Academic journal article Journal of Transpersonal Psychology

The Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony: Reports of Transpersonal Experiences by Non-Native Practitioners

Academic journal article Journal of Transpersonal Psychology

The Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony: Reports of Transpersonal Experiences by Non-Native Practitioners

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: While both native and non-native participants in Native American sweat lodge ceremonies sometimes report transpersonal experiences, a literature review revealed that this significant human phenomenon had not been studied. Focusing on the experience of non-natives, the purpose of this research was to (a) identify the types of transpersonal experiences, (b) develop a taxonomy of the reported experiences, and (c) compare this taxonomy to Grof's taxonomy of transpersonal experiences. I conducted semi-structured interviews with 30 non-native sweat lodge practitioners to elicit reports of their experiences. Content analysis of the interview data revealed 31 types of transpersonal experience which were organized into a taxonomy with 17 categories and 18 subcategories. A comparison with Grof's taxonomy revealed that his does not account for all the transpersonal experiences reported by practitioners. New categories emerged that do not appear in Grof's scheme. Conversely, Grof's taxonomy includes many types not reported as experienced by sweat lodge participants.


Historically, "it is clear from the earliest accounts that the sweat lodge was a place of spiritual encounter" (Bucko, 1998, p. 118). In that "place of spiritual encounter" common ceremonial uses include prayer, physical and spiritual healing, and seeking spiritual guidance and power (Lake, 1991). Also, according to Black Elk (in Brown, 1953), a primary function of the Native American sweat lodge ceremony is to purify ourselves so "that we may live as the Great Spirit wishes, and that we may know something of that real world of the Spirit, which is behind this one" (p. 43). In recent decades, according to Weil (1982), the Plains Indians' sweat-lodge ceremony, especially the Sioux version (inipi), "has become increasingly popular among non-Indians all over the West" (pp. 44, 49).

In attempting to "know something of that real world of the Spirit" by engaging "a place of spiritual encounter" for "prayer, physical and spiritual healing, and seeking spiritual guidance and power," practitioners of the sweat lodge ceremony sometimes claim to have had transpersonal experiences, as reported in ethnohistorical and ethnographic accounts (e.g., Bucko, 1998; Bruchac, 1993; Paper, 1990), the popular literature (e.g., Eaton, 1978, 1982), and personal experiences of practitioners told to me over the past twenty years. Until this study, however, the types of reported experiences had not been studied scientifically or addressed seriously in the scholarly literature.


The purpose of this study was to begin to remedy this deficiency. Three primary objectives guided the inquiry:

1. Identification of the types of transpersonal experiences reported by nonnative practitioners during the Native American sweat lodge ceremony.

2. Development of a taxonomy of the experiences identified.

3. Comparison of the taxonomy to Grof's (1988) taxonomy of experiences.

Three secondary objectives focused on examining first, the incidence, and second, the types of transpersonal experience by (a) age; (b) gender; (c) religious background; (d) education; (e) number of sweat lodge ceremonies; (f) number of years practiced; (g) pre-sweat lodge spiritual practice; (h) incidence of pre-sweat lodge transpersonal experience; (i) expectations of transpersonal experience; and (j) sweat lodge tradition. Third, an understanding of the practitioners' perspectives of their experiences was elicited. Interview questions probed their explanations for, meaning of, and evaluation of their transpersonal experiences; how seriously they viewed and trusted the experiences; any ongoing transformative aftereffects; and any negative experience during a sweat lodge ceremony.


Historically, attempts have been made to identify various types of transpersonal experiences, such as the classification of peak experiences (Thorne, 1963); investigation of the varieties of psychedelic experience (Masters & Houston, 1966); categorization of mystical experiences (Hood, 1973); survey of near-death experiences (Moody, 1975); mapping of the spectrum of consciousness (Wilber, 1975); identification of categories of spiritual experience (Hardy, 1979); taxonomy of transpersonal experiences (Grof, 1988); typology of neurotechnology-induced peak- and other exceptional experiences (Masluk, 1999); listing of exceptional human experiences (White, 2000); and exploration of transcendent sexual experiences (Wade, 2000). …

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