Sweat Lodge: A Balance in the Aftermath of Tragedy

October 19, 2009


The recent tragedy at the sweat lodge in Sedona—now three deaths—has cast an unfortunate and undeserved pall over all lodges and the sacred ceremonies held within.

The lodge plays an important and spiritual role in many gatherings. Beautiful transformations in the men have taken place as a result of their experiences in the lodge at our retreats.

Losing the ability to sweat, because of fear or ignorance, would be a tremendous loss for us, and for countless other men, women and children who honor this ancient ritual.

In an effort to enlighten and inform our friends, I’ve asked lodge leader and friend, Paul Perrotta, if I could include a recent email of his in our blog. Please pass this on. We look forward to your comments.

From Paul Perrotta:

Hi relatives.  I hope you’re all well.

I’m writing about the Arizona sweat.  I’m sure you’ve heard about it.  Very sad.  I’m sure it’s affecting everyone connected to any lodge and I expect you’ll be feeling the squeeze also, in one way or another.

When I heard about this incident I intended to aggressively pursue any information I could get to explain what happened.  I had many questions at first.

I read that some were treated for burns.  Drug and alcohol rehabilitation sweats run by traditionalists are the hottest I’ve been in and I’ve never seen anyone treated for burns.  I read that the people fasted for 36 hours before sweating.  What did they eat after? How long was it in between the fast and the food and the sweat?  What else happened during that time?  I read that the “self help guru” had been doing this for 6 years.  Once a year? Monthly? Weekly?  Did the people ask for help, and what was the response?

When I heard that the lodge was covered with plastic, and then I saw the picture showing that it was basically sealed in plastic, I was no longer surprised that people died in there.  I was in a lodge sealed in plastic one time.  Never again.  It was toxic and nasty.

I am in no way trying to minimize this incident, and, I know that drama brings adrenalin, which is addictive, and the press thrives on it, and fear is the hook.  So, I’d like to reassure you and remind you of some things that I hope will help maintain balance during the aftermath.

There are many thousands of lodges and leaders and it’s been going on for thousands of years.

Relatives, I’ve been sweating for 35 years.  I’ve been sweating regularly for 25 years and have been pouring water for nearly 20 years.  For the last 4 or 5 years, I’ve been sweating with about 150 High School seniors each year. This year alone Elissa and I have done over 40 sweats, so far.  Our last sweat was blessed with a sweet, tiny nine-year-old girl for the first two rounds.  I’ve known dozens who’ve been sweating all their lives, and with their families growing up.  I’ve known many sweat leaders and I’ve never heard of this before—though I did read this morning that seven have died in the lodge in the last 16 years, (in three countries, combined.)

It seems clear to me that the experience level of the lodge leader is the source of this tragedy. There are many novices out there who, from a naïve but very narcissistic place, hold the sweat lodge as an activity and an enterprise.  They think it’s just heating stones and pouring water.  It’s not uncommon for an accomplished practitioner of one practice to get a glimpse of how the sweat ceremony can enhance their own practice and think they understand enough to “pick up the bucket”.  This level of narcissism prevents them from humbling down into the role of student.  The awareness and willingness to surrender to an apprenticeship seems a thing of the past.

I’d like you to know that I’ve been sweating with public schools and government programs for 20 years, here and there.

Unlike most traditionalists I’ve known, I have been closely connected to many different kinds of lodges and I hope my training, experience, commitment and integrity will be a source of comfort for all involved.

In the end, I believe this tragedy will serve the overall good by thinning out those who make an activity or an enterprise out of the lodge and her ceremony.

If you feel it would be helpful, please share this with any who might be afraid of sweating based on safety.  If they’re afraid of sweating based on being afraid of their shadows…well…it’s a big club!

For those who have decided not to sweat again based on your last experience, or this incident, or whatever, Aho.  For those who have a heart for the lodge, I look forward to sweating with you again.

Much love,