James Arthur Ray, the New Age entrepreneur and flimflam man I wrote about at length in October 2009, after a sweat lodge at his “Spiritual Warrior” seminar in Sedona went disastrously wrong, has been convicted on three counts of negligent homicide.
Very short version: Using the come-on line “Create wealth in all areas of your life,” and teaching a mishmash of excerpted esoteric traditions and positive magical thinking, James Arthur Ray created a very profitable business selling high-priced seminars and educational materials to spiritual seekers. Attendees at his seminar in Sedona had paid at least $10,000 to be there, though many of them had probably also attended some of Ray’s preliminary seminars, bringing their total bill to around $25,000 - $30,000.
The high points of the workshop were a “spirit quest” and a sweat lodge, both fairly rigorous mind/body hacks the Newagers have swiped from Native American tribes and extensively misapplied. That weekend in Sedona, middle-aged seekers had been sent out into the high Arizona scrub desert to fast without food or water for 36 hours. Then, on the day of the sweat lodge fiasco, they got a light breakfast and a few hours of seminars before the main event.
James Arthur Ray had already been warned several times by Native American elders that he wasn’t properly trained, and shouldn’t be running sweat lodges. Participants had gotten ill during them in all the previous seminars he’d held there.
Background: traditional sweat lodges hold eight to twelve people at most. They’re made out of natural materials that “breathe”, and they don’t use airtight construction. The person in charge of the sweat lodge closely monitors the condition of the people doing it. There are four rounds of high heat, with breaks for fresh air and cooling off in between them.
James Arthur Ray’s sweat lodge covered 415 square feet, was 53” high at the center and 30” around the edges, was wrapped in blankets and impermeable plastic tarps, and made no provision for light or ventilation, and didn’t have a thermometer. Ray packed 55-65 people into it for a two-hour sweat, with eight rounds of high heat, and he strongly pressured the participants to remain there for the entire procedure. The last half-hour was when things went from “way too stressful” to “multi-victim medical emergency.”
The Arizona Republic has good coverage summarizing the trial. It appears that a long string of spiritual teachers and related experts testified that Ray, who’d claimed to have studied and mastered their disciplines, had at most had a superficial exposure to them. Many of these experts had protested to Ray about what he was doing, and tried to get him to stop it.
Furthermore, the Q’ero medicine man Don Jose Luis, who supposedly initiated Ray after three years of study in Peru, is not a medicine man at all, and Ray didn’t spend a lot of time in Peru with him or anyone else. This testimony came from Denise Kinch, who has worked with the Q’ero for twenty years and is the author of a book about their traditions. She says she knows Jose Luis well, and that he’s a guide who teaches what she called an “Easy-Bake” weekend version of Q’ero rites.
That does answer some questions I had. James Arthur Ray always framed his personal narrative as “how I recovered from bankruptcy, mastered esoteric traditions, became a Spiritual Warrior, and got rich — and you can too!” Trouble is, his bankruptcy happened around 1997-2000, and he hit the national stage in 2006 as one of the sub-authors of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. During the intervening years, he was working the ‘self-publishing motivational speaker and spirituality expert’ gig. I couldn’t spot any gaps in his timeline when he could have been an apprentice studying spiritual disciplines. Even if he hadn’t been busy running his business, that period isn’t really long enough to master one traditional discipline, let alone study and re-synthesize a handful of them, especially when part of that synthesis is supposed to be secret Peruvian jungle tribe wisdom previously unknown to outsiders.
My worldview is heavily informed by the copyeditor in my head who never shuts up. It’s always asking what it would take in order for some story to be true. The longer I looked at James Arthur Ray, the less sense his story made. You can say that about a lot of people. I’m just sorry that in his case, normal safety concerns fell into the gap between what he claimed to know and what he did know, and that people died as a result.