1. The story.
I recommend starting at VerdeNews.com, a small-town news operation that’s done a good job on this story.
Friday, October 09, 2009: Two die, 19 ill in sweat lodge incident.2. The guy who made this happen.
SEDONA — Two people have died and a total of 19 were treated at one of three medical centers Thursday night when participants collapsed after a New Age-type sweat lodge experience near Sedona.
As many as 68 people are reported to have packed into a tarpaulin-covered dome at the remote retreat in Deer Pass Valley about 6.5 miles south of West Sedona along Oak Creek.
Saturday, October 10, 2009: Investigators seek answers in deaths, illness during sweat lodge ceremony.
…[Yavapai County Sheriff Steve] Waugh also said that [James Arthur] Ray, who led the sweat lodge ceremony, refused to talk to investigators on site and returned to California.
“We will at some point in time schedule another interview with him,” Waugh said.
“I do not know why he chose not to speak with us,” Rhodes* added. “Everyone else we have spoken with has been very forthcoming with information.”
Wednesday, October 14, 2009: Teamwork: Verde Valley Fire talks about Angel Valley rescue.
There is much finger-pointing in the wake of two sweat lodge deaths at the Angel Valley Retreat. Yavapai county building officials say they issued no building permit for the temporary sweat lodge structure measuring 20 by 20 feet in which 68 participants crowded around steaming rocks.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Spiritual Warrior self-help instructor James Arthur Ray, Howard Bragman, disputes that Ray’s staff built the structure saying that Ray’s contract with the Angel Valley spiritual retreat called for Angel Valley to “design and construct” the sweat lodge.
Three people remain hospitalized, one in critical condition, one is listed as fair and one in good condition at the Flagstaff Medical Center.
Meanwhile, the chief of the Verde Valley Fire District, Jerry Doerksen, and his public information officer, Merry Shanks, told the press Monday about what they described as the “most significant mass casualty event the Verde Valley has ever experienced” from a medical emergency. …
“We’ve never seen anything like this before.”
A New York Times article on him from 07 March 2009, Even in Difficult Times, a Self-Help Guru Finds a Willing and Paying Audience starts with a description of an audience of some 500 people, many of whom are unemployed and looking for something better, and have gathered in a hotel in New Jersey:
They were here to see a motivational speaker and self-help guru, and paying a hefty price to do so: $1,297 for a high-decibel, two-day seminar. In this case, the speaker was James Arthur Ray, one of the emerging names in the $11 billion self-improvement industry, and the event was called the Harmonic Wealth Weekend. …More on The Secret in just a moment. Meanwhile: a very funny video about the movie version of The Secret.
[P]articipants ponied up even more money at tables in the back of the ballroom, where they could sign up for more seminars or purchase an assortment of Mr. Ray’s books and DVDs. The showcase item was a package of three workshops, including one called “Practical Mysticism,” on sale for the discounted price of $13,685 (a $5,695 savings), which Mr. Ray pitched throughout the seminar.
Given the current economic climate, industry analysts say it may seem incongruous for those in need to spend this kind of money. John LaRosa, research director for Marketdata Enterprises, a market research firm in Tampa, Fla., expects the recession to mean far slower growth for an industry that had been red-hot, nearly doubling in sales since 2000. The industry includes infomercials, self-help books, motivational speakers, seminars and personal coaches.
“Consumers are being squeezed,” Mr. LaRosa said in a telephone interview. “They’re not going to have as much to spend on discretionary purchases for things like expensive workshops and seminars.”
If the economy is cutting into his business, Mr. Ray, 51, says he isn’t seeing it. “I think it’s holding steady,” he said backstage during a break, as Van Halen and U2 blared over the speakers. “We have over 500 people here this weekend. I think what I’m providing is a tremendous value, and there’s always going to be a place, regardless of the economy, regardless of the market, for people who are providing tremendous value and tremendous service.”
In Mr. Ray’s case, attendees paid to listen to a former preacher’s son and a junior college dropout who has fashioned a successful business on the promise that he can help people build financial wealth as well as strengthen their spiritual and physical well-being. …Though he’s not in the ranks of Anthony Robbins and Phil McGraw (Dr. Phil), his appearances on “Oprah” and “Larry King Live,” and in “The Secret,” Rhonda Byrnes’s documentary and book that have become a New Age phenomenon, have won him a following. His own book, “Harmonic Wealth,” appeared on the New York Times best-seller list for two weeks last spring. …
Drawing on his own brushes with bankruptcy (once in 1997 and again in 2000 after the dot-com bust),Because that’s exactly the kind of background you’d want in a guy you’re paying thousands of dollars to teach you how to be a success.
Mr. Ray advised the crowd that for every negative turn, there is an equally positive opportunity. “There has to be, it’s the law of physics,” he said.“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” is a Newtonian law of motion. It predicts the behavior of billiard balls and rockets, not opportunities to acquire wealth.
I doubt the error bothers James Ray. It’s hardly his worst offense against science or spirituality. (For that, I nominate pages 51-55 of his book, Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want, in the chapter on The Science of the Law of Attraction, where he invokes Albert Einstein, quantum physics, parallel universes, vertical time, the Everett-Wheeler-Graham multiple worlds theory, and the Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory.
