Dec 29, 2009

Sweat Lodge Tragedy Part of a Pattern

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

The homicide investigation resulting from James Arthur Ray's disastrous sweat lodge has turned up evidence of a pattern of illness and injury. In addition to the previously discussed suicide, there have been broken bones, loss of consciousness, vomiting, and other adverse events at Ray seminars.

In documents released Monday, a man Ray hired to build the sweat lodge told investigators that he was hesitant to assist with the ceremony for a third year because participants previously had emerged in medical distress, and emergency help wasn't summoned. Theodore Mercer said the latest ceremony was hotter than in years past, but Ray repeatedly told participants, "You are not going to die. You might think you are, but you're not going to die."

Mercer's wife, Debra, told investigators that one man emerged from the sweat lodge halfway through the October ceremony believing he was having a heart attack and would die. She said that instead of summoning medical aid, Ray said "It's a good day to die," according to a search warrant affidavit.

Ray also seems to have confused a ritual cleanse with a test of endurance. I've done sweat lodge ceremony. It's a profound physical and psycho-spiritual cleanse. It's not meant to test the limits of physical resistance.

Our ceremonies are about life and healing. From the time this ancient ceremonial rite was given to our people, never has death been a part of our inikaga (life within) when conducted properly. Today, the rite is interpreted as a sweat lodge. It is much more than that. The term does not fit our real meaning of purification.

Inikaga is the oldest ceremony brought to us by Wakan Tanka (Great Spirit). Nineteen generations ago, the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota oyate (people) were given seven sacred rites of healing by a Spirit Woman, Pte San Win (White Buffalo Calf Woman). She brought these rites along with the sacred Canupa (pipe) to our people, when our ancestors were suffering from a difficult time. It was also brought for the future to help us for much more difficult times to come. They were brought to help us stay connected to who we are as a traditional cultural people.

The values of conduct are very strict in any of these ceremonies, because we work with spirit. The Creator, Wakan Tanka, told us that if we stay humble and sincere, we will keep that connection with the inyan oyate (the stone people), who we call the Grandfathers, to be able to heal ourselves and loved ones. We have a gift of prayer and healing and have to stay humble with our Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) and with one another. The inikaga is used in all of the seven sacred rites to prepare and finish the ceremonies, along with the sacred eagle feather. The feather represents the sacred knowledge of our ancestors.

Not surprising, then, that a Sioux Nation treaty council is seeking legal remedy by demanding that the  fatal sweat lodge be prosecuted as a treaty violation.

This event brings to the surface the uneasy relationship between white eyes who embrace native spiritual traditions, as a path to wholeness,  and Native American tribes who seek to keep their practices from being cheapened and desecrated. James Arthur Ray, it's harder with you around.

In following news on this event, since its tragic occurrence in October, I'm inclined to think that the problem rests with a personality flaw, in the self-styled guru. As with so much of his brand of pop, new age ideology, there is confusion between focused determination and inner transformation. The two are not synonymous. Ray is clearly very driven and relentless force seems to be his answer to everything. Ignoring obstacles (or focusing on the positive, to put it in Secret parlance) is certainly a method. However, when those obstacles are pragmatic concerns like hyperthermia and dehydration, some attention to "the negative" is pretty crucial. But, consider that Rhonda Byrne, the primary writer of The Secret, thinks the key to weight loss is to "not observe" fat people. Perhaps Mr. Ray thought that not observing people fainting and throwing up on themselves would prevent the physical traumas around him from putting him in legal jeopardy. That could explain why he did not participate in attempts to provide aid to the sick and dying. Needless to say, in this case, that approach failed.

As followers around him staggered and collapsed inside a hot sweat lodge near Sedona, motivational guru James Arthur Ray seemed to ignore the unfolding medical crisis, according to statements given to investigators.

Ray repeatedly discussed death during the October ceremony, telling participants they would feel like they were dying, according to officials' reports released Monday. When a man tried to open the tent for air, Ray reportedly called him "sacrilegious."

In the end, three of the more than 50 participants in the sweat-lodge ceremony did die.

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