(See Spiritual Teachers: Marc Baur for Part 1 of this series.)
On May 28, 2001, I moved from Vancouver to a small town in Ontario to live with my boyfriend. We had lived together in Edmonton, before he moved to Ontario for work, and I moved to British Columbia to pursue my acting career. Our relationship in Edmonton was marked with frequent and vicious arguments, but as we became a long distance couple, we became more loving and appreciative. In our case, distance did make the heart grow fonder, yet eventually, we had to find out if we could survive in close quarters with each other again. Would we get married? Buy a house? Have children? Anything seemed possible. Most importantly, we were both willing to try.
The kicker was that I had, unknowingly, developed a major clinical depression. Although a small part of me hoped that true happiness was within the secure embrace of my boyfriend’s arms, my subconscious mind was trapped in a deep well of despair and – if you’d asked me then, I would’ve denied it – I really only wanted to close my eyes and sleep, like Sleeping Beauty, for a thousand years. Stop the world, I’m getting off. To disappear off the face of existence, that’s what I really wanted.
The most distinctive attribute of my depression was that it robbed me of energy. Even a smile was a chore and required too much. While I perfectly expected to sink into a lethargic pile of sludge on the futon for the rest of my days, life had other plans for me. An opportunity arose for a ‘dream job’ as the reporter for the town newspaper. I weighed the pros and cons, and against what may have been better judgement, I took the job. Imagine the difficulty of attending every social event with a smile on my face, asking bright and brilliant questions like a fluttering butterfly, and putting together, at least, 5 fascinating and provocative articles every week, when I had little, or no, physical energy to do it. It didn’t take long before I felt like I was becoming a farce. A freaky fake that pasted on a smile when, just under the surface, not deep enough to be hidden from anyone with common sense, a grievous tornado of suffocation whirled.
I finally saw the doctor with a list of fifteen or twenty physical symptoms that I’d been experiencing. He, very stupidly, told me that I needed to make some friends. What did he think I was doing as the town reporter? That day was the lowest point. Contrary to my physical lethargy, my mind often raced, trying to figure out what I could do to fix my life. But if the doctor couldn’t help me… maybe my life couldn’t be fixed… maybe I was better off dead. As depressed and hopeless as I was, that wasn’t an option I’d seriously entertain. So, like a zombie, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other.
That was when my reporting job offered me an opportunity to participate in an Ojibway pow-wow. I met an aboriginal man named Marcel, who was one of the funniest, most energetically generous people I’d ever met. The whole tribe was welcoming and gentle and they encouraged me and the attending group of high school students to dance in the pow-wow with them. As a reporter, I was used to watching from the sidelines, and was comfortable with the chance to rest before I put my ‘smiley face’ back on, but something made me stow my camera under my chair, and join the dancing that day. The drums pounded, the jingle dresses jingled, aboriginal voices sang loud enough to rumble the rain clouds in the sky. My body moved, but I was disengaged, I felt nothing. I was disappointed and confused by the experience. Yet, it opened the door for another invitation from the Ojibway band.
I’d given my notice to quit at the newspaper, but there were still a few jobs I had to finish up. First I had to interview Ra McGuire from the band Trooper and get an article into the paper before they played at the town street dance. I’d always enjoyed their music and I was thrilled to talk to someone of his fame and stature. Ra was generous and considerate, even when I made the mistake of attributing “Boys in the Bright White Sports Car” to them. DOH! I had just hung up the phone with Ra, feeling rather cock-sure of myself, when it rang again. Marcel invited me to a sweat lodge. Wow! Another exiting experience! Sure, OK!
I had no idea what a sweat lodge entailed, and I was very tempted to chicken out, but the new reporter, Shauna, had agreed to go with me, and her enthusiasm gave me an extra boost of courage. Shauna and I met at a restaurant to have some wings before we drove out to the forest location. While we ate, we chatted with the bartender, Dan, who had done a sweat lodge before, and he offered, what I later considered, to be a lifesaving tip: he advised that when the heat felt too intense, stay still.
I’ll quote from the article I wrote for the paper:
There were four men and four women and the sweat was to go four rounds. Before we entered the small, round hut, I was given some instruction as to my conduct and what might be experienced. The guide said I might feel some fear. Since I’d never been afraid of the dark or ever had feelings of claustrophobia I immediately dismissed the idea.