Ray is one of the cadre of self-help gurus who’ve been helping push Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a book I myself have described on Amazon as a feelgood book for losers. The Secret has the distinction of being equally loathed by serious magicians (as Diane Sylvan succinctly puts it, “the Goddess ain’t your bitch”), and by the likes of Michael Shermer, writing in Scientific American, who said:
The secret is the so-called law of attraction. Like attracts like. Positive thoughts sally forth from your body as magnetic energy, then return in the form of whatever it was you were thinking about. Such as money. “The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts,” we are told. Damn those poor Kenyans. If only they weren’t such pessimistic sourpusses. The film’s promotional trailer is filled with such vainglorious money mantras as “Everything I touch turns to gold,” “I am a money magnet,” and, my favorite, “There is more money being printed for me right now.” Where? Kinko’s?So there.
A pantheon of shiny, happy people assures viewers that The Secret is grounded in science: “It has been proven scientifically that a positive thought is hundreds of times more powerful than a negative thought.” No, it hasn’t. “Our physiology creates disease to give us feedback, to let us know we have an imbalanced perspective, and we’re not loving and we’re not grateful.” Those ungrateful cancer patients. “You’ve got enough power in your body to illuminate a whole city for nearly a week.” Sure, if you convert your body’s hydrogen into energy through nuclear fusion. “Thoughts are sending out that magnetic signal that is drawing the parallel back to you.” But in magnets, opposites attract—positive is attracted to negative. “Every thought has a frequency…. If you are thinking that thought over and over again you are emitting that frequency.”
The brain does produce electrical activity from the ion currents flowing among neurons during synaptic transmission, and in accordance with Maxwell’s equations any electric current produces a magnetic field. But as neuroscientist Russell A. Poldrack of the University of California, Los Angeles, explained to me, these fields are minuscule and can be measured only by using an extremely sensitive superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) in a room heavily shielded against outside magnetic sources.
I’m reasonably fond of my own arguments in my Amazon review:
It’s only logical.If Rhonda Byrne’s advice were any good, neither she nor her publisher would have to publicize her book. They’d just think the right thoughts, and readers everywhere would automatically be moved to pick up a copy.
Average global income would be far more evenly distributed than it is. After all, anyone can hope. Anyone anywhere can think good thoughts.
Alternately, there could be Third World sweatshops available to do our believing for us.
[T]he Evil Overlord list wouldn’t include the observation that an Evil Overlord who shouts “I AM INVINCIBLE!” is a sure bet to die almost immediately afterward.
Las Vegas wouldn’t exist. People don’t place bets they think are going to lose. Gamblers are powerfully into positive thinking. Someone who’s betting heavily while drawing to an inside straight is unquestionably visualizing success, and they’re telling the universe exactly what form they want it to take. They nevertheless fail to fill their straights at exactly the rate predicted by plain old statistical probability—that is, most of the time. …
Positive thinking is all around us. The world is full of unemployed theatre majors, unpublished writers, unsuccessful beauty pageant contestants, unheard-of musical acts, and college athletes who never made the big time. None of them got there by thinking they wouldn’t succeed.
If Rhonda Byrne’s advice were any good, no singer would ever hit a wrong note. That goes double for singers who are drunk.
I know other reviewers have already covered the implications of The Secret’s suggestion that misfortunes are caused by our own negative thoughts. Still, I have to say: NO KIDDING? SOMEBODY PHONE DARFUR NOW!
Look at Enron’s employees and stockholders. They didn’t expect to get screwed. New Orleans residents who didn’t have cars never envisioned themselves drowning in their own attics. Homeowners with subprime mortgages never imagined they’d wind up in foreclosure.
Are we to understand that some families have an inexplicable tendency to attract the same ailment, generation after generation? How is it possible for devout Christian Scientists to die of cancer or eclampsia or ketoacidosis? If a guy in his late 50s has been in denial about his radiating chest pains for the last ten or twelve hours, and the first thing he says when the EMTs come through his door is “I’m not having a heart attack,” has his attitude improved or decreased his chances of surviving the episode?
If I worry about drunk drivers, and then some night I get t-boned at 60 mph by an irresponsible lush with a DUI record as long as my arm, is the accident actually my fault because I had all those negative worries? If I’ve got a cheerful toddler with me, who’s responsible for her death? And if I kneecap Rhonda Byrne, and set fire to the warehouse where her books are waiting to ship, will she apologize to me for thinking thoughts that obliged me to do it?
James Ray’s own gospel, Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want, which I mentioned earlier, says the law of attraction will let believers “create wealth through all aspects of their lives—financially, relationally, mentally, physically and spiritually.” Ray says “wealth” a lot. I think it’s his favorite word. See, for instance, the blurbs on his website:
James boasts the unique and powerful ability to blend the practical and mystical into a usable and easy-to-access formula for achieving true wealth across all aspects of life.and
His Journey of Power® events fuse together the wealth-building principles, success strategies, and the teachings of all great spiritual traditions and practices that he has experienced and assimilated over the last 25 years.Ray also has a workshop for becoming a spiritual warrior, which was what everyone was doing in that sweat lodge in Sedona. “Becoming a spiritual warrior” sounds impressive, but it doesn’t seem to mean a lot, at least not as Ray explains it on his website.
3. The Spiritual Warrior come-on.
The quotes that follow are taken verbatim from James Ray’s Spiritual Warrior page.
“Virtually all top achievers know that to really get ahead, you’ve got to be willing to color outside the lines. Here’s why…”He never says who these top achievers are, or what they’ve done that constitutes “coloring outside the lines,” and he never explains how this will make you a success.
—James Arthur Ray
“Coloring outside the lines” just means you’re not following standard patterns. It doesn’t say whether following them is the right choice. Does learning a new trade constitute coloring outside the lines, because it’s new, or is it coloring inside the lines, because you’re still thinking of your work in terms of mastering a specific trade? And while we’re on the subject, doesn’t the fact that his clients are paying thousands of dollars for James Ray to give them permission to color outside the lines mean that they’re still coloring inside the lines?
