Jake Brodsky, 2014
Sweat lodge challenged my views in many ways: of how I’m living my life, of what something means to be a ceremony, of what it means to worship, pray, and practice religion. It didn’t necessarily provide me with answers to these broad and important questions, but the inception of these thoughts in my head is certainly noteworthy and bound to continue for a long time. And one day, if I ever stumble upon the answers, I will be reminded of the mental clarity I felt during and immediately after sitting in that morbidly hot dome of blankets in Pine Ridge.
One of the most striking components of sweat, I believe, is how subjective it can be. Two people can sit next to each other during the ceremony and have completely different (even opposite) experiences, thoughts, and emotions come up. Likewise, a single person’s experience can vary immensely in different sweats, which I can certainly attest to. My interpretation of this is that the power of sweat comes not from the ritual itself, but from how a person interprets and reacts to different components of the ritual. The ceremony facilitates a person to have a spiritual experience, but the type and extent of the experience is left up to the individual.
However, this isn’t to say that the ritual of sweat is an entirely individual experience. I believe religion is founded in culture, and the ceremonies that make up a religion are also based in a cultural experience. The stories and songs of rituals are a shared experience, and even the format, with singing and drumming, shows a clear cultural component. Ritual, then, works to combine the individual’s experience, which can vary widely, with the reality of a culture that is passed down through generations and is constantly changing. This is similar to Geertz’s theory “that sacred symbols function to synthesize a people’s ethos and their world view,” (Geertz, 89). He refers to both ethos and world view as group processes, but I believe this idea also applies to the synthesis of the individual and the group. He goes on to comment that from religious belief and practice, “a group’s ethos is rendered intellectually reasonable by being shown to represent a way of life ideally adapted to the actual state of affairs the world view describes,” (Geertz, 90) and again, I believe “an individual’s ethos” could replace “a group’s ethos” in this quote when describing ritual. In sweat, the individual is confronted by their own character and morals and forced to question how they fit into society, both ideally and actually.
Geertz’s interpretation of sacred symbols has strong parallels to Smith’s analysis of ritual, which I believe also provides a worthy lens through which one can analyze sweat ceremonies. Smith believes ritual resolves the tension that develops between how people think things ought to be and how things really are. He says that ritual is powerful because of the fact that it is built around ordinary activities that have the potential to reach what is described by the ritual, but that it is also powerful because these potential activities are never fully realized (Smith, 63). This give and take; this understanding that things should be a certain, perfect way but that they aren’t and won’t ever be, is one aspect that Smith uses to characterize ritual. To me, this seems like a different way of phrasing Geertz’s idea that religious symbols synthesize one’s ethos and world view. And, if I may offer my own theory based on the same concept as Geertz and Smith, it would be that ritual allows one to acknowledge the imperfections in the world and oneself so that she/he can make personal decisions about what to focus his/her time and energy on.
These academic attempts at explaining ceremony provide a useful function: they try to describe the feelings, emotions, and experiences of ceremony that are often indescribable and relate these experiences to larger ideas of religion and self. It can be difficult to put into words your own personal experiences with ceremonies because the experience is often so singularly yours. This removes much of the potential for communication, especially with someone who hasn’t participated in the same ceremony. I know that many of us in the class have struggled since returning from Pine Ridge to adequately describe our experiences in the sweat. It’s one thing to talk about what physically happened—it’s easy enough to convey the setting and structure of the sweat ceremony—but to talk about all the emotions you feel and thoughts you process is an entirely different story. Hearing an eloquently laid out academic description of ritual gives scholars and everyday people (i.e., us) the ability to talk about their meaningful experiences in ceremonies. If you were to rely solely on personal experience to interpret a ritual, you might have a harder time relating the experience to larger issues of where that ritual fits into a religion or spiritual practice. Academic analyses of rituals, then, provide useful background information that allows people to understand how that ritual relates to a certain religion and to other rituals.
For the same reason that academic attempts are useful at explaining ceremony, they are also limiting. A major issue is that academic descriptions of ritual are generalized and decontextualized, and context is everything in ritual. If used incorrectly, an academic description of ritual could unintentionally trivialize a specific ceremony or experience by applying broader statements than necessary to the experience. Thus, these academic attempts of explaining ritual may only be useful when talking in general about ceremony. To go into more depth at talking about and analyzing a specific ceremony, one must rely on personal experience and the ability to pick out important details in that experience. Personal experience, then, may challenge academic assessments of ritual in many ways by providing context to the more general assertions of ritual seen in academic writing.
As for myself, my personal experience participating in sweat ceremonies gave me far more information and understanding of that ceremony than reading academic articles about sweat ceremonies or rituals ever could. Sweat ceremonies are a very sensory experience—almost a sensory overload—of heat and noise. Because of this, to really understand the experience of sweat you need to feel these sensory aspects that are a large part of the ritual. Different academic articles talk about the component of suffering in ritual, and that through suffering one can cleanse themselves and participate more fully in ceremonies. It’s all good and comfortable to read about suffering from the couch in your house, but to actually suffer yourself is something else entirely. Reading academic analyses of ritual after returning from Pine Ridge helped me to understand ritual in general and ritual’s place in religion, but I never would have been able to understand sweat ceremonies without suffering through them myself.
Geertz, Clifford. “Religion as a Cultural System,” The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (1993): 87-123. Web. 11 November, 2013.
Smith, Jonathan Z. Chapter 4: The Bare Facts of Ritual. “Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982. 53-63. Print.