of silence in which we simply take in our new environment, I lead the circle in a deep breathing exercise in which everyone is encouraged to inhale deeply and vocalize an “Ahhh” on the exhale. This is repeated four times until the “Ahhh” begins to modulate to a more harmonious sounding of voices. Then I invite an ongoing sounding of the sacred sound “Om”.
“Om” originates in ancient Sanskrit and is the sound of creation in Tibetan Buddhism. I encourage a visualization of the moment preceding the Big Bang, when all the creative potential of the universe was gathering itself. I encourage people to allow their voices to express fully and openly with their “Om”, allowing the natural and spontaneous harmonies that inevitably occur. In that spring equinox lodge, I experienced our Om-ing as a series of energetic waves emerging, growing, climaxing, and subsiding. The co-creation of this deeply resonant chanting never fails to fill me with awe and wonder.
Physics teaches that three-dimensional Space-Time emerged out of the supreme unitive compression that preceded the Big Bang. After the Om-ing recedes, I offer an ancient Lakota song of the sacred directions to mirror this primordial movement from One to Many.
The spirit of the Creator, Wakan Tanka, inhabits every nook and cranny of the great unfolding universe, but is seen to manifest as a more focused presence in the four cardinal directions, as the Grandfathers of the West, North, East, South, and in the above and the below.
The Lakota directions song is structured with an invocation to the Grandfather spirit of each direction, inviting its presence within the lodge, followed by a choral singing of love, appreciation, and human longing for the spirit’s presence. The Lakota words and the melody of this chorus are simple and most participants are able to join in:
The Lakota directions song begins by calling in “Wieoh-peyata”, the Grandfather of the West, and all the beings who manifest most strongly in the evening and in the season of autumn. They are the true Elders, the spiritual teachers, the ones who protect and disseminate the ancient ways and teachings of the ancestors.
The song moves to an invocation of “Waziya-takiya”, the Grandfather of the North. The north is the direction of winter, night-time, old age — the looks-within place of expectant waiting and hibernation required to survive a long, cold winter. This Grandfather also guards the pathways between material life and the great beyond, allowing the spirits of the ancestors to communicate with us.
The next invocation is to “Wieoh-iyampata”, Grandfather of the East, guardian of the dawn, of birth, of youth, and of the springtime. Its force is strongest now, on the Spring Equinox, when new ideas, new projects, new relationships, and new beginning of all kinds are most auspicious.
The last of the cardinal directions, South, is called in as the Grandfather “Itokagata”, the guardian spirit of the fullness of summer, noontime, adult maturity. The South is the time of fullness, power, and vitality, the time when plants grow to their fullness and adult humans tend to their loved ones and their work, building and nurturing what the family and community most need to sustain themselves.
The song then turns to what is above us, the firmament of the heavens, the place of the Creator, the essence of the Divine Masculine. The Grandfather “Waka-takiya” is called to bring his creativity and energy and light to all the participants in the lodge.
Finally, the song acknowledges “Maka-takiya”, Grandmother Earth, the very ground on which we sit. The essence of the Divine Feminine is the holding container of love and nurturing that planet Earth offers all her creatures. The chorus changes here to acknowledge the Mother’s ongoing presence as the bearer and sustainer of all life on Earth.
Water is poured on the hot stones with each of the six directional invocations. By the end of the song, we are all sweating, and we rest in silence for a while before opening the circle to some personal prayers and a closing song. As the round ends, the firekeepers are called to open the door. Fresh air flows in to cool the lodge, drinking water is circulated, and people can exit as needed.
Round Two — “We Are All Related”
The essence of Native American spirituality rests in its lived appreciation of the intrinsic inter-relatedness of all creatures. This spirit is expressed in the Lakota mantra “Mitakuye Oyasin”, which is the theme for our second round.
My partner Don pours water for this one. Don is a retired Forest Ranger who served in the nearby Shenandoah National Park maintaining hiking trails for much of his career. His knowledge and love of the natural world is readily apparent. After more stones are brought in and the door comes down, he invites us to settle into our own personal connection with the natural world.
