aBOUT THE DEATH LODGE
The Death Lodge is a Native American tradition, where the old and dying can make peace with the relationships in their lives and move into death without regrets. In the more metaphorical experience, the Death Lodge is an opportunity to examine one’s own self – their strengths and weaknesses – as well as the meaningful relationships which have defined a life. It is a chance to let die what is holding this person back, whether it be emotional, mental, or spiritual, and allow for an excavation of soul, a making space for the next and healthier part of life.
Part 1: Preparation
In preparing for my Death Lodge I gathered relevant reading materials, namely texts by Bill Plotkin, author of Nature and the Human Soul and Soulcraft. Through these texts I created a flexible timeline for my lodge, keeping in mind that situations and spontaneity would inevitably occur out in the wilderness. With my timeline in place, I began contacting my mentors from wilderness therapy, who have experience participating in and facilitating Vision Fasts and Death Lodges. My field mentor from wilderness therapy helped me create a plan for addressing my relationships on Lodge, and told me to pay special attention to my own self – what I wanted to honor, and also what I wanted to let die. After that, it was a matter of finding my Lodge site, which I discovered on a chance trip to Little Wilson’s Creek Wilderness Area in southwestern Virginia. My final stages of preparation led me to write down my strengths, weaknesses, important relationships, and prayers for the ceremonies I hoped to hold for myself out in the woods.
Part II: Death Lodge
I parked late on a Friday night, having eaten on the drive up. I slept next to waterfalls, and woke with dawn Saturday morning. After packing my belongings – pack, tarp, pad, sleeping bag, water purification, water bottle, fire set, headlamp, and journal – I went down to the waterfalls and held an introduction ceremony for myself. I journaled, meditated, prayed, and began my hike. Because I didn’t know exactly where to set up camp, I remained open to the possibilities, hiking slowly and purposefully, trying to stay present. I would stop, check out potential sites, and keep going. I was looking for spots across the stream which were hidden from the narrow single-track trail. I wanted solitude and privacy. I found this between 1.5-2 miles into the hike.
I scrambled down a steep slope, through a rhododendron patch, and waded across a shallow section of the stream. My sight was rocky, with a large dirt area sufficient for a fire ring, a ‘wood shed,’ and a spot to journal and rest. I blessed the space with smudge, dropped my pack, and went to journal by the stream. For the rest of the day I alternated journaling & meditating with setting up camp – whenever I felt myself losing the meditative focus due to hunger or irritation at dragging and breaking wet wood over my knees I would return to the stream and write about the experiences I was having in my mind and body.
With the wood collected I built a fire ring, intentionally collecting each stone from the stream, to honor the water element of the experience. I then built my fire house, using both dried Utah juniper I’ve saved since wilderness therapy, and the wet sticks of the forest. I wrote a list of things about myself that I wanted to ‘die’ with the fire, folded it, kissed it, and set it atop the fire house. I smudged the fire ring and fire house, pulled out my bow-drilling set, and began to prep my board. It was easy to see I was out of practice, and my own flame has been dampened by the saturation of my emotional experience since moving to Boone. I hadn’t been tending to my own fire. When I felt my fire set was ready I prayed, set intention, and made a coal, which I video-taped so I could share the process here. From there I blew up the coal in more juniper nesting, and transferred that to the fire ring. Over the next hour or two I tended the fire, until it was hot enough to feed itself. Then, I began the relationship component of the Death Lodge.
I would choose a stick from my wood pile, call in the relationship I wanted to address – i.e. “Dad,” or “Mom” – and place the stick into the fire. I would then watch the log burn and speak to the log as if it was my Dad, or Mom, and say what I believed I would need to say if I was actually dying. After I’d said everything that felt important, I would write down notes from the conversation in my journal. This continued for hours, until long after dark. My original intention had been to stay up all night with the fire, but as the night went on I found my ability to process conversations less effective. Rather than compromise my Death Lodge for a Fire Vigil I decided to honor my body and go to sleep for a few hours. I took down the tarp over the wood shed and wrapped myself in it, and fell asleep. I woke sometime hours later, my guess is 3-4 am, to heavy rain. I felt the rain spray through the tarp and laughed at how much water there has been in my life since moving to Boone, NC. When the rain lessened I unrolled myself from the tarp and and put on a rain jacket and pants. There was no more fire, the ashes all damp. I turned off my headlamp and pushed my fingers into the ashes, turning over the wet ash until I found the heat lingering beneath. When my fingers threatened to burn, I collected an armful of very wet, small sticks, grabbed a handful of juniper nesting, then exposed the ember beneath. Holding the nesting gently above the ember and blowing slowly onto the tiny glow I was able to rekindle a small fire and feed it with the sticks. By dawn, three hours later, the fire was finally hot enough to again feed itself, and I spent the next several hours calling in the last of my relationships.
