Said to mimic end-of-life experiences, an ancient Native American sweat lodge ceremony has drawn new devotees, all eager to understand what it feels like to die.
Just outside of the sweat lodge, a woman in a leopard-print sarong stares into a bonfire. Her tightly coiled black hair has fallen limp from the rain. She is barefoot and kneeling in the mud in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, her glasses tucked away somewhere dry. She has lost track of time.
Her name is Diane Bryan, a fifty-one-year-old single mom, Navy veteran and mid-career college student from Newark, New Jersey. She is part of our group of a dozen here at a sweat lodge on a voluntary field trip for a class we are taking at Kean University on death and dying. We stick out flamboyantly in the woods like the urbanites we are. One young woman daintily balances a pink and green Alpha Kappa Alpha umbrella over her head. Another sports French-manicured acrylic fingernails and a shoulder tattoo of a heart pierced by an arrow.
The professor of the death class has taken us on field trips to places like the morgue, a maximum-security prison, a hospice facility and a funeral home. She gives some of her class lectures in the cemetery. She tells us that experiencing a Native American sweat lodge, with heat that can reach up to 120 degrees, can feel like a near-death experience.
“Near-death” doesn’t quite cover it. This past July, James Arthur Ray was released after serving nearly two years in prison for leading a group of sixty-five people on a retreat in 2009, during which they fasted for thirty-six hours in the Arizona desert and then participated in a sweat lodge ceremony that killed three people—two from heat stroke and a third from multiple organ failure—and hospitalized nineteen others. Those were not the first sweat lodge-related deaths. At least seven others in the United States, Australia and England have died after participating in sweat lodges since 1993.
When done safely, the sweat lodge ceremony can be a cleansing experience to purify and heal the body, mind and spirit. Sweat lodges have been used as therapy in mental health programs, hospitals, prisons and substance abuse treatment centers around the world, and studies have shown that people who participate in “group sweating” have reported improved sleep and relief of anxiety, depression and stress because the practice activates the sympathetic nervous system and stimulates the hormonal system.
This excursion is not a class requirement. Curiosity is enough to bring three carloads of students out on a Saturday morning to see what a sweat lodge is all about. Diane had been among the first to arrive for the road trip, wide awake and in high spirits, carrying a blue tote bag with a white towel and two water bottles, as if headed to the spa.
To get to this nondescript spot near the Ashokan Reservoir in Upstate New York, we had to drive past a sparkling stretch of lake and a sign that reads: “City of New York Water Supply.” Cellphones lost service. Ears popped from the altitude. On the ride, a young man in the back seat read aloud a passage on sweat lodges to prepare us for what could come. It was by the controversial American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who was imprisoned for shooting two federal agents:
Many people are terrified of sweats—and not without some reason. It can get so hot in there when they pour the water on the red glowing stones that, if you’re not used to it, you literally reach the end of your tether, of your self-control. In that scalding, flesh-poaching steam, you feel there’s absolutely nothing you can do but cry out Mitakuye Oyasin—“All my relations!”—and be permitted to exit through the sweat-lodge door, which is swung open so you can leave.
A heavy mist fell over the road, knitting its way through the trees. Diane looked out at the scene, later saying that she thought it looked like the mountains were smoking.
Nearly three and a half hours later, we are on a spongy hill of wet grass and purple weeds waiting to enter the sweat lodge, a yurt-like structure about fifteen feet in diameter, constructed of coarse cloth atop a spine of thick tree branches roped together and covered in a plastic black tarp. There are no outhouses and no streetlights. The bonfire, which scorches the rocks that will heat the sweat lodge, burns beyond the lodge’s mouth.
That’s where I notice Diane kneeling, mesmerized by the six-feet-tall flames that refuse to die out in the rain. Timeless. Her look of pensiveness catches my eye before I scamper off into the brush to pee.
* * *
I wonder how close this sweat lodge experience will come to simulating what it feels like to die.
“You will feel like your skin is going to fall off,” James Arthur Ray reportedly told one of his followers before they took part in the Arizona sweat lodge. “When you emerge you’ll be a new person, like you’ve looked death in the eyes and overcome it.”
Death is something I have thought and written about a lot over the years, due to a reporting career that often brought me close to the subject. I have learned that dying can be both messy and exquisite. I sometimes find myself thinking about the people I have known personally, and those I have written about, who have died naturally and violently. At the moment of death, did they feel pain? Relief? Rapture? Skeptical as I was about this whole ceremony, part of me wondered if mimicking death in the sweat lodge might bring me closer to them.
In her lectures on what it’s like to die, Dr. Norma Bowe, the professor whose death class brought us here, explains that toward the very end of natural death breathing becomes shallow and the heart beats staccato. Saliva, unable to be swallowed, builds up deep in the back of the throat, causing a congested, purring sound.