He then invites us to connect in spirit with a wild animal that we feel a connection with; to visualize that creature in its natural environment, moving about, making its sound. After a bit, he suggests that we mimic the sound of our creature. Soon a chorus of animal soundings are expressed: growls, barks, cooing, buzzing, howls, cries. I remember the owl soundings I heard in the woods the day before and try to mimic those throaty hoots. In doing so, I come to connect with the raptor fierceness of the owl as it shares important hunting information with its mates. As the soundings recede, Don leads us in a song of the hawk:
Trailing my long-tail feathers as I fly
Trailing my long-tail feathers as I fly
I circle around, I circle around
The boundaries of the Earth.
Grandmother/Mother Earth is the matriarch of the great family of earthly creatures, holding all of us in acceptance and blessing and love for the essential role each of us plays in the ecology of the planet. The rest of the round is a paean to the Earth’s love for us and ours for her, expressed in traditional lodge songs.
The Earth is our Mother
Let us learn how to love Her
And all of Her creatures
Are our sisters and brothers
I love you, Mother Earth
Mother Earth, I love you
The Earth is our Mother
We must take care of her
This sacred ground we walk upon
With every step we take
Don’s own love and appreciation for Mother Earth is freely and openly expressed throughout this round. I am personally moved by his sincere expressions of devotion and love, to the point of his unabashed tears and sobs as the door is opened to end the round.
Roun Three — Personal Prayer
In the “All Nations” lodge, the third round is a prayer circle. Every spiritual path teaches that a true servant of God must find an inner channel to communicate directly with his or her Higher Power. This inner channel must be given regular time and space to manifest. I offer an opening prayer/song that helps to open this channel for me:
Oh Father I pray for tenderness
Oh, Father I pray for the love.
I pray for the awareness
Of my inner worth.
I open up my heart
To receive you, Father,
To know the holy Light
So I can see.
We go around our lodge circle sun-wise (clockwise), each person beginning with:
This is _______.
The person then offers a prayer, silently or aloud, concluding it with “We are all related”, with the rest of the circle repeating it. Water is offered to the stones and the resulting steam carries the spirit of the prayer to its intended Source.
The prayers are sincere and deep that morning, eliciting support and tears from many of us. To close the round, we sing some verses from a traditional hymn:
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch
I once was lost
But now am found,
But now I see.
When we’ve been here
Ten thousand years
As the sun.
We’ve no less days
To sing God’s praise
We first begun.
Round Four — The Way
The fourth and last round is meant to be an affirmation of the Way, the sacred path. The intention is to encourage participants to engrave their spiritual experience into memory and to develop some daily practice to help keep that memory alive and active.
My sweat lodge teacher was also a student of the Tao. He incorporated some teachings from the classic Chinese text by Lao Tze, the “Tao Te Ching” (“The Way of Things”), into the last round of the All Nations lodge. One of those teachings is:
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
This round is usually hot and short. All the remaining stones from the fire are brought in. At our spring lodge, almost everyone had stayed inside for the duration. I was especially impressed with the stamina and commitment of the 6 neophytes.
In this round I invite people to share from their own spiritual path or practice. My friend Keith shared a Sufi chant designed to open the heart to the reality of Allah. Someone on a yoga path shares a sacred Hindu chant, in the tradition of Kirtan. Some people go deeper with the prayer they started in the previous round.
As we approach the end of the ceremony, we thank each other for our presence and participation, thank the firekeepers and water pourers, thank the spirits of the directions, the Creator, and Mother Earth, thank the founders and the current leaders of Sevenoaks, thank the custodian of the lodge and medicine wheel. In gratitude we affirm our work together as we exit the lodge, clockwise again, and climb out the opening into the warm rays of the full, mid-day sun.
Breaking Bread Together
It’s traditional for participants to share in a potluck meal after a sweat lodge. Don and I had prepared a large pot of chili con carne and a big salad. Other participants brought hearty sandwiches, cheeses, fruit and snacks. Food always tastes wonderful after a lodge, and the familiar faces from the ceremony can evoke a real feeling of family.
