Enclosed in the dark confines of a temazcal, a lesson on endurance and overcoming fears.
by Tracy L. Barnett
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The temazcal, or sweat lodge, is a centerpiece of the spiritual village where I’ve come to live, deep in the countryside of Mexico’s Western Highlands. One sits at the heart of the community, and many families have their own temazcal, as well. This ceremony was a special one: Juan Carlos was turning 52 — a deeply significant number. According to indigenous tradition, 52 represents the end of a cycle and the midway point of life; it is the entry into true adulthood, when one becomes an elder of the community.
He had invited friends from all over to take part in the event. Besides the temazcal ceremony, there would be Aztec dancers and an all-night flor y canto (flower and song) ceremony.
I arrived at sundown and found a large group around the fire, none of whom I knew. Juan Carlos, in all white with a red band around his head and another around his waist, spotted me.
“Are you going to join us for the temazcal?” he asked. “Well, I was thinking of it, but it seems there are a lot of people,” I answered hesitantly. “Yes, but there is a lot of temazcal!” he replied.
I looked over at the small, blanket-covered dome that waited behind us. It was perhaps three meters across, and much of that taken up by a big hole in the middle for the stones that would be shoveled in from the fire to heat the space. I was dubious, but Juan Carlos’ confidence won me over. So I joined the circle and was invited to open the songbook to a random selection.
“Tierra mi cuerpo, agua mi sangre
Aire mi aliento, y fuego mi espíritu,” we sang.
“How does it make you feel?” asked Abuela Marta, whose silver curls framed a youthful, smiling face.
“It makes me feel welcome and at home,” I said. “In my pueblo, we sing the same song, but in English.”
“Bueno, will you sing it for us?”
So I did – a bit off key, but nobody seemed to care:
“Earth my body, water my blood
Air my breath and fire my spirit.”
Soon the last scraps of light faded from the sky, and it was time to be blessed by the copal incense and enter the temazcal.
Women first, each in turn kneeling at the mouth of the temazcal, asking permission to enter and touching our heads to the ground. “Todas mis relaciones (All my relations),” each of us murmured and entered the dome in a clockwise fashion, circling the hole in the center.
I tried to make myself comfortable on the damp earthen floor, squeezed between an ample woman to my left and a smaller one to my right. Our eyes met, we smiled. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could make out some ribbons dangling from the star-shaped pattern in the ceiling where the bamboo frame came together.
Juan Carlos was telling us this would be a rebirth; we must leave all of our old vices and misconceptions behind and be born anew.
Hoka hey! He said, quoting the Lakotas: This is a good day to die! Our old selves die today to make way for a new one.
The group chanted with him: Hoka hey!
It’s a symbolic death, I reminded myself a bit apprehensively, and shouted out my own battle cry.
“Remember that inside the temazcal, we are all connected – all one single heart,” Juan Carlos said. “If one of us is struggling, we can all share with that person our strength.” I never imagined that I might be the struggling one.
I was an old hand at sweat lodge ceremonies back in the States; I had endured a five-round sweat that practically melted me into the Earth. I felt that my temazcal credentials were secure, and I wasn’t worried.
Soon the temazcal was full, and Juan Carlos urged us to squeeze in tighter. “There are still 10 more of us,” he said.
I was seated at the back, squeezed in tight between my neighbors, and there was no room to move over. In front of us were a row of men and they found a way to accommodate a few more people. Now I was pressed in from the front as well as both sides. I thought about the people who had died in a sweat lodge in Arizona two years ago. My family would never forgive me if I died in a temazcal ceremony. I laughed at myself – these people were old hands, and there was no need to worry about such a thing.
I focused on the glowing Grandmother Stones as they were one by one shoveled in; with every new rock the people sang a welcome:
“Bienveni-ida, bienveni-ida, bienvenida abuelita (Welcome, grandmother).”
Juan Carlos moved each of them into place with a pair of deer antlers and blessed each with a chunk of copal incense. The pungent scent filled the air.
“Puerta!” Juan Carlos cried out, signaling for the fire keeper to lower the flap of blanket over the door, our last remaining source of light. Now we were immersed in total darkness.
