With the more orthodox side of Circle of Life Rediscovery’s work being known to me, it was time to experience what makes this particular CIC all the more distinctive – the work led by Salvatore Gencarelle. Teaching the traditions of the Lakota people, one of the Transformative Learning courses that Sal leads allows the participation of the Rites of Passage or life-stage honouring; that is the ceremony of honouring the transition from one stage of our lives to another. And so, Marina allowed me the opportunity to see Sal at work.
My initial view on the concept of life-stages was seen through an extraordinarily narrow scope, insofar as, to me, there could only be so many of importance: youth, adulthood and old age. How can such a complex culture with such deep-rooted ancestry contain such a simple notion? My naivety has become shame in hindsight. Despite this, there was some accuracy to my preceding anticipations and that was the stark reality of how we, in todays society, treat age, be it children or the elderly. The youngest generations are constantly met with hyper-sensitive restrictions, pre-teens suffer underestimation that borderlines on the patronising, ‘the youth’ of today are misrepresented and marginalised, the elderly are surplus to requirements; I mean come on adults, what are you(we) doing! While these are somewhat general, I think every one of us can admit to conforming to at least one of them, somewhere down the line.
The point remains that age is divisive in society and that cannot be good.
Premeditations in hand, I was ready to support Marina and co. for the weekend, while absorbing as much information along the way. My main role over the weekend was to help Mark and Jill entertain and educate the children, while parents continued on their rites of passage; though I was delighted to hear I had been given the chance to partake in the evenings sweat lodge. After arriving at the beautiful venue, to which we are all grateful to Penny and the family, and setting up the camp for the kids, there was time for a few brief introductions, at which point I had already begun to question my prior conceptions. Families and individuals, younger or older, the diverse nature of the group had become apparent and even the children, ranging from 5-12 years old, were all driven by varying curiosities. I was still unaware to the degree of importance that age held but at least had begun to see the complexities that even a difference of a year can make. I believe that can be owed to the children themselves, it is far easier to recognise the affects of age upon children, so the first afternoon was spent noticing the explicit differences. A younger child would be more engaged by interaction with surroundings, an older the interaction with other members of the group. The underlying message I took away is that humans don’t reach a point where they stop learning, stop pursuing curiosity, stop wanting to further relationships with one another; just because the differentiation of affecting factors attributed to age becomes more implicit, does not mean it should stop being valued and respected. Keeping that in mind was crucial to what followed.
I was called back to the main camp due to the impending sweat lodge. My prior engagement with one was only as a spectator and even that brought out a certain compassion but it still didn’t serve as an accurate precursor. With the sacred fire well on the way to heating the grandfather stones, there was time for some heavy hydration and light nourishment, while queuing beside the relinquishing fire, I whispered in Feather’s ear for one last run-down of the procedures before foolishly remarking “I’ve prepared for the heat”. Sal stood and, after receiving a cleansing of cedar from Marina, entered the lodge while offering a blessing of gratitude to all relations, followed by all the women and the men – who followed his every action. As I sat, in a space with no more than that which my body filled, I listened closely to Sal’s words on suffering and the relation it holds to the purification process. We spend our entire lives trying to avoid suffering, many of the statements I made about age are obsessed with it and yet so actively produce it but here all twenty of us sat, willingly exposing ourselves to it.
I can easily imagine a great number of sceptics who would be adverse to the spirituality that Sal whole-heartedly embodies but firstly, there are a great number of fundamentals of appreciation and awareness of the natural world, to which we owe absolutely everything. Our self-important, technological age has spent so much time doing its best to destroy it that its become an issue of desperate importance. Secondly, interpretation is pivotal. Cultural learning is not about conforming, its about educating, its about realisation and its about how you shape your actions going forward. Be willing to listen.
