Sweat and Place

When I sat in the sweat lodge I felt safe. I was surrounded by people that cared about me, the heat and humidity pressed over me like a blanket, and the lodge protected me. The song and beat of the drum grounded me, yet the prayer and sense of oneness allowed me to expand into infinity. I was suspended by the creator, and felt no anxiety about my purpose in life. I felt like I understood my place in the world. Thus it comes as no surprise that when I read Segal’s essay on Turner it resonated deeply with my experience.

The sweat lodge is part of a pipe ceremony, and analyzing the lodge portion without keeping the bigger picture in mind runs the risk of loosing context and meaning. However, in analyzing the lodge portion of the ceremony exclusively, we may see how it differs from other pipe ceremonies in function and feeling, and get to the heart of the meaning of what happens during the sweat lodge itself.

As a nonreductionist, Turner asserts that religion and ritual in specific fills an important and universal role of expressing beliefs. He believes that rituals are used to convey information about the role and place people fill in the cosmos and in their society. Ritual is not simply a way to apply beliefs (i.e. please the Gods, cleanse, heal, etc.) but a way in which we pass on our beliefs. Thus the sweat lodge is not simply a ritual in which the beliefs of the Lakota are harnessed to perform healing and give revelation, but a tool to imbue belief upon those partaking in the ceremony. The lodge tells you about spirits, about cosmological order, about society and relations. Information about the history of the Lakota people and their role in today’s world is expressed in the lodge through prayer, song, symbols, and the physical environment.

As I have mentioned, something about being in the lodge gives you place in the universe. It simultaneously makes one feel small and expansive, safe and precarious. People claim to experience connection to everyone in the lodge while also learning things about themselves previously unknown. In the lodge you don’t feel lost, you understand how you are to exist in this world. But it is not that previously held beliefs are applied in a way that allows the ritual to give you a place in the cosmos, but that the ritual itself conveys this place. This is evident in the fact that many of us went into the lodge without the traditional beliefs of the Lakota or any preconceived notions of place resembling those we felt within the lodge. Many things contribute to the ability of the ceremony to give cosmological place. The lodge is small, warm and dark. This womb symbolism and physical setting creates feelings of safety. The heat, sensory deprivation, sensory overload and mystery in the lodge create a sense of expansiveness. Connection with others is fostered through emotional and physical support, shared experience, music, and proximity. The emphasis on prayer allows you to explore the self. All of these factors are what allows the ceremony to convey place and meaning to the participants.

As Turner argues, social place is also transmitted through ritual. Women enter the lodge first and only when they are not menstruating. Young men enter next, followed by singers and the leader, typically an elder. Water is only supposed to be given to the singers in between doors, and only certain people are asked to speak. Children begin to partake in the ceremony as they grow. There are reasons for all of these traditions beyond application of current societal customs, signifying that once again ritual expresses and carries belief rather than acts as a place where it is enacted. Of course it could be argued that despite the fact that the Lakota claim there are religious reasons for why all these customs are enforced, they are simply trying to cover the fact that societal place is enforced in ritual. However, I would argue that the fact that tradition conveys religious reason for the customs is enough, even if it is essentially a cop out, to give ritual the power to express societal place instead of simply having it applied.

An important element of Turners assessment of ritual is that the information conveyed, largely about cosmological and social place, is not simply pragmatic and instructional, but is an end in and of itself. There is existential value in having place. It creates a sense of security and allows humans to live productive and happy lives. This knowledge can be seen as essential to self-actualization, and thus simply coming to develop these beliefs is the purpose of developing these beliefs. Turner would argue that sweat lodge practice with regard to gender is not used to create a patriarchal society (even if it has that effect), but instead a way of giving the men and women a way to relate to each other. The sweat lodge teaches that we have a role to protect our mother creator not because the ceremony has been designed to turn people into environmentalists, but because it gives place and meaning to human life, which is sought after by every person on some level. The existential value of ritual to society is conveyed by Segal when he says “On the one hand society becomes part of the cosmos, which thereby both explains and justifies it. On the other hand the cosmos gets manifested through society, which thereby verifies it.” The same quote could be applied to the individual and their sense of place in the cosmos. Thus we see how ritual conveys information that is not a means for anything beyond itself, the beliefs manifest their value in simply being understood.

There is a reason that Turners theories make sense to me, as someone who has just partaken in the ceremony and developed belief in the ideas conveyed. Turner “interprets religion the way believers purportedly do: as beliefs, as beliefs about the cosmos.” Turners analysis falls short in many of the same ways that first hand experience fails to be a good resource in analysis. It is so involved in the perceived power of ceremony and the sensed inherent value of the ideas conveyed that it is blind to the function religion and ritual undoubtedly plays within a society. Even if the intention of ritual and religion by those that practice it is to gain existential knowledge and comfort, and the beliefs conveyed are able to fulfill those desires, many other things become unintended consequences. Rituals do create social dynamics, as is only natural when it conveys social place. They serve functions beyond intellectual and emotional reconciliation.  They can harness belief and be tools to alleviate cognitive dissonance. Sweat clearly serves many functions for the Lakota people, and when looking at their history religion can hardly be interpreted as simply a tool for passing on belief and giving place. Turner is a good model to make sense of the “moods and motivations” ritual gives participants and how it serves one of its many functions. But it falls short of recognizing many other aspects, many of which may only be seen when religion is viewed through a reductionist lens.

The academic approach taken by many scholars provides much needed perspective, but falls short of an empathetic understanding of the meaning and value of ritual. Likewise, personal experience can place too much inherent value in the ritual, and turn a blind eye to the profane roles it plays. I certainly am grateful for my first hand experience; it has given me perspective and understanding that is essential to my analysis of the sweat lodge. Experiencing rituals first hand allowed me to understand how those who partake in it value the experience and to appreciate the truth in the practice. But it clearly has given me bias, which has made me favor nonreductionist analysis. I am glad that there are people who study the subject from a more removed perspective. There is clearly room for both approaches in the field of religious study, and neither would be able to contain the full picture without the other.

Sam Seiniger (samuel.seiniger@coloradocollege.edu)

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