The singing and chanting began, and I tried to sing along, to submerge myself in the rhythm of the drum. But the fire was smoking badly, and I needed to cough. I hadn’t been afraid of the heat, but it began to dawn on me that there are other ways to die in a temazcal.
I tried to breathe through my fear and the intense discomfort of my rising claustrophobia. I stared fiercely into the glow of the grandmothers. Then a woman’s voice cried out, asking permission to leave.
“Why do you want to leave?” Juan Carlos queried.
“I feel bad – I feel crowded, I can’t breathe, I feel like I’m going to suffocate,” she said, an anguish in her voice that reflected my own repressed fear. “I can’t stand it.” I felt bad for her, but at the same time I felt relieved. I wasn’t alone in my distress, at least. And now, perhaps, I could leave.
“Very well, you can leave if you really want to. But first, tell me more. What’s your name?”
“Laura,” she said.
“When did you first feel this way? Was there someone who made you feel this way when you were a child?”
She began to sob.
“Was it your mother? Your father? A brother or sister? A man?”
She sobbed harder.
I began to feel the panic rising; since a bout with pneumonia years ago, I have struggled with bronchitis and a phobia about not being able to breathe. I needed space to cough. Space that I didn’t have.
Time to face your fears, I told myself severely.
“Who was it? You can share it with us!”
“My mother!” she finally gasped. “She controlled my every move, she suffocated me, I couldn’t stand it.”
“Scream out your fear!” Juan Carlos urged her. “Scream it out!”
A shrill, frightened scream filled the darkness.
“Again! Let it out!”
Another – this time stronger – and another.
“Excellent – how do you feel now?”
There was a pause. “Better,” she finally said, quietly.
“Do you want to leave now, or do you want to aguantar?”
Aguantar means to endure, but in Spanish, it has a greater connotation of strength and nobility than in English, where often it’s taken to mean helpless, hapless suffering.
Laura was neither helpless nor hapless.
“Aguantar!” she cried, with all her might.
A cheer went up in the darkness, and my heart sank. I realized in my distress that I had been hoping she’d leave and create a space for me to leave soon as well… or at least create more space for the rest of us. I swallowed my shame and joined in the singing. Steam rose in great clouds in the darkness as Juan Carlos splashed water on the rocks.
Volamos como águilas
Volamos muy alto
Alrededor del cielo
Con alas de luz
(We fly like eagles, we fly very high, all around the heavens, with wings of light…)
I didn’t feel like an eagle, I felt like a small sweating animal in a cage, and I longed for air and for light. I prayed for a speedy round.
Soon my prayer was answered. “Puerta!” rang out – a cry for the door to be opened. The glowing flames beyond the door reassured me, and a cool breath of air swept through the dome.
“Permission to leave!” rang out another voice. This time it was the woman beside me – Miriam. “I have to attend to my son!” She was already rising to her knees and my spirits rose. Now I would have some space. But no – Juan Carlos was questioning her.
“What is it, Miriam? Why are you wanting to leave!” she sank to her knees. “Many things,” she murmured.
“What is it?”
Miriam sighed. “It’s my son – I realized he has no jacket, and it’s cold. And also… I’m feeling claustrophobic, and my back hurts.”
“What is it really, Miriam? Do you want to share?”
Miriam was trembling next to me. She began to cry. “It’s very hard,” she said.
“That’s it, let it out,” Juan Carlos encouraged her. “You can draw on our strength. Fuerza hermanita (strength, little sister!)” he cried out.
“Fuerza!” cried out the others.
“How do you feel, hermanita?”
“Do you want to leave, or aguantar?”
She rearranged herself and I felt more closed in than before. I sighed. There was no escape now, without seeming like a wimpy gringa.
I analyzed my situation. I was intensely uncomfortable, but the small amount of congestion in my lungs was manageable, I could breathe through it. I was not being seized by the coughing fit I had anticipated. I rose above the panic and looked at it. “Aguantar,” I said to myself, and settled in for another round.
