For several years, my wife and I participated in a week-long summer yoga/hiking retreat at the foot of Mt. Shasta. Day 2 always involved a day trip to Stewart Mineral Springs, where a Native elder would lead a sweat lodge ceremony. In the first three years, I had been reluctant to try it. My stubborn self told me that, having grown up in San Bernardino, I’d experienced enough heat to last a lifetime. I’d had a TIA stroke, brought on by blood pressure issues, and was wary of getting my heart rate racing. And having lived seven years within the boundaries of the Yakima Reservation, I was skeptical about non-Native people appropriating Native practices. But in the fourth year, I decided to give it a try. I joined the two-dozen people huddled inside the small, dome-shaped tent that was covered in blankets. I sat near the door so I could make a quick escape.
The elder explained the sweat lodge can be a spiritual opportunity because it forces awareness inward. As the temperature rises, your everyday busy-mind will say, “This is getting HOT! Let’s get out of here!” Your only hope is to totally focus your awareness within.
And, the elder said, a good focus can be love. He told a few humorous stories about how he frustrates his wife daily. But, he said, beneath those day-to-day issues, and beneath everything, love is present — a gift from the Creator.
His assistant pulled down the flap of the door. We sat in darkness. The heat from the fire began to build. I tried turning my attention inward, looking for love.
For some reason, my mind seemed ready. I began seeing faces of people in my life. It began with me as a child. I saw the face of my mother, then my father, then each of my siblings. The images weren’t specific photographs — just the calm face of each person.
I started seeing my teachers, starting with Miss Kelly in Kindergarten, then Miss Potter for first grade, and on up. I hadn’t thought about them for years and was surprised I remembered their names and faces. I had never thought of these teachers as particularly “loving.” But it was as if I could see that, within each one, they had been teachers because they had a fundamental love for students.
I next saw childhood friends. Then more teachers. Then it was professors in college with whom I’d worked.
At one point, I became aware of the unusual experience I was having. But that broke the spell, and I felt the searing heat. I returned to the safety I’d found in this inner state of meditative receptiveness.
I saw my wife when we first met as students in Isla Vista. Then I saw the faces of each of our children as they were born.
I saw other significant people from my adult life. After a while, the vision was completed. My awareness returned to the present moment.
I discovered it was very hot, and sweat was running off my face. But I felt a great calm and sense of wonder. Love was underneath everything and had been all along.
The elder announced the ceremony was concluded. His assistant opened the flap. We were told we had the option of going to the nearby creek for a dip in cold water.
As I reflected on what had happened, I realized what Native people had known for generations: that a sweat lodge can be a powerful place for spiritual visions.
Two years later I was participating in a five-day retreat for hospice workers led by Frank Ostateski, a Zen mediation teacher and director of the Metta Institute. Frank was discussing the Buddhist term of “metta,” which is often defined as “loving-kindness” or “compassion.” At one point, he noted that metta is not something we create in our lives, but something we uncover. It’s here already, everywhere, always. Spiritual practice is simply the act of uncovering metta, and letting it enter our life.
That certainly resonated with my sweat lodge experience. That love I sensed was there all my life? No one created it, but each person reflected it.
This is close to the New Testament concept of agape (agápē). In English, we use the word “love” to describe a positive emotion for many different experiences: romantic relationships, friendships, family, and treasured activities (Baseball! Popcorn! Swimming in warm ocean water!). But these can come and go, rise and fall, emerge and disappear. Agape is not subject to our immediate context, our mood, or whether we’ve got our act together at this moment. It’s simply there, like a calm, pure light that “never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:8) And we instinctively know it’s available to everyone.
I think of an elementary school principal we knew in the small town of Wapato, Washington. Before I met him, he’d had an accident while farming which had severed his leg. He got along well with his wooden leg, and he’d invite kids to knock it with their knuckles to hear the sound.
Jim was an elder in my church, and one day I went to the school so he could sign a document. It was recess, and I found him on the playground. As we were talking, a little girl came running to him, upset by something a playmate had done. As she started to tell her story, he put his hand on her shoulder, gave her a big smile, and listened. He didn’t interrupt her. He didn’t try to solve it. He just kept looking at her and smiling. Eventually she calmed down and finished her lament. As if nothing had happened, she ran back towards her friend. Simple, genuine love was what she needed. His name was Mr. Devine.