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Sweat Lodge




James Arthur Ray was scheduled to be released Friday after serving 20 months in prison for the deaths of three people during his 2009 sweat lodge ceremony, and it appears that he will try to rebuild his motivational video, book, and seminar business. Ray marketed “success” CDs from prison, and his website is being renovated. Consumers must understand that “if something has the power to transform for the better, it is also powerful enough to do harm.” In order for consumers to make informed choices, Self Help That Works reports psychologists’ evaluations of popular books and programs on the subject. (USA Today, 7/11/13) [IT 5.1 2014] 

Family members of victims of the disastrous Sedona sweat lodge ceremony in 2009 have complained about the numerous delays in sentencing James Arthur Ray, convicted of negligent homicide; he promoted and ran the event and remains free on bail. Connie Joy, author of Tragedy in Sedona—My Life in James Arthur Ray’s Inner Circle, has donated some of the trees that are planted at a memorial to the victims at the Angel Valley Spiritual Center, where the sweat lodge was held. (Daily Courier, 10/7/11[sic]) [IT 4.1 2013] 

James Arthur Ray, now serving two years in prison for the deaths of three people in his “Spiritual Warrior” sweat-lodge ceremony, has settled civil law suits with the victims’ families for more than $3 million. They accused Ray and his company of negligence, fraud, and wrongful death. (Arizona Republic, 12/2/11) [IT 2.3 2011] 

The trial of James Arthur Ray, charged with manslaughter in the deaths of three participants in his Ari­zona sweat lodge ceremony in 2009, continued in March with testimony from a woman who said that Ray offered no assistance to the victims, who were clearly suffering serious traumatic effects from the ritual. Asked why she didn’t confront Ray about what was going on while the disaster unfolded, she replied: “You learn through the course of the week that you don’t question Mr. Ray on anything.” (Prescott Daily Courier, 3/11/11) [IT 2.2 2011]

The court heard a 40-minute record­ing of Ray preparing participants for the ritual. He said: “It’s a tradition that is properly understood to be a death and rebirth experience. It’s a way to prove to yourself and the universe that you are willing to do whatever it takes to truly accomplish the inten­tions that are most important to you. . . You will feel as if you’re going to die—I guarantee that. But the true spiritual warrior has conquered death and therefore has no fear and no enemies in this life or the next because the greatest fear you will ever experience is the fear of death. You will have to get to a point where you surrender and it’s OK to die, and that’s the extreme value of this cere­mony.” (Verde Independent, 3/10/11) [IT 2.2 2011] 

Ray’s defense attorneys countered the prosecution’s claims of reckless­ness by showing jurors waivers that retreat participants had signed warn­ing of health risks, adding that par­ticipants were “encouraged,” not forced, to remain in the sweat lodge. (Arizona Republic, 3/10/11) [IT 2.2 2011] 

A recreation of the fatal sweat lodge ritual, taken from court testimony and interviews, appears in “Inside the sweat lodge: Witnesses describe a rit­ual gone wrong.” (CNN News, 3/14/11) [IT 2.2 2011] 

On June 22, 2011 an Arizona court convicted James Arthur Ray of three counts of negligent homicide. Ray was acquitted of the more serious charge of manslaughter. Ray could face up to 11 years in prison, although he could get probation. (Los Angeles Times, 6/22/11) Arizona judge Warren Darrow, however, agreed to hear defense arguments calling for a new trial. The hearing is scheduled for August 16th. (U.S. News, 8/1/11) [IT 2.2 2011] 

James Ray, a star of the self-help movement who is being investigated in connection with the deaths and injuries to participants in his Sedona, AZ, “sweat lodge” ritual, told the New York Times, in a lengthy January phone interview—which included Ray’s lawyers—that he’s innocent of any wrongdoing, that he did nothing inappropriate, and that certain remarks and actions attributed to him during the episode were taken out of context or not true. The interviewer asked: “Some people who have known you for a long time say that, especially over the course of the last year, your ego has grown stronger, and they suggest you may have become intoxicated by your own power. Do you think there is anything to that criticism?” Ray responded: “Well, I think we all struggle with our own ego identity, and certainly that’s me included. To say that I haven’t been tempted by, you know, my own press, if you will, would be crazy. I mean, I think a part of my path and all of our paths is to constantly look at ourselves. The word ego is a Latin word that means identity, or I. Everyone has an ego. You can’t function in the world without an identity.” [IT 1.2 2010] 

Participants in James Ray’s deadly sweat lodge in Arizona say he was reckless and “let his ego get in the way.” They say he encouraged people to remain in the lodge even as some passed out, and chided others as sacrilegious for attempting to ventilate the space. Ray allegedly spoke about death during the retreat, and led a game—participants were warriors and Ray was God—which ended with the former “dying” and falling to the ground. A former aide said that Native Americans tending the fire at a 2005 Ray sweat lodge told him: “That guy’s crazy. We never do more than 20 stones and he’s [heating] over 60.” A 2005 participant said he paid $40,000 for him and his wife to attend Ray events for the year. He added that the lodge experience caused his brain damage; he went from a married man with a six-figure income to homeless and divorced. [IT 1.1 2010] 

James Arthur Ray was arrested in February and charged with three counts of manslaughter in connection with the disastrous sweat lodge ceremony he ran last October on the final day of his five-day $9,695-per-person “Spiritual Warrior” retreat, in Arizona. Bail was set at $5 million. Ray’s attorney called the episode an accident. The man who built the sweat lodge said that participants had emerged from previous such sessions in medical distress. The founder of the Website Americans Against Self-Help Fraud said he hoped Ray’s arrest would prompt scrutiny of an industry that he accused of preying on troubled people. [IT 1.1 2010]

James Ray, who promoted his New Age ideas in two visits to the Oprah Winfrey TV show in 2007, is being investigated in connection with the deaths of three people and the hospitalization of dozens more who took part in a “faux” Indian sweat lodge event during a “spiritual warrior weekend” in Sedona, AZ, in October. Participants paid $10,000 each to attend the event, run by Ray, “a handsome, charismatic prophet of profit.” Winfrey has “passionately promoted all manner of unified field theories of health, wealth, and spiritual renewal on her television program, in her magazine, and on her web site.”

