A Certain Part of Gray’s Anatomy

Spalding Gray recounts an episode in his life, in which he goes to a Native American Sweat Lodge.

Spalding Gray
1 March 1994
Spalding Gray, Gray's Anatomy, Sweat Lodge, Shambhala Sun, Lion's Roar, Buddhism
Photo by Kurt and Sybilla.

Our hero the late Spalding Gray realizes he has an eye problem at a storytelling workshop in upstate New York. As he stares intently at Azaria Thornbird, one of the participants, her head appears to melt into a ball of pulsing white light. After this dramatic episode, Gray’s left eye is diagnosed as having a macula pucker—a crease or pucker in the center of his retina. Thus begins a typical Spalding Gray misadventure into the world of alternative medicine, as he desperately tries to avoid the operation his doctor strongly recommends.

In this episode from his famous monologue, Gray’s Anatomy, he encounters Azaria Thornbird again at a reunion of workshop participants.

How to describe her? It’s difficult, really. She’s a single mother, a very good mother I think, of two pretty normal sons. She raised them on her own. But also she’s trained with this very controversial and perverse American Indian sorcerer. He’s named Everet K. Whiteowl, and he works with a group outside of Salt Lake City in the deserts. He’s half German and half Native-American Indian. He also trained as a marine, so he has this theory—at least, this is what I was told; I’m just repeating what I heard—that in order to learn how to heal, you must first learn how to kill. So he and his disciples perform all these rituals where they shoot each other with paint bullets and bury each other alive with just a blanket over the top of the grave for forty-eight hours, no food or water; they dance back and forth at a tree for two days, back and forth with no food or water. They do tantric training; they do martial arts.

This is quite an initiation that Azaria has gone through, but she’s no longer going out to see him. She could no longer afford that. Instead, she’s gotten to a place… well, here’s the part that is difficult to describe, because I’m not sure what exactly is happening here.

What she says happens is that she goes to bed, and she has an astral body that comes out of her corporal body at night and gets up and walks around the house looking for various Indian grandmothers and then meets Everet’s astral body. Their astral bodies get together to talk in order to save money on airfare. They meet in what they call a lucid dream state or a kind of waking dream. Then she goes back into her body; and Everet Whiteowl’s astral body flies back to California.

I said, “My God, you mean a part of you can get up and look back at your body?”

She said, “Yes.”

I said, “Didn’t you ever consider making love to yourself?” Because, I mean, that’s the first thing I would want to do if I found myself leaving my body.

“No,” she said; no, she hadn’t. Another time when I met her after this she said that she had tried it and that it had worked.

When she tells me these stories, I absolutely believe them, because there’s something so completely believable in her tone of voice. In fact she showed me where Everet had grabbed her arm and left black-and-blue marks. She said she wasn’t going to work with him much longer, because of the aggressive way in which his astral body grabbed her astral body.

The other thing she learned from him was called Breath of Fire. She showed it to me and I’d never seen anything like it in my life. She lay on the floor and had about six orgasms in a row. It was like a Reichian dream. She came six times without ever touching herself. She just lay there—her whole body quivering and shaking as she came six times from her toes to her nose.

I said, “Teach me! Teach me!! TEACH ME!!! Do you know how many lonely nights I spend in motels and hotels? I would give anything to be able to come like that without touching myself!”

So she tried. She had me lie down, and she said I had to breathe in through my coccyx. I didn’t quite know what that was. She said I should take the energy in through the base of my spine and up… I tried, but the closest I could get to it was sort of a feeling of reverse farting. I couldn’t get it.

Anyway, needless to say, this is one very powerful and interesting lady, and she showed up at our storytelling reunion. We started talking about my eye and she said, “You must come out to do an Indian sweat with my group.” She had an Indian lodge out there, outside of Minneapolis.

I said, sure, I would do that.

She said, “You have to realize that, when you get with a group, praying, the power of feeling is much greater in a group situation than it is one-on-one. So you must do it. You must promise me.”
I said yes, I would: the way I always do to— to everything.

Well, I didn’t go to this one. I don’t know why. But she was insistent. She kept calling and leaving messages on our answering machine. Renee would often end up taking them off the machine, and she began to get very aggravated and say, “What are you getting involved with now? Some sort of sweat cult?”

