Ceremony Reflection: Music in Sweat Lodge

It’s can be extremely hard to characterized and analyze rituals because of the contrasting opinions and beliefs based on personal experience and scholarly theory. However, although these two references can disagree they are still useful to understand religious experience in rituals. I would like to analyze the significance of music in the Lakota ceremonial sweat lodge by interpreting my personal experience and examining the ideas of Jonathan Smith, Victor Turner, and Robert Segal. By comparing both scholarly articles and my personal experience, I hope to fully investigate and reflect on the significance of music in the sweat lodge ritual and how it enhances the sacredness of the space. In the scholarly articles, I will analyze the idea of the focusing lens, music as a form of communication, and the idea of flow. I will then reflect on how these ideas contributed and helped form my interpretation of my own personal experience in the sweat lodge. However like any interpretation, there are limitations that need to be recognized and discussed as well.

In order to first understand the significance of the music in the sweat lodge, it is important to recognize the relationship of space in a sacred context. According to Smith, a sacred place has a focusing lens that signifies the mundane when they are entering a unique space, which has the power to connect the spirits or gods and men together (Smith 54). Thus, in a sweat lodge the “focusing lens” would be the entrance and by entering into the lodge a person would recognize the space as sacred. Smith then argues that since a person is crossing this threshold, they now recognize the space as sacred. Objects that otherwise would be referred to as mundane would be recognized as sacred within this space (Smith 58). This interpretation of sacred space can be used to argue that since the music and singing are being created in this space, the music in the sweat lodge has a sacred context. This is a reasonable to believe since in my own experience I felt that the music had a feel to it that was not mundane. I felt like the music had a sense of power and was extremely moving and provoking of my senses. If I had heard the music out of this sacred context it would have probably sounded strange but would not hold the same influence over me as it did in the sweat lodges. Of course this could have been because of various additional variables, such as the stress on my body because of heat. Also, the music in the sweat lodge could be analyzed as a focusing lens that signified the beginning and ending of each doors. The music was used as a tool to communicate to people participating in the ritual when it began and finished. As well as when the body would be stressed and unstressed by the heat, and when prayers should be spoken or ceased.

The idea above exemplifies the second interpretation by scholars; the use of communication in communities through ritual. There is a sense of universality within music and its usage for communication. In my opinion, even if I did not understand what was spoken, I can usually tell the tone or the feeling of a song based on the different sounds created by musicians. Thus, music in ritual could be used as a universal tool to communicate to others in ceremony. According to Segal, music in ritual is used as conveying information, desires of the community, and prayers. It is not just used as a tool to express emotion (Segal 330). I felt that the music in the sweat lodge had portrayed the community’s desires and prayers. The music communicated the hardships and illustrated an embodiment of their prayers. The music helped me concentrate on my prayers and had helped me find peace within myself while I was suffering with sensory overload. However, my personal experience compared to Smith’s interpretation of sacred space is interesting to note. According to Smith, a sacred place is where all forms of communication should decrease in order to increase communication (Smith 55). It was the complete opposite for me; with the increase of sound, I felt like I could concentrate on my own prayers and focus on the ideal of the hallow bone.

According to Turner, in a sacred area the idea of time separates itself from secular time and enters a spiritual time frame (Turner 468). I would agree to this idea because when the singing began I had no concept of time within the sweat lodge. The songs seemed to merge into one another and while I might have thought it was 30 minutes it might have been only ten. Time seemed to blur within the sweat lodge. Turner dubbed this concept of lost time and feeling as “flow” (Turner 487). According to Turner, flow was when someone experiences a flowing from one movement to the next without a distinction between the “self and environment, between stimulus and response, or between past, present, and future” (Turner 487). For my own personal experience this could potentially explain reason for how the music manipulated time and seemed like it had no beginning and end. The music seemed to flow in the darkness and create a new realm of feeling throughout my body and the space around me. To me, there were no boundaries within the sweat lodge. However, Turner also argues that when flow happens you do lose your sense of self yet still have a sense of control (Turner 487). I, however, did not find this to happen. Although I seemed to lose sense of my surroundings, I did not lose my awareness of my self and the stress on my body. The music might have relieved this self-awareness but it was still present.

Thus, this leads to how an academic attempt can fall short and have limitations in illustrating religious experience. According to Segal, whom recognized critiques of the above ideals, Turner talks about what ritual communicates but doesn’t really illustrate how this is accomplished (Segal 333). Its unclear within Turners argument how meanings are conveyed, it is just argued that they are conveyed and are not just emotions (Segal 333). Segal also argues that religion experiences are not only conscious but also an unconscious thought of a participator. This differs from Turner’s idea that argues that religious experience is fully conscious thought (Segal 333). I would have to agree to Segal’s statement because it is hard to determine if a person had only reacted consciously instead of unconsciously to sensory experiences. At some point during the sweat lodge, I was unaware of what was happening around me to the point that I didn’t recognize when the songs changed or switched tones. The music seemed to act as one continuously subconscious act like the beating of a heart. I do not think about the presence or the creation of the music just recognized that it was there. Another limitation to academic analysis is that scholars have to group experience and explain religious experience under a universal context so that anyone could follow their argument regardless of cultural background.

However, there are limitations as well to analyzing a religious experience through personal experience. One person might have an entirely different experience then another person. For example, while someone could listen to the language that was spoken and actually understand what was being communicated; another could listen and interpret the experience entirely differently based on their own cultural misunderstanding. A person could also not really care about what was being communicated but experience their religious experience through the feel of the music and its connection to their body. According to Smith, ritual is sometimes created by choice and chance. Someone might recognize the experience as spiritual, and another might react to it as blasphemy (Smith 57). Also it is hard to measure personal experience and apply it in a more scholarly manner. It would be bias and tend to be individualistic and not universal. Overall, it is important to investigate religious experiences through scholarly and personal interpretations.

~Becca Adams

Works Cited

Segal, Robert A. “Review Essay: Victor Turner’s Theory of Ritual.” Zygon 18.3 (1983): 327-35. Print.

Smith, Jonathan Z. Chapter 4: The Bare Facts of Ritual. “ Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982. 53-63. Print

Turner, Victor. “Frame, Flow and Reflection: Ritual and Drama as Public Liminality.”Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (1979): 465-99. Print.

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