Christine B. Whelan (Washington Post, 10/25/09) believes Ray and the sweat lodge incident are part of a phenomenon, several decades old now, during which “motivational gurus have sampled from cognitive behavioral therapies and incorporated increasingly exotic spiritual practices, building their brands and holding the attention of their audiences by claiming skills that, for most, are well beyond their field of expertise.”

Ray’s seminar, “Harmonic Wealth”—part of his “Journey or Power” series—aims to transform the individual’s sell-limiting beliefs and enable him or her to “attract” the life they want. Like other leaders of personal transformation seminars, Ray tries to push people beyond their perceived limits. Said one participant:” He brings in business, he brings in quantum physics, he brings in the law of attraction, he brings in spirituality, religion, different philosophies, esoteric traditions,” and “puts it together in really interesting ways.” The personal transformation seminars, which take place usually in hotel meeting rooms and last two or three long days, can be intense.

Cult expert Rick Ross remarks: “The underlying assumption is that one size fits all, and this world view or mindset will resolve all your problems.” He also notes that leaders sometimes closely control the environment, even dictating when participants can come and go and eat and drink. He says they use communications methods to break down participants and then rebuild them with the leader’s “program” installed, “What it boils down to,” Ross concludes, “is the use of coercive persuasion techniques.”

Michael Langone, the PhD. psychologist who heads the International Cultic Studies Association, calls the process “The engineering of experience. . . . If you run people through a predetermined set of exercises, you can almost guarantee that they’ll have an experience that they’ll define as transformative. It’s going to be an emotional experience, a cathartic experience.” The emotional high, he says, provides an opportunity for the leader to sell books, DVDs and, perhaps most important, subsequent seminars.

Langone, responding to a query about Ray and the sweat lodge incident, said that some of the statements made by participants in the New York Times about Ray and the sweat lodge deaths “tweak my nose.” One such statement cited by Langone was: “Deaths have not shaken all of Mr. Ray’s supporters.” “Why are some of his supporters,” Langone asked, “so loyal to this man after such a horrific event? What has been his relationship to his supporters? Has he actively promoted an uncritical adulation? I'd want to talk to a large number of people who have gone through his trainings to determine whether or not a cultic dynamic is at work.”

Langone cited the remarks of sweat lodge survivor Yana Paskova, who described a game played at an earlier retreat in which Ray, wearing white robes, plays God and orders some participants to commit mock suicide. “This adds to my suspicions about grandiosity leading to more grandiosity and ultimately to very poor judgments,” Langone said.

Langone also addressed a statement, made by the lawyer of a third participant, to the effect that Ray was very intimidating and discouraged people from leaving the lodge. “Did some people,” Langone asked, “assert themselves sufficiently that they left the lodge, even though Ray seemingly was discouraging them? If so, this will probably form part of his defense in legal cases that may arise, i.e., if some people left, then, he may argue, he did not force people to stay. This is a common argument made by manipulators. It ignores the reality that the effectiveness of a particular manipulative tactic is partly a function of the manipulator's ‘skill’ and the manipulatee's psychological makeup. It also ignores the question of what are the leader's ethical and legal obligations to participants. . . We have all kinds of laws constraining would-be fraudsters in the business realm, but we have virtually nothing constraining manipulators in the psychological realm.”

Ray, in a statement on his blog, seems to deny responsibility (as does Oprah, who promoted him). “I have reached out to all of the families personally, but feel the need to say more. I feel your pain. I accept your anger. And I pray for you all to have some measure of peace and comfort. I want you to know that I too want to know what happened that caused this horrible tragedy. My team and I are working with the appropriate authorities and have even hired our own investigators to find out the truth.” The daughter of one of the people who died in the sweat lodge says that Ray encouraged participants to continue even as she saw her mother and others collapsing and dying around her. She says, nonetheless: “It’s not like James Ray cane up with something that was totally his own. He just packaged it in a particular way. So a lot of the teachings are a lot bigger than him and can remain true despite his actions.”

A participant in several of Ray’s previous seminars and retreats who was injured in the sweat lodge says she had gained a great deal from her earlier experiences. “James had put us through so many wonderful experiences that we’d built up a great deal of trust in him.” But she had concerns about the lodge: “The lack of emergency back-up, the intensity of the heat, and not monitoring participants during the sweat, which all led to negligent behavior that is disturbing.” Ray reportedly sat continuously at the entrance to the sweat lodge, as a participant, in order to prevent others from leaving. He seemed elated at having completed the test himself and unaware at first that some of the participants were dead or injured.

Lawyers for defrocked Massachusetts priest Paul Shanley are challenging his 2005 rape conviction on the grounds that repressed memory is “junk science” and that prosecutors should not have been allowed to present evidence that the victim repressed memories of abuse for 20 years. They say they aren’t trying to prove that repressed memory doesn’t exist, only that “it’s the burden of government and those who say it exists to demonstrate that it does.” Nearly 100 psychiatrists, psychologists, and scientists have submitted a brief claiming that repressed memory is “one of the most pernicious bits of folklore ever to infect” the mental health field. [csr 8.3 2009)