When you grow up in a New Age community, you learn to think of spirituality in broad terms. In the 1970s, I came of age at the Center for the Living Force, also known as the Pathwork, which owned several hundred acres in a wooded valley in Phoenicia, New York, just outside Woodstock. It was said that the valley used to be a Native American village, and it was rumored at the center that their spirits lingered still.

New Agers in those years often felt an affinity with Native Americans. The traditional Indian view that nature was the ultimate spirit realm nicely complemented the New Age notion that the natural world was purer and more harmonious than the manmade world of cities. Many of those who gravitated toward the Pathwork had walked away from traditional religions because they felt stifled, and they romanticized Native American religious practices as more holistic.

A stream ran through the valley, and next to it, in a tree-shaded hollow, people at the Center had built a sweat lodge. Part sauna, part steam bath, the lodge is an Indian innovation, made of a sapling frame with canvas stretched over it. A pit is dug in the center and filled with rocks heated by a roaring fire nearby. The heat and the steam combine with eucalyptus and other aromatic leaves, and when the heat becomes overwhelming, people run out and plunge into the icy waters of the stream to lock the pores and seal in the heat. A naked man can then stand outside for the better part of hour without feeling the cold.

The purported point of the ritual was to induce visions, and for that purpose, every few months, the Pathwork invited an Indian shaman to the sweat lodge. He would come to visit, armed with various herbs and scents, and lead chants that were designed to bring on visions. As for me, at age sixteen, I was more interested in sitting next to as many unclad women as I could.

As much as people at the center wanted to get back to nature and connect to the spirit-guides, they hadn't reconciled the whole messy business of the body. They had developed a therapy known as Core Energetics, which looked at sexual energy and anger as the locus of most conflict. They immersed themselves in the sweat lodge hoping to access their "higher selves," but they tried to ignore the fact that, higher purpose or not, it was still a dozen naked bodies, men and women. I had no interest in ignoring that.

But I also loved the whole idea of this Indian shaman and the chanting and the mystery. I loved the otherness of it all, the fire, the stars, the cold water, and those minutes of peace and wellness that came after. And I loved standing next to these men and women, and flirting.

I didn't see any contradiction between the spirituality of the ritual and its eroticism. If the body is the temple of the soul, and the sweat lodge ceremony an attempt to gravitate into an altered state wherein the physical and the ethereal were more consciously and intimately linked, then sex seemed to me the ultimate icing on the cake. And the night of my sixteenth birthday, I lost my virginity to a significantly older woman who had sat next to me and then stood beside me gazing into the fire.

It seemed like the perfect culmination of the ceremony, simple and organic, fun and passionate. It felt neither religious nor sacrilegious; both of the body and of the heart. Yet, I was aware, even at the time, that not everyone would see it that way, that some would want more meaning, more vision, more explicit connection to the ceremony in order to justify sex, and that others would find the very act a detraction from the supposed spirituality of the sweat lodge. I wanted to say, though I didn't have the words, that it was all so silly, to be so fraught about something so basic. I wanted to look people in the eye and ask why sex was the boundary that dare not speak its name. But more than that, I wanted those boundaries not be there.

Today, the valley has other occupants; the stream has shrunk to a trickle, and the sweat lodge has disappeared. The Center destroyed itself in internecine squabbling, and people moved on to other New Age watering holes. But for me, on that one night, all was well in the world, all was as it should have been. Not just because I was at home in myself, but because I realized that such home is precious and rare, and that most of us wander a lifetime in search of it.

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