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Reality as a Horror Movie: The Deadly Sweat Lodge (Part 1)

James Arthur Ray--spiritual guru or super salesman ?

Sweat Lodge / Wikipedia
Source: Sweat Lodge / Wikipedia

Horror movies are hardly known for their depth. They may be knee deep in gore, but they're pretty shallow in meaning. Mostly, they're about revenge if (beyond sending chills down your spine) they're about anything at all. The stark tragedy of self-styled guru James Arthur Ray's crudely constructed (and massively overcrowded) sweat lodge is a different "horror story" altogether. Sickening almost all its 60 or so occupants--and finally killing three of them, while hospitalizing 17 others, this "personal growth" experience gone wrong is replete with meaning. What I'd like to explore here are the lessons that I think we can all learn from this unfortunate debacle.

Very briefly, here's a "bare-bones" (as it were) account of what transpired that woeful day on October 8th. Motivational speaker and popular author Ray was leading a six-day "Spiritual Warrior" retreat outside Sedona, Arizona--charging willing registrants a not-very-spiritual fee of up to $9,695 apiece. Among other things, this fee "entitled" enrollees to partake not only in breathing exercises (designed to "awaken" their consciousness) and meditation, but also sleep deprivation and a 36-hour fast. All of which led up to the final, climactic day in which, hours after a desperately needed breakfast buffet, participants were led into a makeshift, poorly ventilated sweat lodge for a purifying ceremony to last no less than two hours (about double the maximum length of traditional native American ceremonies).

With most participants inadequately hydrated and temperatures allowed to rise, reportedly, to as high as 120 degrees, participants began to complain of weakness, lightheadedness, and difficulty breathing--gasping for air, vomiting, and in some cases literally passing out. But Ray, counseling them that their "vision quest" was all about "mind over matter," and that they needed to "push beyond [their supposedly] self-imposed and conditioned borders," urged them not to leave. After all, the very focus of the retreat was about transcending all the limiting beliefs that prevented them from realizing their full potential--for wealth (regularly given top priority by Ray), health, and happiness.

New Age Thought: The Best . . . and the Worst

Now let me provide a metaphysical "backdrop" to explain why, on a deeper level, this unnecessary tragedy was almost inevitable. For achieving self-transcendence--and the utter failure to respect the absolute limits of such transcendence--reflects what I see, in turn, as the best and, unfortunately, the worst of New Age thought.

On the plus side of such theorizing is the practical and spiritual value of many psychological and philosophical ideas linked to this relatively new "tradition" in the West (though having existed for millennia in the East). These ideas include yin-yang or non-dualism (the idea that mind and matter are essentially one, and to view them as distinct is to falsely dichotomize them); the divinity and vital interrelationship of all things; the pivotal importance of self-awareness and living in the moment (or mindfulness); the mind-body connection and the holistic nature of health; and the sacredness of myth, ritual, and community. Also aligned with New Age spirituality are a large variety of mental and physical disciplines designed to assist individuals in achieving higher states of being--such as meditation, chanting, prayer, service to others, studying spiritual literature, yoga, and some of the martial arts (such as tai chi and aikido).

At their worst, however, New Age practices are something else entirely. And this is where, regrettably, I'd place the dangerously oversimplified, enterprising--and frankly, narcissistic--"disciplines" of contemporary gurus like James Ray, who seek to harmonize a thinly veiled materialistic ethic with lofty spiritual ideals. Sadly, in the process, what's ultimately created is a profit-making "new thought" concoction that only degrades the purity of that which (self-interestedly) has been "modernized." (For instance--as many native American elders are now taking the opportunity to stress--charging anyone to participate in a sacred sweat lodge ceremony would be considered sacrilegious.)

In her astute and classic piece "Wisdom and Folly," published in New Age Journal over a decade ago (Jan./Feb. 1997), Elizabeth Lesser--cofounder and senior advisor of Omega Institute--retrospectively highlights both the positive and negative aspects of the New Age movement. While taking pains to describe its many worthwhile contributions (briefly outlined above), Lesser doesn't hesitate to enumerate as well its various "cons" (and I use the word fully cognizant of its double meaning). Some of these "new thought" cons may be summarized as follows: the unwarranted belief that in using 20th century technology, evolution of consciousness can be greatly accelerated (that in a day or week a seeker can be transformed forever); the minimization or outright repudiation of rational, scientific thought in seeking the Truth--substituting for it such supernatural elements as angelic visitations, UFOs, and other mysterious phenomena; the romanticizing of indigenous cultures, gratuitously attributing to, or exaggerating, their superior wisdom or spirituality; and exploiting spiritual traditions--while at the same time misunderstanding (or even betraying) their essence. To quote pointedly from Lesser's article: "Taken out of context, practices such as Native American sweat lodges . . . chanting, or the shamanic use of hallucinogenic plants trivialize powerful and elegant systems of spiritual growth."

It's certainly suggestive that James Ray, similar to his professional and ideological cohort Rhonda Byrne--whose brilliantly conceived instructional film and book, The Secret, have sold over 10 million copies--has little to say about happiness as it derives from devoting oneself to the greater good. Rather, Ray (like Byrne) focuses on a self-discovery that has far less to do with nurturing or serving others than with gratifying one's object-oriented desires (think a home in Beverly Hills [a dream of opulence which Ray himself has turned into reality] or a shiny, new Lamborghini). It's hardly coincidental that "the secret," as it relates specifically to accumulating material wealth, has remained a key ingredient in both their teachings.

From its beginnings, the main complaint about New Age theorizing has been that--particularly in the wrong hands (or self-centered, opportunistic minds)--it can easily deteriorate into something superficial, egocentric, and self-indulgent. And not only does this degradation represent my own key objection to Ray's philosophizing, it also helps explain what, legally, I can view only as his criminal negligence in handling the "Spiritual Warrior" retreat that ended so deplorably (and for which he's presently being investigated). The "limit-stretching" procedures Ray inflicted on his all-too-credulous followers can be seen as grounded in ideas about human evolution and enlightenment as naive as they are shallow.

 Similar to other get-rich-quick schemes, James Ray's writings about "transformation" and "self-empowerment" (profound and intricate concepts he evidences only a vague understanding of) seem designed more to "sell" people than to actually illuminate them. And when such a self-help superstar (or anyone else presuming a deeper awareness than they actually possess) deigns to give someone advice about, say, their medical condition based on oversimplified notions of healing, the results can be disastrous--such as telling a late-stage cancer patient it's okay to opt out of their treatment regimen, and instead direct all their attention to the ill-informed notions that provoked their illness.

Note 1: Part 2 of this post goes into much greater detail about James Ray's ideas on self-transformation--as well as how crucial it is for us to learn to appreciate, and abide by, our "un-transcendable" limits.

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