By Daniel Scharpenburg
It was 2015, and the second time I went to the Heartland Pagan Festival at Camp Gaea.
I was asked to camp out and lead a meditation workshop, which I had previous done in 2014. It’s a weird festival in the woods for hippies, artists, and radicals. I want to compare it to Burning Man, but I don’t know anything about Burning Man, so I had better not.
From what I’ve gathered, modern paganism has a festival culture, in the same way that modern Buddhism has a retreat culture. People travel from all over to go to these festivals. A lot of them don’t have any kind of spiritual community practice outside of festivals.
The first time I went to the festival was when I realized that I really could teach the dharma to others. Prior to that it was just something I thought about. It was really life changing. The second time I went, it was life changing too.
I led meditation every morning, all four days of the festival. I think that the people that came to meditate with me were the ones that were really interested in having a spiritual experience at the festival, rather than people that were just there to celebrate community or have fun (those things ARE important too).
I saw information about the sweat lodge in a flyer and was immediately interested. I’m a Buddhist with a strong affinity for the Zen tradition, but all forms of mystical spirituality are of interest to me. The guy leading it was supposedly an expert. I don’t know anything about sweat lodge credentials, so who knows. None of the people I knew were thinking about going, so I went down there by myself. It was scheduled for 7 pm.
It was summer, so this was happening under the sun. I figured it would go on for a couple hours and then I’d be back for the lighting of the big bonfire. It had rained the night before and this made the weather very cool and comfortable. I was wearing my blue hoodie that had the OM MANI PADME HUM mantra in Sanskrit printed all over it.
I had to walk around a lake they call Lake Onessa to get there, and it was basically as far from my campsite as you could get. I walked the long winding trail to get around the lake and to the area, which I was only able to find because I had a map. I’m directionally challenged and even more so in the woods.
It was kind of an artificial cave. It reminded me of an igloo, but made out of cloth and rocks instead of ice. I wish I had been there when they built it earlier that day, so I could have seen how it was put together. There were five people waiting—three guys and two girls, probably in their early 20s. One of the girls had her shirt open to proudly display her nipple rings. What I’m trying to tell you is that Camp Gaea is a different place. It’s not like the ordinary world.
They were clearly friends who were doing this together. The guy gave us this warning as I approached: “If someone passes out, don’t do anything. It means they are in the spirit world on a journey.” And then, “Once you enter, you can’t leave until it’s over. The spirits will be very angry if you do.” I was both excited and nervous.
One of the guys in the group said that he had done this before and had visions of dragons and tigers. Because it’s dark, hallucinations can happen. I don’t do small talk, so I kept to myself while we waited for the lodge to be ready.
A young woman approached me and asked if the writing on my shirt was Hebrew. I told her it was Sanskrit and she asked if I was Jewish. I told her I’m not. That seemed out of nowhere, but I have been asked that before. I think she was talking to me because I was the only loner, and I think she was trying to be nice.
The guy had trouble starting the fire because it had rained the night before. We sat there waiting for over an hour. When it was finally lit, we got ready to go in. I took off all my clothes and put them in a neat pile a few feet from the lodge, with my glasses on top. Everyone else got into varying states of undress. Only the girl who had asked if I was Jewish stayed completely clothed. She must have gotten very uncomfortable in there.
The entrance was down low and we had to get down on all fours and crawl in, one at a time. It was dark inside. We made a circle around what was essentially a hole in the ground with hot rocks inside the hole. The guy poured water on the rocks and steam rose, making us really hot and sweaty. I didn’t feel like I was being cooked alive, but I definitely knew something was happening. There are four rounds of pouring and four rounds of prayers, and each time you thank the spirits and pray for things out loud. I remember praying for the well being of my family. I had only just found out my marriage was in trouble and I was afraid (a few months later I would be divorced). I didn’t hallucinate and I didn’t pass out. I didn’t see any spirits and I didn’t hear them talking to me.
But time stood still.
I did have a spiritual experience. I didn’t feel my sense of self fade away, which is what happens to me in deep meditation. Instead it felt like my sense of self exploded, shooting up like a roman candle and burning brightly. This was not a calm spiritual experience where one dwells in emptiness. This was an explosive one where I became as one with the sacred flame.
We came out crawling on all fours, just as we’d gone in—one at a time. It seemed like we had spent only an hour in the sweat lodge, but it was 1:00 in the morning when we emerged.
I picked up my clothes and walked naked through the dark woods to the shower house to wash off the gallons of sweat that poured all over my body.
My new friends did the same.
I never saw them again after that night. I didn’t even learn their names, but we shared an amazing spiritual experience.
*Please check with your doctor before attempting a sweat lodge
Editor: Dana Gornall