Further art discussions and notifications for the artwork of Sam Thorp
Look, every culture has their tradition of the steam bath ceremony.
The Baltic cultures had "saunas". Roman and Mediterranean cultures had "baths". Even the Celts had their own version. there is no need to steal from the Indians, explore your own culture and heritage.
I know, its easy to steal from the Native Americans.... they have limited clout and power, and most of us wouldn't know an Ojibwe from a Dine....
It's in fashion to dress in beads and feathers and call yourself a "Cherokee Shaman" or some nonsense... you can mix in "the law of attraction" and some stuff you saw on TV and charge thousands of dollars for it. and sure enough some poor sap will pay up thinking he or she is "honoring the native people" or becoming some sort of "warrior" or another....
But it's wrong and it's dangerous.....
if you are on a spiritual path to find "truth" and "peace" you have to learn to recognize the lies and the danger....
Breaking news: Inside accounts of James Ray sweat lodge tragedy and retreat
People are flailing in seizures; others are vomiting violently, or foaming at the mouth. Bodies are lined up unconscious, some are blue from lack of oxygen, but for some it is too late, they are already dead. Survivors that are barely able to stand struggle to help the others, they have had almost no food or water for nearly three days, even longer without sleep. It looks like a war zone, but for the incongruent figure of James Arthur Ray (a contributing author to The Secret) who exits the sweat lodge and stands tall with a big smile, the only one able to stand on his own volition. He is not concerned with the medical emergency going on full swing around him. He is not worried about the health and well-being of his followers who have paid $10,000.00 (tack on an additional 5,000.00 or so if you include flights, room and board, and camping supplies) to attend his retreat. In fact, he and his team urge people to stop taking care of others and focus on their own journey, assuring them they are fine and only “purging”. Someone finally realizes James Ray is not in control of the situation and calls 911.
It sounds like this is right out of a science fiction novel, doesn’t it? But sadly, this is one of those rare times I pull my head out of a fantasy book and report on reality. How did a retreat aimed at spiritual growth and financial wealth go so horribly, tragically wrong? Those who were not present are pointing fingers at the physical experience of a sweat lodge – was it constructed properly by James Ray and his staff? Did they have the proper building permits? Did they use too many hot rocks or have too many participants? Does the government need to issue standardized guidelines for sweat lodge participants? After interviewing one of James Ray’s victims who was present at the retreat, I would argue no - although it is clear the technical specifications of the lodge were innapropriate. This is not an accident of negligence because a leader was untrained in the Native American sweat lodge practices. This tragedy is the consequence of a charismatic, megalomaniacal smooth-talker with undue influence and his own agenda – one that did not, at any point during the retreat, account for the safety of the participants, physically, mentally, or emotionally. This offends me as a backpacker and wilderness enthusiast, as a dabbler in psychological theory, and as someone who has an interest in bettering myself morally – but most importantly, it offends me as a human being who has compassion and empathy for my fellow humans.
Today I’m going to look deep into the soulless belly of the James Ray Spiritual Warrior retreat with thoughts and descriptions based on what I have learned from firsthand witnesses and participants. These brave victims are speaking in the midst of recovery (on the condition of anonymity) because of the urgency of the situation, as well as a moral obligation to the victims who passed away, Kirby Brown (3 and James Shore (40) and their families, and to those who can still be saved from this man. James Ray and the Angel Valley retreat have lied repeatedly, stating that they have never had any problems at previous retreats and that nothing like this has ever happened before - yet it is well documented that police are investigating multiple James Ray retreat locations and that a similar incident happened at the very same Angel Valley retreat center in AZ, at a James Ray retreat no less, in 2005. Why the lies? Well, there is no way these guys could tell you the truth without immediate prosecution, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars, and proceed immediately to jail. Speaking of money, did you know neither James Ray nor Angel Valley has refunded any of the money they have collected from this retreat? I mean, obviously there will be lawsuits but it would be in good taste to refund the victims. It would be in better taste to also pick up the hospital charges, but James Ray is clearly not about accountability or decency to others. But enough about that, you want to know what the heck happened at this retreat and I am here to relay that to you.
Before the retreat even started, participants were advised to read The Holotropic Mind by Stanislav Grof and Hal Zina Bennett, as well as listen to a CD titled The Holosync Solution Awakening Prologue (the CD set is 175.00 dollars and not included in with the cost of the retreat, by the way). I have not read The Holotropic Mind personally, however Stanislav Grof is notable in the field of psychiatry for his studies on altered states of consciousness. After (briefly) searching Wikipedia and James Ray’s personal website, I am unable to find any credentials that would qualify him to be using psychological techniques. His website only states he “has studied and been exposed to a wide diversity of teachings and teachers – from his collegiate learning and the schools of the corporate world, to the ancient cultures of Peru, Egypt and the Amazon.” Pretty vague, huh? I mean, it’s never killed James Ray to name-drop before *coughOprahcough*. Which schools? What teachers?
