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Dying for Spiritual Enlightenment
The recent Sedona sweat lodge tragedy highlights some dangers in our obsession with self help
What would you do for spiritual enlightenment and personal success? Would you agree to spend 36 hours alone in the desert without food or water to help clear your mind and find your true potential? Would you follow a trusted leader into a dark, hot tent to experience a version of a centuries-old Native American sweat lodge ritual? History shows that in the name of self-help, many people will do just that — and more.
Three people died and more than a dozen others were injured as a result of an Oct. 8 retreat in Sedona, Arizona, led by James Arthur Ray, a nationally known self-help guru. According to interviews with participants and their family members, more than 50 people — within hours of returning from a desert “vision quest,” and dehydrated from lack of food and water in the previous day and a half — followed Ray into a 20-by-20-foot makeshift sweat lodge of wood, plastic tarps and blankets. It was the surprise culmination of his “Spiritual Warrior” event, for which participants had paid as much as $9,695 per person.
For nearly two hours, Ray sat at the only exit of the small lodge, encouraging the group to “go full-on” and “push past your self-imposed and conditioned borders.” Periodically, he brought in glowing red rocks to intensify the heat inside the dark structure, where men and women sat or lay down in meditation. At the ritual’s conclusion, seemingly unaware of the bodies of the unconscious lying around him, Ray emerged triumphantly, witnesses said, pumping his fist in the air because he had passed his own endurance test.
Part of America’s self-reliant culture
What happened in Sedona is not an unfortunate coda to a crazy, fringe event. We have a long history of self-help in America, and to properly comprehend the horror of these deaths, we must first understand the inspiration and guidance that Ray offered. Ray and many gurus like him motivate thousands of smart, accomplished adults by borrowing from two very powerful thought traditions — modern psychology and esoteric spirituality — creating a one-two punch that’s nearly impossible to resist. If you had been there, you might be dead, too.
Sedona police are investigating the deaths as homicides, while Ray continues to run his workshops. His company, James Ray International, made $9.4 million in 2008 from motivational videos, books and seminars, and he has appeared on “Oprah” and other TV shows. In an email to his newsletter subscribers sent Wednesday, Ray said he had hired his own team of investigators to look into the tragedy. “I have chosen to continue with my work. It’s too important not to,” he wrote.
I’ve studied the self-help business for nearly a decade, curious about the sociological and psychological impact of this $11-billion-plus-per-year industry. I’ve read hundreds of American self-help texts — by authors from Benjamin Franklin to Napoleon Hill to Deepak Chopra — and interviewed writers, editors and group participants. That Ray has become a popular icon isn’t surprising; notions of self-help are part of the fabric of our independent, self-reliant culture, and inspirational leaders have captured the American imagination for centuries.
The most popular of these leaders offer intense, “life-altering experiences,” participants say — creating new ways of thinking that may have a lasting impact. “James challenged us to live an honorable and impeccable life,” said a friend of mine who was injured in Sedona, and does not want to use her name here on the advice of her attorney. She had been to several other events of Ray’s, including his “Harmonic Wealth Weekend” and his five-day “Practical Mysticism” retreat, and “James had put us through so many challenging and wonderful experiences that we’d built up a great deal of trust in him,” she said. Among her many concerns about the sweat lodge were “the lack of emergency back-up, the intensity of the heat, and not monitoring participants during the sweat, which all led to negligent behavior that is disturbing.”
Pairing spiritual seeking with the logic of science
Ray’s attempt to combine the spiritual wisdom of the ancients with cutting-edge science has been a popular strategy of American self-help gurus for more than a century — pairing the gut-level search for truth with the logic of science, usually with benign results. The New Thought movement, for example, which rose to prominence between 1900 and 1920, offered a path to success through “mind power,” sincere prayer and positive thinking. To New Thought adherents, priests and doctors were a team joined together to harness the power of God and the skills of man, and faith was a psychological medicine that would cure all ills. Before long, these ideas became mainstream: New Thought writers had a column in Good Housekeeping, and Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” (1952) sold more than 5 million copies.
In the past several decades, motivational gurus have sampled from cognitive behavioral therapies and incorporated increasingly exotic spiritual practices, building their brands and holding the attention of their audiences by claiming skills that, for most, are well beyond their field of expertise.
Charismatic leaders from Tony Robbins to Deepak Chopra create special vocabularies and rituals for their groups. If you know the definition of terms such as “rapid planning methods” and “synchrodestiny,” you are part of the club. They also use motivational speaking techniques, such as repeating core concepts, and alternating ideas of empowerment (you can do it!) and victimization (you’ve been hurt and must heal!) to encourage listeners to follow their particular protocol.
