Meaning in Nothing

Jacquelyn Weddell

Indigenous Religious Traditions

Bruce Coriell

Meaning in Nothing

Some believe there are boundaries between personal experience and academic analysis. The two exist in contrast: an interaction negates the meaning of the other. This, however, seems contradictory. It is the interaction between personal and scholarly work that creates clarity and a better understanding of an experience. Academic analysis of religious and sacred experiences do not need to exist as opposing forces. My personal experience at Pine Ridge combined with Jonathan Smith’s essay, Imagining Religion, allows for a complete understanding of the sacred.

For four nights, we participated in sweat lodges. Before sweating, Mike Senior said to concentrate on prayer to overcome physical discomfort. Through the scorching heat and intense darkness, I concentrated on a single simple prayer. “Dear Lord, I pray for guidance.” I chanted rhythmically to the drumbeat. I said this prayer over and over night after night. Each night I left the sweat lodges refreshed in body, but my mind was still restless.

On the final night, we attended a Yuwipi. Although our destination was Little Mike’s basement, it was clear we were entering a sacred place. This may not be a traditionally sacred place, but it embodies a space of clarification. Jonathan Smith discusses the importance of place in religion in his article The Bare Facts of Ritual. He suggests a temple serves as a focus for religious activity. It marks the point between significant and insignificance. “When one enters a temple, one enters a marked-off space in which, at least in principal, nothing is accidental; everything, at least potentially, is of significance. The temple serves as a focusing lens, marking and revealing significance.” [1] In this instance, Little Mike’s basement was the temple for our ceremony, the Yuwipi. The room was transformed from a cement walled cold chamber to a, purposeful place, full of possibility.

We entered the temple and sat in a circle. Jalen turned the light off and the room fell completely silent. I simultaneously felt an explosion of stimulus and under stimulus. The lack of light caused me to have a greater sense of awareness. Although this was unique to me, Smith suggests this atmosphere is common. “[The temple] is a place where as in all forms of communication, static and noise (the accidental) are decreased so the exchange of information can be increased.”[2] He may have not been thinking of Little Mike’s basement when writing this description. However, his description remains true for even the least traditional temple. The darkness and silence created a sense of stillness that encouraged reflection and communication with the spirits. I felt as though my body was transparent and the spirits could see into my soul. I felt similar to how I have felt in other spiritual centers, even though this was my first Yuwipi.

The purpose of the Yuwipi was to communicate with the spirits. Smith remarks that the sacred place serves as a place where man and gods can communicate. The temple breaks down barriers and man and gods are transparent to one another.[3] I felt that the spirits communicated directly with me. Throughout the Yuwipi, I continued my prayer that I had prayed for the previous four nights. “Dear Lord, I pray for guidance. Dear Lord, I pray for guidance.” All of the sudden a word “forgiveness” transcended from the darkness and landed on my heart. My body, which had been tense up until this point, immediately relaxed. A calm feeling overcame my mind for the first time in a long time. In complete darkness, I smiled knowing there was a light in my heart. I knew what I had to do. When I returned to school, I asked for the forgiveness I have needed. The spirits answered my prayer for guidance.

In reality, forgiveness is not very good advice nor is it guidance. This vague word encompasses much of the problems in life. One either needs to ask for forgiveness from another, or needs to forgive himself. This advice could have easily been in a fortune cookie. However, this word was not delivered after a greasy meal, but instead during an intense ceremony in a sacred place. For this reason, its meaning was more powerful. Smith suggests, “The ordinary becomes significant, becomes sacred simply by being there. It becomes sacred by having our attention directed to it in a special way.”[4] For me this is true. My world was turned upside down because of a large mistake I made. It seems the obvious answer to my problem would be forgiveness, but this did not come to me despite how much I pleaded for help. Instead, only in the context of the ceremony in a sacred place was I given guidance. Meaning lies within. The ordinary suddenly had meaning due to the location and my situation.  The word forgiveness could have entered everyone’s hearts and had a different reaction for everyone. However, it only has meaning to me because I am the one who gave it meaning.

Through Smith’s analysis, I am able to study my experience in a more educated manner. Reading an article stating that what I experienced is not unique does not negate my experience. It instead makes it more powerful. I had never participated in a sweat or a Yuwipi. Rather than being skeptical of what I experienced because it was my first time, I am instead confident that I experienced something true. There is need for both academic and personal analysis. The two together create a stronger interpretation. Relying on either exclusively creates unnecessary limits to understanding the sacred.


[1] Smith, Jonathan Z. “Imagining Religion.” Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism (n.d.): n. pag. 54 The University of Chicago Press. Web.

[2] Smith, Jonathan Z. “Imagining Religion.” Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism (n.d.): n. pag. 54 The University of Chicago Press. Web.

[3] Smith, Jonathan Z. “Imagining Religion.” Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism (n.d.): n. pag. 54 The University of Chicago Press. Web.

[4] Smith, Jonathan Z. “Imagining Religion.” Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism (n.d.): n. pag. 55 The University of Chicago Press. Web.

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