Ray is arbitrarily privileging one of two symmetrical choices. Claiming that “learning to color outside the lines” will bring you success makes about as much sense as choosing to always turn right at intersections, or always passing up the first choice you’re offered and take the second.
Let’s face it, in our culture (no matter what people say), uniqueness is not rewarded.If that were true, there’d be no point in cultivating uniqueness, much less paying thousands of dollars to do so.
When you were in kindergarten, you were taught to color inside the lines. When it was time to snack, you snacked, and when it was time to take a nap, you took a nap. Conformity was a highly-rewarded virtue.If he thinks that constitutes pointless conformity for its own sake, he’s never had to supervise a roomful of kindergarteners. In the meantime, he’s right: our culture doesn’t automatically reward small children for ignoring the rules, procedures, and skills they’re still struggling to master.
In elementary school, it became even more important to be just like everyone else. If you dressed a little differently, you were laughed at. If you spoke funny, you were ridiculed. And God forbid you had your own ideas and opinions…Am I supposed to recognize myself in that? Are you? Are all of us? Because everyone I know suffered that same trauma.
In high school and college, it became absolutely critical to fit in… But by this time, you were good at it. You knew what was expected of you, and if there was any way you could, you delivered.I am not in the target demographic for this part of the pitch.
Yesterday’s biggest nerd is today’s richest man in the world (and he doesn’t even have a college degree). Do you think he colored inside the lines? Hardly.Do you think Bill Gates got where he is by hanging around in woo-woo sweat lodges, or by exhausting his working capital paying for workshops and inspirational speeches? Hardly.
So here you are, attempting to achieve your heart’s desires, and all you’ve ever been trained to do is stay within the lines and do what everyone else does.So here’s the question: will “coloring outside the lines” will get you your heart’s desire? And is it a universally applicable strategy?
In Spiritual Warrior, you’ll build upon what you started in Practical Mysticism.Remember Practical Mysticism, a workshop mentioned in the NYTimes article I quoted earlier? Attendees started by paying $1,297 for “a high-decibel, two-day seminar,” throughout which Ray pitched a package of three workshops. One of them was Practical Mysticism, regularly priced at $19,380, which he was offering at only $13,685. If this is the usual procedure, the seekers in Ray’s sweat lodge had paid him at least $24,677 - $30,371 total, though it may have been more if they attended the other two events in his three-workshop package.
You’ll become privy to techniques (many kept secret for dozens of generations) that I searched out in the mountains of Peru, the jungles of the Amazon (and a few other places I don’t care to recall).Paging Carlos Castaneda! What secret spiritual warrior tradition did James Ray study in Peru and the Amazon? If he’s supposed to have studied it prior to his “flirtations with bankruptcy” in 1997 and 2000, why didn’t it keep him from screwing up? If he studied it after his bankruptcies, there would have to be a significant gap in his post-2000 personal timeline to accommodate this spiritual warrior apprenticeship. Personally “searching out” secret traditions takes a while. So does mastering a genuine spiritual discipline.
(Note: Whatever Ray was studying among the Indios of Peru, it’s highly unlikely that he was studying it between 1980 and 1991, when the Sendero Luminoso movement was active. One side or another would have shot him.)
Mastering these (quite esoteric) practicesSo esoteric, in fact, that no one else knows about them. One has to wonder how James Arthur Ray found out they existed. One also has to wonder how many languages he speaks. It’s a relevant question.
Let’s arbitrarily keep this simple and assume he was dealing with Quechua-speaking Peruvian and Amazon populations, because otherwise we’d have to think about the hundreds of languages spoken by indigenous Amazon tribes, some of them singular isolates; and then we’d have to wonder how Ray knew which of those tribes to go to and ask about their ancient secret esoteric spiritual warrior traditions. I’m not assuming that James Ray speaks Quechua, but if he’s got some Spanish, there are plenty of bilingual Spanish/Quechua speakers he could hire to translate for him.
Curanderos are part of Peruvian culture. If you go googling on them, you’ll find woo-woos and tourism sites referring to them as shamans. I wouldn’t call them that because shaman is a Siberian word, and shamanism is a Siberian tradition, but woo-woos use the term pretty damn loosely. (Personally, I’d think better of them if they spent their own culture’s terms, and referred to traditional practitioners as wizards, or Wise Men, or priests. They’d object, of course: wizards makes it sound like D&D, Wise Men makes it sound like a Christmas pageant, and priests makes it sound like religion. And so it does! Funny thing, that.)
Anyway, insofar as Peruvian curanderos have the jump on traditional healers and counselors anywhere else, it’s because they have access to Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) and San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi or Trichocereus pachanoi). Like other hallucinogens (and a good many spiritual disciplines), they’re a technology for taking off the cover plates and poking at the underlying machinery. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing depends on the machinery and what you do with it.
I’m not going to assert that any specific person took any specific actions, down there in Peru. I’ll state as my personal opinion that I very much doubt James Ray did any significant first-hand research in Peru and the Amazon. And I’ll observe that there’s exploitive Ayahuasca tourism in the Peruvian Amazon, just like there’s sweat lodge tourism in Taos and Sedona, “spiritual shopping” in Glastonbury, and travelers manifesting Jerusalem Syndrome in (where else?) Jerusalem. If James Ray logged actual time in Peru and the Amazon, I expect he did so as a tourist. (And I suspect—nay, hypothesize—that the biggest lesson he learned was, “Hey, you can sell this stuff!”)