Sometime before the end, the blood supply shifts to the major organs—heart, lungs, brain, kidneys, liver—leaving the rest of our body feeling cold. A violet-blue color gathers in the nail beds and around the mouth. Eyesight and hunger fade. The liver shuts down. The whites of the eyes turn yellow.
People whose hearts, lungs and brain waves have stopped but were revived have reported experiencing lights, tunnels, warmth, out-of-body experiences, elasticity of time, encounters with loved ones and flooding memories. Scientists say these feelings might have to do with a lack of blood and oxygen flowing to the eyes; abnormal neurochemicals; or noradrenaline, a stress hormone known to flood the brain—particularly regions associated with memory and feelings—in moments of trauma.
At death, euphoria also sets in, along with bliss and intense feelings of joy similar to those you experience when you’re falling in love. This can be attributed to neurotransmitters that carry nerve impulses between cells. “Our bodies take care of us our entire lifetime—take care of us when we’re sick, when we’re ill,” the professor says. “At the very end it does that, too.”
In various sweat lodges, participants have reported feeling, seeing and hearing spirits, altered states of consciousness, the beating of wings on shoulders and the presence of dead loved ones, according to Dr. Whit Hibbard, who conducted a study analyzing the experiences of thirty sweat lodge participants published in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Eight of his subjects reported communicating with spirits while fifteen reported seeing lights of different colors, glowing orbs or floating lights. Six reported seeing faces in the hot rocks while others saw geometric shapes, and some said they saw the sweat lodge cover become so transparent they could see the sky.
Two participants reported death-related experiences, including ‘‘feeling and seeing death.’’ I have never been a drug user or a deliberate thrill seeker, but there is a part of me that wants to know that kind of euphoria, as if being close to death could make me feel more alive.
Upon arriving at our sweat lodge site, which is donation-only, there are a few Native Americans, mostly organizers. Aside from our multicultural New Jersey caravan, the other visitors are mostly white folks. Some wear peasant skirts and sandy blond dreadlocks. They sit in lotus position. One man appears to be wearing a loincloth. A self-employed masseuse in a cowboy hat chops wood for the fire.
This Upstate New York ceremony is clearly a welcome-to-everyone event. Considering the risks and the uncomfortable cultural appropriation, it seems a little crazy to go through with this, even though the organizers assure us we can get out of the lodge at any time.
We made sure to eat beforehand. We did not hike through a desert or consume alcohol and we’ve made sure to stay hydrated with multiple bottles of water on hand.
There is a crude spirit of adventure and intrigue driving us to try it, of the same kind that would compel someone to try skydiving.
The women enter the sweat lodge first, clockwise, crouching in three rows atop blankets draped across rocky earth. A ceremonial leader waves sage smoke across our bodies with an eagle feather, smudging our foreheads before we duck through a flap and crawl into the dark. It is humid and smells like wet grass and musty bodies. Inside, its center is just tall enough for me, at five-foot-one, to stand. Already, it feels stifling.
I see Diane behind me, sitting cross-legged to my left. Her presence settles me. She is a Southern-born, church-loving woman who had wanted to go to college when she was young but had no financial support. After she got out of the Navy, she gave birth to a daughter, naming her Surae. Diane became a single mom and her dream of college got pushed to the back burner. But two decades later, when Surae finished college, Diane decided to go back herself.
Now here Diane was with three more semesters to go before graduating. She often strolled around campus with her head high, wearing shirts bearing Kean University’s name. “In our culture, we look at death as a terrible thing,” Diane told our class on the first day of the semester. She thought death should be treated like a vacation or a party instead. “We need to learn how to better deal with it.”
Diane admitted to me that she had no idea what she was getting into either when agreeing to go on this trip. Together we now face a shallow center pit which will hold the fiery rocks. It is about as deep as a New York City pothole. The men follow, sitting across from the women. A young man from our class with a linebacker’s build wears high-top sneakers tied with fat fluorescent green shoelaces. He agrees to take off the shoes upon entering the lodge, but not the doughnut-sized medallion hanging from his neck.
We hear the patter of rain against the outside of the lodge as we squish together to make room for more. By the time the last people file in, there are about sixty in the hut, arranged in rings like pegs in a game board.
There is the sound of a soft babble. A coo. People gasp. “I can’t believe there is a baby in here,” someone whispers. The mother tries to calm the naked child.
Suddenly, it is black. So black we cannot see eyeballs or teeth, or make out the silhouette of heads inches away. There are no cracks in the lodge walls. Not a single glimmer of light sneaks in. We gulp air. The real heat has not even begun and it is already unbearably stuffy.
The ceremonial leader, who goes by Carl Big Heart, reminds us again that anyone can leave whenever they want.
With that, someone shouts: “Half flap!”
The doorkeeper yanks it up and a woman immediately scuttles out.
