Reality as a Horror Movie: The Deadly Sweat Lodge (Part 2)

How far can "transformational thinking" take us?

Posted Nov 04, 2009

Sweat Lodge / James Arthur Ray
Source: Sweat Lodge / James Arthur Ray

Self-Transformation . . . or Self-Delusion?

The notion of instantaneous transformation can be enormously seductive to Westerners, almost always in a hurry to finish things and see results. Ray actually encourages such impatience by advertising his short-term retreats as experiences that will alter participants' lives forever. All they need do is pay an (exorbitant) fee and do exactly what he tells them to.

But to realize our most cherished goals, can we successfully move beyond our assorted physical ailments and psychological dysfunctions merely through "transformative" thinking, positive visualizations, and boundary-breaking behaviors? The short answer here is, simply, no. We all have our particular limits, and it's essential that we learn both to recognize--and respect--them.

Not that there isn't some truth in the slogan "mind over matter," for to some degree we can transcend certain everyday constraints once we revise our inaccurate self-perceptions. When, that is, we harbor negatively distorted views of our capabilities (or otherwise doubt or underestimate ourselves), we'll seriously limit our potential. In which case any growth experience that helps us to see how we artificially constrict ourselves can be invaluable. Nonetheless, many of our limitations aren't "transcendable"--are, in fact, absolute. If we ignore these hard-wired limits in our "operating system"--such as seeking to survive in sub-zero temperatures without adequate protective clothing or shelter--first we'll get frostbite, and then (if we remain in the freezing cold long enough) we'll surely perish.

This is but one obvious example of countless physical limits that are, finally, non-transcendable. And instances of commensurate mental restrictions are equally plentiful. Not all of us have--or will ever have--the brain power to grasp Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Quantum Physics, or Chaos Theory. Or solve abstruse mathematical problems. Or write accomplished novels. Or become an architect, chemist, physician, or rocket scientist. And we have all sorts of built-in emotional limitations as well. But the key point here is that every one of us is limited by our biology or genetics in ways we really can't change.

Our job, therefore, isn't to transcend ourselves but to come to terms with--and fully accept--our inborn handicaps. If we're 5'5", we need to make our peace with the fact that we'll never play for the Lakers. If we're obese, no amount of training will enable us to run a 4-minute mile. If our I.Q. is 95, then (without superlative connections, at least!) we'll never get into Harvard (let alone teach there). And if we exited the womb unusually "high strung" (as in, made anxious by the slightest threat or mishap), we'll never be able to function well working in an emergency room.

Ray speaking James Ray--featured in the wildly successful film and book, The Secret, and later on such prominent talk shows as Oprah Winfrey and Larry King--is one of those zealous proponents of the dangerously simplistic belief that whatever in our mind's eye we persistently visualize as happening eventually will happen, that our very will can make it happen. And, admittedly, such an ideology is not totally false, in the sense that there is much to be said for positive thinking and a "can do" attitude. But assuming that--by sheer force of intention or will--anyone can realize their fondest dreams, completely ignores the fact that within any particular individual certain limits are in fact absolute.

Rather, "liberated" from such relativistic thinking, this so-called "Law of Attraction" maintains that it's all in your mind. Finally, it's mind over everything. Just think about what you desire--and if you persist, sooner or later you'll "attract" it; and the craved object (or objective) will manifest as your new, "self-constructed" reality. (Compare this to the fraudulent Harold Hill of The Music Man, whose "Think Method" alone will enable everyone in the high school band to play music never actually learned but--in this case--heard, in their mind's ear! Magical? Delusional?--really, not much more so than some of the "realization" techniques Ray (and others) routinely disseminate.

To me, this is basically "fairy-tale" thinking--though I've little doubt that this is precisely why The Secret has met with such popular acclaim. For the perennial dream is that somewhere, residing deep within us, is a force (or maybe fairy godmother?) just waiting to be activated, to grant our deepest wishes--if only, that is, we believe. . . .

But the real world can't so easily be ignored. Turn your back on it once too often and it will bite you--and bite you hard (and again, note Ray's audacious attempt to get participants to ignore their limits in his recklessly over-heated, oxygen-scarce sweat lodge). It's like trying to fool Mother Nature. And here Mother Nature can be defined as nothing more than the immutable terms of our mortal existence. If we imbibe poison and don't get treatment, we'll die. Same thing if we fall off a cliff and our head hits the rocks below. Plainly, it doesn't matter what we choose to tell ourselves. In such cases--and countless others--it's really matter over mind. Sure, we can transcend our limits if these limits are largely imaginary. But we can't overcome our essential nature--and certainly not by blithely disregarding it.

To think otherwise isn't just grandiose, it's also foolhardy. And in its rampant narcissism, it's surely pathological as well. Undeniably, the idea of such transcendence is fascinating, wondrous, intriguing, beguiling. But to be so "seduced" is ultimately to be betrayed and deceived. Doubtless, Ray had the magnetism and charisma to literally lead many of his followers to sickness, injury--and even death. But his self-deluded belief system of "No Limits" is still (if I may employ an oxymoron I introduced some 30 years ago) "culpably innocent." That is, for Ray at 51 to be so naïve (and willfully so) about the unalterable framework of human existence--as well as what our bodies can tolerate--seems to me not just sad, but also arrogant in its demagogic presumptions.

sweat lodge investigation And that, ultimately, is the sweat lodge tragedy: That a man who rose from a telemarketing job at AT&T to become the President and CEO of a $10 million dollar plus personal-development empire--a man with virtually no higher education and without any bona fide medical or philosophical credentials--should use (or rather, abuse) his powerful personal appeal to encourage (even pressure) earnest "want-to-believers" to go through the most outrageous endurance test, to put at risk their mortal welfare. In short, to get them to risk everything in the effort to move beyond precisely those limits it's essential we all learn to respect and abide by.

. . . In the end, it can hardly be overemphasized that true transcendence or enlightenment is not--and was never meant to be--an X-Sport.

Note 1: If you’d like to explore other posts I’ve written on narcissists, from a variety of perspectives, m, here are the links:

"The Vampire's Bite: Victims of Narcissists Speak Out,"

"9 Enlightening Quotes on Narcissists—and Why,"

“6 Signs of Narcissism You May Not Know About,”

 The Narcissist’s Dilemma: They Can Dish It Out, But . . . “,

“Narcissism: Why It’s So Rampant in Politics,”

“Our Egos: Do They Need Strengthening—or Shrinking,”

"LeBron James: The Making of a Narcissist" (Parts 1 & 2), and

"Reality as a Horror Movie: The Case of the Deadly Sweat Lodge" (Parts 1 & 2—centering on James Arthur Ray). [present 2-part post].

Note 2: To check out my other posts for Psychology Today, on a broad variety of topics, click here.

© 2009 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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