The Refiner’s Fire
The refiner’s fire comes in many forms. Sometimes you choose the fire and other times the fire chooses you. The fire could be a yoga class, a journey, a ceremony, an illness, a divorce, a new job, a birth, or a death. I can almost guarantee that over the course of your life, you have seen and will see this refiner’s fire in myriad forms. In part, the purpose of this fire is to make you seriously uncomfortable. Sometimes The Fatemaker makes us walk on hot coals to get us to pay attention.
In yoga philosophy the Sanskrit word tapas means the heat necessary for transformation. Since time out of mind, and through many cultures and spiritual traditions, people have used heat in sacred ceremony as a way of powerfully transforming people’s body, mind, and spirit.
Need for Change
Several years ago, I needed change in my life. I felt stuck with some deeply personal issues. Everything I was doing to help gain clarity in my life seemed fruitless. Then, my friend Wendy who has a deep practice in Native American spirituality, invited me to attend a sweat lodge ceremony she was hosting at her house. She told me that a trusted medicine man she knew would be in town in a week or so and would be officiating the ceremony. I felt that this invitation to do this ceremony was providence, that the Universe was offering me a powerful answer to my life’s circumstances and perhaps I could gain some clarity. I said yes. I decided that what I needed was to walk into the fire.
A sweat lodge ceremony is sort of like burning down the forest to see through the trees and to illuminate the stars and see the mountains around you so you can forge a path forward.
The heat of the ceremony is a ritual, a physical action that transforms body, mind, and spirit. Previously, I had attended and even conducted dozens of sweat lodge ceremonies. I almost always conduct a sweat during the yoga retreats that I host a few times a year at my uncle’s cabin in the Uinta Mountains in Utah, so I assumed that I knew more or less what I was about to experience.
I was wrong.
The Ceremony of Fire
The day for the ceremony came and we made all the preparations. Once we were situated inside, an officiator began to carry several red-hot stones, one-by-one, from the coals of a fir to carefully arrange them in the shallow pit located in the middle of the lodge. As the mound of hot stones grew, I could feel their heat pressing into my legs resting crossed-legged on the bare earth a mere 18 inches away.
After the stones were in place, the officiator closed the flap that served as the only door, and the lodge plunged into blackness except for the deep, red glow of the stones. Immediately, the medicine man began to ladle water onto the hot stones making them hiss angrily like threatening rattlesnakes. A wave of searing heat quickly smacked me in the face and I reeled feeling as though all the air inside the lodge had been suddenly sucked out.
I sat among strangers, swallowed by heat and darkness, blinking wildly as I gulped down hot air which began to boil me from the inside. Within only a minute or so, my pores had opened and my entire body shimmered with hot sweat, cascading down my back, dripping into my eyes and off the tip of my nose, hitting the earth with tapping thuds.
The medicine man began to play a drum in a fast staccato. As if on cue, my core temperature rose and my heart began pounding in my ears, almost matching his drum. Leonard sang in loud and feral syllables, a language I did not understand, one of pure spirit.
After many minutes, he stopped singing and drumming and began imploring the Great Spirit, Father Sun, Mother Earth, the souls of the living and the dead, inviting the spirits of the elements, the stars, and our ancestors to join us in this ceremony of darkness and fire. Once the medicine man had finished his long prayers, he asked each person in the circle to pray aloud in turn. One by one, timid voices began offering their desires, hopes, and sufferings to the darkness and to the patient ears of the red-hot stones. The medicine man said that all forms of prayer are accepted in this church of mud and stones. As each person prayed, the temperature rose steadily and I felt as though time itself was melting, each minute stretching into oppressively long hours. The unbearable heat moved my heart from open to merely patient to annoyed and then to straight-up angry. I felt as though each person took lifetimes to say what was in their heart, while all I could think was, “Hurry up and pray, dammit!”
Then, after nearly four hours of wrestling with this physical and spiritual heat, I had reached my limit. I was starting to drift into unconsciousness, causing waves of panic to rise within me. Thoughts of, “Oh well, I did my best” soon eroded to, “F–this, I am leaving!” and I sprang to flee for my life. I crawled in a haze, desperate to get out the door. I was drunk with a lust to breathe fresh air, to lay my bare skin on the cool grass, to get out of that heat. I reached the door, popped open the flap, and as my body was about half way out, Leonard placed his big, calloused hand on my back in a supportive gesture and in my weakened state, the simple weight of his hand caused my arms to buckle and I collapsed onto my belly, face-down in the mud. I was half in and half out of the lodge. Panting. Head spinning. It was now dark outside though I could not guess at the hour. I gulped in the cool, night air.
“Brother,” Leonard said as he began to bless me… and for several minutes I lay face-down in the mud as Leonard spoke to the spirits in and around me. He blessed me with strengths and wisdom. He blessed me with a special gift to see into the future and into the past. He blessed me with the ability to see into different realms, the cosmic and the earthly, the masculine and feminine, to stand at the crossroads and translate to as well as direct others. He blessed me to heal my heart. He blessed my relationships, each a sacred ceremony in and of themselves. He blessed me to listen. He blessed me to speak.
After 10 or 15 minutes of prayers, I began to feel renewed in body and spirit. A surge of courage washed over me. My strength returned. I pushed back up to hands and knees and felt surprised as I felt myself crawling back inside the lodge. Despite it all, I was crawling back into the heat.
As I took my seat again in the circle, the officiators shut the door, closing off the cool, night air but not before bringing in an enormous, beautiful bowl of cold, fresh raspberries. Now something you ought to know about me is that up to this point in my life, I wasn’t all that partial raspberries. Tart pebbles in my mouth. But that night, after all that I had been through, I was sharp, alert, elated, and this experience had blessed me with an unparalleled presence. Despite the fact that I didn’t care for raspberries, I’m here to tell you that when that bowl was passed to me, I took three cold, fresh raspberries and placed them into my tongue, and at that moment I saw the face of god! Never has anything tasted so beautiful, so sweet, so refreshing.
Fire Brings Clarity
I went on to finish the ceremony and after another 90 minutes, I left that sweat lodge feeling reborn. After, as my body lay steaming on the grass, looking up into the night sky, I was given the most beautiful clarity, clarity that has shaped who I am today.
Sometimes you choose the fire. Sometimes the fire chooses you. Either way, you will experience the heat of refinement throughout your life and as you do, it will clarify the path that you need to take.
Barn’s burnt down.
Now I can see the moon
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Photo by Alex Adams
Scott Moore is a senior teacher of yoga and mindfulness in the US (New York, Salt Lake City, LA) and abroad and the author of Practical Yoga Nidra: The 10-Step Method to Reduce Stress, Improve Sleep, and Restore Your Spirit. When he’s not teaching or conducting retreats, or traveling to teach, he also writes for Conscious Life News, Elephant Journal, Mantra Magazine, Medium, and his own blog at scottmooreyoga.com. Scott also loves to run, play the saxophone, and travel with his wife and son. Check out his yoga retreats and trainings in places like Tuscany, France, and Hong Kong , his online Yoga Nidra Course and his Yoga Teacher Mentor Program. Scott just moved back to Salt Lake City after living in Southern France with his family.