I went out, and it was winter in Minneapolis. A group of us—I think there were probably seventeen of us, men and women—did this incredible ceremony that Azaria led with a peace pipe, where she called all the Indian spirits from the four directions. We were all in a barn. We followed her out through knee-deep snow to the sweat lodge. If you haven’t seen an Indian sweat lodge, it’s a dome about five feet high and it’s made of bent branches and saplings tied together. The Indians, I guess, covered theirs with buffalo robes and animal skins. I think this one had a canvas and plastic tarp over it. Rocks had been heating up all morning in a big pit to be brought into the lodge, and there was cold water to be poured on top of them.

Azaria led us all out through the knee-deep snow to the sweat lodge, then she said, “Take off your clothes and throw them in the snow.”

We do. I’m doing everything I am told here. It’s damned cold, and I’m like a shivering refugee. There are seventeen naked men and women all shivering in the snow. We line up outside the sweat tent and I’m trying to get to the front of the line, to get into the tent as soon as I can. I end up fourth in line. And I’m just standing there, freezing, looking around, and I realize that there are really no American Indians there. Basically, these people are Scandinavian. They all have blond hair and blue eyes.

So, we’re standing outside the tent, and Azaria tells us to cry out to the sky, as we enter, “All my ancestors!” Just cry it out to the sky.

Each person begins, “All my ancestors! All my ancestors!” They cry to the sky as they enter the tent.

My turn comes, and I yell, “All my ancestors!” And then I think, Wait a minute. All my ancestors? My father just finished the family tree. It took him six years to do it. I’d been looking it over, so I had a good sense of who they were. I remembered John Proctor, and the Right Reverend Curtis Fox Gray and his wife Thankful Atherton Gray, Colonel Simeon Spalding, Captain Edward Spalding, Brigadier General John Crane, the only man wounded in the Boston Tea Party. And I thought, All my ancestors—who were they? Pilgrims. What did they do shortly after they came to America? Kill the Indians. Where was I going? Into an Indian sweat lodge!


At last we are all inside the tent and we sit naked in a circle on straw which is laid over the snow. It’s dark and it’s cold in there because no hot rocks have been brought in yet. Azaria instructs us that there are going to be four rounds of prayers. In the first round we’d be praying for some conscious intention, some attitude or state of mind that we wished to maintain during the sweat ceremony, which could last quite a long time, two or three hours. In the second round, we’d be praying for friends, others, loved ones who are needy. And in the third, we’d give away some thing, some condition that we no longer wanted. Say, like an eye condition? But, she warns us, in no case—in no case—should we identify with what another person gives away. Because if we take it on, we’re going to be in trouble. So just pass it on; don’t identify with it, just pass it on, and let it go out of the tent. And round number four is that she will come and pour cold water over the rocks, and we’re supposed to sit in silence and listen to the hot rocks steam—and they often actually speak and give us valuable information. That’s what Azaria told us.

I like this very much, this whole very ritualized ceremony. You’re supposed to start out the prayer by saying, “O Great Spirit, my name is…,” and then you give your name, and you do the prayer, and then, in order to indicate that you’ve finished, you just hope that the hot rocks don’t talk too long, you know ?

She says, “I’m closing the flaps.” She closes it, and this guy who’s a member of the lodge, with a ponytail down to his ass, leaps up and charges for the flap. She throws her naked body in front of him and says, “Get back, Lame Deer! GET BACK!”

He hurls himself back on the hay crying, “Shit, fuck fuck fuck…” Everyone’s holding him down, chanting, “Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho! ” Everyone’s Ho-ing him, Ho-ing him, Ho-ing him until at last he’s calm.

We sit there panting, and we listen to the hot rocks talk. I didn’t understand a word.

But I walked out of the tent feeling good, triumphant. I mean, I felt good that I had made it through this ordeal, and my body felt good. I don’t know how long it had been in there; maybe two and a half hours. I’d lost all sense of time. The sun was setting, casting a red glow over the snow. It was just spectacular. I could roll in the snow, I felt such internal body heat radiating from me. I felt really triumphant!

But Azaria takes me aside and says, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I feel great for the first time in my life!”

“But Spalding, when the time came for you to give away your eye condition, you started babbling about a heart attack!”
“Oh my God. Oh no. Oh shit.”

And I realized that I was still the child who acts on his most immediate fears.