“I don’t think I can do this,” says a student sitting to my right. “I’m having trouble breathing.”
“Me too,” I reply. “Try yawning.”
“I can’t. I need to leave. Wait!” She stands. “I’m sorry,” she says, hop-scotching between knees and feet, making her way to the flap to follow the other woman into the light.
“I’m so sorry,” she says again, disappearing before the ceremony has even begun.
“Close it up!” Carl Big Heart shouts.
The doorkeeper raises the flap again and two men with shovels bring the stones that had been baking in the bonfire, each the size of a football and glowing like lava. Carl Big Heart receives them, holding each stone with two deer antlers. He tosses them into the pit and some break apart like pieces of coal. He sprinkles crumbled sage on the rocks. The stones smolder like branding irons. Carl Big Heart takes a swig from a flask, spitting it on the rocks. They sizzle.
Now I seriously begin to worry. What if the sticks holding the hut together collapse on top of the scorching stones? Or a stray spark lands on a dry blade of grass? What if the lodge goes up in flames? How would we get out? I imagine panicked people crawling and scrambling all at once in the dark toward the flap, wide as a chimney. I think of the nightclub fire in Rhode Island in 2003, which killed 100 people when pyrotechnic sparks set the place ablaze during a Great White concert. All it took was a few sparks to incinerate the club within five minutes.
The mother exits, her baby in tow.
* * *
Group sweating as a form of healing and renewal can be traced back to Mayan sweat house remains that date to 900 BC; to the Greeks; and to ancient Rome’s gigantic Diocletian bath, which fit 6,000 people, according to Stephen A. Colmant, a researcher who has worked as a psychotherapist studying the Navajo Nation.
Herodotus, Homer, and the Prophet Muhammad described similar practices. Colmant notes that today, besides Bikram Yoga, there is also the Russian bania, the Jewish shvitz, Turkish hammans, and Japanese mushiburos—public steam bath houses usually divided by gender in which everyone gets naked around a Jacuzzi-like central pool. I participated in a mushiburo when I was a kid in Japan and have memories of wrinkled elderly women with deflated breasts lounging about in the steam without shame.
There is also the Finnish sauna. Out of 228 hyperthermic deaths in Finland from 1970 to 1986, 221 occurred in saunas and most were middle-aged men under the influence of alcohol, though more recent studies have shown that death in a Finnish sauna has become a rare occurrence.
People who die from heat stroke may undergo pulmonary edema in their lungs, which causes strenuous breathing and the coughing up of blood. There might be hemorrhages in the linings of the chest cavities and swelling of the brain. Nausea may ensue. Vision may blur. Some people might lapse into seizure or a coma.
But some people who have survived the experience of their bodies and minds shutting down in hyperthermic near-death experiences have described characteristics similar to those found in deaths from cardiac arrest, cancer or smoke inhalation. The warmth and euphoria, the slipperiness of time, intense feelings of love. Medical experts say these experiences can be traced back to a common culprit of hypoxia, the lack of oxygen flowing to the blood, tissues and the brain.
This sweat lodge is nothing like the mushiburo or any other sauna I have known. Bugs crawl on my legs. Someone’s sweaty feet press against my knees. There is no room to stretch. I battle the urge to panic from claustrophobia. We are in an overturned soup bowl, competing for the same bubble of air.
Carl Big Heart asks us to praise the earth, the mosquitoes, the water around us and the water within us. I close my eyes, trying to concentrate, but can think only of the water pouring out of me and how uncomfortable this is.
I take a breath. Another.
“Sitting there naked in the superheated darkness, your bare knees only inches from the molten rocks in the central pit, you come right up against the cutting edge of your own fear, your own pain,” Peltier wrote. “But the fear of pain is much worse than the pain itself.”
My breathing feels shallow; my heart beats staccato.
Suddenly, I am watching a home movie reel of moments I recognize. I am holding my baby sister in my lap. She is one week old, her body spanning the length of my elbows to fingertips. She smells of milk and powder. I am six years old, pulling a bee stinger out of my father’s foot. I am eleven years old, hiking with my mother in Indiana. I am eight years old, my grandmother holding my hand. We are in Japan, and I am leaving Osaka for the United States. Why are we crying? I don’t know it will be the last time I will see her alive. She lets go of my hand.
I am crushed with affection and devotion to all of these people.
I open my eyes and wipe tears, or sweat, or both.
In cases in which people have been resuscitated after death, thousands have reported experiencing “holographic life reviews,” a flood of memories that cycle before them as if experiencing it all again in a flipbook of a person’s life, complete with thoughts and feelings, according to a study in The Lancet, which surveyed 344 survivors of cardiac arrest who were revived.
“Patients survey their whole life in one glance; time and space do not seem to exist during such an experience,” the study notes. “Instantaneously they are where they concentrate upon (non-locality), and they can talk for hours about the content of the life review even though the resuscitation only took minutes.”
