Sweat Lodge Tension: The Ritualized Perfection

Mark Riley

“Ritual is a means of performing the way things ought to be in a conscious tension to the way things are in such a way that this ritualized perfection is recollected in the ordinary, uncontrolled, course of things” (Smith 63).

            For Jonathan Z. Smith, ritual is tension. Tension between what we strive for and what in fact occurs illuminates his ritualistic dichotomy. The sense of an idealized, mystical ceremony indicates that there is some knowledge of an ultimate ritual. Yet this ultimate ritual clashes with what is actually experienced. Or is it really a clash? As Smith notes, the grey space between “the way things ought to be” and the “way things are” is precisely the space in which ritual builds on itself. To be conscious of the grey space – to interpret it and mediate on it – is to uncover the interplay between a sense of the “ought” and the “are”. Perhaps what Smith is saying is that the two do not have to be as separate as they might appear; perhaps, the very relationship that the idealized has with the actual is what makes ritual sacred to human beings.

For Lakota Indians, sweat lodge is a return to the mother’s womb. It is purification, a ‘sweating out’ of unnatural and unwanted forces. Sweat is an intensely personal physical ritual. At the same time, however, it is a community event: participants are seated in a circle and sing in unison. Complete darkness leads to both sensory deprivation and sensory overload. Nothing can be seen, but the pulsating drums and loud prayer causes the imagination to run wild.

This idea of imagination is a fitting place to peer through the lens of Smith and compare his idea of ritual to the sweat lodge. What is it to imagine in the sweat? On one end of the spectrum, imagining is to let one’s mind wander and become disassociated with prayer. On the other end, imagining could be seen as thoughts infiltrated by the spirits, a natural and inevitable force within the lodge. For Smith, imagining seems to blur the distinction between the “ought” and the “are”. Imagination may constitute the interplay between the two, may be the imperfection in our experience that can be reflected upon and rationalized.

Or is it even more than this? Smith writes, “Ritual represents the creation of a controlled environment where the variables (i.e., the accidents) of ordinary life may be displaced precisely because they are felt to be so overwhelmingly present and powerful” (63). Thus, it seems that the idea of imagination as infiltrated by the spirits is caused by this idea of an “overwhelmingly present and powerful” place. The fact that the sweat lodge is deemed sacred, that it is closed off, that there is a preparation before going in, and that it follows a specific structure indicates that it is not just an ordinary location. Instead, it is something more, and as such, causes us to think and feel with a greater awareness of ourselves.

This greater awareness is precisely what Smith sees as augmenting the energy of ritual. He states, “Ritual gains force where incongruency is perceived and thought about” (63). His ideas seem to allude to some sort of ‘inner-voice’ that is simultaneously experiencing and reflecting on the experience. The voice deals in the ocean between the lands of experiencing firsthand and a concept of what should be experienced.

Smith’s ideas are great to reflect on now that we are back at CC and continuing our scholarly approach to Indigenous Religion. They help to surface this inner-voice and accept it. They help to make sense of an experience that was not as powerful as one might have hoped for. In fact, his contrast between the “ought” and the “are” sheds light on the very idea that there was a dichotomy in the lodge between wanting to experience powerful forces and letting these forces arise within us. An inner-voice seems to be exactly what we are dealing with now. How do we connect our firsthand experience in sweat with scholarly approaches to ritual? This process, as Smith notes, “Requires us to perceive ritual as a human labor, struggling with matters of incongruity. It requires us to question theories which emphasize the ‘fit’ of ritual with some other human system” (57). Thus, it is our job now to explore the ocean, to explore what lies between our experience in sweat and our conception of it today. The two lands will never merge; instead, it is an appreciation and acceptance of the difference that makes sweat lodge even more powerful.

The only shortcoming of this process of exploration is that perhaps sweat and our reaction to it are not simply lands separated by an ocean; perhaps they are universes separated by millions of light-years of space. What did happen in sweat? The firsthand experience seems to lie in such a different realm than anything than can be researched, read, talked about, or sometimes even thought about outside of that lodge. Moreover, Smith’s notion of an “ought” pervading the lodge did not seem to be a factor that increased the force of the ceremony. It seemed instead to be something to avoid. Yes, there was a sense of wanting to make it through all four doors, and even more, to experience the spirits or a revelation or something that did not arise from within. But the inner-voice? It seemed like that was exactly what was sweated out! Through intense prayer, heat, and mindfulness, a Zen-like state could be attained. The state, miraculously, was free of the sensation of an overseer, the voice from within telling me what I should be thinking. In unlocking this chamber and letting go of the voice, I experienced things fully. I was truly a hollow bone – letting air come in and go out without a filter.

And yet, there did seem to be some concept of a middle ground for the Lakota people and their ceremony. Mike Littleboy, Jr. told us, “Our people, the Lakota, we have to talk to the stones and their spirits to reach Wakan Tanka – Great Spirit is too powerful for us to connect with directly.” In this way, the stones can be perceived as what we “are” directly communicating with, and Great Spirit is what we “ought”, or are hoping to get to through this process. The tension between the two is the experience of sweat lodge.

Academic analysis can be a lot less exciting than experiencing firsthand. Academia seems to appeal more to the mind; experience appeals more to the heart. I have had a tough time returning to cognitive, rational processes after the intense spiritual journey that occurred at Pine Ridge. In my life, I hope that I can construct a strong mind, but I know that a stronger heart will always guide me. And that’s exactly what I prefer: a good heart over a good mind.


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