Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sweat Lodge Trial Underway

In October of 2009 I covered the case of James Arthur Ray, a self-help guru who taught a New Thought methodology similar to that popularized in Rhonda Byrne's The Secret. At a "spiritual warrior" retreat in Sedona, Arizona, several of his students were killed as the result of a sweat lodge ceremony gone terribly wrong. Ray is currently on trial in Arizona, charged with three counts of reckless manslaughter. If convicted he could face a long prison term.

They were seekers, not flakes. Doctors, engineers, salespeople, small-business owners -- professionals who paid $10,000 to break down personal barriers they believed kept them from achieving all they could.

But how hard participants in Ray's motivational seminars pushed themselves -- and how intensely Ray pushed his acolytes -- is one of the central questions being examined here in Yavapai County as his trial on manslaughter charges unfolds.

Prosecutors say three spiritual warriors died from the heat after 2½ hours in a sweat lodge on October 8, 2009. Nineteen others collapsed, vomited, had trouble breathing, hallucinated, foamed at the mouth or fell unconscious.

Some of the 55 people who followed Ray into the sweat lodge are now reliving the experience at his criminal trial at a remote desert courthouse far from the magic of Sedona. There are no New Age crystal shops or aura readers here. Roaring lions can be heard from a neighboring safari park.

Ray, a 53-year-old preacher's son, best-selling author and self-help coach, is accused of recklessly causing the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, New York; Lizbeth Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minnesota; and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee. If convicted of three counts of reckless manslaughter, he could go to prison for more than 30 years.

I suppose it's serendipitous that on a recent thread the topic of conversation drifted to the amount of harm that Pagans leaders who discourage the use of magick cause to members of their community. Part of the reason that my comments may have seemed to minimize such concerns is a matter of perspective, in that the New Age community is in many cases far worse.

If a Pagan leader convinces you that magick is "unspiritual" or dangerous your spiritual development is going to stall, but you won't die or go broke from it. If a New Age leader like Ray tells you that the power of your mind can do anything including allow you to survive a deadly dose of heat from an incompetently operated sweat lodge, well, let's just say that I think the harm done there is a whole lot more significant, even if you don't include being out the ten thousand bucks. For example, I doubt I'll ever hear about even the most inept Pagan leader shaming a student to death.

Neuman, a divorced mother of three who worked as a database administrator, quietly hunkered down until she slipped into unconsciousness. Fellow participants believe she was determined to finish the sweat lodge ceremony because she felt ashamed after Ray chastised her for being with a group of experienced volunteers who shared snacks and a bottle of wine.

"Choosing to go in the sweat lodge, I believe she had something to prove to James Ray," said Jennifer Haley, a volunteer from California who was a member of what Ray called the Dream Team. "I believe that her feeling shameful absolutely had everything to do with her dying in that sweat lodge."

Much of what went on during the retreat revealed at the trial simply sounds ridiculous from a magical perspective, the same sort of random assortment of pop culture and practices considered "spiritual" in some traditions that characterize much of the New Age spirituality market.

The five-day seminar began with lectures, viewing the film "The Last Samurai," goal-setting and quiet time for reflection and journal-keeping. On the first day, participants were asked to shave their heads, or at least crop their hair short, in a symbolic gesture that they were letting go of their vanity. It was optional, and by the end of the week, 41 participants had cut their hair.

Texas orthodontist Beverly Bunn was the last to lose her hair. She said she held out until right before the sweat lodge ceremony, despite Ray's prodding with comments such as: "Are you hiding behind your hair?" or "What does that have to do with your identity?"

They also were to adhere to a strict vegetarian diet, according to testimony.

The activities became increasingly taxing. On the third day, a code of silence was imposed. At a "Samurai Game," Ray wore white and literally played God, ordering his black-robed "death angels" to strike dead anyone who spoke or disobeyed his instructions. Participants who "died" had to lie still on the cold floor, sometimes for hours, and did not get dinner, according to testimony.

Had I been a participant, at this point I would be thinking two things - (1) I paid ten thousand dollars for this? and (2) This is starting to look more and more like a cult by the minute. I mean, I could watch a Tom Cruise movie, journal, reflect, cut my hair, and eat vegetables for free. And I completely fail to see any value in the cultish, authoritarian bullshit of the "Samurai Game" exercise. It just strikes me as a pointless power trip on the part of Ray. But then there's this:

At 11 p.m., participants were told to gather up their sleeping bags and were led into the desert on a "Vision Quest," according to testimony. They were instructed to build a Native-American medicine circle and meditate inside it for 36 hours without food or water. When it was over, participants were told to drink plenty of water for the final challenge, the sweat lodge.

