The NYC Marathon is this weekend and hands down the most cheered-for runner will be rescued Chilean miner Edison Pena. The entire world wants to pat him on the back. It doesn’t matter if he finishes this upcoming road race – the marathon is tough, sure, but nothing like what he has already been through. Every day he was trapped in the mine, he ran 3-6 miles, often in the dark, always in unbearable heat and in pain. “I was running to show I wasn’t just waiting around — that I would be an active participant in my own salvation,” he said. “I wanted God to see that I really wanted to live.” Using pliers, he cut his knee-high boots down to his ankles. Using a telephone cable strapped around his torso, he often dragged a wooden pallet behind him. “I was experimenting, trying to outwit the mind and win the mind,” he said in the Miami Herald.
This is going to sound crazy, but I had a vaguely similar experience once, albeit NOT AT ALL under such extreme conditions. Still, in some small way, I feel I can understand Pena’s tenacity and the choices he made to get through great duress. And so pull up a chair. I’m going to tell you a story…
About 10 years ago, I went on a hiking trip in Sedona, Arizona and after 5 days on the trail, the leader had a big treat in store for us. We are going to participate in a Native American sweat lodge ritual that night! Ah, okay…What? We are warned that the experience is intense but we’ll learn so much about ourselves it will be worth it. Great. I am a little wary about co-opting another culture’s religious rite but that’s another post. Everyone in my group of 8 opts in. I mean, how intense could it be?
For a sweat lodge, participants sit in a circle inside a tepee with their backs against the inner walls. In the center of this circle is a shallow pit into which burning red rocks, fresh from baking in a raging fire outside the tepee, are placed and left to smolder and smoke, hoisting the temperature of the tepee way way up. The point is to experience great discomfort and to let that pain flow from your body; to feel it and then release it. You will freak out. The challenge is to keep the faith that the pain will indeed pass. The challenge is to hold on until the end. “No one’s ever died in a sweat lodge,” we are told, and I hang on to that sentence like a life vest (looking back, that is not that reassuring, is it?) If you’re really brave and let go, we’re told, you can hallucinate and step into another level of consciousness. Native American warriors used sweat lodges to find their animal spirit – if we are lucky, our true nature, our greater guide, will take control and be revealed.
Alrighty. Officially having second thoughts…
To prep for this experience, we eat a light dinner and chug tons of water, about two liters. Time to enter the sweat lodge. I’m dressed in baggy shorts and a loose cotton tank top, nothing constricting. I sit opposite the flap (so far away!) that serves as our door and we are packed in, about 25 of us – my hiking group, a few other groups, all of us touching shoulders and knees and nervous. Many people are naked, some are in bathing suits. TMI in many directions, but I’m too wary to care. We begin.
The Native American shaman leader begins to load the burning rocks he has blessed into the pit in the center of the tepee and the steam and heat hit me with a thud. He leaves the tent and returns again and again with his shovel piled with glowing rocks, and the temperature continues to climb. On the last cycle he closes the tent flap behind him and sits. With the exception of a faint glow from the rocks, total darkness.
The air is thick. Breathing is difficult. The heat burns the inside of my nose. I take little “o” shaped breaths. Every instinct tells me to run. Getoutgetoutgetout. Now. A man panics and jumps up, pushing his way to the exit flap, and this relaxes me a bit – I see that leaving is a possibility. All that stops me from following him is my will. I start to bargain with myself – I can hold on for another minute, a few more moments. I can survive. No one has ever died in a sweat lodge –
Turns out, this belief is incorrect. Famously, and tragically, last year, two people died and 19 were hospitalized as a result of their experience in a sweat lodge in Arizona. Their injuries included suffering from burns, dehydration, respiratory arrest, kidney failure and elevated body temperature. Among the dead is a 38 year old woman from NY who was in great shape and loved to hike and surf. Sweat lodges are no joke – dabbling in them as a tourist is not wise.