After the speaking to the final relationship I watched the fire die. I wrote a poem and called it “My Gift to the Fire.” I then went to the stream and journaled, balancing out the flame with the water. I then packed, doused the embers, churned the ashes, dispersed the remaining wood, returned the fire ring stones to the stream, and blessed the campsite once more with smudge and prayer. I then walked back to the trail and hiked back towards the waterfalls in a silent meditation, feeling my body react to the 40 hours of fasting. At the waterfall I smudged, prayed, and journaled once more, and wrote another poem, “My Gift to the Water.” I then returned to my car, unpacked, and ate. The Death Lodge was over.
Part III: Processing
I am in the processing stage now, and imagine I will continue to be for the next several months. Everything that I am currently unpacking from the experience is superficial to the lessons I believe hide beneath my smallest actions and motivations while on Lodge. However, there are steps that I am taking to process further than this paper. Namely, I am setting a touch schedule for me to have conversations, ideally in person, with the relationships that I spoke to with the fire. I have saved my journal and will reread it after two months. I also plan to return to this campsite twice a year for my remaining time in Boone, to revisit aspects of the Death Lodge and see the progress in my own growth as I move through this transition phase, into comfort, and back to a transition out of Boone. While I don’t expect to always fast or set a Fire Vigil, I do hope to drop back into some emotional space of this sacred area when I visit.
What I Learned Personally // how to integrate professionally
I think the biggest takeaway from my Death Lodge was the power of intention and preparation before stepping out into the wilderness of the soul. As opposed to the other Vision Fast I facilitated for myself in 2017 - where I just strapped a seven gallon Aquatainer to my chest and wandered out into the desert and allowed for whatever was going to come up to come up - I began preparing three weeks beforehand, and set aside several hours of meaningful thought and focus around what I wanted to explore while on Lodge. I believe this allowed me to dive in deeper to my personal experience, and draw immediate metaphor and meaning from my interactions with nature, and myself. Additionally I was able to uncover a new emotion within my body, shame, which I realized lives beneath the anxiety and anger of my center chest and upper ribcages. All in all, a pretty huge discovery for me.
In a professional practice, I believe that greater understanding of myself will only help me be a better therapist for my clients – a more grounded, centered counselor with a firm sense of self in the therapeutic relationship. Experiences like the Death Lodge are opportunities for immersive self-exploration, and I left the wilderness feeling more in touch with my inner being than I have in years. I believe that I will show up stronger to my clients and peers if I continue my one-a-year Vision Fast / Death Lodge practice. On a more commercial note, I hope to one day lead Vision Fasts and potentially Death Lodges, and the more practice I get in my life, the better I’ll be able to create space and facilitate experiences for my clients.
I want to conclude that, with an experience like the Death Lodge I fully expect to still be exploring the deeper meaning and metaphor several months from now. I have a good initial grasp on the superficial emotional experience, but am excited to let me more unconscious revelations bubble up with time and gentle processing. And with each return to my Death Lodge site, I’ll be that much more aware, and that much more prepared to dive into the deeper work.
Integration and discussion of related literature
Atkins, S., & Snyder, M. Nature-Based Expressive Arts Therapy: “Instead, knowledge can happen at the intersection of ideas that move laterally with no clear beginning or ending, ideas that intertwine and nourish each other” (p. 35).
As I experienced time alone on Lodge, I found thoughts and experiences come together, fractal outwards, and dissolve. There was never a linear thought pattern or process. They flowed as the water, spilling over and around each other. Pieces of insight bubbled up to the surface, and it depended on my presence and intention whether I examined further, simply watched as it floated by, or missed completely. Such is the nature of self-work, I suppose.
Baldwin, C., & Linnea, A. The Circle Way: “A start point begins a circle in an intentional manner” (pg. 82).