There are moments I would ask to live again, if I had a bottle of wishes. Some are so simple, like turning snow piles on our backyard swing set into a make-believe bread factory with my little brother before either of us knew death, or divorce, or financial ruin, or heartbreak. Better yet, I would wish to stand outside of that play scene rather than live it again, just watching us and knowing how meaningful it was, something I never could have realized then.
My memories in the sweat lodge feel more intentional, though each is attached to love or loss. They are the kind of memories that come to you in a meditative or daydream-like state. I do not relive them again holographically, but rather from afar. My emotions have been turned inside out, but I understand clearly that I am not dying. I don’t think I have yet to even touch the tip of death.
Diane would later tell our class about her sweat lodge experience. Inside, she too was oblivious to time or the outside world. She felt herself listening to her thoughts as her mind drifted back to hundreds of years ago when Native Americans roamed the land. She felt like she was there. She saw her Native American ancestors. Their sweat, sacrifices and struggles.
In Hibbard’s study of sweat lodge participants, some described feeling as if they were in two places at once, or leaving the body altogether, while another experienced altered time. A two-hour session can feel both very short and infinite. Eight of Hibbard’s subjects reported feelings of connectedness to people and the earth; one reported feeling ‘‘extreme joy, almost deliriousness, an incredible peace.’’
In the sweat lodge, Diane saw her daughter, Surae.
Diane had raised Surae in Newark, on the fourth floor of an apartment building with the view of the Manhattan skyline. Unit 4A. It had two bedrooms, but mother and daughter were so close they slept in the same bed even as Surae grew into adulthood.
While in the sweat lodge, Diane felt overwhelmed with love for the life that she created, Surae. Her only daughter. Her proudest accomplishment.
Sweat poured from every crevice of her body. Diane had to get out.
Streams of light punch through. That’s when I see Diane leave.
I rub my face, and stumble toward the opening, too. Two hands outside of the lodge help me. The bonfire still burns wildly. I look across the field and see Diane is drenched.
It feels like we have been inside of the lodge a half-hour or so. Actually, both of us had been inside for more than three hours.
* * *
“Looking at the fire, I kept trying to figure out why it never went out,” Diane says. A week has passed since our sweat lodge trip, and we are now back in the classroom. “We were there for hours, and the rain got harder and harder. But the fire never went out.”
She has brought Surae as a guest visitor to class. Diane reads from an essay she wrote in reaction to the sweat lodge:
“After we finished one of the sessions I was standing outside by myself, away from everybody else. And I’m never by myself. I felt peace and I felt tranquility just looking around at the trees and scenery. The rain was like music. The people, and the fire, it seemed like everything was in slow motion.”
Surae leans into her mom, reading the words on the paper over her shoulder as Diane speaks them aloud.
“It was a lesson in life,” Diane concludes, “embracing silence and peace.”
Diane graduated from Kean University the following spring, at age fifty-two. Surae decorated her cap with the words, “cum laude,” since Diane was part of the Lambda Sigma Alpha Honor Society, and she tracked down a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt for the graduation party invitations: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” The reception took place at Diane’s favorite Jamaican restaurant in Newark, with a slideshow of pictures capturing moments of her life.
Diane was also in love with her high school sweetheart. They had recently reunited online. She was planning a vacation cruise as a celebration. Everything for once was just right.
Three months after graduation, as Surae drove in San Diego, where she had recently taken a new job, her phone rang. It was a neighbor from New Jersey.
“I have to tell you something. Are you around somebody?”
“What is it?” Surae could hear the panic in her voice. The neighbor told her to pull over. “You’re scaring me.”
“Surae, there was a fire. I’m on my way to the building now.” It happened in the fourth floor unit, 4A.
Surae tried to call her mother’s cell phone. It went straight to voicemail. She called the house phone, but received a busy signal. She knew it then. Her mother was dead.
Surae’s best friend arrived at the apartment complex a short time later and watched emergency workers roll out Diane’s body in a bag.
Investigators traced the fire to a burning cigarette. They found Diane in the bathtub. The water was running, but the fire didn’t go out.
We can trick ourselves into believing that we can defy death or control when it happens or how. We can wish to relive particular points that we lost long ago.
None of us have a choice in any of it. In life, the moodiness of the moment wins.
When I heard the news about Diane, I couldn’t shake the memories of that strange and exhilarating day we shared in the sweat lodge. That enduring image of her soaked to the flesh, staring at the persistent flames.
That day when time seemed not to exist at all.
* * *
Erika Hayasaki is the Los Angeles editor for Narratively, and an assistant professor in the Literary Journalism Program at UC Irvine. She is the author of The Death Class: A True Story About Life. Follow her on twitter @erikahayasaki.
Sally Madden is an illustrator and member of the arts collective, Partyka. She lives and works in Philadelphia.