What I don’t believe is that James Ray is teaching his followers effective techniques he learned in South America. The message he constantly preaches is wealth, wealth, wealth, like Scrooge McDuck diving into a swimming pool full of money—wealthy body, wealthy mind, wealthy relationships, wealthy everything.
The native peoples of Peru and the Amazon don’t have easy lives. They aren’t especially healthy, they’re materially impoverished, and they’ve gotten pushed around a lot by the outside world. If they’re an illustration of the results you can expect from James Ray’s “spiritual warrior” program, why would affluent gringos want to absorb it? Whatever those traditional practitioners in Peru are doing, it’s clear that it doesn’t attract wealth. And if James Ray has reformulated and transformed those teachings into a powerful “spiritual warrior” thingie, why isn’t he down in Peru, teaching his reformulation and sharing the wealth with the people who made it possible?
What a jerk.
required me to think and act more differently than I’ve ever had to before. At first it was quite grueling, but the results…well…all I can say is, “Wow!”That’s certainly saying nothing.
Remember “quite grueling.” It’ll be relevant.
It wasn’t until I had completely mastered these concepts and techniques that I was able to combine them with state of the art scientific technologyThe closest thing to “state of the art scientific technology” Ray uses is spammy online self-promotion, plus Twitter—he’s an enthusiastic Twitterer. Not long after the sweat lodge debacle he went back and deleted all his tweets from that night, but Tech Crunch got hold of them anyway:
Commenters have observed that Ray’s advance promo for the Spiritual Warrior thing in Sedona says very little about what’s going to happen there. You have to wonder whether the participants knew what they were getting into.JamesARay: is 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?
JamesARay: Day 5 of SPW. The Spiritual Warrior has conquered death and therefore has no enemies, and no fear, in this life or the next.
and, as always, create practical real-life applications (you should know my style by now).Uh-huh. James Ray created the practical real-life applications of this esoteric Peruvian/Amazonian warrior tradition. That’s very odd. What kind of warrior tradition doesn’t come with practical real-life applications already installed?
Check it out:Remember all of these when we’re asking why participants stayed in James Ray’s misbegotten sweat lodge beyond the limits of their own endurance.
* You’ll accelerate the releasing of your limitations and push yourself past your self-imposed and conditioned borders (no more coloring inside the lines)…
* You’ll carve out your own destiny and quickly develop the strength and determination to live it…
* You’ll learn (and apply) the awesome power of “integrity of action”…
* You will (perhaps for the first time in your life), have a gut level understanding of “The Four Enemies of Power.” You’ll learn to recognize them at a glance, and instantly defeat them when they arise…
* You’ll define and enforce your own boundaries—without someone else telling you what they should be…
* You’ll experience a new technologically-enhanced form of meditation that creates new neurological pathways, allowing you to experience powerful whole-brain thinking (this one’s gonna knock your socks off)…
* You’ll experience, at the spiritual level, the ancient methodologies of Samurai Warriors; and gain a true understanding of the authority and strength that come from a life of honor.Samurai? A lifetime of pious discipline, self-control, self-sacrifice, nonstop training, subordination to hierarchy, strict adherence to the class one was born and raised in, disregard for personal wealth, and next to no tolerance for coloring outside the lines? What does that have to do with Peruvian mysticism? Or with N’Am sweat lodges? Or the law of attraction, or the modern American quest for wealth and self-fulfillment, or anything else Ray has been talking about?
The only reason I can see for invoking the samurai is that Ray felt he needed a little more emphasis on the “warrior” part of the concept in order to maintain the overall balance of the presentation, even though historic samurai values are seriously at odds with the rest of his program.
All this guy has to sell are his words. If I’m right about the sudden anomalous presence of “samurai” in the mix, he allows himself far too much latitude when he’s striving for effect. Given that degree of imprecision, he could be saying anything.
Someone who believes that words and intentions are magic ought not be that sloppy.
Look, you’ve most probably spent your whole life staying within the lines to get what you’ve got (or at least a major portion of it). Join me outside the lines in this heroic quest for higher consciousness.Four points. First, if the idea is to make you a warrior, with or without concepts like samurai and honor being thrown into the mix, you can’t say “There is no sacrifice.” The possibility of loss, death, and self-sacrifice is always going to be part of what it means to be a warrior. Without that, all you have is an oaf in fancy dress.
There is no sacrifice—only greater and more magnificent results, wealth, adventure and fulfillment.
Second, there is no real change without some sacrifice. Becoming something different means giving up some of what you were.
Third, this is yet another message from James Ray to his followers in which he tells them to ignore signs of possible trouble. It’s not a responsible message for someone who runs boundary-pushing, physically stressful, improvisational mass therapy sessions.
Fourth, it’s bleeping disingenuous for him to say “there is no sacrifice” right before he announces the price of this little shindig in Sedona.
You owe it to the rest of your life to get to Spiritual Warrior as quickly as you can. The investment is ONLY $9695 per person.Here’s a joke Elise Matthesen told me:
The point being that New Agers will accept insane markups. It’s why they’re preyed on by so many parasitic species.Q. What’s the difference between Pagan and New Age?
A. Two decimal places.
4. What happened.
From the New York Times:
Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, died on Thursday after collapsing inside the Angel Valley sweat lodge. Three other people were airlifted in critical condition to Flagstaff Medical Center.One of them, Liz Neuman, continues to be reported in critical condition.
