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Sweat lodges are usually sacred places of purification, not profiteering

I'm seated barefoot in a tent with 13 people, in total darkness. We rest on a curved bench which surrounds hot rocks on the ground. Water has been added to the rocks, and steam surrounds us.

A woman speaks gently, reciting prayers and words of gratitude. A talking stick is passed from person to person, providing an opportunity to speak. Outside, a full moon lights up the sky, and coyotes howl nearby.

On this late-December evening, I am participating in a sweat-lodge ceremony held by the Rev. Ann Marie Clock. The location is a residential backyard in Tucson, where Clock has been holding monthly sweat-lodge ceremonies for two years. She previously ran a monthly lodge in Salt Lake City for 15 years.

Google the words "sweat lodge," and the third result is a CNN report about the Sedona sweat-lodge deaths at James Arthur Ray's $9,695 Spiritual Warrior retreat in October.

The type of lodge ceremony held by Ray should not be confused with those of Native Americans or those trained by Native Americans. It's been reported in The New York Times and other media that Ray discouraged people from leaving the lodge, saying, "Play full-on; you have to go through this barrier."

Clock takes a completely different approach and sees the sweat lodge as a sacred place. She charges no fee to attend. Taught by Delmar Boni of the Apache Nation, Clock says the sweat lodge is "really the Native American church." She participated in sweat-lodge ceremonies for 15 years with her Apache teacher before conducting her own.

"The sweat lodge is the womb of the Earth Mother. ... It's a place of healing and a lot of spiritual activity." She encourages people to speak up if they are not comfortable, and they are immediately let out.

"This is not a test. This is a place where you're going to say your prayers. ... The whole point is for you to get in there and be comfortable so you can share your heart and heal, and do whatever it is you are wanting for yourself."

Clock, who works long hours as an electronic-documentation specialist, was taught to keep the lodge open to everyone. No reservations are needed for her monthly moonlit ceremonies. On her Web site (www.spiritgathering.com), she writes, "I am not here to do it for you. I am here to hold the space and to keep the integrity of the lodge. I am not here to be a guru."

She also stresses discernment. "If you are in the circle, and you're uncomfortable, you're not going to hurt my feelings by leaving. There's nothing more important than that inner voice."

Clock acknowledges that lodges differ. She says a traditional lodge is made of willow branches and is formed as a dome with blankets covering it. They can vary in size, fitting anywhere from four people up to large groups. Different tribes use different stones and wood for the fire.

Ceremonies are not the same, either. "Some are totally silent. Some have singing and drumming. Some run four rounds; some run seven rounds. There's a whole variation. Just like in the Christian church, there's that whole gamut."

Before entering Clock's lodge, attendees gather in a circle around a fire. She speaks about the steps of the ceremony, and then each person states their name and reason for being there. Participants are then blessed (smudged with sage) and able to enter the lodge, stating "all my relations," which means you embrace everyone in your prayers.

Stones heated by the fire are placed in the center of the lodge, and water is added to create steam. Clock conducts four rounds, with prayers said for each of the four directions. In between each round, the flaps are opened to ventilate the space, since participants sweat profusely. Clock's words are reverent, with much gratitude given to Mother Earth and the spirit ancestors.

I left the ceremony feeling cleaner and energized, with a greater appreciation of the Earth. This was different from the uncomfortable feeling I got during a free James Arthur Ray lecture in April, where he seemed aggressive and emotionally removed in his approach to helping others.

What's unfortunate is that people like Ray make money off those looking for spirituality. Lakota Chief Arvol Looking Horse released a statement in October, saying, "When you do ceremony, you cannot have money on your mind."

Native American leaders and people such as Clock know that sweat-lodge ceremonies are about healing and purification. It is a tradition that must not be tainted by those who think otherwise.

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