James Ray and the dangers of self-help

What would you do for spiritual enlightenment? Would you agree to spend 36 hours alone in the desert without food or water to find your true potential? Would you follow a trusted leader into a dark, hot tent to experience a Native American sweat lodge ritual? In the name of self-help, many people will do just that — and more.

Three people died and more than a dozen others were injured as a result of an Oct. 8 retreat in Sedona, Ariz., led by James Arthur Ray, a nationally known self-help guru. According to interviews with participants and their relatives, within hours of returning from a desert “vision quest,” and dehydrated from lack of food and water in the previous 1 1/2 days, more than 50 people followed Ray into a 20-by-20-foot makeshift sweat lodge of wood, plastic tarps and blankets. It was the surprise culmination of his “Spiritual Warrior” event, for which participants had paid as much as $9,695 per person.

For nearly two hours, Ray sat at the lodge’s only exit, encouraging them to “push past your self-imposed and conditioned borders.” Periodically, he brought in glowing red rocks to intensify the heat. At the conclusion, seemingly unaware of the bodies of the unconscious lying around him, Ray emerged triumphantly, witnesses said, because he had passed his own endurance test.

What happened in Sedona is not a crazy, fringe event. America has a long history of self-help, and to properly comprehend the horror of these deaths, we must first understand the inspiration and guidance that Ray offered. Such gurus motivate thousands of smart, accomplished adults by borrowing from two very powerful thought traditions — modern psychology and esoteric spirituality — creating a one-two punch that’s nearly impossible to resist.

Sedona police are investigating the deaths as homicides, while Ray continues to run his workshops. His company, James Ray International, made $9.4 million in 2008 from motivational videos, books and seminars, and he has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and other shows. In an e-mail to his newsletter subscribers, Ray said he had hired his own investigators to look into the tragedy. “I have chosen to continue with my work. It’s too important not to,” he wrote.

I’ve studied the self-help business for nearly a decade, curious about the sociological and psychological impact of this $11-billion-plus-per-year industry. I’ve read hundreds of American self-help texts — by authors from Benjamin Franklin to Napoleon Hill to Deepak Chopra — and interviewed writers, editors and group participants. Notions of self-help are part of the fabric of our self-reliant culture.

The most popular of these leaders offer intense, “life-altering experiences,” participants say, creating new ways of thinking that may have a lasting impact. “James challenged us to live an honorable and impeccable life,” said a friend of mine who was injured in Sedona.

“James had put us through so many challenging and wonderful experiences that we’d built up a great deal of trust in him,” she said. Among her concerns about the sweat lodge were “the lack of emergency backup, the intensity of the heat, and not monitoring participants during the sweat, which all led to negligent behavior that is disturbing.”

Ray’s attempt to combine the spiritual wisdom of the ancients with cutting-edge science has been a popular strategy of American self-help gurus for more than a century — pairing the gut-level search for truth with the logic of science, usually with benign results.

The New Thought movement, for example, which rose to prominence between 1900 and 1920, offered success through “mind power,” sincere prayer and positive thinking. Priests and doctors joined together to harness the power of God and the skills of man, and faith was a psychological medicine that would cure all ills.

These ideas soon became mainstream: New Thought writers had a column in Good Housekeeping, and Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” (1952) sold more than 5 million copies.

In past decades, motivational gurus have incorporated increasingly exotic spiritual practices, holding their audiences’ attention by claiming skills that usually are beyond their expertise.

This spiritual element has the most persuasive effect. Religious authority figures claim to have knowledge not just about our fate — why we’re in a dead-end job and what to do about it — but about our eternal well-being too. Just hours before the deaths, Ray posted a darkly prescient message on Twitter: “Still in Spiritual Warrior ... for anything new to live something first must die. What needs to die in you so that new life can emerge?”

As the sweat lodge got hotter, the underlying psychological message was quite clear: If you leave, you’ll be a failure, not just in this ceremony but forever.

While Ray told participants that he had received training in proper sweat lodge rituals, he also bragged that his lodges were much hotter than those used in Native American gatherings.

But Joseph Bruchac, author of “The Native American Sweat Lodge,” said that a proper sweat lodge is a purification ritual, not a physical endurance test. He has received dozens of e-mails from Native American elders expressing how upset — but unsurprised — they were at the tragedy.

In 2005, at the same retreat venue, an unconcious woman was removed from the event. A relative of one retreat participant said Ray had warned his young volunteer staff — untrained as medical professionals — that while some people might exit the lodge vomiting and dizzy, that was not cause for concern.

There was quite a bit more cause for concern than Ray anticipated. “Several men and women were foaming at the mouth and having seizures as they were dragged, unconscious, from the steaming tent,” a survivor’s relative told me. Volunteers spent 30 to 40 minutes doing CPR on the victims, and emergency teams intubated and evacuated at least one woman by helicopter.

There was no locked door trapping people inside, but Ray used something equally powerful: He tapped into psychological and spiritual traditions, and with apparent recklessness, he reaped a deadly result.

Christine B. Whelan is a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Iowa.

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