Saturday, June 25, 2011

James Arthur Ray Guilty in Sweat Lodge Deaths

Back in March James Arthur Ray, a New Age guru who teaches a New Thought methodology similar to "The Secret," went on trial for the 2009 deaths of three students during a sweat lodge ceremony he conducted in Sedona, Arizona. Last Wednesday the jury returned its verdict, finding Ray guilty on three counts of negligent homicide.

Prosecutors argued that the lodge, made of willow trees and branches and covered with tarpaulins and blankets, was heated to a perilously high temperature, causing the participants to suffer dehydration and heatstroke. They also said Ray didn't monitor the temperature inside the lodge or the well-being of participants and was indifferent to those clearly having trouble.

Ray's lawyers countered that what happened was a tragic accident, not a crime. They asked witnesses who were in the sweat lodge whether they signed a release form warning them of the dangers. All replied that they signed, but some said they didn't read the form.

Ray's attorneys also suggested that exposure to an unknown toxin in the lodge -- perhaps a pesticide, rat poison or something in the type of wood used to heat the rocks -- could have caused the deaths.

The idea of a pesticide or poison being involved in these deaths is a novel theory, but anyone who has studied forensics knows that when a person is poisoned there's almost always some trace left behind. Rat poison in particular is easy to detect by forensic methods, as it's a readily available household chemical that is nonetheless strong enough to be used as a murder weapon. Pesiticides tend to build up in the body as well, so it's hard to imagine how any of those could kill and then drop to undetectable levels by the time the bodies were autopsied.

As I noted in my last article on Ray, the problem seems to have been that his obsession with not running a "weenie lodge" led to him lengthening his ceremony far beyond those used by Native Americans and upping the temperature as well, to potentially life-threatening levels. The idea that the harder something is to endure, the more you will get out of it is a basic fallacy that human thought patterns seem to naturally buy into. In fact Native American sweat lodge ceremonies are likely as long and as hot as they are precisely because they have evolved over the centuries to an optimal point. If this is the case, making them more intense not only risks injury but stands a good chance of rendering the whole ritual technology less effective.

This case also illustrates one of the dangers of New Thought teachings - if the universe is made of thought rather than matter or energy surely your mind should be able to adjust to the perception of hot temperatures and if you can't do it you're just deluded or weak. However, there's this thing called physics that means your body can wind up in a lot of trouble from excessive heat before you realize what's going on. Once you do it can be too late.

The sentencing phase of the trial begins on Tuesday.

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V.V.F. said...

I'm glad to see this guy get his just desserts.

As for the idea that "harder = more rewarding," that sounds (ironically) like your basic Hard-bitten American Settler logic to me. (Climb the tallest mountain - punch the face of God!) From what I've seen of Native criticism of these types of events, they assert that the point of a sweat lodge is most definitely not to push yourself to the limit like that.

Ananael Qaa said...

Yup, there's a lot of just-world nonsense behind the whole "Protestant work ethic" thing. The idea that working "hard" is the key to success is disproved by the lives lived by most of the working poor, especially in America. People with such jobs usually work very hard and yet find themselves at the bottom of our society. They'd be doing a lot better if the "just world" idea was true.

It seems pretty clear to me that the point of a sweat lodge is to trigger certain specific states of consciousness, and that since sweat lodges been part of the Native American tradition for so long maybe any New Ager who wants to try one out should start with the assumption that the Natives are doing it right. But I guess that's more obvious to me than it was to James Arthur Ray, who's probably going to wind up with some serious jail time for his presumption.