At least seven other people have died in ceremonial sweat lodges since 1993 in the United States, England and Australia, according to news accounts compiled by Alton Carroll, an adjunct professor of history at San Antonio College who also moderates the Web site Newagefraud.org.The same list can be found on the In Memoriam page at Don’t Pay to Pray, and in the Huffington Post comment thread.
James Arthur Ray, a self-help expert from Carlsbad, Calif., led what was billed as five-day “spiritual warrior” experience at Angel Valley, which concluded with a tightly packed sweat lodge ceremony. Participants paid about $9,000 each for the weeklong retreat, which included seminars, a 36-hour fast and solo experiences in the forest.The “solo experience in the forest” was a “vision quest” in the uninhabited country around the ranch following the 36-hour fast. On the day of the sweat lodge fiasco, participants were served a buffet breakfast in the morning, then sat through a few hours of seminars before the sweat lodge got going around 3:00. Near as I can make out, the sweat lodge session went wrong somewhere around 4:30, and had become a multi-victim emergency scene by 5:00.
By the way: as with sweat lodges, sun dances, and other traditional ceremonies, Native Americans complain that vision quests are being misused by non-Indians. As one writer put it, vision quests are supposed to be undertaken by youngsters in their teens; but since kids that age don’t have much money, non-Indian entrepreneurs sell inauthentic vision quests to middle-aged spiritual adventurers.
If you’re not familiar with the long-term anger and dismay of Indian tribes over the misappropriation of their cultures, especially their traditional religious practices:
One of their biggest objections to inadequately trained poseurs running their own versions of these ceremonies is that if you do them wrong, people can get hurt.Plastic Shaman.
New Age Mystics, Healers, and Ceremonies.
New Age Religions and Plastic Medicine Men.
Paying to teach and “play Indian.”
Native American Wannabe FAQ
For All Those Who Were Indian in a Former Life.
A Line in the Sand. (On cultural property.)
Our Red Earth.
Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances.
Blue Corn Comics’ Stereotype of the Month Contest.
The Ripoff of Native American Spirituality.
Spiritual Commodification and Misappropriation.
Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality.
New Age (and other) ripoff sites.
Don’t Pay to Pray, incl. their list of frauds.
New Age Frauds and Plastic Shamans, incl. their NAFPS Forum.
Back to the story in the New York Times:
The authorities say that at any one time 55 to 65 people were packed for a two-hour period into a 415-square foot structure that was 53 inches high at the center and 30 inches high on the perimeter. Mr. Ray’s employees built the wood-frame lodge, which was wrapped in blankets and plastic tarps. Hot rocks were brought into the lodge and doused with water. Mr. Ray, who conducted the ceremony, left the area on Thursday after declining to give a statement to the police.The largest Amerind sweat lodges I’ve heard of will hold eight to twelve people, max. They’re made out of natural materials that “breathe,” and they don’t use airtight construction methods. The hugely oversized sweat lodge James Ray had built was crowded, unventilated, had no interior light, and was swathed in impermeable plastic tarps. No one seems to know how hot it was inside the structure; but as many commenters (some of them experts) have pointed out, Ray created a set of conditions where it was impossible for him to monitor the people who were under his guidance.
Switching over to the AP version of the story:
Between 55 and 65 people were crowded into the 415-square-foot space during a two-hour period that included various spiritual exercises led by Ray, [County Sheriff Steve] Waugh said. Every 15 minutes, a flap was raised to allow more volcanic rocks the size of cantaloupes to be brought inside.This is where I get All Judgemental. Remember Ray’s come-ons?
Authorities said participants were highly encouraged but not forced to remain in the sweat lodge for the entire time.
As I said earlier, “Remember all of these when we’re asking why participants stayed in James Ray’s misbegotten sweat lodge beyond the limits of their own endurance.” If you have the sense God gave a soda cracker, you do not (1.) promise people results that will both transform them to the point of temporarily estranging them from themselves, and automatically provide them with the means to endure that transformation; (2.) put them through multiple exercises that are both psychologically and physically challenging; (3.) push them to test their own limits, and give them the impression that bailing out of the exercises is wussy, a defeat, and a waste of their ten thousand dollars; and (4.) fail to monitor them closely for signs of distress.At first it was quite grueling, but the results…well…all I can say is, “Wow!” :: You’ll accelerate the releasing of your limitations and push yourself past your self-imposed and conditioned borders. :: You’ll carve out your own destiny and quickly develop the strength and determination to live it. :: You will have a gut level understanding of “The Four Enemies of Power” … and instantly defeat them when they arise. :: You’ll define and enforce your own boundaries—without someone else telling you what they should be. :: You’ll experience a new technologically-enhanced form of meditation that creates new neurological pathways, allowing you to experience powerful whole-brain thinking. :: There is no sacrifice—only greater and more magnificent results, wealth, adventure and fulfillment.
Fasting, vision quests, and sweat lodges are all stressful, and they all produce altered mental states. Basically, they’re mind/body hacks. That’s why they’re so dangerous: they operate in an area where mind and body interact in strange ways, and normal judgement is suspended. Under those circumstances, someone trustworthy has to be there to exercise judgement for you. If the person guiding you is also pushing you to test your limits, they have to be even more careful and pay even closer attention.