When considering the need for circles in my Death Lodge – biggest circle: starting and ending the ceremony in the same place, smallest: my fire ring – I thought most about the intentions to set around the circles of this experience. I chose my start points as opportunities to smudge myself and bless the space. I used pods of compressed sage lit which I placed on a creek stone I found on an initial exploration of the area. Through smudging and the ritual practice of sealing a memory with a smell, I was able to quickly and intentionally drop into my circles.
Garrett, J. T., & Garrett, M. T. Cherokee Full Circle: “The point is that you are truly connected to the energy of the Universal Circle of life around you. You can learn being and doing at the same time, while relaxing and healing. It is also a good way to receive messages and enjoy time well spent with yourself” (p. 55).
I feel most connected to my body, my emotions, and my soul when I am in nature. When I choose to venture out alone, I find myself more able to remain open to the deeper calling of my heart and intuition. I think of this as remaining open to “receiving messages” from the area around me, some synthesis of energy and desire which allows my inner knowing to arise up and share its wisdom without the barriers which come with the many distractions of modern life
Metzner, R. (2009) Green Psychology, Shamanism, and Therapeutic Rituals. In Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind. “In recent years the practice of vision questing or fasting alone in wilderness settings has been undertaken by many people at significant transition points in their life…” (p. 261).
To begin grad school in mental health counseling I moved from Durango, CO to Boone, NC. During the transition I’ve found myself looking back on the west and longing for the community and climate I left behind. One of the main intentions of the Death Lodge was to honor my time in Durango, while also creating space for my coming two years in Boone. I called this the “Death of Durango” and the “Birth of Boone.”
Plotkin, B. Soulcraft: “Now, to be initiated into your soul identity, you must descend into those dark realms to retrieve lost pieces. Therein lie key elements of your destiny” (p. 268).
To know myself I must explore the deep spaces of soul, however dark. By choosing to drop in and wade with the dark spots of the soul, I can illuminate previously unexplored patterns of thought and action. I don’t know if I agree as much with the image of “retrieving lost pieces,” rather I believe it’s more of a gentle cleaning of the unconscious pieces we know are there, but are unable to expose them for shame at their ugliness, or fear of how bright they might shine.
Plotkin, B. Nature and the Human Soul: “To relinquish your former identity is to sacrifice the story you were living, the one that defined you, empowered you socially – and limited you. This sacrifice captures the essence of leaving home” (p. 265).
Part of the Death Lodge is this thought exactly – a letting go, a sacrifice of the identity which defined me, limited me. Through this quote and additional readings I was able to develop a ceremony around relinquishing my former identity, and burning away the aspects of self which were damaging to myself and my desires for wholeness.
Atkins, S., & Snyder, M. (2017). Nature-Based Expressive Arts Therapy: Integrating the Expressive Arts and Ecotherapy. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Baldwin, C., & Linnea, A. (2010). The Circle Way: A Leader in Every Chair. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers .
Garrett, J. T., & Garrett, M. T. (2002). The Cherokee full circle: A practical guide to ceremonies and traditions. Rochester, Vt: Bear & Co.
Metzner, R. (2009) Green Psychology, Shamanism, and Therapeutic Rituals. In Buzzell, L., & Chalquist, C. (Ed.), Ecotherapy: Healing with nature in mind (p. 261 - ). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Plotkin, B. (2003). Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche. San Francisco, CA: New World Library.
Plotkin, B. (2007). Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. San Francisco, CA: New World Library.
My Gift to the fire
To the fire
I give you
All that which
Needs to burn.
And in the flames
I will find
To the fire
I now give
I now give
To the flames
Let the fire
The rot and
Expose my heart
As it is:
Pure & light,
Full of love
Ready for joy,
In the folds
Of my one
My gift to the water
To the water I give you the soft and tender spots of the soul, what I thought was dirty forever might be cleaned, healed. I give you my loving heart, bruised by use. I give you my open mind, exhausted by the stories I tell. I give you my insecure body, shaped to protect myself from judgement. I give you my feeling soul, calling out for deeper connection. Water, I give you all of me. Let me sink into the still of your quiet pool, ride fast on your river, fall down as rain, drink deep from your well. I am ready for the work of water. Water, I give you all of me.