By The Fire

“This doesn’t seem very sturdy,” I said, shaking the skeleton of twine and bamboo sticks that were theoretically supposed to become a sauna in an hour.

“Then don’t shake it…and start piling the blankets on top--we need it to be ready for when you get back from your solo quests.” Brother Paul replied.

Brother Paul was a self-proclaimed Native American, and what I mean by that is he wasn’t actually of Native American descent, but rather forged his entire identity based on stereotypes. He grew his hair out to his waist, walked around barefoot, and, in case you didn’t pick up on it, insisted we all call him “Brother Paul.” None of us really minded though. It was fitting. A bunch of white kids from Santa Monica sent out on a 5-day council retreat in Ojai for emotional learning… it was all very “middle-aged upper-class mom tries out Buddhism.” We were enjoying ourselves though. It was five days with our friends in a beautiful place, and the only actual requirement was that we talk to each other.

But at the end of every retreat, the group has to get into a sauna for eight hours. This acted as the culminating experience because up to that point, the only thing the group had been doing was sitting around in yurts and talking. This seemed like it was going to be the same thing except really, really hot.

This is what Brother Paul was talking about. The sauna was made up of sticks, twine and blankets, and on the inside there was a circle of hard clay that acted as a bench that we could lean against. When we got to the sauna, there were about fifty thick, dirty blankets scattered around. Once we piled all of the blankets onto the frame, the layers added up to about two feet of fabric insulating the area.  

After we finished, my friends and I gathered around a fire pit in front of the sauna—next to which there was a dancing bald man in a loincloth who Brother Paul referred to as “The Fire Keeper.” We each placed a stone that we collected from the surrounding wilderness in the middle of the fire pit. With the stone we were told to attach an attribute that we thought we had, and to burn it away.

We stripped down to our underwear, got down on our hands and knees and crawled through the igloo-like entrance. One by one, we formed a circle against the cool clay bench of the sauna. Inside it was dark; the only light came in through the small hole through which we had entered. At the center was a giant bowl filled with water.

After we all filtered in, Brother Paul came in, closed the flap behind him to keep out any light and sat in front of the bowl of water.

“This is going to be a long process,” he said, slowly dipping his hands into the water.

“I encourage you all to stay for the duration, regardless of the physical or emotional distress you might be feeling. If you feel especially dehydrated or faint, try to ignore it as best you can. There will be four rounds of council within this space. First, we will welcome the spiritual bodies of those who we wish to have here. Then we will give thanks to the people and entities that have helped us become who we are as people at this moment. Our third round will be a purge. This will be the hottest, loudest and most difficult. We are in this space to become reborn, to rid ourselves of the abscesses that plague our bodies and minds and to come out a different person. If you hold back in this particular part of the council, it will all be for naught. Finally, we will allow ourselves to take the space for what it is, the people we were before this process, the people we become after it, it will all become clear once you leave the sauna. But at this point, I ask you to do nothing but act within the space around you. Let’s begin."

At that moment The Fire Keeper crawled in holding a stone that had been baking in the fire. The rock radiated a dense red, pulsing with the change in its own heat. He dropped the stone into the bowl of water and the steam billowed and confused the light that had seeped in with his entrance.

The first two rounds were benign; they attempted to establish an environment that would physically and emotionally foster the rounds to come. The heat built slowly.

When we got to the third round, the heat had peaked. We were told to let go of our inhibitions and scream all of the things in our lives that ate away at us. It only took a moment for people to start. The screams were clear, and they were loud. I could tell exactly who was saying what, and each scream bit at me. We were packed in tightly and I could feel the sweat and skin of my two friends pressing against my own. I started to feel anxious and couldn’t sit still. I moved myself up on top of the clay bench I was leaning against and realized that all of the heat had been gathering at the top of our little womb. My head was swimming in pure burning steam. A searing pain rushed into my eyes, clogged my ears, and voided me of a sense of where I was or what I was doing. The heat and the noise of this place enveloped me, and I started to cry. As I cried with the screams of my friends, Brother Paul started to beat against a drum he had brought in with him.

“The third round will flow seamlessly into the fourth.”

With the beat of Brother Paul’s drum I started to sway into unconsciousness. I dropped down from my little ledge and put my arms up around my two friends. Slowly my arms became limp against my friend’s shoulders and I could feel my eyes closing and my body struggling to remain upright.

When I awoke, I was floating in the ocean. I was face down watching the blues and blacks of the water mingle and coalesce, only to be broken up by streams of light pushing their way through the surface until they were consumed by darkness. I began to sink, and as I sank I felt the pressure of the water weighing down on me. The deeper I went, the clearer the dark parts of the water became. I turned my head to look up at the surface, but it had become as black as the water I sank towards.

Eventually the seafloor started to reveal itself. There was a giant crack in the crust of the earth; it extended for what looked like the whole length of the ocean. Light and heat gushed out of it, streaming into my face and pulling me towards it. I sank into the light and emerged at what I can only imagine was the core of the earth. A burning ball of red and yellow with edges and strings of fire that flared and screeched randomly in all directions only to be smothered by the surrounding water. I stared at it as my skin burned and the last of the oxygen in my lungs was stolen away. I sank until finally my aching skeleton lay flat and motionless against the incandescent flame.

Then the heat faded. The fire turned to light and the water to air. My body became buoyed up against the surface, and I stared at the sun. My eyes started to clear; a rolling blue sky burst out behind the brilliant white light that had blinded me. I could hear the motion of the water swirling and crashing around me, and I could taste the salt slowly crusting against my skin. I felt all of my senses come together at once in total resplendence.  

This single moment of clarity sent my mind beaming back into my exhausted body, which had been dragged out of the sauna. And when I finally regained consciousness, I saw my friend. My friend, who, all this time, had been holding my benumbed body upright by the fire.