“Cosmic Connie,” on her weblog Whirled Musings, talks about this class of problems:
Back to the New York Times again:[W]henever there is discussion about the negative aspects of selfish-help/New-Wage stuff, and particularly, it seems, when tragedy strikes, there is invariably discussion about how we shouldn’t place all of the blame on the gurus or leaders; the followers should bear some personal responsibility as well. I agree. Even so, as I said in a recent post about another New-Wage workshop-related tragedy (and please forgive me for quoting myself, but I’m too lazy to paraphrase):I’m all for personal responsibility. But one problem with these seminars and just about everything else in the New-Wage/selfish-help industry is this: While the [legal] disclaimers are whispered out of one side of the mouth (or written in fine print on one page of the web site), what comes out of the other side are the loud (or large-point-size) proclamations that THIS technique or path or technology or course or workshop or whatever will improve the quality of your life and deliver miracles—whoever you are, and no matter what your problem is. Add a bunch of poetic marketing copy, and throw in a few filmy trailers with mystical music and special effects interspersed with ecstatic testimonials from “graduates,” and you have a very powerful emotional cocktail.
Dr. Carroll, who is partly of Mescalero Apache descent, said the Angel Valley sweat lodge was the “best example I have seen, sadly, in a long time of why it is extremely dangerous to conduct sweat lodge ceremonies without proper training.”So how did James Ray get around that requirement? Simple: He always has his attendees sign a comprehensive waiver. There’s considerable interest in whether the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office will bring criminal charges.
Katherine Lash, a co-owner of Spiritquest Retreat in Sedona and a veteran of more than 100 sweat lodge ceremonies, said she had never heard of a sweat being conducted with as many people as were involved in the Angel Valley event. “In my experience it has been very rare to have more than 20 people,” she said.
Limiting the number of people inside a sweat lodge is critical because the person leading the event is supposed to carefully monitor the mental and physical condition of each participant, experts said.
“It’s important to know who is responsible for your spiritual and physical safety in that lodge,” said Vernon Foster, a member of the Klamath-Modoc tribe, who regularly leads ceremonial sweat lodge events in central Arizona.
There’s been a lot of online discussion of this event. The most interesting comments I’ve seen have come from Duff McDuffee, at a weblog called Beyond Growth. He’s written three entries about James Ray, two of which are recent and deal with the Angel Ranch fiasco. The earliest of the three, Good News: You Can’t Have It All was posted in August of this year. I can’t summarize the whole thing—he makes a long string of connections—but here’s a core statement:
Let’s continue with James Arthur Ray, as he is such a clear example of the excesses of personal development culture. If you click the pyramid marked “begin your journey” on Mr. Ray’s website, the headline on the next page asks…It would be worth reading even if the Angel Ranch fiasco had never happened.“Are you 100% totally and completely happy with your life?”The implication is twofold:
1) that Mr. Ray is the first person ever to answer this question “yes,” making him either a pathological liar or a narcissist (or both).
2) that everyone on Earth needs to purchase his products, forever, until they too are as perfect as him.
The biggest irony is in the video clip. … Ray begins by talking about the “large amount of stress and fear lately” due to the global recession. “Who could imagine that some of the largest banks in the United States could go belly up?” He then implies that we are not in a global recession but that this is merely media scaremongering, and then says “but stop, just suppose I could show you a way to use the Law of Attraction, as well as the six other Laws of the Universe, to rise above all external circumstances?” Uhhhh, say what?!?
…Ray goes on to explain that when you understand the secrets of the Universe (which elsewhere says he learned from Peruvian Shamans amongst other spiritual teachers and gurus), you can succeed no matter what external circumstances. Implied is that he too used to be a loser like you, until he discovered the Laws of the Universe. Now he’s a winner, his life is perfect, and your life can be perfect too…
James Arthur Ray is suggesting that to solve the problem of the global recession, we should do exactly what caused it. He’s recommending that we deny reality and inflate our expectations—exactly what happened with the housing bubble, the subprime mortage crisis, the crisis on Wall Street, the credit crunch, and all the other aspects of the U.S.-led global recession we are now experiencing.
McDuffee’s main article, James Arthur Ray’s Spiritual Warrior Event Kills 2, Injures 19 in Sweat Lodge Fiasco—
Whoah! Breaking news! The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office has upgraded its investigation to a homicide inquiry. I’m going to go live with this post and finish up the last few paragraphs as soon as I can.
Where was I? Right. McDuffee’s main article. Best single source of information I’ve found, on several counts.
One of them is McDuffee’s superior collection of James Ray’s tweets. As our estimable readers will no doubt recall, Ray is an indefatigable twitterer, but right after the debacle with the sweat lodge he deleted all his recent tweets that mentioned death or the Spiritual Warrior workshop. TechCrunch got its hands on four of them before they disappeared from Twitter Search, but Duff McDuffee got fifteen. I’ve collected sixteen—McDuffee’s lot plus an extra one TechCrunch snared—and mine are transcribed text, not images. I’ll be posting them anon.
Another reason it’s so informative is that McDuffee has been following this story closely, he’s got good sources of his own, he’s familiar with the self-improvement scene, and he’s been posting updates all along. He doesn’t mince words:
Two hours in a sweat lodge!? This is insane. … But this is the logic of these kinds of workshops—break you down to build you up. Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within is very similar—long hours, no breaks, constant full-on exercises. While there is usually no explicit instruction that you must remain with the group, the pressure to do so can be enormous even when way beyond your limits.Duff McDuffee, if you’re reading this, that’s one question I can answer. Kidney failure accompanies severe dehydration. As for the “damage to multiple organs,” see Jim Macdonald’s piece on heat stress. Once the hypothalamus packs it in, you get cascading system failures. I’m not sure they make dice that’ll yield the saving roll Liz Neuman needs.
