For the uninitiated and unprepared the first sweat lodge experience can be one of sheer terror. The heart races, the stomach churns, and the lungs strain while searching for fresh air that cannot be found within the blisteringly hot steam-saturated air. The interior of the lodge is pitch black, the air is too damp to allow one to breath through the nose, all one can taste is smoke from the herbs thrown upon the hot rocks, all one can feel is heat, and all one can hear is the sound of drumming and singing. In this state of relative sensory deprivation all one can do is sit, suffer, and pray.
In the Lakota tradition the sweat lodge symbolizes the womb. Entering into the sweat lodge is like entering back into the womb of the earth, and after the ceremony, one leaves the lodge purified and reborn. For those familiar with the Christian tradition the description above may sound like a description of hell, the dark and fiery realm of Lucifer, the inhabitants of which are condemned to eternal suffering. The Lakota image of rebirth fits well with this sweat lodge/ hell comparison, for, like Christ who descended into hell after his crucifixion before his ascension into heaven, an act that attained for mankind forgiveness from its sins, those entering the sweat lodge descend into the earth and reemerge cleansed and purified. However, the point of this essay is not to simply draw comparisons between the Lakota and Christian traditions, but to examine more specifically, through the lens of Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion, the ways in which the sweat lodge ceremony is a response to the problem of suffering that shapes the way we respond to the suffering within our day-to-day lives.
In Geertz’s essay “Religion as a Cultural System” he defines religion as, “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz, 90). What Geertz is claiming with this definition is that religion serves to establish a feedback loop in which our personal experience of how the world is and how religion describes the world as being reinforce each other. Geertz describes our experience of how the world is as our “ethos” and the more overarching religious description of how the world and universe are as our “world-view” (Geertz, 89). It may help to conceptualize the ethos as being how things are and the worldview as how things ought to be. Religion sets is and ought to be up in such a way that they reinforce one another until one’s ethos seems to confirm one’s worldview, and one’s worldview confirms one’s ethos.
A more concrete example of Geertz’s definition in action may help to fully clarify his conception of religion. Imagine that, from a young age, Samuel is taught that it is a good thing to be generous and give to others; in fact, giving to others fills one with joy and satisfaction. Sharing one’s belongings is not something that comes naturally to most boys, but when asked by his friends to share his soccer ball with them one day at recess, Samuel, remembering what he has been taught, reluctantly decides to share. And lo and behold, Samuel does have fun playing soccer with his friends. His act of sharing, in confirmation of what he has been taught, does actually fill him with joy. Samuel’s real life experience, his ethos, confirms the worldview about sharing and generosity that he had been taught. This confirmation serves to strengthen the worldview for Samuel, and as the worldview is strengthened it has a stronger influence on Samuel’s real-world experiences and he continues to find joy in being generous to others, which continues to strengthen his worldview, etc. This example may drastically simplify the relationship as Geertz envisions it, but it is in a similar self-reinforcing feedback loop that Geertz claims religion ties together a particular worldview and our ethos.
Now that the role religion plays for Geertz has been clarified somewhat, the idea of sweat lodge as a response to the problem of suffering can be examined through the lens of Geertz’s definition of religion. Geertz points out that, “As a religious problem, the problem of suffering is, paradoxically, not how to avoid suffering but how to suffer” (Geertz 104). Sweat lodge is not aimed at avoiding suffering, but rather teaches something about the role of suffering and how one should respond to suffering.
One night after sweat lodge, a member of our class asked one of the elders if the ceremony becomes easier over time. “No”, the elder responded, “It gets harder”. This was after our class’ first sweat lodge, and I imagine that this particular student was hoping for some reassurance that future sweat lodges wouldn’t be as much of an ordeal. Thus the student was probably disappointed by the response, but the elder, I think, interpreted the student’s question as referring simply to the physical discomfort induced by the ceremony. The physical discomfort of sweat lodge may perhaps become more pronounced as one grows older, but what I believe (and what my limited experience seemed to confirm) is that as one becomes more experienced with sweat lodge one becomes more adept at handling discomfort and sitting with pain. One learns, as Geertz puts it, “how to suffer”. And so sweat lodge does not teach one how to avoid and escape suffering, but rather how to suffer through it.
In Geertz’s ethos/worldview distinction, the sweat lodge ceremony can be seen as an idealized version of how the world works, how it ought to be. Thus sweat lodge is representative of the Lakota tradition’s worldview. In sweat lodge one is confronted with suffering and discomfort. The response to this is to pray. Mike Little Boy Jr. told us at the beginning of our first sweat lodge, “If it is too hot and you feel like you want to leave, all you can do is pray”. In reality prayer was not the only option, we could simply leave the lodge if the ceremony became too difficult, but when the ceremony is viewed as representing an idealized version of life and how one should live it, Mike Jr.’s words suddenly seem more pertinent. In life one is often confronted with difficult situations that don’t seem to have answers, periods of suffering from which there is no easy escape. It is at these times that, as Mike Jr. points out, all one can do is pray and suffer through it.
And the sweat lodge goes one step further and claims that after a time of suffering one is purified and cleansed. The symbolism of entering the womb at the beginning of the ceremony, suffering during the ceremony, and exiting the womb reborn and purified at the end of the ceremony places suffering in the position of being necessary before the purification and rebirth can happen. There is thus a purpose to suffering. When discussing the problems of suffering and evil, the problems in life that hinder our attempts to create order out of the chaos, that force us to question if there is any meaning or pattern to our existence, Geertz claims that religion responds by creating “the formulation, by means of symbols, of an image of such genuine order of the world which will account for, and even celebrate, the perceived ambiguities, puzzles, and paradoxes in human experience” (Geertz, 108). The sweat lodge ceremony is a symbol, like Geertz claims, that gives order and meaning to the problem of suffering. It frames suffering in a context that allows it to play an important role in our lives. And it is in this way that sweat lodge connects the Lakota worldview with our ethos. It takes the larger abstract teaching of the Lakota tradition and places them within the context of real experience. Participants in sweat lodge suffer and learn to value that suffering, learn to find some kind of reward within the ordeal, and this shapes the way in which one responds to suffering in everyday life outside of the sweat lodge. Like the suffering experienced during the ceremony, one learns to find value and meaning in the suffering experienced within all aspects of life.
Geertz provides no answers as to whether there is any truth in the claims of religion, whether “the moods and motivations” established by religion “seem uniquely realistic” because they are reflections of an actual cosmic truth, or because they manipulate the way in which one sees the world so that one’s experiences only appear to confirm the professed religious worldview. The feedback loop between ethos and worldview that religion sets up places the two in such a relationship that, like the chicken and the egg, it is impossible to know which came first. But examining religion (true or not) in such a way is valuable because it highlights the connection between religion and our daily lives. It takes religion out of a purely intellectual or otherworldly realm and places it within a living and evolving culture—an ethos. Religious experience shapes daily life in the way that the sweat lodge shapes one’s daily response to suffering. Daily life shapes religious experience in the way that one’s experience with suffering shapes the way one responds to it in sweat lodge and the way one interprets the meaning and purpose of sweat lodge. Geertz’s definition of religion allows one, without simplification or understatement, to bridge the gap between our ethos and our worldview, the cosmos and the self, in a way that allows for a living and evolving relationship between the two.