Ben is stoking the fire for Chief Reuben’s sweat lodge, on theÂ Tsleil Waututh reservation on the Burrard Inlet. He places another log onto the big fire over the grandfather stones and I ask him, so…how intense is this sweat, usually…like, on a scale of 1 to 10?
In the gap between my question and his answer my mind flips to the habit of deciding my preference: do I want it gentle or tough? How tough do I want it? Oh god i hope it doesn’t hurt. I hope it’s not too wimpy. I hope I don’t die. How do I hope it will be?… As if somehow what I decide to hope for will influence what actually happens.Â And I laugh, as I so often do, at the silly games my mind plays. What I would prefer is totally irrelevant. What a waste of mental energy! It will be how it is, and when the heat starts to rise I will see how it feels.
Ben shrugs. It varies, he says. Sometimes really gentle, sometimes really tough. Good enough. All my relations, and into the hole.
Ben passes the grandfathers through the doorway one by one, each glowing rock ushered in with prayers and medicinal herbs. Chief Reuben gives a little dharma discourse and the heat starts to rise, every hiss of water on the stones cranking up the heat. A six-month-old baby is welcomed to her first sweat, then handed to her waiting mama outside the door when she starts to wail. The real sweating starts and we sing and pray, round after round. I find myself davening, rocking back and forth as my grandfather did when he drew the blue and white tallis over his head in prayer. An elder speaks of Kinder Morgan and the men who would sink a massive oil pipeline 30 feet under her ancestral land, killing the fish and the clams and the birds. She prays that they will awaken, that they will change their minds. She prays for her people to be brave, vowing: I will stand my ground. I will not let them pass.
Women and men cry and wail in the darkness to the beat of the drum. They call out for healing and for the strength to forgive their oppressors and abusers. A third round of stones comes through the door in dedication to gratitude. I am brought so low to the cool cool earth, to hear these people testify to the power of gratitude; these who have been so brutally used and so nearly decimated and yet over and over they offer gifts and give thanks. Gratitude rises up in me, flows out through my pores. When I start to number my own mentors and teachers and benefactors and helpers I can’t stop counting. The air burns in my nose and I sip in slowly, unsure between sips whether I can take one more breath. This one might be my last. Nope, still alive…maybe this one. My noisy mind falls to silence as I sink into the mystery of pain, every cel body throbbing heat. To be welcomed into this lodge, to be given this life, to be breathing this fire – what a miracle! What gratitude, how wonderful, how – owwwwww! Yes.
All my relations! OPEN THE DOOR. It is done. I crawl out of the lodge and lie in the long wet grass, looking up past the tall trees, past the Chevron refinery glowing on the inlet’s far shore, up and up to the sky.