The first day or so of the retreat was mostly unremarkable as far as self-help retreats go – a lot of time spent in the “classroom” doing meditation and listening to other CD’s as well as lectures. I say “mostly” because James Ray urged participants to forego sleep, insisting that working on their assignments all night would be more beneficial. Sleep deprivation is well-known to cause impairment of ability and of deductive reasoning, often times displaying comparable results to consumption of alcohol. Why would a self-help retreat supposedly focused on healing want to keep participants from thinking clearly? My guess is because the aim of the retreat was not self-improvement but coercive persuasion. If you are not familiar with the term it can be summed up as techniques used to produce ideological and behavioral changes in a fully conscious, mentally intact individual. Is this an acceptable practice? I would say it depends, like so many other things, on the execution. It certainly can be used to beneficial effect; however it can also employ means such as psychological pressure, hypnotic suggestion, undue influence, threats, anxiety, intimidation and/or stress in an unethical manner.
Some people might find it more alarming that immediately upon starting the retreat participants shaved their heads – before the sleep deprivation. Yes, even the women. This actually doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I think every woman should shave her head at least once in her life. Besides, all the kids are doing it. It’s fashionable. It’s also emotionally freeing. However, I know a lot of family members of the participants are upset about it – excuses such as “It looks dykey!” or “You’re in a cult!” get tossed around, to which I roll my eyes. “Wait!” you’re probably accusing me right now, “I read your transcript of the conference call James Ray made to these victims, and you outright accuse him of being a cult leader!” Yes, you are absolutely right; I do state repeatedly that James Ray is a cult leader.
Many commenters chided me for using the term inappropriately, but I stand by my terminology. They were right to chide me though, because I didn’t make clear that not all of James Ray’s followers are cult members. Not even all of his victims could be considered cult members. This is a very important distinction that I want to take a moment to clear up. James Ray and his staff display cult-like qualities that are dangerous to the followers, from people who idly glanced at The Secret all the way through to the victims of his sweat lodge tragedy, but his followers are not a cult. One more time, for emphasis - James Ray’s followers are not a cult. Reading his works, practicing some of his techniques at home by yourself, these things do not make a cult member. Not even attending the seminars guarantees membership into the ranks of cult. If James Ray spouted the crazy right up front no one would listen. Think of the tale of Hansel and Gretel – the Witch lured them in with a house made of delicious candy and then locked them in an oven. James Ray is smarter than the Witch though, because he stuffed Hansel and Gretel and their pockets full of candy and sent them back to the village to lure the others in. More people for the oven-oops-I-mean-sweat-lodge that way, you see. There is nothing wrong with sweat lodges, ovens, candy, or some of these teachings; it is all in how you use it. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s get back to what happened at the deadly retreat.
Day Two the sleep deprivation has begun - but that by itself is not enough of a warning to foresee this tragedy. The real warning signs begin with the James Ray Games. One of the brave and recovering victims described a game they all had to play in which James Ray played God. Yep, you read that right; James Ray cast himself in the role of God and would then command participants to die. He would point at someone and they would have to fall down and play dead. They would be covered with a blanket and if they moved another person would "die".
Kirby Brown exemplified the dangerous psychological twisting behind these games. After the game she was seen standing in line for the outhouse, clutching herself and crying. After another participant ushered her to the front of the line they asked her “Why didn’t you just get up and go?” She looked up sincerely and said she didn’t want to ruin the game for others. It breaks my heart to know that James Ray took the life of such a compassionate woman away, a woman willing to suffer so others could benefit, but it also really pisses me off that he warped such a sweet motivation and used it masochistically. My inner neo-hippie rises up and shouts “Dude! No one should have to hold it so long it hurts!” That’s just cruel.
“What was the motivation behind such games?” you are probably demanding of your computer screen right now. James Ray reasoned something along the lines of “it demonstrated the transcendental nature of death” and explained how it would allow participants to leave behind their fears of death. He spoke of honor, integrity, and strength. He spoke of being reborn (These are not direct quotes, they are adlibbed from the memories of participants).
At the end of the second day the James Ray Vision Quest began. I personally have done several vision quests in the desert so I do have an inkling of an idea of what I’m talking about here. I find the biggest red flags of dangerous indoctrination to be restriction of water, food, or bathroom breaks – So when I heard James Ray dropped everyone off in the desert with no food, no water, and nothing but a sleeping bag, the clothes on their back, and a notebook I start to sputter obscenities. No water, in the desert, for 36+ hours is dangerous. I’ve always been told to drink at least a gallon of water a day when hiking in the desert. Furthermore, even if the participants had been fully rested and cognitively ready to question the water restriction, it is still completely traditional (and uneccesary) to go without food on these solo journeys.