I’m guessing that these deaths and injuries were not a result of “carbon monoxide” (which tested negatively) but intense psychological pressure to remain in a dangerous situation far beyond the limits of safety and sanity.
I know several people who have gone to the hospital for various reasons after “large group awareness trainings” such as Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior Event.” Many people online have complained of received mild to moderate burns on their feet after Tony Robbins’ firewalk, for example. It’s time we brought these gurus to justice and demanded that personal change workshops be safe for all.
When something goes wrong in such a seminar due to it being overly intense and dangerous, usually the victims are blamed for “not taking 100% responsibility,” thus dodging the responsibility of the seminar leaders. Personally, I think we should hold James Arthur Ray 100% personally responsible for the death of these two seminar participants, up to and including going to jail. …
The excessive focus on pushing past your boundaries (treating inner objections as “resistance”) is in my opinion what creates the conditions for dangerous approaches to personal change. …
AOL has a new article giving some back story on the two who died. The woman, aged 38, “was an avid surfer and hiker who was ‘in top shape,’ took self-improvement seriously and had a passion for art, a family spokesman said.”
Some other relevant quotations from the article:Nineteen other people were taken to hospitals, suffering from burns, dehydration, respiratory arrest, kidney failure or elevated body temperature. Most were soon released, but one remained in critical condition Saturday. …I am especially concerned that participants had fasted for 36 hours and had just broken their fast. I recently tried fasting for 36 hours. The first 24 were wonderful, then I started going into a kind of toxic shock, feeling nauseous like I had the flu (which is apparently common), so I broke the fast at about 36 hours. I wasn’t ill, but it did take about 24 more hours to feel normal again. I would have had a very difficult time doing anything strenuous, let alone a two hour sweat. A friend who fasts regularly says that one’s first fast can be the most challenging, but that they can get easier over time. For anyone fasting for the first time, this fast alone could have been quite challenging. If it had only been a two hour sweat, the risks would have been greatly reduced.
And again, “highly encouraged” to stay within the sweat lodge is almost certainly an understatement of the intense psychological pressure most participants in such an event feel to conform to group norms. I think participants in seminars should be “highly encouraged” to speak up when they feel that a process is too much for them. In my direct experience on both my own path and in facilitating change with others, there is no sane reason to push yourself or anyone else so close to death in order to engage in conscious transformation.
UPDATE #8, 10/13/09
[From the NYTimes:]Fire department reports released Tuesday show the incident wasn’t the first involving a sweat lodge ceremony at the resort. Verde Valley Fire Chief Jerry Doerksen said his department responded to a 911 call in October 2005 about a person who was unconscious after being in a sweat lodge.WOW! Ray almost killed somebody in 2005, but wasn’t stopped. This is exactly what I’ve been attempting to warn people about with my guru criticism on this blog and elsewhere.
Angel Valley resort owner Amayra Hamilton confirmed that Ray was leading the sweat ceremony during the 2005 event. Ray’s spokesman declined to comment.Ray’s spokesman, Howard Bragman, has said Ray would speak when it’s appropriate. He declined Tuesday to address the Brown family’s concerns. …In addition to the other two dead, there is another woman in a coma!
A statement released by the family of Liz Neuman, who remains in critical condition at the Flagstaff Medical Center, said she is in a coma and doctors are working to stabilize damage to multiple organsTwo others remained hospitalized. Fire officials say the victims exhibited symptoms ranging from dehydration to kidney failure after sitting in the sweat lodge.Two dead, one in a coma, two more hospitalized. Do they have health insurance? Why kidney failure?
6. Questions answered, and new questions.
Update #9 is the prize catch. It’s McDuffee’s notes while listening to a 90-minute podcast that includes an interview with someone named Shawna who was there, helping with the fire:
Shawna has done many sweats in the past. She was invited to help with the fire for the sweat. When Shawna arrived at the location, her friend who had invited her was very upset and said “something went terribly, terribly wrong.” She ran to the sweatlodge. There were people lying in the dirt and sand around the lodge, with other people attending to them.Bad scene, severely disoriented ambulatory casualties, paramedics dispensing IV hydration.
2 hours later, the other people still looked like they had suffered from physical trauma, shivering in blankets.That’s because they’d suffered physical trauma. They were in shock.
One woman told Shawna her story, she passed out in the sweat lodge. She was in the very back of the sweat lodge. Most of the people who ended up with a severe trauma were in the back of the sweat lodge.Location of the victims was a datum I’ve been waiting for. If the worst traumas were clustered together, it was the sweat lodge environment that injured them.
When the door was being opened in the lodge to put in more rocks, air rushes in. She was so far in the back and the door was so small, she never felt any relief, no fresh air. This is very unusual, probably unintended. Usually opening the door, everyone feels some fresh air before the next round. She wondered if she was even breathing any oxygen by the end.Since she could still walk and talk, I’d say the answer was yes.
2 days prior attendees had gone into a vision quest where they were encouraged to fast and not drink any water. Sedona is a desert, an extremely dry climate. Participants were already dehydrated and then sweating it out.Hmmmf. Sedona isn’t extremely dry; it’s just very dry. You still have to drink lots of water, though.
James Ray is a coastal Californian, and I am biting my tongue.
That morning they had a breakfast and encouraged to hydrate, had about 4 hours to rehydrate and get nutrition in them. In Shawna’s opinion, the sweat was way too long, should be 4 rounds not 6.Okay, I can call that one. If they were trying to hydrate but their bodies weren’t accepting water, they were already in shock. These people were in trouble. Jim Macdonald, who’s present here in a chat window, adds that they wouldn’t be throwing up pure water. It would be acidified water, so their acid/base metabolism would be going out of whack, and their entire ability to move oxygen in their blood would be compromised. To which I reply that that might account for the woman Shawna talked to feeling like she wasn’t getting enough oxygen.
