Of Sweats, “Pirts” and Leadership.

Posted by jlubans on October 07, 2014

Citation: The steps down to the “pirts” at “Laimes Ligzda”.
An unplanned event at August’s Leading Change seminar took me back in
time. The unscheduled event was a “pirts”, a group-sweat in a wood heated sauna with its Latvian cleansing protocols and rituals. It brought to mind a long-ago Cherokee sweat lodge out by a pond in rural North Carolina. And, adding humor to the recollection, I was also reminded of an amateurish effort one night by my men’s group to re-enact the Cherokee sweat. That’s a story all in itself: a teetering and drafty “lodge” in a river bed, the sputtering fire and the spitting and splitting heated rocks. And, topping everything off, when we finally called it quits, we got lost in the surrounding forest.

Caption: A not untypical sweat lodge, path, and fire circle.
Hawk Littlejohn, a Cherokee shaman, master flute maker, school of medicine lecturer, self-proclaimed “savage” - yet, the most civilized in our midst - was the unforgettable leader of my North Carolina sweat.
We, too, had a wood fire to heat the river rocks. We hauled the wood and made the fire – I recall this especially since I had the misfortune to carry, bare-chested, pine logs with poison ivy roots still embedded in the bark. Once heated the stones were rolled or carried by shovel into the tarp-covered lodge and placed in the center. We crawled into the lodge and sat, cross-legged, on the ground around the hot rocks; if there was any light it was that emanating from the white-hot rocks. Hawk led the solemn ritual with prayers and chants. He ladled water onto the rocks, releasing clouds of steam to the roof just above our heads. The steam tingled, the heat settled on our heads, shoulders and legs. It became increasingly hot. Hawk’s voice guided and helped us focus; passing around a tobacco filled pipe, he asked us to join in and to say what was uppermost in our minds or to think in silence in the heated dark, perspiring freely, next to friends and colleagues. The world becomes finite, a circle; it is hard to pretend in the lodge, to stay closed and not speak truthfully.
We had, as I recall, three rounds inside the lodge. After each round we’d crawl out and quietly stand in the night air, then return. A few of us did not get through the third round – too hot.
After the final round we swam in the pond to cool off, followed by a convivial feast in the kitchen of Hawk’s nearby farmhouse.

How does this relate to leadership? What did I come away with besides a bad case of poison ivy?
Like so much of experiential or adventure learning the sweat has its greatest effect on the individual, on one’s self-awareness. While you listen to others and you hear and offer support to others, the cleansing of body and mind is deeply personal. And, sweats, whether in a Latvian pirts or in a tarp-covered lodge are rich with metaphors for leadership. A sweat is egalitarian – there’s no corporate uniform, you’re naked or near naked! And, there’s meaning in the heating and cleansing process. The three levels inside the pirts, from warm to hair-burning-hot, might represent a challenge, just how much “heat in the kitchen” can you stand? And, there’s the cooling off and adjusting between the rounds, returning to and re-engaging the heat. And, after the last round, there’s slipping into the pond for a swim with little regard for the misted cool evening. My super heated skin insulates me and makes me akin to an otter, as I slide in solitude through the silver, silken water.

@Copyright 2014 John Lubans
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Posted by jlubans on October 09, 2014  •  23:28:00


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