James Ray mixes a subtle combination of increasingly risky behavior with perfectly legitimate practices that leave these poor victims slightly confused and he keeps them physically in a hurry -preventing them from sitting down and taking the time to think these things through. We’ve all been in that state of mind. Who hasn’t pulled an all-nighter studying just to be on autopilot the next day in class? Yeah, we can still function but it takes its toll. Now imagine before this all-nighter you’ve spent your classes working on trust exercises, being coddled by your professor and told how it’s important to relearn trusting others. You will be taken care. You are provided for. Stop thinking about those things and focus on your inner journey. Just learn stuff. Of course, you’ve paid $15,000 dollars or so to be there, so you expect to be able to really relax and let go. This is why James Ray is such a dangerous man, anyone could fall into that trap. By the time the participants started to think “Hey, I should have really insisted on that canteen of sweet, delicious, life-giving water…” it’s too late. They were stranded alone, in the dark, in an unknown location in the Arizona desert.
If you haven’t done one of these vision quests it might be hard to understand how the participants didn’t want to leave after that, but I assure you, it’s a powerful experience even when you’re fully rested and stuff yourself full of food and water. I imagine that sense of wonder and transformation is magnified when one is starving and dehydrated. Sleep was still hard to come by because most participants were not prepared for the devastating cold that comes over the desert at night. Participants were coerced into buying thickly woven Peruvian ponchos for additional charges of $250.00. While that price may seem exorbitant, one victim I interviewed was happy to have paid it, repeatedly stating that it was literally life-saving. The tightly woven material also kept out the intermittent rain, helping to keep participants dry. Still, sleep was hard to come by in those temperatures, being fitful at best and it hardly alleviated the impaired thinking that has become prevalent. It’s easy to see how thinking could become distorted at this point – feelings of being ripped off by a leader and staff that didn’t give proper information about necessary equipment are battling with rationalizations of how at least they pushed the extra gear on everyone instead of letting them freeze to death.
When James Ray’s team finally returned to pick them up from their isolation (surprisingly enough, James Ray was not fasting on a vision quest during this period, nor were his staff – makes you wonder what they were doing, huh?) the participants were all so happy to be warm, with food and water, and thrilled to be surrounded by all their new friends who were all equally excited about their amazing transformative experiences, that the measly hour or so they had to eat and rehydrate themselves flew by. Food was hardly touched, most people opting to drink water first which quickly filled their newly shrunken stomachs. Before anyone had a chance to really recover the participants were whisked off to a group meditation (led by James Ray) and then to the final piece of the James Ray Spiritual Warrior Retreat. The sweat lodge.
We’ve painted a picture of the participants mental state leading up to the sweat lodge, and we know what happened when James Ray turned the relaxing Native American equivalent of a sauna into an endurance competition. He not only encouraged participants to stay and push past physical discomfort, he also actively dissuaded people that wanted to leave. The phrase “push through your threshold” was repeated often by James Ray. If participants didn’t make it to the door fast enough they had to wait for the next round. James Ray would slam the tarp shut shouting “Too late! Door’s shut!” and as he was sitting directly next to the door he was escalating it into a physical confrontation (not to mention he was the only one getting reprieve from the heat. Others could not feel a thing when the door was opened) – playing off something we are trained from birth to avoid. Throughout all this, James Ray is speaking words of encouragement. He speaks of how throwing up is good and actually purging (it isn’t. it’s actually a sign of dehydration and many other bad things), and explains that passing out is common (it isn’t). He encourages people who find it too hot to bury their faces in the dirt, because it was cooler. This is like telling people to stay in a sauna and if it’s too hot – hey, just stick your face by the bottom of the door!
These honorable participants tried time and time again to re-organize and keep everyone safe, but at every stage they were thwarted by James Ray and his staff. Participants who expressed concern over others were told time and time again to focus on their own journey, and not to interfere with another’s. Once outside the enclosure some people were physically restrained from helping the rescue effort by staff members. One unconscious victim was dropped on their head while staff carried them out of the sweat lodge.
After paramedics responded, James Ray was escorted away by police; however he chose his right to silence. Police are reported to have released James Ray that evening, at which point he immediately left the state (this is based on other reports in the media).
This type of devastation isn’t caused by a faulty sweat lodge, oh no, people will leave a faulty sweat lodge when left to their own devices. This is the fault of a leader who seems to think Jonestown was a super idea, and Hitler had some great technique. There are probably some who question my interpretations of the psychology here, and you should because I am not certified for this stuff in any way, so please contribute your own thoughts and research. My opinion is based on research of the following topics: Coercive persuasion, POW mind control studies, wilderness programs to rehabilitate delinquent youth as well as adult programs such as Landmark Education, the Milgram Experiment, Stockholm syndrome, Jonestown tragedy, cult psychology, and many other random topics that I've studied for my current work-in-progress.
What will other self-help gurus say about this kind of behavior? Will Oprah continue to endorse James Ray? When dealing with cult leaders and other dangerously charismatic people we must always remember to focus not on the beauty of one's words, but on the morality of one's actions.