On this day, other people were arriving at the Center for the 3:30 Medicine Wheel ceremony. Registration was in the dining hall, and there was much mixing of friends, old and new. Many of the lodge participants were staying on, and I was looking forward to a shower and a brief rest before the ceremony.
Spring Medicine Wheel Ceremony
Susan Thesenga, a founder and matriarch of Sevenoaks, spoke to the 25 or so of us assembled in the parking area. She welcomed and thanked us for joining her in her ongoing meditative and ceremonial work with the Sevenoaks Medicine Wheel, located at the top of a rise in the woods, beyond the pond and above the sweat lodges. The sun was still shining, full and warm, and people were removing jackets and sweaters. Our group consisted of women and men of all ages, including two children, and a service dog. Susan invited us to walk in silence, single-file through the quarter-mile of woods to the ceremonial site, with a slow drumbeat sounding throughout.
At an open area near the pond, Susan had us stop and circle up again. She said that part of the ceremony today involved each person finding a stick or twig that would represent some aspect of themselves that they were ready to let go of. She urged us to take some time to identify a negative aspect of our thinking or behavior that we were already moving towards letting go of. There were many sticks and twigs in the place we were standing and most of us found our object right there.
At the entrance to the Wheel, we stopped for a ritual smudging ceremony, similar to what we had conducted as people arrived at the sweat lodge early that morning. Susan had enlisted other Sevenoaks leaders to assist her and they performed the smudging. In addition, other helpers had prepared an outdoor firepot where we were invited to surrender the twig representing our imperfection. A slow, steady drumbeat was held throughout, grounding the ceremony in sacred time.
Spring Equinox and the Direction East
The Sevenoaks Medicine Wheel is set in an open, partially shaded area of woodland above the pond. It was a lovely sight to behold on that first afternoon of Spring, the grass closely mowed and raked and the pathways clearly delineated around the circle, and connecting the direction stones with the center. Wooden benches occupied the southern and northern ends, but our ceremony was conducted mostly with everyone standing, and often moving slowly around the circle. The sun was dropping lower towards the west, but its rays still warmed us, and a slight breeze carried fresh smells and coolness from the surrounding woods.
Susan suggested that we walk meditatively around the circle a number of times. The metal firepot was ablaze with the burning wood at that point, placed on the Earth stone in the center. Walking in silence, I was able to reflect more deeply on my personal “give-away” to that fire — a tendency towards impatience and unconscious hurrying. The quiet repose of this place, coming after the emotional release of the lodge experience, was opening an internal sense of peace and ease and genuine bliss.
Susan stopped at the East stone and spoke some about the Wheel and how it can be used to re-orient ourselves to the ever-changing currents of life, external and internal. She pointed out the cardinal direction stones and linked them to phases in the movement of a day, a month, a year, and to entire stages of life: birth, childhood, youth, young adulthood, middle age, old age, decline and death. I thought back to the Lakota directions song we had sung in the lodge, and dropped to a deeper level of appreciation of these teachings that Susan expounded on so eloquently.
Susan ended her talk with a reflection on the meaning of Spring as a time of rebirth, renewal, and resurrection. As the natural world came to life all around us, with the first flowering of crocus, daffodil, forsythia, and with the budding and first flowering of trees, cherry, redbud, crabapple, the sap of the life-force was rising again. She encouraged us to consciously allow our own sap to rise again, to shake off the hibernation of winter, and allow the newness and freshness of the green life all around us to inspire our souls to venture forth into the world once more with hope and possibility.
Driving home that evening through a magnificent dusk, I was filled with a sense of gratitude and peace and of new possibilities. The “Ancient Wisdom” of spring advertised in the event’s flyer had truly infiltrated my psyche. I felt the great privilege of being an Elder now in my own right, serving the ancestors and all the sacred teachers and teachings of our rich, eclectic heritage to re-consecrate ourselves to what is most holy and most precious on this our earth-walk.
Aho Mitakuye Oyasin!