I am transformed here, and stripped bare.
…now when I think of all the red inside me,
I understand that I don’t bleed; I burn.”
–Cindy St. Onge – “Poems From the Grotto”
I participated in my fourth Inipi cermony yesterday. The number 4 is important in Lakota ritual, and my life path number happens to be a 4. I should have been prepared for something auspicious.
I hadn’t drunk enough water during the day. That probably partially accounted for how miserable I was into the second round. But as that round got underway, I thought to myself, “this is never as bad as people say it is. what is the big deal? I’m fine. I can handle this. It’s a piece of cake.”
I could hear the arrogance in my own thoughts. The Inyan Oyate , or Stone People in the center of the lodge glowed red hot, and I thought about their suffering, their sacrifice. I was humbled.
This isn’t about how tough I am, I thought, or about how much pain I can endure for the sake of endurance. It’s about being vulnerable and open and flawed and ultimately purified. I thought that if creatures as sturdy as stones could suffer the sacrificial fire for the sake of my transformation, the least I could do was admit that I was uncomfortable.
And that was all it took. By the middle of the second round, I was nauseous, light-headed, and felt like I would pass out. How hot it was in the lodge wasn’t even an issue by this time. I was at my limit. I was on the verge of asking that the door be open so I could leave. But this is the purpose of the Inipi ceremony, to inhabit these borders, to push beyond what the body can endure, and to challenge what your mind has always defined as possible and impossible.
When I closed my eyes to try to think of something besides how dizzy I felt, I wanted to go to sleep, but I was afraid I wouldn’t wake up. So I struggled against the heat, and wanting to throw up, and almost losing consciousness. This is where and how the heat and the prayer transforms the pilgrim. The lodge was pitch black, but I kept looking in the direction of the door, a way out I couldn’t see, but knew was there.
The second round was mercifully divided into two mini-rounds because the heat was excruciating. After I had cooled down some, I realized that I had only experienced external discomfort in previous sweat lodges. This was the first time I had felt that misery on the inside, viscerally.
There were still two more rounds to go, each hotter than the last. At some point during the third round, which I’ve always called the Skin Searing Round, ancestor spirits present in the lodge were sucking me into Lakota folklore as I envisioned the Great Mystery and Tunkasila playing tether ball with the planets.
This was the spiritual ass-kicking I had always believed the Inipi ceremony to be, but had never experienced until last night.
I am humbled and grateful.