Once we were all inside the lodge, hot stones, called Grandfathers, were brought in. The ceremony began. Sweet herbs were sprinkled on the stones, causing sparks and smoke as the burned. Then the door to the lodge was closed and we were wrapped in complete darkness. Water was brushed onto the Grandfathers and the temperature rose with the steam. I began to sweat.
A song was sung, drums were pounded. Then the first woman was invited to speak. In her native language, she spoke of her troubles. She prayed to the Gods and Spirits to be strong and to bless her family and friends. The others in the lodge listened and acknowledged her deepest revelations with short sounds of encouragement and understanding. When finished, a second woman was invited to share her deepest thoughts, fears and prayers.
Another song was sung, more water was brushed onto the stones, and then the door to the lodge was opened. A rush of fresh air was welcomed and so ended the first round.
I had experienced the first round with curious interest. When the participants had spoken, I compared the sharing of feelings to an acting exercise I’d learned in a class once. In the acting class I learned that when people unburden their feelings and know they’ve been heard, they feel great relief.
Two more Grandfathers were brought in, the lodge was sealed up, and so began round two.
Water was splashed; the heat rose. Unexpectedly, I began to panic. It was too hot. I fidgeted madly. What was this feeling? I’d never felt fear like this before. The lodge exit was all the way on the other side of the hot stones. I considered that I’d have to run over people to get to the door and I tapped the woman next to me to alert her that something was wrong. I couldn’t breath – I was afraid I was going to die.
The woman didn’t respond to my tapping. No one was going to let me out! Then I realized that my frantic fidgeting was drawing the cloying heat. I stilled myself and focused on breathing deeply. My panic subsided. I envisioned myself becoming one with the heat, drawing it into my lungs like a friend. I willed my mind to be calm. Sweat streamed profusely in narrow rivulets down my face and body.
What I didn’t put into my article was that, at the greatest point of panic, I left my body. There was no light in the lodge, it was as black as coal, yet, suddenly I could see everything, as if glowing under a blue lamp. I remembered Dan’s advice to stay still, and I watched my hand as I placed it firmly against the sandy floor. I was calm. I didn’t ‘will’ anything, I just became aware of my spiritual Self, and knew that I was safe, even if I died.
Oh, yes, and I forgot when I wrote the article… as a child, I had been afraid of the dark. I slept with my blankets pulled tight around my neck every night so monsters couldn’t cut my head off.
Then it was my turn to share my thoughts. First, I asked the Spirits for strength to get past my fear and my panic. Then, like the three women before me, I shared my troubles and prayed for my relatives and friends. I kept it short. A song was sung, water was splashed, and the lodge door was opened. I had survived round two.
I exited the lodge for a break. Once I felt cool again, I returned.
As the time grew closer to the closing of the door, I began to question whether I could continue. My fear was returning. I argued with myself. Suddenly the lodge door was sealed and I panicked again. I sat up and begged them to let me out. What were these words coming out of my mouth? Who was speaking? Who was this coward?
Calmly, one of the men encouraged me to continue. He advised me to think of the reasons I came to the sweat lodge and to pray for courage. I felt better and I lay on the floor where the heat was less savage. For most of the round, while two men spoke and the songs were sung, I merely kept fear at bay. I remained still even as sweat ran into my eyes. I remember thinking of a grizzly bear, standing over me and then wrapping itself around me like a cloak. It consoled me and its fur bristled against my skin.
When the fourth round finished, the lodge door was opened. The steam was thick and the fire outside had burned low. My eyes couldn’t distinguish anything. Then, slowly, as the fire was stoked and the steam cleared, my vision returned with astounding clarity. The ceremony was ending with a final song and I felt infinitely connected to the solid earth, starry sky, and the flashing fire. All the beauty of the universe struck me with a delirious thump. I wept.
I don’t think the ‘beauty of the universe’ actually ‘struck me with a delirious thump’ (how poetic), I think I was just tremendously grateful to be getting the hell out of there! The sweat lodge was my introduction to the spiritual realm. I’d never prayed before, and certainly not out loud in front of a bunch of strangers. I wasn’t sure any kind of God existed, let alone to refer to Him directly for assistance. That was an entirely strange idea.
I’ll never know what made those Ojibway people invite my drowning, sorrowful soul to that spiritual gathering. Did they somehow sense that I desperately needed their help? That I needed a healing miracle of spirit? Well, then they knew more than I did. I had started to read some spiritual books, but it would still be a long time before I admitted that I needed to actively invite spirit into my life.
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