Back in the tepee, I begin to feel water fall on me in a steady trickle. I wonder if I am sitting under a leak in the tent. Then I realize the dripping water is my own sweat. It runs down my face and neck like a shower. This is not a glow, not dewy perspiration – this is a a full-on body-turning-inside-out gush. I lie down on my back with my knees bent and try to flatten my head as low onto the ground as possible. Hot air rises, of course. Each inch above my nose feels like 5 degrees of extra heat. I close my eyes and try to meditate and clear my brain but my panic continues to reappear, to rise and fall like a monster wave. LET…ME…OUT my mind screams. If I have an animal spirit, it is a horse caught in a burning barn.
I dig my fingers under the base of the tough fabric wall and into the dirt until they reach the cool night desert air outside the tepee. The air blows on my fingertips. The knowledge of this safety, of this sanctuary, heartens me a bit. Still, I am more uncomfortable than I have ever been, body and mind. This is awful. In the dark, I hear a few people cry.
The shaman begins to chant. His tune is melodic, repetitive, hypnotic. He sings in a Native-American language, and his words are foreign and mellifluous. Perhaps his songs are poems. He repeats and repeats and repeats his call until I begin to anticipate his lines. His cycle continues on and on and I find myself swaying a bit to his sounds. My mind begins to swim. How long has he been singing? I have no sense of time, no footholds. And then he indicates he wants us to respond to his call. He continues his repetitive chant…
Singing, for me, is like breathing. I don’t work at it, I just open my mouth and the notes come out, for me, by me. Get me behind the wheel of a car and I’ll happily go from New York to Boston without missing a mile of harmonizing with my Ipod shuffle. My voice is pleasant enough to listen to and it shimmers at times. I sang a cappella in college and in New York performed here and there for a spell, and for a while singing was a big part of my identity until life got in the way and I focused on other things. But beyond any public display, my voice has always just been there – my companion and compass. It calms me. I like the feeling singing makes of resonating in my chest. There are times I sing and am not aware of it – my inner voice made outer. I walk down the street or run or wait for a friend quietly singing, to myself, the songs I’ve loved for so long I can’t imagine life without them. Singing is the diamond I carry in my pocket…
And as the Shaman’s song becomes clear to me, there are other whispers, hums. His tune is within us all now. I, too, begin to sing, quietly.
The sound of my voice is a shock. It is not in me. It is outside of me, above me. I can see it, feel it, the dimensions, the solidity, even though it is just a bit louder than a whisper. It does not reflect the trauma I am going through – it is clear. Super clear. And the confines of the tune fall away and I begin to answer the shaman’s call, altering the syncopation and then harmonizing. I take the melody up an octave into my range – I make the song a woman’s song. And my notes hover in bright purples and reds and blues, in front of my face, tangible, and I follow them through the panic and the heat and the suffocation and they comfort me. They are strong. I dare to sing louder, slowly raising my volume until my song stands on its own, separate from the group chant. I will survive this sweat lodge. My voice will make sure of that.
When the rocks begin to cool, the tepee flap is finally lifted and cold air rushes in. We are released. Groggy and depleted, all of us, my group and the strangers, come together in an impromptu circle outside of the tent. Relief! A woman I don’t know turns to me and asks if I was the singer inside the lodge. Oh no! I instantly worry that I have been too loud and have intruded upon other peoples’ experience. Yes it was me, I say, and I apologize and apologize…and she stops me. “No, no, you misunderstand,” she says. “You helped me. Your voice was my guide. You lead me through this. I followed you.” “So did I,” says a man across the circle. ‘So did I,’ says another woman. And they shyly walk toward me to hug me, thanking me for the help. Kind of a mind-blower. Lord above, yes, quite the intense experience. I would have cried if I had any water left for tears.
And so, tomorrow Edison Pena will run the ING NY Marathon. He’ll be running without the headlamp he needed to navigate the pitch-black tunnels he tackled underground. He’ll be running without the “fury in (his) chest” that challenged God to kill him. But he’ll still be fueled with whatever it was that powers him, some strength he probably can’t describe but that he knows, without a doubt, is there. As it is with all of us. Hopefully, we won’t need something traumatic to find it but it’s there. Still not sure? No problem, I’ll hum a few bars and you’ll know the tune.