This one was filled with yet more anguished voices seeking relief: There was the mother who feared for her son, who had changed since he started spending time with a new, malicious group of young friends; and there was her son, who amazingly responded from the other side of the temazcal, sharing his own anguish: he was afraid if he didn’t go with the group, they would beat him up. Prayers went up for the boy and his mother; the boy was urged to go on a vision quest, and a song was dedicated to him.
There was a man who had hurt his wife and a woman named Jessica; he pleaded for forgiveness.
And there was me, remembering my mother in the darkness of her bedroom, fighting for her life in a nearly lethal respiratory condition that has never been diagnosed; she cured herself over a period of years through a macrobiotic diet and therapy.
Aguantar, I thought. I come from strong stock. If my mother can do it, so can I.
“Prefiero esta medicina, a estar internado en un hospital,” sang Juan Carlos – I prefer this medicine to being interned in a hospital. Gradually, like a light gleaming in the darkness, I understood why I was here. This was part of the medicine. I was learning to aguantar.
I raised my voice in the chant. Yes, I prefer this medicine, too.
I came to this place to work on unifying my fragmented mind, body and spirit; too many years in front of a computer screen, distracted from the distractions that serve as the centerpiece of a life in a modern metropolitan newsroom. My unruly, wild mind resisted meditation; my stiff body balked at yoga. My concentration was shot, and I wasn’t sure I could really believe in anything anymore.
Here in the steamy heat of the temazcal, all of that melted away to something more essential.
Something, like the red-hot rock at the core of my being, flickered and glowed. I relaxed and breathed in the heat, medicine for my weary soul: the knowledge that I could dominate my fears, that I could strengthen my too-soft body, mind and spirit. That I was, in fact, already doing just that.
“Remember these are just our bodies. We are masters of our bodies; we are parts of God, and we can make our bodies do our will,” the fierce voice of Abuela Marta rang out.
I had prepared myself for four rounds of 13 stones apiece, 52 stones, one for each of Juan Carlos’ years. But at the end of the third round, with the man in front of me retreating from the fierce heat of the fire and pressing back against me, with my back aching and the ground below me turned to rocky torture, I felt I had endured enough. It had to have been three hours by now; I was strong enough already.
“It’s time for the last round, and it will be fuerte,” Juan Carlos said. That seemed to be my opening. I started to rise.
“Permiso para salir,” I said.
Miriam reached out to me in the darkness. “Do you really want to leave? It’s just one more round. I can give you more space if you need it,” she said. The men in front moved a bit to help me. “Do you want to leave? Or do you want to stretch out your feet and put them here?”
I could breathe a little freer. Just one more round. “Sí, quiero aguantar,” I gasped.
Three more rounds went by — yes, it was not one, but three, perhaps another hour, perhaps two — but it was worth it. Many lessons came to me in the darkness of the temazcal that night. One round was dedicated to the Coyote Spirit, and the chant was a Lakota laugh at death, at terror, at suffering, at life itself. I thought I saw the shadow of the coyote crouching in front of the door.
“Death is nothing to fear — I can tell you because I’ve been there,” Abuela Marta, a warrior woman whose gentle features and kind voice belied a life of hardships, told us. ”I was dead for 15 minutes in a hospital in Querétaro after an accident and I can tell you it’s the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me. Don’t be afraid.”
“Hey, hey, o wah hey,” we chanted. “Ho, ho, ho.” And all the suffering seemed at once to be tremendously funny.
We ended the last round with a cheer and made our way one by one to the door of the temazcal, the mouth of the womb of our Great Mother. “Welcome,” Juan Carlos greeted me with a warm embrace, and then Abuela Marta. “Congratulations.” I went around the fire and received an embrace by each of those who had gone before. Warming my sweaty new self by the fire, I felt a new freshness and a lightness in my lungs and in my mind. I felt ready to … aguantar… practically anything.
Tracy L. Barnett
is an independent writer currently residing in Tlajomulco de Zúñiga, México. In a journalism career that has spanned three decades, she has covered everything from presidential campaigns to farmworker campaigns. Now her primary assignment is learning how to live. To see more of her work, visit her website www.tracybarnettonline.com