A weekend ‘Inipi’ sweat lodge retreat

All life is dynamic.  Just as a flowing wood grain seamlessly merges with a knotty spiral, likewise, even the densest aspects of our realities actually move when observed up close.  Transformation, this awareness that we are all ‘becoming,’ is really a lesson best learned outdoors.  Last weekend, I made an intention to commune with nature by partaking in a half-day sweat lodge ceremony.  And afterwards, I walked away with a sense of wonder and a new family of friends to share these joys with.  All the while, brother Laro was the expert guide, leading six of us in the traditions of the Lakota nation.  I would like to share my Inipi experience with you.

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Care to take a seat inside?

Thoughtful preparation

Inipi means ‘to live again’ and its first stage is actually the creation of the lodge itself.  We harvested six arching saplings, in order to create the essential dome structure, complete with cross-thatching and complex ‘fractal’ branch patterns.  Laro calls the saplings mitakuye oyasin meaning ‘all my relations’ or ‘sisters’ for short.  The Lakota people do not consider themselves greater than the flora and fauna of the land.  Truly, we all exist in nature as equals.  The stones of the earth are honored too.  When collected for the purpose of heating the lodge, they are adorned with names such as ‘grandmother’ and ‘grandfather.’  This custom signifies our deepest respects to the ancient peoples of Inyan Oyate.  Once the fire pit was created and the lodge covered with blankets, we heated the beloved stones in our campfire.  All of a sudden, Laro beckoned us to enter.

The ceremony

Once inside, the formal ceremony begins with a dedication to the spirits of the ‘sisters,’ ‘grandmothers,’ ‘grandfathers’ and our earth ‘mother’ herself.  Hot stones are added to the fire pit (courtesy of our fire tender “Chris”).  We humbly pray to the spirits for their guidance here and abroad.  Everyone is invited to participate or pass in silence as water, tobacco, and sage are sprinkled on top of the glowing stones.  Over the course of five rounds, the progressive heat combined with the pitch blackness of the interior of lodge, become conducive for allowing specific spirits to influence our experience.  In the words of Laro, “The spirits are always speaking, in lodge we listen.” After the dedication rounds draw to a close, heightened states of awareness may be realized.

Journeying

As we sleep, we dream in distinct cycles.  Similarly to dreaming, during each round is a cycle in which preconceived notions of time, space and even temperature progressively drop off.  Our experience becomes a playful metaphor in light of the totem animals which we honor.  During the third round we pay tribute to the spell dragonfly spirit Tusweca.  Arising from the waters of the southern direction, her essence is invoked by the tradition of storytelling.  She is symbolic of our Truth, that which does not lie to ourselves again and again.  Laro leads the service with the time-honored tale about the white buffalo calf woman who brought the first pipe to the people.  Vocal harmonies arise and fall spontaneously; collectively we become attuned Laro’s message.  Around the circle, each participant then offers a personalized story, which connects each of us to the ebb and flow of Tusweca’s flight.

As heat builds, our journey continues on the wings of the eagle spirit Wanbli to the west.  Hot stones are added then we each take a sip of spring water to initiate our sweating.  Water and herbs hiss and crackle when sprinkled on the top.  Spontaneity takes hold, and we are cast into a new round of intensely rhythmic chanting.  Each participant uses a rattle to keep a steady beat amid our vocalization.  After our song draws to a close, we thank the thunder beings by saying ‘pilyamayelo’ as we carefully pass the rattle to the left.  Our friend takes it using their sense of hearing, touch or both.  A new round of chanting begins as a new expression of the eagle’s flight draws our attention upward.  Our collective consciousness reaches its zenith.  We each delight and comfort one another as many experience a shift in perception.  Just as Wanbli who soars high above the trees sees a world of details down below, we too experience the expansiveness of the here-and-now.

The fifth and last round is dedicated to the spirit Tatanka meaning the buffalo.  It is the hottest of all rounds and also, probably the most contemplative too.  The activity we collectively practice is deep medication.  Our experiences probably become more individual at this stage.  For me, the wisdom of water and sky spirits is offset by a newfound appreciation of ‘mother’ earth.  With the Tatanka, I feel as if all three elemental forces are beginning to merge together.  The earth pushes back on me as I lay on my side in complete darkness.  Stampedes of heat radiated off of the glowing stones, now numbering thirty-four in total.  In the intense silence, I become acutely aware of time and space spanning in all directions.  Soon, these notions are replaced by a soft acceptance of the qualities which underlie the journey at hand.  Then, much the way it began, the Inipi ends with a special set of prayers and dedications.

Afterwards

Laro likes to say, “There is no time in here.”  When my sense of purposefulness was restored, I slowly crawled on my hands and knees, out of the lodge, and into the greater world.  I marveled, then I became dizzy, as I tried to stand, Laro said, “Stay low.”  I continued to crawl like a new born babe towards my water bottle.  Taking a sip, then I imbibed, but much too fast.  I felt the coolness dissipate around my stomach as steam raised off my arms in tendril formations.  I decided to sip more slowly now to avoid pain.  Gazing at my companions, they looked just like me, I felt this way then, as I still do now.  According to Laro, “Inipi is an opportunity to be receptive to nature’s own wisdom.”  Three days later, the great transformation is a renewed sense of ‘togetherness,’ which I continue embody wherever I go.

Pilyamayelo,

(Thank you for reading)

Bryan

Links to Laro’s books, films and teachings:

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