Experiences in the Sweat Lodge: Body Versus Mind

During our week-long trip to Pine Ridge, we participated in sweat, each night experiencing something completely new. Some days we prayed through four doors, while other nights the ceremony consisted of three doors. The first night was hotter than I had ever imagined while the second night was in a larger sweat lodge where the air was cool between doors. With each experience of the same ritual, new aspects were introduced and former aspects were discontinued. The fluctuation of temperature in the lodge stood out to me, above all ceremonial variations. A hot sweat verses a warm sweat changed my focus on my body and in turn my focus on prayers. From my own experience, as well as some scholarly perspectives, embodiment and awareness of the body, rather than just the mind, plays a large role in ceremony in the Lakota rituals.

As in many religions, mild suffering or deviation from the normal physical state is a practice used to evoke prayer. Many spiritualities, including the Lakota religion, incorporate fasting into prayer-driven holidays. Not eating for one or more days causes individuals to shift from the “I” or the ego to concentrating intensely on prayer. Based on my experiences at Pine Ridge and in Judaism, changing the state of the body causes the individual to first focus on the body. At a certain threshold there is a shift from the ego to a concentration on prayer. Though the body is encountering a transformation, the power of this alteration evokes a specific focus at a certain point. Similarly, feeling the extreme heat produced in the sweat lodge induced stronger prayers, louder singing, and closer bonds between the people. The second day, in which the heat was weaker, caused me personally to focus less on prayer. I still prayed, but my bodily condition was distracting. The heat warmed my skin to a comfortable temperature. Others expressed similar feedback.

By reflecting on my own experiences and class conversation regarding scholarly texts, I realized that neither individual experiences nor scholarly texts can stand alone in analyzing ritual. Understanding scholarly perspectives and experiences provide the most useful tool for interpretation of the Lakota sweat lodge ritual.

Victor Turner’s scholarly perspective on ritual includes justifications of this idea of embodiment when in the sweat lodge. His theory of flow, defined in several different ways, often explains the role of the heat and discomfort in prayer. The first aspect of flow, Turner explains, is “a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which we feel in control of our actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment, between stimulus and response, or between past, present, and future” (Turner 520). In a very hot sweat, this idea of flow depicts the moment in which there is a shift from thinking about only how hot you are to internalizing all of your prayers to the spirits. These two moments blend together, and the environment and body become unified, as less emphasis is being placed on these distractions from prayer. Loss of ego is another aspect of flow, according to Turner (521). As mentioned earlier, I observed an obvious loss of ego, or loss of focus on my personal discomfort. I experienced a collective loss of ego as the songs became louder, more people joined in, and the prayer unified. In Turner’s fourth element of flow he describes one’s control of his actions. He clarifies that “a subjective sense of control is hard to attain, due to the enormous variety of stimuli and cultural tasks which press on us… If skills outmatch demands, boredom results; if skills are inadequate, there is anxiety” (521). In this interpretation, we can understand the demands as the environment within the sweat lodge, namely the heat. The “skills” include the ability to fixate on solely the spirits and the messages you would like them to attend. With the inability to leave the body behind in a steaming sweat, there was absolutely anxiety in some instances. However, I disagree with Turner’s first statement in the context of embodiment. If one’s ability to focus on prayer outmatches the concentration on heat, rather than boredom resulting, I believe one loses his sense of ego. Ultimately, flow does serve as a sense of pleasure in the sweat lodge, as it allows for a place in which individuals shift their undivided attention to prayer with no additional distractions (522).

Though Turner’s piece provides a useful tool overall for interpretation, this piece along with other scholarly analyses fall short in some instances. One of Turner’s explanations of flow involves focusing on a single stimulus. He does not include what the stimulus must be, and in the case of the sweat lodge, this focal point is often the body and based on my experiences remains to be the sense of bodily comfort without the presence of extreme heat (521). With the presence of the heat, the stimulus may change. This scholarly perspective neglects to make sense of the idea of the body versus the mind in sweat, which was evident through my own experiences. Furthermore, aside from Turner’s ideas of flow, he sees ritual as “dramatized” or “theatrical”. Losing the sense of body and shifting to the mental aspect of prayer proved to be an important action in the sweat lodge. Another perspective of Turner’s is that “ritual is, in its most typical expression, a synchronization of many performative genres…All their senses may be engaged; they hear music and prayers, see symbols, taste consecrated food, smell incense, and touch sacred persons and objects” (505). I argue that through my experiences in sweat, several senses were supposed to be removed for ultimate focus on prayer. Sitting in a dark lodge eliminated distraction and encouraged focus. The hot environment removed the body from the equation, eliminating the idea of movement and the genre of acting in the lodge. Other scholars, including Segal, criticize Turner’s ideas of flow and “drama” in ritual. The wide array of scholarly perspectives on ritual give me special meaning to my own experiences and the differences I have encountered through participation in these rituals.

Relying on solely personal experiences or solely scholarly religious papers have their limitations. Through personal experiences of ritual, you gain an inside view of how one family may practice the ritual but fail to see the ritual in the light of another group of people. As mentioned earlier, I noticed that ritual is always changing. There were some nights where we did not smoke the sacred pipe in the sweat lodge and other evenings where we passed the pipe around during the third door of sweat. Individual variation is evident in all rituals and basing ritual interpretation on strictly experience does not account for these deviations in practice. On the other hand, focusing on only the scholarly interpretations neglects the personal feelings you might gain from participating in ritual. While you might understand the framework and structure of the ritual, the tangibility of the ritual is no longer there. Combining rigorous academic analysis with experiential practice provides the most wholesome approach to understanding ceremony and the role of the body and the mind in the Lakota ritual of sweat lodge.


Works Cited

Turner, Victor. “Ritual, Tribal, and Catholic.” Worship 50.6 (1976): 504-26.ATLA Religion Database. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

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