What happened in Sedona is not an unfortunate coda to a crazy, fringe event. We have a long history of self-help in America, and to properly comprehend the horror of these deaths, we must first understand the inspiration and guidance that Ray offered. Ray, and many gurus like him, motivate thousands of smart, accomplished adults by borrowing from two very powerful thought traditions — modern psychology and esoteric spirituality — creating a one-two punch that’s nearly impossible to resist. If you had been there, you might be dead, too.
Check out my piece in Sunday’s Washington Post Outlook section–explaining the history and psychology of the Sedona sweat lodge. The horror of this tragedy continues to captivate us, so let’s learn an important lesson: Self-help is NOT harmless.
The sweat lodge experience was the culmination of a five-day nearly $10,000 “Spiritual Warrior Event” advertised as a retreat to “accelerate the releasing of your limitations and push yourself past your self-imposed and conditioned borders.”
More than 60 participants entered a makeshift structure where hot stones created intense heat. Rituals in sweat lodges are a common Native American purification practice intended to raise the body temperature to somewhere between 102 to 106 degrees. Given the intense heat, supervision is required — and in most sweat lodges, attendance is limited to 8 to 12 people. Participants should leave when the heat becomes too intense. However, after a week of brainwashing about pushing past “self-imposed” borders, human instinct was overridden by orders from a so-called great leader.
James Ray is one of the hottest new self-help gurus – featured on Oprah, Larry King Live, and The Secret – who has only become more popular during the last year’s economic uncertainty. Ray preaches that it is only our negative attitude and negative energy that holds us back from true wealth.
This week-long event was an advanced retreat, and most of the participants had attended his wealth-building seminars before. Ironically, several of the participants lack health insurance. So now in addition to the nearly $10,000 cost of the event, the ones fortunate enough to survive will be stuck with thousands in medical expenses – that is, of course, until the lawsuits begin.
The obvious question is: Why did these men and women stay in such a hostile environment, even as their lungs burned from the heat and they felt themselves slipping into unconsciousness? Why? Because they were brainwashed into believing that those sensations were merely their culturally prescribed limitations, and that they could push on, prove that they were stronger and stick it out.
Indeed, just hours before the deaths, James Ray posted this to Twitter: ”Still in Spiritual Warrior … for anything new to live something first must die. What needs to die in you so that new life can emerge?”
We often think of self-help as harmless and silly, but the charismatic leadership that these gurus wield is a powerful psychological force. Just because a ceremony is New Age or from a native tradition doesn’t mean that it’s benign. As with all powerful experiences, training and supervision is crucial. And when a leader encourages his followers to override their own bodily signals — encourages them to give up their free will — there are terrible consequences.
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