#66 - heat is my healer
And participating in a traditional Temazcal ceremony
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Heat is my healer. I guess it’s always been this way. It started when I would take 45-minute showers in our single bathroom to wash away the daily film of teenage hormones and insecurities. Then my Dad and I would clock into a continuous loop of changing the thermostat - me tiptoeing to turn it up and him turning it down the second I was out of sight. We played this game of chicken across seasons, both of us exasperated by the other’s needs. ‘It’s freezing!!’ ‘But it’s 30 degrees outside!!’ Now, instead of my Dad, C has taken this role (and Freud lives on).
In adulthood, I developed the ritual of drinking hot water - always keeping a bottle on hand and ordering it at restaurants and bars as soon as we were seated, indifferent to the waiter’s scowl. Each sip was a revival and a remembering - of the body and the moment I was in. There is nothing like setting your esophagus on fire to stay present, and yes, this is a trademarked technique.
On a trip to London, my hot water practice was so strange to our friends, that it became our central topic of conversation and soon an inside joke. By the end of the trip, everyone had converted to the hot water phenomena. We promptly renamed our WhatsApp group to reflect this shift in economic beverage preference, which is the ultimate symbol of cultural approval and adoption. My preferred beverage order is now common knowledge, even amongst my in-laws in Ireland who graciously offer us hourly tea service when we visit.
I suspect we are all kind of obsessed with heat, though not many would add it to their bio (like me). Dare I say I am passionate about heat?? Chefs are probably like me - since they understand that the type, source and level of heat are the difference between masterfully prepared food; admonishing the microwave since it only heats the surface of foods, unlike coals that penetrate the core. Welders, glass blowers, and potters similarly depend on heat as part of the creative process of transforming and adjoining materials. And a good masseuse will generate heat in the body to make the skin more pliable to go deeper into the tissues. Heat rejigs our particles and chemistry into new formations, making it the ultimate creative tool.
My friend M recently called the experience of coming out of the pandemic and the winter season as ‘thawing.’ As the seasons change and the temperatures rise, we feel the heat bringing us back into a more vibrant, boisterous and shared sense of life, in comparison to months (and years) of a more solemn and lone time. Even during the pandemic, steaming hot showers were my anti-anxiety pill - sometimes popped morning, afternoon and night. I could depend on heat to thaw my unsure and terrified heart, even if for a few minutes.
When I went to Finland last year, I was struck by the connection between climate and disposition. The Finns are often considered reserved and tight-lipped - only coming alive in a sauna as they ‘thaw’. The cold and dark months in the country are a direct reflection of the reserved culture. Since survival is likely dependent on holding and preserving your heat, clenching is necessary. In contrast, warmer and tropical countries are typically more colourful (blue houses ftw), spirited with upbeat and exuberant music and marked by a slower pace of life as people move at the speed of sheets of heat. It appears that the climate we find ourselves living in directly impacts who we become and who we are.
Earlier this week, I had the honour of participating in a Temazcal (or Temazcalli in the Náhuatl language) ceremony, just outside of Tepoztlán, about an hour from Mexico City. My friend S was in town, and her friend C, a native Mexican, graciously organized the trip. The name Temazcal translates to ‘house of burning rocks,’ and is a purification ritual used by pre-Hispanic Indigenous communities across Mesoamerica to pay tribute to the goddess Temazcaltoci, whose name means Grandmother of the baths. Spiritual tourism has certainly commodified the Temazcal ceremony, which is always a tricky and uncomfortable reality as Indigenous communities continue to struggle for self-determination in Mexico. Our guide, A (and his lovely partner L, who supported us and gave us reflexology) brought 30 years of experience with the Temazcal and natural plant medicines as a doctor of herbal remedies. Over the 7 hours we spent together, we all brought presence, knowledge, vulnerability, curiosity and storytelling, creating a heat between us that felt anything but transactional - which is the balm that often cools the sting of neoliberalism.
A had built the Temazcal - a dome structure made entirely from mud and volcanic rock that was connected to the heat at the centre of the earth. Entering the Temazcal, which is completely pitch black dark, is designed to represent entering the womb and the process of rebirth. We talked a lot about the role of heat in the internal cleansing and releasing process - and witnessed the difference in the amount of steam produced throughout the ceremony as a metaphor for our willingness to let it all go. He explained how different varieties of wood used to burn the fire would produce different types of heat — and therefore catalyze different types of healing. At every step of the ceremony, we asked for permission and offered gratitude back to the elements — as a sign of respect for their essence and condition.
As we each found our inner strength to overcome the discomfort of the elements and the overbearing voice that said ‘get me the eff out of here,’ I was overcome by the long lineage of using heat as a healer. When we emerged back into the light after an inner journey - we were drenched, the sweat representing the toxins and ideas and stories that no longer served our bodies and spirit. It all sounds a bit hooky when written, because of how much this language has been overused and turned into meaningless platitudes — but the embodied experience of heat never fails to feel deeply human in the way it gently pricks and hugs the skin and bones and spirit.
What I find so endlessly fascinating about heat is its capacity to heal and harm - not dissimilar to our own nature. The elements are wonders of precision and nuance; too little is ineffective, too much is deadly. Nothing worse than a lukewarm shower, am I right? The crisis of this moment is that of too much heat and a mercurial state that has thrown off our entire ecology from its equilibrium. The land is thirsty — for love, attention, and care. And raging — from a lack of it.
What would it look like to not only learn about the elements from a scientific and geological perspective — but a spiritual one that considers reverence, respect and discernment for its nature? Globally, we are working within very thin climate margins. Since pre-industrial times, the world has warmed 1.2 degrees Celsius - generating havoc in every corner of the planet. Now, climate researchers are hoping pledges can keep us under 2 degrees Celsius (0.5 degrees more than the Paris Agreement) of further warming — which is still not great, but appears promising and within the reality that no one knows exactly how the Earth will respond to unprecedented change. On the daily, the difference between 1-2 degrees is negligible — but taken at scale, the stakes change widely.
Every time I talk about or think about heat it always seems a bit trite and like captain obvious over here, but revering a force in the universe that I can never fully understand makes me feel held and safe and connected in a way that makes human life not only tolerable but possible and beautiful. Seeing nature in the breadth of its expressions and magic is how I see the same in myself.
In summary, find me in the sun or the sauna with a cup of hot water.
P.S. What is your ethereal experience of heat? Share in the comments.