Jun 17, 2010

Dateline on the Sweat Lodge Tragedy

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

There aren't a lot of new revelations in this Dateline segment on the James Arthur Ray event that killed three people last fall  but the interviews add a little more insight into Ray's behavior and personality. Dateline talks to survivors of the incident and grieving family members. Not for the first time, I'm stunned at this man's self-absorption and obliviousness to the needs of people around him; people who paid a lot of money for his time and attention. This was particularly serious because it came at a time when he was playing with fire... literally.

I am also reminded once again that what James Arthur Ray does has nothing to do with spiritual development. Despite all the nonsensical "law of attraction" and pseudo-physics trappings, Ray's entire message comes down to this: push yourself harder. It doesn't take any great esoteric knowledge to get a bunch of type A personalities to "play full on." Ray just introduced a whole new level of recklessness. He drove them to not only push past their self-imposed limits but to ignore serious physical and emotional concerns... such as the inability to withstand very high temperatures, dehydration, and a lack of available oxygen, common to most living organisms.

One of the key issues that will probably be at issue during Ray's trial is whether or not he pressured people to stay in the sweat lodge when their survival instincts told them to get out. Accounts from survivors that he said things like "You're better than that" and "You can overcome this. It's mind over matter," when they headed for the exit, look bad.

It's been evident for some time that Ray was being reckless with the physical and emotional safety of his students. One of the more disturbing revelations in the police interview with former Ray follower Martha Stern is her description of how a pregnant event participant was treated at an earlier seminar.

Martha: It's not a woman and it's an (Inaudible) thing, when you're running all this male energy people are not paying attention to what's going on with their bodies. Their [sic] not listening to their intuition, their [sic] not following their female side, the female intuition and their [sic] not following that. And if their female intuition is saying, okay, this is really not a good idea, we don't need to be here right now or this is, we have had enough and it's time to go home. I'm thinking (Inaudible) that, because "you need to push through".

Det. Poling: Right.

Martha: "You're a wimp if you don't",  kind of thing.

Det. Poling: Right. And I don't know, does he tell you that? Does he say you have to push through or you're a failure?

Martha: No, he wouldn't say that, he wouldn't say that in that way. I do remember being at Leadership I with Ryan and Stephanie Swanson, they haven't been on, in the course for some time, but she was pregnant at the time, and she was on my team and she was probably like first trimester, it's that time when you're exhausted all the time. And here she is doing this event, she is exhausted. And we have some assignment that we had to do and her husband who was a very driven guy was on the another team was giving her a hard time about she wasn't pulling her weight or whatever. And there were two women on my team myself included and we were like you know what, she needs to take a little break now. We're gonna do this and she can go back and lie down. And James said well no, she needs to work through whatever she needs to work through and (Inaudible), James she's pregnant. Well yea but she has to find a way to work with that. And I was like okay, you know, you jackass. That was one of those jackass moments.

When a seminar leader is that ignorant about health and safety requirements, it's only a matter of time before someone gets killed. There are some things you don't just "work through."

As previously discussed, a sweat lodge is not meant to be a test of endurance. It's a spiritual cleanse. Even the hotter "warrior sweats" are not nearly as hot, long, or crowded, as Ray's. And like many of the native practices Ray has so badly aped, they're for warriors. Not businessmen who fancy themselves to be some sort of notional "spiritual warriors." Warriors. People who are already rigorously trained to put their lives on the line to protect their communities. Ray has proven himself to be not terribly interested in helping the community or the world. He's about helping himself get rich and many of his remaining followers are also about "commanding the universe" to serve their ego wants. That is neither the path of a warrior nor the path of a spiritual seeker.

But such is the muddled, mixed message that typifies Ray's work. Dateline includes this segment from  his appearance on Oprah. Says Ray:

Not what can I get but what can I give and how can I serve. And when you're in that moment the universe lines up behind you and it's at your command.

So are you supposed to be serving the universe or ordering it around? The moment you go from that surrendered place that allows you to consciously merge with the universe to one in which you are so in your ego that you start "commanding" things, that sense of limitless unity is gone. We can either become conscious of our oneness with all that is or delude ourselves into thinking we're the king of the world. We can't do both. One is the experience of mystical awareness. The other is just grandiosity.

But grandiosity is the defining feature of James Ray's teachings. We're talking about a man who literally played God -- instructing people to die and stay dead so no one else would die -- in an exercise during the event. That he exhibits grandiosity is really one of the kinder things you could say about him. Honestly, the more we learn about his behavior during seminars -- two of which have racked up a body count -- the more clear it becomes that he is an ego spinning dangerously out of control. How else would you describe someone who told the mother of a young woman who died on his watch that it was the most awful thing that ever happened to him?! (Segment 5 in the player above.) That's a rather remarkable display of narcissism. As these and other interviews go public, the more his egomania becomes apparent and the more it appears his practices were coercive, cultish, and downright scary.

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