This past weekend in Tulum I experienced my first Temazcal, a Mayan sweat lodge ritual meant to symbolize death and rebirth, among other things. As a seasoned sauna user, I imagined (hoped?) that my ability to withstand 200-degree heat for 30 minutes would somehow transfer over to the Temazcal ceremony. It did not.
Before the ceremony we were instructed to think of an intention and I chose Courage; the courage to live into who I am capable of being. I have always been fascinated by courage, trying to understand what it is, where it sits within me, and how to tap into it. I have read the Courage to Be, the Courage to Create, the Courage to be Disliked, and a host of other books along the way including my favorite, Man's Search for Meaning.
I believe it takes courage to live into our potential; courage to live our lives as we know we should and this is something I will probably be working on until my last breath. Speaking of last breath….
The Temazcal structure is meant to symbolize the womb and the ceremony itself is about rebirth. Ours was two hours long, broken into four 20-minute sessions, with the temperature increasing in each session, becoming progressively hotter. The structure was made of stone and reminded me of a big pizza oven.
My hope was that I would not have to sit in the back. I wanted to be close to the puerta (door) because that would ease my anxiety by allowing for a quick exit and it is a bit cooler near the puerta. As we lined up to enter the Temazcal, I found myself smack in the middle of the line of 14 people. Still, I held hope that perhaps this would not mean that I would be in the back. But, with courage as my intention, it made sense that I landed in the back sitting directly opposite the puerta.
The shaman placed five smoldering volcanic rocks into the fire pit at the center of the Temazcal and I felt the first flutter of anxiety. When the blanket was pulled down over the puerta and darkness filled the small space, I felt the second flutter. As the shaman began pouring water on the rocks, filling the Temazcal with steam, I quickly realized that this was not going to be like anything I had experienced before. I thought of myriad ways I could die in that little pizza oven and the anxiety hit a new high. I like to say that when we are going through difficulties in life that we are going through a crucible, our character being forged by fire. While sitting there in the darkness, feeling the heat penetrate every part of my body, I thought to myself, “Ah, this is a real crucible.”
The four sessions of the Temazcal, some say, symbolize the stages of life: birth, young adult, mature adult and death. At the beginning of each session, additional rocks were added to the fire pit and by the end of session 3, I needed to step outside to cool down. My ego wanted to stay and sit with the others through the short break, but my body told me to get outside. Even that took courage, to step away from the group.
When the last session began, I wondered how I would survive it. The first waft of hot steam totally enveloped my body and suddenly, the man sitting next to me who had been dealing with some panic throughout the Temazcal, reached over and grabbed my hand. We held hands for about 30-seconds and it was profound. Did he reach out to support me or did he want my support? I think it was both and it touched my heart and lifted my courage for the last and hottest session. As he let go of my hand I realized that he had just given me a gift that ended with the understanding that I would have to go through the rest of it on my own, just as each of us in that ceremony would have to do.
As the liquid fire continued to engulf me, I realized the shaman was singing a song in Spanish and though I speak little Spanish, I began to sing with him as loudly as I could. It helped to ease the pain. Then halfway through, I silently began to recite my trusted old friend “Invictus”:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Over the next few days, I would wander down the path to the Temazcal to catch a glimpse of the shaman who lead me through what felt like the most mentally challenging experience of my life. I had a sort of love for him, a connection that I couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of. The final day, he saw me watching. He walked to me and asked me in Spanish how I was. I said, “Bien, bien.” He stared at me for a moment and then gave me a hug. I said, “I want to do it again.” A gentle smile crossed his face and then he turned and walked away. I took that to mean that it wasn’t time yet, that I needed to integrate my first experience. But yes, I will do it again one day.
Did I find courage in that crucible? I think what I found was that drawing on courage is a choice we make. Courage is always there if I choose to tap into it and I often do, though sometimes I need to be reminded that it is there, ready and willing to guide me toward my best life.