Flow and Lakota Sweat Lodge Ceremony

My experience with flow before our trip to Pine Ridge was limited to yoga. Focusing on one’s breath allows the yogi to synchronize the heart and mind with the movement’s of the body. Yoga can be a spiritual experience when this aspect of the practice is prioritized over the physical endeavor. Victor Turner mentions yoga during his discussion of flow in the his paper titled Ritual, Tribal and Catholic. The concept of flow can be applied to acts of both sacred and profane nature, as long as specific elements laid out by University of Chicago psychologist Mihali Csikszentmihalyi are fulfilled. With this essay I hope to determine whether the idea of flow that Victor Turner presents in Ritual, Tribal and Catholic is an appropriate model for interpreting the Lakota sweat lodge ceremony.

Mihali Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as, “a state in which action follows action according to an internal logic which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part; we experience it as 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).  Turner goes on to add that flow can be seen as a common experience, be it sacred or profane, in which those who are involved participate with total involvement. This is quite the definition for a concept that can be applied to virtually whatever the imagination allows if the model fits. How Csikszentmihalyi separates acts of flow from other interior states is through the partition of the definition into six different elements.

First, action and awareness are experienced as one.  Second, attention is centered on a limited stimulus field. Third, the loss of ego while flowing. Fourth, the actor finds himself in control of his actions and the environment. Fifth, flow usually contains coherent, non contradictory demands for action and provides clear, unambiguous feedback to a person’s actions. Finally, flow is autotelic (Turner, 520/521). These elements provide a model for interpreting events that may have flow. In addition to the elements listed, Turner states that flow breaking and flow elucidation are essential parts of the model as well (Turner, 522). I can say with confidence that there was some kind of flow present during the sweat lodge ceremony; relating the experience to a hot yoga sessionI experienced this during the ceremony before ever reading about the model. Armed with the elements of the flow model, I can now retrospectively analyze the experience and attempt to prove to myself that flow was indeed present.

Action and awareness are experienced as one, merged and “nondualistic”. For this to be true of the sweat ceremony, actions would have to be carried out with little thought motivating them. Instead, action must be a result of awareness of the flow of the ceremony. In this case actions could be considered reactions more than actions themselves. I believe this to be true of the Lakota singers.  During the song of each door, flow could be recognized. The singers were acting with awareness of one another and reacting to what the ceremony needed by adjusting volume and tempo. Knowledge of the songs and competence through practice allow the singers to merge action and awareness and increase flow during each door. Turner elaborates on this element by saying that self-consciousness can disrupt flow. I found myself singing during moments of the sweat ceremony. I was not aware of what motivated me to begin singing at any one point in time, but once I focused too much on the words I found myself stopping. This is evidence that flow was present with respect to the first element.

Attention is centered on a limited stimulus field. Turner states that there are necessary limitations for the centering of attention. For games, limitations present themselves as rules or regulations.  Motivations and rewards can also serve as limitations which can allow for flow to develop through the centering of attention (Turner, 521). The sweat lodge had a very limited stimulus field. Certain rules laid down by Big Mike/Little Mike (no water, specific dress, no exiting during the rounds) also reduced the stimulus field. The darkness was almost absolute, except for the faint glowing of the stones. The insulation of the sweat lodge reduced external noise, yet amplified the silence present at various times throughout the ceremony. During each round I found it hard to think of anything besides two very present stimuli: heat from the stones and noise from the singing. To overcome these sometimes overwhelming stimuli, I focused on my breathing. Similar to a yoga practice I was able to think with my heart instead of my mind (another “rule” Big Mike laid out) with this focused attention. By overcoming the few stimuli in the sweat lodge I was able to find flow during the doors.

Loss of ego is the third element of the flow model. Turner states that the framing rules of a ceremony can allow the participant to immerse themselves in the flow, knowing that they are bound by the governing rules and that their fellow actors are also bound by the rules (Turner, 521). This is true for the sweat lodge as the singers have confidence in one another to maintain the flow, and the participants know that they must sit, steam, and pray together.  Turner goes on to say, “…no ‘self’ is needed to bargain about what should or should not be done” (Turner, 521). Looking back I agree with this statement. I did not need ego, a sense of self-esteem or self-importance, in order to know what to do or how to do it. With focus I was able to think with my heart instead of my mind, to sit and concentrate on my breath to center myself. I feel like I had very little importance in the ceremony; I contributed my prayers and some song to the ceremony but the flow continued on mostly unaffected. I did not experience a complete loss of ego,  but rather a diminished sense of self giving way to greater connectedness with the people around me.

The actor finds himself in control of his actions and the environment. Actors in the sweat ceremony are the medicine men regulating the administration of water to the hot stones and the singers, both groups maintain flow in their own way. Without a doubt I would say that Big Mike/Little Mike were absolutely in control of their actions and the environment. Big Mike’s perception of what needed to be said or done often exceeded that of which most of us could detect, especially with respect to the well being of those around him who were afraid. He was also cognisant of how much steam needed to be generated. Turner states, “If skills outmatch demands, boredom results; if skills are inadequate, there is anxiety” (Turner, 521). Big Mike/Little Mike’s skills were adequate and reduced the anxiety of those who felt it. There was a time, during the first two doors of the sweat before Yuwipi, that I found myself almost feeling boredom. Boredom in the sense that those rounds were not particularly distressing, and this allowed my mind to lose focus on the ceremony. As a result I didn’t feel as much flow during these doors as I did during the more overwhelming rounds.

Flow usually contains coherent, non contradictory demands for action and provides clear, unambiguous feedback to a person’s actions. This is an interesting element of the flow model, and interpreting sweat with this element is challenging. What demands were made on use for action? Many members of our class hoped that persistent prayer and focus would reward them with an unarguably spiritual interaction or experience. When viewed with the final element of the flow model (flow is autoletic, that is, it seems to need no goals or rewards outside itself) this mindset can possibly compromise the ability to participate in the flow of the ceremony. I approached our ceremonies at Pine Ridge without any high expectations. For me, this allowed for more intense focus on the process- the flow- rather than the result.

Turner also talks about how, “…the deliberate arrest of flow may stimulate thought or turn action into a more fruitful decision… The ritual process includes flow-breaking and flow-elicitation” (Turner, 522). By switching attention away from maintaining focus to perceiving action-feedback during sweat, a participant might actually be able to have a spiritual encounter or experience. This is just one example of personal flow-breaking. During each door flow is created and arrested with the addition of water to the stones, as the singers match this pattern. This element can help interpret possible reasons for the four doors. Between doors, the flow of singing and the flow of water administration are interrupted.  During this time, participants can reflect on the experiences they had during the door and prepare for the next intense session.

My personal experiences during the sweat ceremony helped me find validity in the flow model. Although other students in the class may recognize that the flow model can help to interpret the sweat ceremony, their personal experiences may not justify the connection to the same extent. It can even be said that some students personal experiences may contradict and disprove the flow model’s effectiveness of interpretation that I found. For me the flow model is an appropriate way to interpret an experience that is shrouded in preconstructed religious significance, in order to find answers for myself and to possibly shed light on the experience for my peers.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model.

Works Cited

Turner, Victor. “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic.” Worship Jubilee: 521-26.

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