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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Breitenbush Hot Springs

Breitenbush Steam Sauna
For the past week, I have been camped near Breitenbush Hot Springs, adjacent to Mt. Jefferson, the great sacred mountain and second highest peak in Oregon. Since discovering the tranquil hot springs in 1980, I have made periodic pilgrimages to Breitenbush to "take the waters." I have visited sacred sites throughout North America, but Breitenbush is the most enchanting nirvana I have ever experienced.

Indigenous people worldwide believe that where fire and water mix at a hot spring is a sacred place. Healing ceremonies and like-minded gatherings have been traditionally held at these power spots. Hot springs are a link between the lower world and the middle earth plane and provide a means of tapping into those sacred feminine powers. A water deity, usually a goddess, resides in each spring. People make pilgrimages to thermal springs to connect with the goddess and to supplicate the benefits of her healing graces. The sacred ambience of the place, its geothermal energy and the pilgrim's relationship to it, is sufficient to fulfill the pilgrim’s aspirations.
I retreat to a remote streamside camp whenever visiting Breitenbush. A roaring white creek cascades steeply in a series of falls just feet from my idyllic encampment. It provides a unique soundscape in which to immerse myself for days at a time. The thunder of cascading water releases abundant negative ions, which open the portals of the mind to alternate realities. The water spirits resound day and night. I hear different qualities, depending on where I stand or sit. Sometimes it is a soothing wind like murmur and then a deep, reverberating boom. I can feel the waterfalls drumming my body like a great water drum. I float in a light trance much of the time.
I am truly inspired by the sacred ambience of this place. I hike, write or make music throughout the day as the mood hits me. I regale the spirits with song, flute, drum and rattle. I ask the water spirits to carry my musical offerings downstream to mother ocean, blessing all along the way.
I prefer to soak and commune at the hot springs early in the day when the veil between the physical and spiritual realms is at its thinnest. The rituals are simple and the prayers silent, out of respect for any pilgrims who may be taking the waters with me.
I begin my morning with a sweat in the rustic outdoor sauna. Rays of sunlight slant down through cracks in the roof and walls, illuminating the ethereal water vapors. The purifying steam cleanses my body, mind and spirit. As I suffer through the first of four rounds, one for each of the cardinal directions, the English lyrics to Jim Pepper's classic Comanche peyote song, "Witchi Tai To" begin to go through my head:

Water Spirit feelin' springin' round my head
Makes me feel glad that I'm not dead


The words lift my spirit and bolster me through each round of my thermal bath. Between rounds, I step out of the steamy sauna and cool off in a nearby claw foot tub full of icy cold water. After four cycles of fire and ice, I lounge outside the sauna, savoring the soothing whisper of nearby Breitenbush River. Feeling cleansed and renewed, I dry off and don my swim trunks and river sandals. I venture up the trail to the upper sacred hot springs.
As I enter the hot springs, I bend over and dip my hands into the pool and gently splash the healing waters across my shoulders three times, ritually cleansing myself. I offer silent prayers to the deity and spirit keepers of the healing waters. I pray for my own healing and the healing of all who enter the sacred pools. The heat from the mineral water sinks into my skin and muscles. My body sighs deeply. I gradually settle into a comfortable position and close my eyes. I hear water spirits singing in my head. It starts as a high pitch ringing, like a Tibetan bowl singing in my ear. I focus on the resonating tone and my ordinary world falls away.  
In my reverie, I enter the watery depths of the dreamtime. My awareness follows the circuitous path of the springs deep into the earth back to their source. Like a sauna for the soul, the lower world’s intense heat and steam draw out any toxins, cleansing me completely. The inferno dissolves the existing order and fashions a new arrangement from the pieces. I am reborn in the fiery womb of the sacred mother. After a seemingly timeless sojourn, my awareness floats upward through her crust, bubbles into the pool, and then enters my dreaming body.
Satiated, I slowly arise, thanking the spirits for their water blessings. I step out of the thermal springs and the cool morning air tingles on my warm, moist skin. My body and spirit are aglow as I towel off and dress. I follow the path back to the lodge to share an organic meal with other rejuvenated pilgrims.
After enjoying the hospitality and vegetarian cuisine of Breitenbush Lodge, I return to my streamside camp where water ouzels flit about in the spray and dance along the mossy half-submerged boulders. These joyous song birds, who spend their lives feeding on the bottom of fast-moving rocky streams, are often my only companions in such remote aquatic places. I lie down for an afternoon siesta and a water ouzel alights in my dream; or is it the other way around? Am I the water ouzel dreaming of being a man?

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