The sweat lodge exercise was based on a Native American purification ritual "as old as time itself," as Ray told them in a recorded pep talk before the ceremony. Built of willow sticks and tarps, the lodge was 5 feet high and 23 feet across, with a pit in the middle.

It was pitch-black inside, with participants huddled together shoulder to shoulder. Stones heated to an orange glow -- 55 in all -- were added to the pit for each 15-minute round. Ray said the stones were symbolic of earthly ancestors, and called them "grandfathers."

Participants greeted the "grandfathers" at the beginning of each round and Ray poured water on the stones, creating clouds of steam.

Wow. That's what I would call an effective initiation ritual. What's really tragic about the situation is that had it been administered properly with an eye toward safety this portion of the retreat probably would have been a profoundly transformative experience for many of the participants and none of them would have died. It seems to have failed for a really stupid reason.

Ray had warned that the sweat lodge would be intense, but assured his spiritual warriors that they would survive and the experience would forever change them. He taped the lectures and prosecutors are playing excerpts to the jury, attempting to use Ray's own words against him:

"There's no lodge like my lodge," he said. "By the second or third round, I'm thinking why the hell am I me? Why couldn't I just do a weenie-ass lodge like everyone else? And the reason is, when you emerge you will be a different person. When you face your own death, life's never the same. It's just not."

Recognize the problem? It's our old nemesis the Just World Fallacy. Sweat lodges, saunas, and similar technologies that make use of heat to produce spiritual realizations have been carefully calibrated over the centuries to maximize the effects and minimize the risks. Apparently, though, Ray believed that if he deviated from those guidelines and made the experience more difficult and intense it would be that much more effective and valuable.

This is rarely true in real life, and is certainly not the case with spiritual practice. Our civilization has been poisoned by this idea for a long time and I think that one of the best things a magical practitioner can do to create a better and more enlightened world is work hard at undermining and eventually eliminating the assumptions that support it. Not only would this bring us all closer to the truth, but it also might just save some lives.

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A.M. said...

"They were seekers, not flakes. Doctors, engineers, salespeople, small-business owners -- professionals who paid $10,000 to break down personal barriers they believed kept them from achieving all they could."

I mean no disrespect to the dead here, but of course they were flakes. Their willingness to pay $10,000 only proves their flakery. Only flakes would pay $10,000 for fool's gold when authentic spiritual traditions offer teaching almost anywhere, for free. The attraction of James Arthur Ray's work was a promise that you would get wealth along with your enlightenment.

I won't even get into the ugliness of appropriating Native American spirituality for these purposes.

Scott Stenwick said...

Their willingness to pay $10,000 only proves their flakery.

Or at least it proves how extensively the Just World Fallacy permeates our culture. People naturally assume that because something is expensive it must be valuable, when all you need to do to make something more expensive is put a bigger price tag on it.

I won't even get into the ugliness of appropriating Native American spirituality for these purposes.

You can find the link from the article about the trial, but for convenience CNN has a good article on the appropriation issue here. It pretty much covers everything I would have to say on the subject. Exploitation of various cultural spiritual practices for profit is particularly bad in the New Age world.

Anonymous said...

A thoughtful post and sensitively written. A caveat about letting anyone hold spiritual power over frightening! "Seekers, not flakes"...they sound like a large group of highly vulnerable people under the thumb of a cult leader charltan. It will be interesting to see how such a prominent figure will be portrayed in the press.

Unknown said...

"Only flakes would pay $10,000 for fool's gold when authentic spiritual traditions offer teaching almost anywhere, for free."

I live in Minnesota, and if I'm not mistaken we have one of the largest Native populations in the U.S.

I'm 31 years old, worked in a Metaphysical store for 8 years, and my kids are half native. I have yet to see the fruits of a promise to attend a sweat lodge. Money or no money. Now, I would never pay that amount of money to attend a sweat, and if I'm not mistaken the only thing required to attend are food and tobaccoo for offerings to the Great Spirit.

So,no opportunities like this are not readily available anywhere. And I can see how people with less resources than I would feel desperate enough to pay money like that for a spiritual experience like this. Which I guess is the problem, people are that desperate to connect to something........ anything that would bring meaning to their lives. And they're are plenty of people out there waiting and willing to take advantage of them.
That is what's ugly.Listen to the land u live on. If people, all people listened......... including our Native brothers and sisters, people would not have to go to these lengths. Native American culture is dying............ only because it's being hoarded and sold piece by piece for a high price by people like this man.