Beyond the jargon, though, it’s the spiritual element that has the most persuasive effect. Religious authority figures claim to have knowledge not just about our fate in this life — why we’re in a dead-end job and what to do about it — but about our eternal well being too. Just hours before the deaths, Ray posted a darkly prescient message on Twitter: “Still in Spiritual Warrior . . . for anything new to live something first must die. What needs to die in you so that new life can emerge?”
The ability to give your all in a retreat setting, Ray seems to have been suggesting in Sedona, equates to success in life — and beyond. So as the sweat lodge got hotter and hotter, the underlying psychological message was quite clear: If you leave, you’ll be a failure, not just in this ceremony but forever. And with Ray physically present at the only exit, participants would have had to crawl past their leader to leave, admitting their defeat.
“As we entered the lodge, the heat was breathtaking,” my friend said. “But I trusted that as our challenges increased, James would have increased his protection of us.” After making it through several rounds of the sweat, the last thought she remembers was that it was time to leave, but at that point she became unconscious and was later dragged out of the lodge to safety.
Misusing the sweat lodge
Like many self-help gurus, Ray borrows from different cultural and spiritual traditions, and while he told participants that he had received training in proper sweat lodge rituals, he also bragged that his lodges were much hotter than those used in traditional Native American gatherings.
But Joseph Bruchac, author of The Native American Sweat Lodge, said that when run properly, a sweat lodge is a purification ritual, not a physical endurance test. He has received dozens of e-mails from Native American elders expressing how upset — but unsurprised — they were at the Sedona tragedy. “This is the stealing of the traditional, spiritual ways,” Bruchac said, “and to me, that’s a very sad thing, but it’s been going on for years.”
Proper hydration and an “experienced and humble” guide are necessary for a successful sweat, he said. The ceremony is traditionally employed before, not after, a vision quest. Ray “cobbled together” various elements from native traditions. “By taking these practices out of context you can make them look foolish — and also make them dangerous,” said Bruchac.
He added that there were critical problems with the sweat lodge built for Ray, and without proper ventilation, hydration and respect for tradition, it became extremely dangerous. The simple fact that the ritual was conducted during an event for which people paid money disturbed Bruchac: Ray, a showman, may have been trying to give his clients their money’s worth.
Shaman or showman?
Because Ray has had shamanic training and run sweats in the past, participants said he should have known better than to be so reckless. Indeed, Ray and others of his breed are showmen. Want proof of the power of your mind to control events? Walk on coals and don’t get burned (except, of course, when you walk too slowly or the coals are not left to cool off enough, and then you do, as has been reported by several attendees of James Ray events.) Lean forward with the tip of an arrow against your throat, and don’t get impaled (except, of course, if the arrow breaks and hits you in the eye, as is alleged by one previously devoted James Ray follower at an earlier retreat.) Despite the dangerous nature of these “shows” of strength, repeated accounts confirm that Ray did not have trained medical personnel on hand to oversee the safety of these events or deal with injuries.
At the Sedona sweat lodge ritual, the surprise culmination of a week of physical and emotional challenges, Ray was aware that there was the possibility of injuries: In 2005, at the same retreat venue, a woman was removed, unconscious, from the event. Indeed, according to a retreat participant, Ray had warned his staff of young women volunteers — untrained as medical professionals — that some might exit the lodge vomiting and dizzy, but that this was not a cause for concern.
Of course, there was quite a bit more cause for concern than Ray had anticipated. “Several men and women were foaming at the mouth and having seizures as they were dragged, unconscious, from the steaming tent,” a survivor’s relative told me in a phone interview. Volunteers spent 30 to 40 minutes doing CPR on the victims, and emergency teams intubated and evacuated at least one woman by helicopter.
My friend said Ray is “dodging responsibility and trying to protect himself,” adding that she was livid to hear one of Ray’s volunteers suggest that those who died in the sweat lodge had “chosen not to come back” because their souls were “having too much fun” outside their bodies.
There was no locked door trapping the men and women inside that sweat lodge — it was essentially a tent with a flap, after all — but Ray used something equally powerful: He tapped into persuasive psychological and spiritual traditions, and in doing so with apparent recklessness, he reaped a deadly result.
A version of this article first appeared in the Oct. 25 Washington Post. To see that piece, visit: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/23/AR2009102302411.html.