Year To Live Project: What The Hell Is Sacred?
April 1, 2016 – Taos New Mexico
What is sacred? What does the word “sacred” mean? What does it mean to you? Do you know?
This question has weighed heavily on me lately – one of many. It’s kept me up late at night and pushed me toward cracking open books like the Bible and A Course in Miracles. I usually read detective novels or spy stories. You know, stuff you can fall asleep to and not feel like you’re missing out.
My family attended a Presbyterian church growing up. Despite being both an attorney and an engineer, my dad made time to sing in the choir while my mom dealt with us kids squirming in our seats. I went to Sunday school and learned about God and Moses and the Ten Commandments. Truthfully, I just liked the chocolate chip cookies they bought us off with at the end of the hour long lesson. Well played, Presbos.
By the time we moved to Japan in my fifth grade year, whatever pseudo sacred motions we went through as a family were lost. We stopped going to church. Christmas was celebrated weeks early to make room for travel plans. Family dinners often got turned into solo affairs due to everyone’s varying schedules. Nothing was sacred anymore.
Seated Indian style, no pun intended, my sweaty shoulder touches the woman on my right and the man on my left. I can reach six inches above my head and touch the carpeted ceiling of the sweat lodge we’re all packed in. I have to pee out the mug full of sage tea I slurped down just minutes ago. The carpet flap that is the door to our lodge is closed, and with the exception of the slight glow from the center pit of heated stones, we are enveloped in darkness. Claustrophobia has never been an issue for me, but I feel the space get smaller and smaller as each glowing red stone is brought in to join us.
This is my second time in a month sitting in this lodge outside of Taos, once at the new moon and now tonight on the eve of spring. I’m a long way from Connecticut. I’m a long way from California. I’m a long way from anything familiar other than my board shorts quickly being soaked through from the sheets of sweat pouring down my chest and back.
“Welcome, sister!” we say in unison as each stone enters our world.
The pit glows with the stones, and we welcome and give thanks to the water that enters next. The rocks hiss angrily as the ladles are emptied onto them and the temperature in the hut begins to rise. Rapidly. It’s getting hot. Uncomfortably hot. Hot enough that breathing starts to become painful. I’m dizzy. I’m not sure I want to be in here any longer and we haven’t even begun.
“Thank you, sister water,” we say.
Where Does Gratitude Fit In?
“What are you not actively grateful for only for the fact that it hasn’t been taken away from you yet?” is another question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. The image of my hospice patient Emelio trying to light a cigarette and breaking down crying has been with me every time I’ve effortless opened a jar.
Is that what “sacred” means? To be grateful? To appreciate the things I have in my life that someday I won’t? “Someday” possibly being tomorrow, or the by the time you’re reading this? Was my marriage sacred and I didn’t even know it? Was I too freaked out and nervous the day we said our vows to even realize the gravity of it? If so would the relationship have gone from a forgone conclusion to something to wake up every day filled with gratitude over? What about my health? Is my health sacred? How would treating my health as sacred have changed how I treated myself?
So many fucking questions on this trip.
Honey In The Heart & Thirteen Thank You’s
“Let us honor the Great Spirit of the East,” says the man leading the sweat lodge ceremony. “Who brings light to the start of the day each morning. From whom all beginnings are possible and all births come.”
My marriage ceremony was based upon Native American philosophy and the four directions were honored that day on the beach at Rincon. It’s been a lifetime since that day, long enough to have moved well away from honoring anything directional or otherwise.
A bowl is passed clockwise from person to person with each given an opportunity to speak to the direction at hand and the spirits that reside there. People give thanks and express gratitude for the new births in their lives and for the people who died to give them life, as well as asking for strength, peace, and healing for those in their lives.
With each passing of the bowl, more water is poured on the rocks. More steam rises, taking the prayers of the person up to the sky and raising the temperature in the lodge a few more degrees – the heat searing out anything impure in us, the steam leaching fear, weakness, desire, and greed from our souls.
“Face the heat bravely,” we are told. “Do not lean away from it. Lean into it. Let it cleanse you. The hotter the better.”
“Great Spirit of the East,” I say to the pitch blackness as the bowl reaches my hands, in a near trance from the combination of heat, chanting, and encapsulating darkness. “Thank you for the life I have been given, for my parents, grandparents, and those who came before them. Thank for you for this journey I am undertaking and those who are no longer with me allowing me this opportunity. I ask for courage on my travels and strength to speak the truths I am learning. Let gratitude come into my heart and take up residence. Don’t banish the fear that lives there as it too is teaching me lessons but please let gratitude stand by its side just an inch taller in height.
Thank you for the body I inhabit and the abilities that come with it. Forgive me for the times in my life when I have forgotten the gifts I have and know they are now at the forefront of my consciousness.
Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
In unison the group cries out an “AHO” and I pass the bowl to the woman next to me.
Once everyone has a chance to be heard – to laugh, to cry, to sing songs of joy, songs of heartache, to pray for loved ones present and long since passed, to honor the living, and most often to ask for the pain in their lives to be met with bravery – we conclude again in unison.
“Long life!” we yell. “Honey in the heart! No evil! And thirteen thank-yous!”
The flap of the hut is opened and cool air pours in. People slump to the floor, taking a prone position to let their heart rates and temperatures drop to levels where conscious thought is possible.
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!
At the end of the ceremony, what strikes me most is not the heat, not the sweat, not the weakness when I try to stand. I am less struck by any physical aspect of the experience as I am by the overwhelming power that comes from actively honoring every aspect of the ceremony. Saying “thank you” out loud to the land we’re sweating onto. Saying “thank you” out loud to the sun and the moon, and the stars watching over us. To the birds in the sky, the coyotes howling in the distance, and the humans who are sharing the space together.
Have you thanked the sun today? Would you be more thankful if you knew tomorrow was the sun’s last day shining due to feeling under appreciated – or it was tired of us humans being assholes to each other? Can you feel that for a second? How different would our lives be if every day we woke up in awe of the fact that there is sunlight? In AWE. Eyes wide as if we were looking into the face of a newborn. Imagine going into work tomorrow and answering the ubiquitous question of how you are with:
“CAN YOU EFFING BELIEVE IT? THE SUN IS SHINING AGAIN TODAY – FOR FREE!! YEA, AND IT’S DELICIOUSLY WARM. AND SOOOOO WONDERFUL…No, I’m not on drugs. Why do you ask? No, I don’t want anything from Starbucks.”
My work in hospice – meaning, my work with people who will be dead within six months – is a slap in the face to not waste one precious minute of life. A hard slap to look at what is here, what is present, what is amazing and not to squander one ounce of life focusing on what is not.
When we are overwhelmed with joy, overfuckingwhelmed by the fact that we are alive, that the sun is shining upon us yet again, that we have an opportunity to experience any and every aspect of this incredible time we have here on earth – that’s power.
When that is the predominant feeling we walk around with day to day, hour to hour, minute by minute, what is left to be defined as sacred?