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Temascal - A sweaty, spiritual experience

Written on: Tuesday April 15th, 2008

A journal entry from: North America in our Camper Van!

We made arrangements to attend a temascal at the Ecovillage, to be hosted by Andres, another resident of Huehuecoytl and a practicing Shaman. Andres, originally from Mexico, is also one of the original founders of the Ecovillage (and was a member of the travelling gypsy theater). Ironically, Andres? wife is Danish, and she is currently visiting family in Denmark, very close to where we were lived for six months. Andres also visits Denmark every year to perform ceremonies and sweat lodges in Thisted and speaks Danish. A small world it is.

A temascal is an ancient indigenous tradition. It dates as far back as Mesoamerica and was used by the Mayan, the Toltec and the American Indians. Simplistically it is a sweat lodge, but its intent is really a spiritual, physical and mental cleanse.

We arrived early as Andres had requested that we help set everything up. We were very happy to do so and in fact, some of the most interesting parts of the ceremony were performed while preparing for the temascal itself. We started by clearing out leaves and debris from the large fire-circle and inside and around the temascal structure. The temascal structure was a sort-of dome built from bamboo shoots tied together at nodes. Its dirt base was approximately 3 meters across. In the center was a large depression, evidently for placing for the hot rocks. We also chopped and sorted wood and removed any metal, wire or nails embedded into the logs and gathered lava rocks. The building of the fire was very procedural and symbolic. Andres lit incense beside the fire and began by taking one log and bending down onto one knee to wave the log over the incense as he said something under his breath. He then reflected for several moments, stood up and ?offered? the log to the West, by facing in that direction and again, what I thought was a quiet chant. He repeated this procedure to all four directions (North, East, South) and offered the last log straight up to the sky, each time placing the log in a specific pattern in the fire-cirlce. He then repeated the same procedure with the lava rocks. He also asked Rob and I to each place a lava rock and make a dedication while doing so. I dedicated my rock to my intuition, and to increasing my willingness to listen to it, and follow it. With everything in place we started placing more logs, more lava rocks and small sticks and other combustibles on top of the pile to make what was going to be a very large fire. We then grabbed a few buckets of water and made sure to wet down the surrounding trees, as it is the dry season and so a big fire could be dangerous. And finally, Andres took out a small box of matches and asked Rob to stand on the South side of the fire, with me on the West. We would light the fire from all four sides at the same time, with Andres doing North and East. As Andres and Rob lit their sides, I looked down at my wet hands and wondered how well I would be able to strike a match. Not very well, as I started to be engulfed by smoke and had broken three matches. I finally succeeded and jumped back from the now roaring fire, my eyes burning and watering.

Now that the rocks were well on their way, we had to cover the temascal structure. First, a large white tarp was draped over the dome, such that the slit on the tarp was aligned with the dome opening. Next, blankets were draped over the tarp so that the inside of the dome would be very dark. The idea here is that the dome represents mother earth?s womb, in which you enter (usually naked) and exit, reborn and purified.

Now we just had to wait for the rocks to be ready, about 40 minutes. Andres suggested that we relax, contemplate and/or meditate in preparation for the ceremony.

We have no photos of the actual ceremony. First off, Andres asked us not to take any, secondly, the steam probably would have ruined our camera. And so my written account will have to do, until you have the opportunity to experience it for yourself. We had four other people from the Ecovillage (including Toņa) join us for the temascal, and so we were 7 in total, including Andres. After being anointed with incense we entered the dome, one by one, crawling on our hands and knees. This was important as it symbolized one?s connection with the dirt and the earth. As we passed through the opening, we had to recite a Nahuatl (native-language) phrase (which I can no longer remember) which translated to ?to all of my relations?. The idea here is that the purpose of the temascal ceremony is to reflect and strengthen all of ones relations: relation to the earth, to all living things and to all other people. Everything inside the dome also happened clockwise. Andres explained that clockwise symbolizes things coming together, while counter-clockwise symbolizes coming apart. A designated fire-man and fire-woman fetched one rock at a time from the fire-circle, brushed off the ashes with a bundle of wound mandarin leaves, and passed the red-hot rock (placed on a shovel) inside to Andres, who would acknowledge the rock and place it in the center depression. Next, one person would make a ?C?-ish shape on the rock with a piece of tree sap, and two others would manipulate the rock to its position (either North, East, South or West) using a bone and an antler. Andres also advised us to attempt to read the rock and see if a particular shape or figure appeared (similar to when looking at clouds). ?The rocks speak to us and have messages for us, if we are willing to listen?, he told us. When six rocks were placed inside, the fire-man and fire-woman entered and closed the door behind them, engulfing us in darkness. Andres begun the ceremony by asking us each to introduce ourselves and make a dedication or set an intention. He then started steaming the rocks by slapping them with a wetted bundle of mandarin leaves. As steam and the scent of mandarin leaves filled the air, the temperature rose. After Andres finished his dedication and a long, but very interesting soliloquy to nature and Mother Earth, he began to chant and drum as he continued to make more and more steam. We all joined in. The heat, the chanting, the drum, it was all so? hypnotic. I remember having my eyes closed and just swaying to the rhythm of the drumming feeling slightly intoxicated. After about 15 minutes the chanting slowed and stopped and Andres indicated that the first round was over. This whole process was repeated four times, each time increasing in intensity and heat. For the last several rounds the heat was so intense that Rob and I both had to lie down on our sides and bury our faces into the colder moist soil. Here the air was musty but damp and cool. Dirt clung to our bodies which were already covered in sweat and steam and I felt compelled to spread more soil on my arms and legs in a gesture of connection to the Earth below me. As the ceremony climaxed I remember fighting back a temptation to burst into tears. Rather abruptly, the heat dropped and Andres indicated that we would each make one last dedication, expression of gratitude, prayer, song, intention, or whatever we would like. The flap was opened and we exited one at a time crawling clockwise on our hands and knees. The original color of my white robe was no longer distinguishable. The last part of the ceremony was to individually thank each participant for sharing in the experience. And although I had only briefly met most of the participants prior to starting the ceremony, I felt this amazing connection to everyone. We hugged, held hands, hugged some more in a beautiful exchange of gratitude and love. I felt relieved, relaxed, yet elevated and slightly high.

Toņa invited everyone to come and have a pot-luck diner and also offered for Rob and I to shower and clean up at her house. We spent a lovely but short evening visiting with Carlos, Valerie, Toņa and Andres as everyone was exhausted. Once Rob and I made it home, I threw myself into bed without even bothering to brush my teeth and fell asleep as my head hit the pillow. A deep and sound sleep pursued.

 

From Sloan on Apr 28th, 2008

Very cool experience, that sounds awesome.

From Annette on Apr 28th, 2008

Thanks once again for the amazing writing you do on these stories.. I felt very much like the 8th person experiencing that temascal with you! What an amazing experience that you so eloquently shared!