People were throwing up water.
James Ray was in the sweat lodge with them when people were going into shock, passing out, and in some cases dying. He was supposed to be responsible for their well-being.
Shawna … shared with her husband that she was seeing people dead, passed out, etc. when “relief was on the other side of that door.” One man said “yea, I wimped out, I got out on the 5th door…I wasn’t playing full on.” This man had shamed himself, felt like he was letting Ray down. Shawna defended him as maintaining his own limits, speaking up to authority. This man questioned Ray’s authority and took care of himself, Shawna told him. And then he took that in and said “and thank God I did that, because I was well enough to carry the other people out.” …He may have saved his own life, and he may have saved others, but it took Shawna pointing it out to him for this man to realize he wasn’t a failure for bugging out early.
Continuing on with excerpts from Duff McDuffee’s notes:
Shawna interviews Jim Tree, a Native American man who does ceremonies. Many reactions from the community—not a sweat lodge ceremony, but a huge aberration from what a Native American sweat lodge is like. He’s never seen more than 20 people at a lodge.No kidding. If that can be substantiated, James Arthur Ray is in a world of trouble—and he deserves to be.
Years of training to be sensitive to everyone in the lodge. Sweat lodge construction has certain materials—red willow branches for frame. There is a reason for this. Plastic tarps trap in gases. …
“We do fast the day of the sweat, but don’t fast from water. Start hydrating all day of sweat.”
“This was a recipe for disaster.”
“Usually people prepare for a year for a vision quest.”
The elders have been warning people. Apparently the elders went to Ray and confronted him and told him that he shouldn’t be doing this, that “you’re hurting people.” Most every time people have been nauseous and sick for the six or seven years Ray has been doing this event. …
Jim was stopped from doing lodges after a year from the elders and trained more to sense the condition of people in the lodge.
During the 5th or 6th run, people were calling out to be let out and were denied. “That would never happen” in Jim’s tradition.
Pouring the water is gently sprinkled on the stones to precisely control it. Ray poured water from the bucket directly onto the stones, creates an uncontrollable amount of heat.This is really bad. People have been sick and nauseated almost every year, which is a clear sign of overheating. One person collapsed and was unconscious in 2005, which datum prompted Jim Macdonald to remark, “When you start passing out from the heat, you’re on the friggin’ edge.” This year, by report, participants who wanted to leave weren’t getting to do so. Some unspecified elders are said to have previously remonstrated with Ray, to no effect. If this all comes out in testimony, Ray could be looking at several counts of negligent homicide.
Jim would be glad to have Ray call him and talk to him about all of this.
7. If magic is real, it’s terrifying.
Duff McDuffee’s third entry about James Ray, The Dark Side of The Secret: Reading James Arthur Ray’s Sweat Lodge Disaster through a Magickal Lens, was the one that spooked me. He turned the event around and looked at it from a completely unexpected POV:
[W]hat if we read this event through the eyes of magick? James Ray claims lineage in the Western esoteric or occult tradition, so perhaps we could learn something interesting from reading this terrible event in this way that would deepen our understanding. Perhaps we could even find some ideas for moving forward in a positive new paradigm for personal development.(Much thoughtful commentary follows. You should all read it.)
When I begin to think about the deaths of Ray’s seminar participants in this way, I find myself having a change of heart towards the man, far less cynical about his words and basic message while still holding him accountable for what transpired. Perhaps you will have a similar change of heart.
James Arthur Ray as Powerful Magician
From the magickal perspective, it’s not that James A Ray has been bullshitting us about a mythical Law of Attraction, but that he is indeed a powerful magician who attracted some very powerful, albeit unwanted results. We’d want to ask, “how did he attract this experience?” and “how can we protect ourselves from attracting similar experiences?”
We can see Ray as having successfully evoked the Warrior. The event was called the “Spiritual Warrior.” Fifteen tweets in seven days (all since deleted, but captured here) mentioned death, the Warrior, or war, and two mentioned words and actions being congruent. A magician casts spells with his or her words and intent, thus influencing reality. Ray evoked the Warrior, and powerfully so. As he would say, “energy flows where attention goes.”
This is the power of Intent and Word, cultivated by magicians to influence reality. One could see this disaster as “the dark side of The Secret,” which is not just “negative thinking” but even positive intentions gone horribly wrong. Thus, positive thinking and intent are not enough if they lead to negative consequences. Indeed, Ray himself emphasizes that the results one brings about in life are what are most relevant to one’s spiritual progress. Therefore this result should be read as part of the whole of Ray’s spiritual/magickal attainment. Or as he said, “The kingdom of heaven/expansion is w/in. But it will always be measured w/out. Your results tell and [sic] interesting story…They tell the truth”.
I too was struck by the content of James Ray’s deleted tweets—so full of death, war, and sacrifice, not to mention warnings that not everyone would make it through. However, I wasn’t struck by the same thoughts as a result. Since I don’t like cynicism, I’ll credit the difference to Duff McDuffee and I having very disparate worldviews.
What I thought on reading those tweets was that if James Ray honestly believed what he preached, if he truly believed that thoughts and words and intentions are magic, he would never have written those tweets and sent them out into the world. Therefore, my much more mundane conclusion was that he never believed that stuff in the first place.