I’m carpooling with a friend to a New Year’s Eve sweat lodge in Olympia, Washington. I’ll call my friend Mark (not his real name).
As we approach our destination, I turn to the driver and say, “So, Mark, how’s your relationship with Jesus Christ?”
It was a total non sequitur. Not only did my question not flow from anything previously spoken in our conversation, it was unlike anything we’d ever discussed before. Mark and I know each other very well and have often spoken about religious and spiritual matters. He’s read an early draft of my book. But I had no idea how he would respond to a question about his relationship with Jesus Christ. So I asked. There was nothing to lose.
After a brief moment of contemplation, he said, “It’s good. It’s a good relationship.” And then he told me a story I’d never heard about his dedicating himself to Christ over twenty five years ago. (The story ended with Mark’s evangelical friends holding a ceremony to exorcise the demons responsible for his homosexual feelings. One finally declared, “There is no evil here,” and angrily left the room. Mark came to the same conclusion. “My relationship with Christ is strong, but I can’t say the same for my relationship those who call themselves his followers…”)
Mark and I arrived at our destination. The forecasts called for a ninety percent chance of rain. The skies were gray and the tree branches were moist, but there was no rain. Our umbrellas and tarps were underused.
Mark and I never did pick up the conversation about our relationships with Jesus Christ. Had we, I would have explained that I don’t have an “imaginary little friend” who I call Jesus to guide me through life’s challenges. However, I do have a very real perception of the world as the dynamic force and being and mind of Spirit or Absolute Reality by any other name–alive, personable, generous, mysterious, powerful, sometimes terrible, and often humorous. As my awareness expands to see the world the way it truly is, I become aware of “eruptions” or “emergences” of Spirit in the world, a greater unfolding of harmony over strife, beauty over pain, joy over despair.
Those emergences of Spirit often present themselves to me as the doings of a living, changing God… the aliveness of Jesus Christ, resurrected, glorified, and still present among the poor, the despised, the downtrodden, the stigmatized… a reality that includes the present aliveness of Jesus and John the Beloved together as role models for men loving men, calling my fellow homosexuals and bisexuals and whateversexuals to lives of greater wholeness, dignity, and bliss. That’s the Christ that is alive in my life, more real than ever, even as my childhood days of speaking to an imaginary friend named Jesus have long since faded.
In the sweat lodge, there are nearly thirty men and women. At the center is a pit containing nearly one “grandfather” for each of us, piled in a mound. The water pourer, a Cree trained in the Lakota lodge traditions, adds water to the heated rocks. The doors are closed. The darkness is absolute. The hot steam begins to fill the lodge. Everything is hot except the cold mud beneath our flesh and the naked soles of our feet.
The water pourer guides us on a spiritual journey… a journey of letting go of our impurities, our baggage, our needs for control, our self-importance… just as often, he guides us in song, sometimes in English and others in Lakota or a mixture of the two.
The earth, the fire, the wind, the water
Return, return, return, return
The earth, the fire, the wind, the water
Return, return, return, return…
The lodge brings me to a powerful altered state of consciousness. In the utter blackness, there is no difference between what I see when my eyes are open and when they are closed. The heat is oppressive and before long the feelings of panic and terror arise. “I have to get out of here, or I will die…” My body is turning into water. I am losing my mind… I am dissolving. And then calmness. And then the reassuring voice of the water pourer: “Soon the door will open…” (It was a lie.) I calmed down, and listened to another spirit journey story, and marvelled that despite my fears I had not exploded or gone insane or stopped breathing. The air in my lungs did not turn to water.
And in the moments of serenity, there was a bliss I seldom touch in ordinary life. The bliss that arises by ceasing to identify with the self while at the same time never disassociating from the body. How else can you describe such as thing except as spiritual, or (to be more precise) a reunion of the gross, subtle, and causal bodies? As I warmed myself on the fire, toweled off the sweat and mud, and debated whether to re-enter the lodge for another round, I knew that I’d gotten what I came here for.
This is what integral awareness is all about. On New Year’s Eve, a ritual of purification. Out of steam, STEAM. Out of the cessation of all sight, insight. Rising up, touching what’s real, leaving behind that which can be left behind, a joyous reunion of body and soul, and bringing with us… muddy feet, breathless chest, sweat dropping from every pore… that without which we are not complete.