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Flap down, darkness, and moist, thick heat. The ritual began, but Lyn's voice was trailing into my ears and evaporating in the rapid heartbeats that confirmed my panic. Trembling, with quick, short breaths, I planned a sudden escape that would rescue me from my own sweat. I would race out of the sweat lodge, collect my clothes, and make a hasty retreat to my car before anyone spoke to me. I would obliterate myself from the moment, as if I had never made plans to travel to Pasadena and take part in the Summer Solstice.

The 20 strangers that surrounded me would remain as I knew them, and I could glide down the 710 freeway in relief, chalking up the experience to some bizarre outtake that never graced my own reality. Besides, no one would miss me. My absence would not linger, nor would any thoughts of regret reach the surface. This sweat thing just wasn't for me.

BUT….I had driven 50 miles to get here, and had sacrificed a half-day's wages in the process. Arriving several hours early, I had confirmed the location and bought the water and energy gifts, essentials for the ritual. I had gone to the trouble of providing myself with a pair of clean towels (quite a rarity for a 30-year-old bachelor whose linens rarely see the swirling seas). Why turn back now after going to such trouble?

BUT…My personal inconvenience was no reason to force myself to continue in the penetrating heat. I had nothing to prove to these people, and their disappointment or disdain with my departure should be of no consequence. Ego or some kind of misplaced masculine sense of perseverance was not a good enough reason to continue and I had nothing to prove by staying in this misty pit of hell. There was no right or wrong here, and the only one taking care of me was me! I need to get out!

BUT…Lyn's words were familiar to me, and between heartbeats I was catching snippets of spoken word that she had reviewed with us prior to entering the womb of Grandmother Earth. The living room had been touched with the smell of sage, and as those more experienced trickled in and gathered to be among friends, a communal feeling had swept over me, and I knew I was in a safe place. That living room was still there, as was the rest of the outside world. I was reminded the womb was essential, but not an entity of itself lacking connectedness.

BUT…what good is community (or the rest of the body) when I am stuck here in cramped quarters with nothing to wear but the overcoat of fear? What good were acquaintances when deep-seeded emotions rendered me paralyzed to the ferocity of an unavoidable anxiety attack? What good was calling in spirits or ancestors when the burden of fear and self-ridicule was mine alone to bear? No one here knows me, and who really cares? There is nothing here for me but the blistering heat of darkness and despondency. I have nothing in this sweat lodge. I am as impenetrable as the solid, wooden bars surrounding the inside of the sweat lodge, giving structure to my ugliness. At least no one can see me.

BUT…I haven't died yet.

BUT…I could die.

BUT…What if I passed out and no one knew? What if no one ever knows me?

THEN….something changes. The impact is sudden, but the experience flows through me like the energy swirling around us, and my escape plan fades like a treasure map flirting with an open flame, brittle creases of paper documenting habitual patterns of self-prophesized failure lost in the ashes of life and death. My old behavior patterns are of no use here (or have they lost their almighty power)?

AND.. Lyn's still calling more spirits in, and my lips are sweating. More spirits coming, and beads of sweat stream down my face and neck, originating from the soft spot on my skull and lingering down to the earth beneath me. A big sigh, and I offer Grandmother Earth the bathing water of fear, anxiety, and guilt that were once the makings of toneless, colorless concrete that always required more energy to sustain…and more heartbeats to keep alive.

WHAT IF…I am imagining this transformation, fooling myself into thinking I am imagining a transformation? My sense of reality, that same Goddamn, overbearing, heartless, continual voice of self-criticism will not give way to euphoria. I am being pulled back…sucked in….almost there…then sucked back. I try to block off the fear..but he is too elusive; he's squirmed his way back.

BUT THEN…The voice is saying something different. After 30 years of repetitive monotony, it has a fresh message…and it's not the only voice! It's a quieter voice, and the others are swarming in unison. I feel among kindred souls, and their presence gives me confident resolve to endure the sweat. There are still moments of heightened awareness to my trembling body and rapid heartbeat, but I no longer fight the sweat…I settle in.

Part of the ritual is taking a vow to confront our adversaries. I vow to break through the barrier of fear that keeps me from actualizing my connectedness to the earth, and to others. My vow is supported by voices in the darkness, and as we near the time of departure I am in no hurry to leave the lodge, wanting more time to soak in my feeling of accomplishment.

I lay with my towel outside on the patio deck, my sweat-drenched shorts cooling the air around me as I stare up at the surrounding trees and the moon peeking through the branches. My heart is still racing, but I feel more centered, like a warrior recessitated from the brink of defeat. A confident bliss flows through me, and I am now fully aware that I have the potential to reach my potential. While fear and avoidance had always been formidable enemies, they no longer seemed so scary.

Rising from the deck with my damp towel at my side, I went inside to break bread with my new friends.