A Story of Rebirth in Peru
With Halloween on the horizon, I've been thinking (and talking a lot in class) about abhinivesah, or in english fear/clinging to bodily life. I've learned throughout the years, and continue to learn, that fear is a great teacher, if we're willing to confront it. Below you will find the story (some of you may have heard from me in class at some point) of me confronting a fear of mine last year in Peru, and what I learned from it. Hope you enjoy, or at least get a good giggle out of it.
I woke up at 2:30 am with a light layer of sweat on my body, and a queasy stomach; surely, a bad omen for the day ahead. I took a few chewable pepto, and after about 30 minutes I was able to settle myself enough to go back to sleep for a few more hours. When I woke up again, the queasiness had left my tummy, but in it's place were the most active group of butterflies, ever.
The previous week my group of teacher trainees decided to participate in a Temazkalli. When asked if this was something we'd be interested in, my first thought was, "What kind of drug is that, and how much trouble would I be in with the teacher training department if I took all of my students on that kind of "trip" while here in Peru?" The confusion must have been evident on face, because I was quickly informed that Temazkalli was a sweat lodge.
Sitting in a confined space and sweating, sounds like my personal hell, but since the rest of the group seemed down, I decided to jump on board. Funny thing is, we all agreed to this adventure before learning that the ceremony would take about 4 hours. You read that correctly. FOUR HOURS sweating in a small clay hut!!!!
Over the week leading up to the ceremony, each student, one by one, began to express their concerns, "I don't do well with heat," "What if I can't make it through the whole thing," "I'm not sure I actually want to do this," "Wait, how long?" Each of their concerns echoed my own, but by the time the day came, seven out of the nine of us decided to dive in with the repeated agreement that if it became too intense we would leave.
After a morning of a strictly juice diet, we came to the fire outside the hut with water bottles, precious objects to us (crystals, malas, etc), and an offering of fruit. Like seven little bumps on a log we sat buzzing with energy as Taki, our leader for the ceremony (side note; Taki also has a medium sized, black, hairless dog with a wiry red beard named Taki Perro, that accompanied him), and his friend/apprentice, Fabian from Mexico, explained to us the order of the day. He began with a song/prayer in Spanish giving thanks and asking permission. Next he sang a song about tobacco, which was followed by all of us passing around a hand rolled cigarette, drawing the smoke in (without inhaling it), and then blowing it down each arm, into our shirts (towards our heart), and then into our hand to guide over our head. Once this was done, we turned to each of the four directions plus the earth and the sky for more thanks and permission. After all of this was done, Taki said to us, "Today we will die."
Surely I didn't hear him correctly, but upon looking at the other faces in the group, it was confirmed, this man in a ceremonial sarong that had a bit of a worn slit in the back where a sliver of his left butt cheek shone through, had just told us, moments before walking into the hut, that we were all going to die... deep breath.
I was smudged with sage by Fabian and then entered the hut, pausing in the doorway to kneel, put my forehead to the earth, and as instructed, ask for protection for myself, my family, and all my relations. As each rock, fresh from the fire, entered the hut we shouted, a "Bienvenida abuelita!" Which in English means, "Welcome little grandmother!" Taki marked each stone with a piece of something that gave off a scent like frankincense. Once all the stones were in, Fabian joined us, and closed the flap over the entrance behind him. It was dark. Like, fo-real fo-real...D-A-R-K, dark. It was so dark that there was no difference between sitting with my eyes open or closed. I heard the sound of eucalyptus branches swishing in a water bucket, and then a loud sizzle as the water from the branches was flung onto the stones, over and over until the bucket was empty, and the space was filled with steam. As the steam rose it felt as though the walls were closing in and someone had ahold of my windpipe, making it difficult to breath. My eyes darted around in the dark looking for any sliver of light from which to draw comfort, but there were none. Eventually I closed my eyes, and like a mantra, began repeating, silently, to myself, "I'm okay, I'm okay, I'm okay" until eventually I was. Taki sang, and then we all had a chance to go around the circle and share.
After the first round, or door, a couple of the girls in the group decided that they'd had enough of dying for one day, and politely, but quickly, made their way out.
We stayed in the hut with the flap open, and welcomed in more hot little grandma stones before diving into round two. Again we sang, shared, and prayed; this time for Mother Earth, the feminine, and our families. One more of us hit our limit and skedaddled. Twice more we did this, for a total of four doors. Between each one, more stones, more heat, and a different offering/prayer.
Halfway through, Fabian took over. He asked Taki "mo se dice "va-heena" en ingles" (umm... we totally got it). Once he received his answer, he went on, in broken English, to explain to us that the entrance to the lodge represents a â€œva-heenaâ€ (vagina), and we were all sitting in the womb of Mother Earth. So, basically, once we're done with all the doors, and we leave the sweat lodge, it will be like being reborn. Now that I knew that new life was on the other side, death felt less daunting. We were given water to drink before the next door, and encouraged to rub the wet clay/mud on any aches or injuries on our body. I quickly painted every inch of my body that had been decorated by the mosquitos at Machu Picchu.
The third round was the hottest, and we remained in silence throughout. Several strange things happened to me during this round. First, I actually started to enjoy the heat, and second, for the first time since my sister's passing, I felt her presence without experiencing an overwhelming sadness. I miss her, everyday, and had spent the past two years battling an army of grief. In this moment, that army seemed to lay down their weapons of self pity, depression, and sorrow, and allowed me to see that she was free. It wasn't until we completed this door that we were told it was for the dead.
By the time we made it to our final round, I felt giddy. Fabian asked us how it felt, and the only word that came to mind was bubbles!
We left the hut, muddy and wrung out, but smiling. We were each washed off with freezing cold water from the waterfall that overlooked our temporary home in the Sacred Valley.
It is commonly said that all fear in life stems from a fear of death and/or a lack of information/understanding. I would be lying to say that my time in that sweat lodge relieved me of all my fears, or cured me of my grief (Please note, that grief army still shows up from time to time, but since that moment in the sweat lodge their ranks have grown smaller, and I've picked up a few useful weapons of my own), but it did remind me that the suffering is only temporary, and only for the living. It reminded me that the fear I held for going into the sweat lodge was one that I had constructed in my mind, and that if I had allowed it to, that fear could have kept me from what is now one of my most cherished experiences. Choosing to be present with our fears can be terrifying, and at times, painful, but if we learn to breath through it ("I'm okay, I'm okay, I'm okay"), then maybe, just maybe, we come to understand it, and thus, becomes a little less scary. And if we're really lucky, that understanding brings us one step closer to liberation.
Join Ashley for Body & Soul: New Year's in Peru, December 27, 2021 - January 5, 2022.