The first stones began to fill the blanket-covered structure with a heat that surprised me. This was the first one of fourty. More and more piled in and already questions of whether I was even up to it haunted my peace of mind. Sweat was in full flow and my heart began to race. As the last rock filled the now shallow hole, the door closed and we were about to start. So I thought. Rays of light were picking through gaps in the blankets, something that was unacceptable and against protocol for Sal and the traditions of the ceremony. Is this really happening? I asked myself more times than necessary. Thankfully, a member who was the doorkeeper helpfully solved the issue, much to my pleasing. Now we could really start. Sal began to pour water on to the luminescent relics, each pour blessed with thanks (a reoccurring theme for all actions) and a song followed, supported by the circle around him and as the drum kicked in, so did my heartbeat. All the philosophical questions I had been pondering were lost. Instead sheer panic resided. I fought to contain my breathing and try to refocus on all the days messages of gratitude, awareness and respect. I had heard from many people knowledgable on this ceremony that facing the dirt was the best way to get a cool breath but fought that inclination with all the testosterone I could muster. Focusing solely on the song that filled the lodge, the surreal nature of the experience really took ahold and allowed my panic to settle, somewhat. I’ll make no allusions to feeling physically comfortable though, at any point. As the first bucket of water was emptied, the door was briefly opened and that was a magical moment. Air reminiscent of the seemingly ancient outside world was a treat and a reminder of just how affective the procedure is for appreciating the things we constantly take for granted. As ladles of water were passed around, one for each person, the liquid seemed to disappear through my system indescribably fast but at least I knew my sweat supply was not empty… Yet.
The second bucket came in and this was the most crucial for my own experience. This was the round of prayer, a term that was stigmatised by none other than myself due to my adversity to religion. Yet, during the lodge, I truly did pray and pray with such a degree of intent, I shocked myself to just how much emotion was surfacing through me, something I would have otherwise felt embarrassed of. I thought not only of the hardships people dear to me were suffering, the debts I owed to those who make my life just as enjoyable as it is but also to the people around me, who a few hours ago were strangers. Yet I felt part of this group. We all suffer and we all have hardships but when others are facing trials that are mountains compared to your molehill, you begin to appreciate your own suffering and hope that they can conquer theirs. This was the pivotal moment in there, I had realised Sal’s words and seen them manifest within my own emotions – something that if you struggle to believe, I can only suggest trying it for yourself.
Having now conquered the physical aspect, well I say conquered; my head was now buried in the dirt. My problems were put into perspective and it was time to hone in on the reason why I was there. This ritual, though led by a man who was mentored for over 15 years within this Native American lineage, is a global ceremony of indigenous people, it is not indoctrinate to one culture and instead spreads universal truths, the reason I think it was far more hard hitting than one may consider religious ceremonies. There is objectivity in relation to the natural world, it is our lives on it that are subjective. The final two buckets were each poured in the same manner as their predecessors and I began to think about my life-stage, being a student who’s approaching his final year at university but through a newly found positive scope. I have been battling issues of identity and purpose, issues that had become quite an obstruction to everything I was doing and while I’m not stating that these were overcome and I “found myself”, I am merely trying to show how these issues had become positive. They seem like exciting trials to challenge myself with.
I became focused on all the people that are dear to me to whom I am so thankful for. Something that may appear to an outsider as cliche but I was as pessimistic as they come and yet here I sat. As I writhed in the mud, not even a cough spraying dirt all over my face could damage my content; which may seem very contradictory but that’s exactly how I interpreted the sweat lodge, the extreme discomfort enables a mental calming and recognition. The final songs finished and Sal gave his last blessings before, leading the group out of the lodge one by one. When my face was fully immersed in the outside world, the rush that followed is incomparable to any experience I’ve had. After initially lying down and gazing at the sky, not far from the lodge, I came to my feet and made for a nearby patch of long grass, all I wanted was to be fully engulfed by the surroundings and connect.
It took some time to truly soak up all that happened inside that inipi and the purpose behind this particular one. Whether you were young or old, we each had a new stage of our lives to face. Some had children to raise, others had careers to define and there were those who had seen their children grow to become adults themselves, with their time to appreciate that on the horizon. The complexities that every year of life adds to us as an individual cannot be overstated, when you truly think about the impact that even the most minute moment can have, it seems cruel to rigidly categorise age as we do. That is why I have found Sal’s work on Rites of Passage so inspiring, it allows the seemingly unbreakable boundaries we ourselves apply to age to be broken down into far less frightening entities. We can reflect on what we leave behind with fondness but also making sure that it is left behind, while we focus on nothing but moving forward, staying thankful for all that we have.
It was an absolute pleasure to take another step to manhood with the help of Sal and the Circle of Life Rediscovery team, I will forever be indebted to them for installing peace of mind as I approach the most tumultuous period of my life.
Bradley, the intern.