Decolonizing the Mind
Many years ago when I was in my early 20’s I found myself in the sweat lodge of a Hul’ qui’ num medicine man on Northern Vancouver Island.
I was there with a small group of well intentioned, but naive eco activists to build relationships with First Nations who had an interest in the territory we were trying to protect.
I really didn’t know what to expect. I enjoy saunas, but this was far from relaxing.
As the hot stones (75 grandfathers in total) piled up in the centre of the lodge the temperature became unbearable. Periodically buckets of water were poured over the glowing red mound creating plumes of steam that reverberated off the low roof and onto my bare back.
Was this a test?
All the idealistic reasons for participating in the sweat quickly melted in the intense heat.
By the end of the traditional 4 rounds I was crying and gasping for air on the floor of the lodge. I remember the smell and texture of the cedar bows we were sitting on, as well as the electric feeling of relief at the end of the ceremony as we were hosed down with cold water.
The medicine had worked, at least temporarily. For an extended moment I felt released from self concern and the burdensome story of woe I carried from a young age.
This was my first and last sweat lodge.
I often reflect on my experience as an important transmission or pointing out of something fundamental that exists, beyond what we create in our thinking mind or see with ordinary perception. My egg was abruptly cracked and there was no going back to business as usual, though even to this day I continue to try.
According to the Buddhist tradition sacredness exists in the gaps between thoughts. When the constant stream of mind chatter is interrupted by a shock or brought to rest through meditation, awareness of the natural state of being arises.
I believe all ancient wisdom traditions point back to this universal ground of goodness. It is found in nature – the beauty of colourful autumn leaves or maybe the sweet song of a distant bird.
As a young activist I got very inspired by the notion of decolonization as a critical missing piece in the struggle to preserve the old growth forests.
The predatory mindset of the old colonial powers lives on in the racist policies and politics of the day that accelerate the devastation of ancient forests, dispossess First Nations from their ancestral lands and rationalize using the atmosphere as an open sewer for industry.
We are all active participants in this worldview, even if we object and it will take more than words to unlearn.
My brief experience in the sweat lodge taught me that decolonization is something much more personal. Both a political and spiritual journey are needed.
- Check out AIR episode 010 on allyship with First Nations in the struggle against eco racism with Ana Simeon.