Oct 21, 2010

Did James Arthur Ray Smoke Sedona's Business?

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Sedona Arizona, boasting four energy vortexes, has been the go-to place for spiritual seekers for decades. But its tourist business has fallen off dramatically over the past year and many are blaming the PR nightmare that was James Arthur Ray's sweat lodge debacle.

“It was a very unfortunate and sad situation that could have happened anywhere,” said Janelle Sparkman, president of the Sedona Metaphysical Spiritual Association, who attributes the woes that New Age practitioners are experiencing to a lack of disposable income for spiritual needs and not what happened that awful afternoon. “It was not indicative of Sedona or Sedona’s practitioners at all.”

But sweat lodges are now far less common, with the authorities shutting some down to avoid further trouble. And the spiritual association is pushing the importance of ethics among spiritualists.

Still, the tragedy of what occurred, along with the barrage of lawsuits, has caused some outsiders to look elsewhere for fulfillment.

No one is discounting that our foundering economy may account for some or all of the downturn in Sedona's business. But at least one business is suing James Ray. Amayra and Michael Hamilton -- owners of the Angel Valley Ranch which hosted Ray's deadly seminar -- claim that they've been losing as much as $35,000 a month since Kirby Brown, James Shore, and Liz Neuman were baked to death on their premises. Meanwhile, however, The Hamiltons want the survivors and family members who were harmed by the incident to drop the law suits against the ranch.

Several months back, the Hamiltons made a spiritual appeal to end the lawsuits, e-mailing those who were suing them and asking them to consider the implications of what they were doing. “Let’s come together,” the e-mail said. “Let’s find a new way to do this.”

Their effort drew no takers, although it did rile the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The Hamiltons also came up with the idea of holding a large grieving ceremony this month for sweat lodge participants and survivors at the one-year anniversary of the deaths, and planned to use their insurance money to pay for it. They insisted, however, that all attendees agree to drop their suits. Nobody agreed, so the smaller ceremony was held.

So it would seem that their apparent largess is undercut by an act of emotional blackmail; offering an opportunity for victims to grieve at the site where they lost so much but only if they are willing to stop seeking justice. One can't help but wonder if the Hamiltons might be making their own problems as they seem to be afflicted by the same conflation of greed with spirituality that lies at the very heart of this nightmare. (More on the suits pending against them can be found here.)

I can't help feeling that the issue of Sedona's falling stock is emblematic of a greater restructuring. The conflation of spirituality with pecuniary interest has always caused tension. As I've stated repeatedly, I don't think there is anything wrong with being paid for spiritual work. Work is work and spirit can't be divorced from anything in the material world. We all have to live within the prevailing economic model. Barter is impracticable and no more "spiritual" than any other form of material exchange. But there are businesses that are run in integrity and businesses that run on greed on exploitation. And far too much of the "new age" seems to revel in a celebration of greed that would make Gordon Gekko blush. The Secret is a prime example of an ostensibly spiritual teaching that makes wealth and materiality central to its message. James Arthur Ray openly equates poverty and illness with spiritual failing; his attempts at revisionism as his own health and money problems have been made public not withstanding. As the greater economy collapses around our ears, I'm just suggesting that it might not only be Goldman Sachs, AIG, and their ilk, that need to reevaluate their priorities.

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