We are in midsummer, and that means sweat. It’s the time of year when our body regulates its temperature through perspiration, when the heat of the season beads up and runs down our skin with our slightest effort. It’s summer in Iowa.
One evening near this past solstice, I was privileged to participate in a specially organized Lakota Inipi ceremony, or sweat lodge. This was at the last gathering of a year-long “Regenerative Leadership for the Creative Corridor” retreat series sponsored by the Center for Regenerative Society. Our retreats were held at Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center in Hiawatha, a beautiful and inspiring place with 70 acres of native prairie and woodlands on the grounds. Prairiewoods is well worth visiting for any reason, one of which could be to participate in a sweat lodge, which are held every last Saturday of the month.
The Inipi is a ceremony of purification. As we sweat, we expel our mistakes, our anger, and our sorrows. We also inhale the breath of the grandfather spirits, conjured by sprinkling herbs and cedar and by pouring water over hot rocks assembled in a small pit in the middle of the mud floor of the dark lodge. Through the steam—the breath of the grandfathers that rises—we release our joy, our thanks, and our truth. Sweat pools on your forehead, arms, and back almost immediately as the water transforms to steam. Sure, it’s not comfortable at first—and it keeps getting hotter throughout the ceremony—but we are made palpably conscious of our mortal bodies, our physical connection with the earth, and thus how we are related to all people, animals, and plants, as well as spirits, of the earth and beyond. “Mitakoyasin,” meaning “all my relations” or “we are all related,” is the invocation expressed over and over throughout the ceremony by the water pourer, drummer and singer, and participants as we invite the spirits in, honor the life-givers (women), give thanks, and ask the spirts to flow out and help others.
One of the most striking features of the Inipi, or at least my experience of it, is humility. Our Lakota leaders, who were deeply friendly and self-deprecating throughout the experience, emphasizing to us on more than one occasion that they were common men, inspired us not only through their native song and prayer but also through the stories and lessons they shared, teaching us that no matter our spiritual beliefs—and even if we have no spiritual beliefs—we are part of a greater natural world that we should humble ourselves before and thank for the life we are given. Indeed, we are not only all related, but we are all one. You feel that very intensely when you are sitting in a circle for two hours within a small dome made of branches and tarps (no hides for us), half-naked, shoulder to shoulder, and cross-legged on a mud floor, sweating profusely in the pitch dark with others who are CEOs, spiritual leaders, bankers, educators, community leaders, and so forth. We are all related.
I will see and feel my sweat from the Iowa heat and humidity differently for the rest of this summer, and I hope summers beyond. Our sweat is a ceremony, connecting us to this place in the middle of the continent, to a place where the middle of the year brings us hotness and wetness but also tremendous growth and beauty, to a world that is astonishing in its natural beauty. It is all of a whole, and our purity comes when we embrace and honor that wholeness.
So this summer, as you play baseball, mow the yard, paint the house, ride RAGBRAI, canoe Lake Macbride, walk the trails at Terry Trueblood, or just sit in your backyard in the evening listening to the deep July crickets and watching the lightning bugs gently signal on and off, and then as the sweat begins to bead on your forehead and arms and back in the full humidity of the season, remember—and celebrate—that we all sweat, that we are all creatures of this earth and this beautiful place, and that we are all individual parts of a greater natural world. We are all related. Mitakoyasin.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 180