Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

Could This Ancient Ritual Be an Effective Treatment for Depression?

Duncan Riach, Ph.D.
Jun 18 · 3 min read

I’m writing this in a tent, using a pen, at the Headwaters Outdoor School. The school is in the forest near the foot of Mount Shasta, a dormant volcano and the second-highest peak in the Cascade mountain range. Cindy and I come here every year to reconnect with this sacred place in nature and to spend time with a group of old friends. This is Cindy’s tenth year and my fifth. We sit around fires and talk and cook s’mores; we build forts from fallen branches and climb trees while blindfolded; we swim in crystal-clear water; and we put ourselves through the intentional ordeal of a sweat lodge ceremony.

Sweat lodges have played a central part of many human civilizations going back at least 10,000 years. Now in his sixties and having participated in sweat lodges since he was a child, Tim, the founder and benevolent king of Headwaters, has been leading them for at least 30 years. We will sweat again tonight and what I am writing here is from memories of previous years.

In the pitch-black, stifling heat, we huddle together around a pit of volcanic stones, stones that are glowing orange and speckled with bright spots of the angelica herb that Tim has sprinkled onto them. As we chant, some of us sobbing, others laughing, we call in all the parts of ourselves to be witnessed and welcomed. This discomfort demands determination, a commitment to stay where breathing is difficult. We sit for four rounds, each round with eight freshly-heated stones from the fire pit, and each round with four songs. “Welcome stone,” we say, solemnly, as each glowing rock is handled carefully into position using deer antlers. “Welcome steam,” we say as water is poured, hissing, into the pit at our center.

I don’t know if I can do this, I think. But it’s just a thought. I am doing this even though my mind is like a dog turning around and around on a cushion: maybe one more rotation and comfort will come. But the real comfort is the recognition that comfort never comes. Finally, the flap opens and we are freed into the crisp night air that feels impossibly cool as we struggle, some of us crawling, to the creek.

As my body screams in pain, I sink into the snowmelt that surges over granite rocks. My breathing is deep and labored. This is too cold, I think, as the chill in this ancient water bites deep into my flesh, its frigid teeth gnawing into my very marrow. But that’s not true; it’s not too cold. My body is surviving, even as my vision is expanding, even as the pulsating sense of expansive freedom is filling my chest. Even this, even this dying is filled with life.

We return to the low, canvas-blanketed dome again for a third and then a fourth round. We return to welcome stones and steam, to welcome the bear and the wolf and the eagle. We return to welcome the grief and the sorrow and the fear and the anger. With yelps and growls of pure animalistic expression, these bodies shed the old, dead skin of complexes and trauma, exposing the fresh, raw heartwood, exposing a core that is alive with the truth of purity and kindness. This kindness is extended to self and to all. Like brittle ice against the bow of a ship, all struggle ultimately yields to the unshakable truth of this kindness.

After the final round, we crawl clockwise around the central pit, over the sharp pine needles, to the exit and the night beyond. After facing the cold creek again, and releasing more grunts and growls, I stand with my back to the fire and look through a break in the trees to the bright, snow-capped peak of Mount Shasta.

Then I notice my friend Josh lying on the ground, staring up through the canopy at the sky, his body smeared with dirt, a look of elation on his face. Almost fully naked, with one of his legs missing below the knee, he looks like a casualty of war. One of the little kids runs up to him and asks, innocently, “Were you born like that?”

Josh starts laughing deliriously and responds, “Yes!”

Duncan Riach, Ph.D.

Written by

An engineer-psychologist focused on machine intelligence. I write from my own experience to support others in living more fulfilling lives | duncanriach.com