Home of Dr. Christine B. Whelan

James Ray: Harnessing the Power of Psychology & Spirituality

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.

October 24, 2009 - Posted by | Academic Musings, Self-Help | , , , , , , ,


  1. Thanks for the post and your WaPo article. A terminological quibble: personal development/transformation courses conducted in the presence of a guru and assistants are by definition not “self-help.”

    Comment by Richard | October 26, 2009 | Reply

    • Technically, the self-improvement industry does encompass plenty of gurus of the James Ray variety. (You might check out Steve Salerno’s fun book SHAM about the “Self-Help and Actualization Movements” in the U.S. He also had a piece in the WSJ Friday about Ray.) My larger point is that he’s not that different from many of self-improvement speakers out there–but Ray played it more recklessly and things became deadly. But the same principles of psychology and spirituality apply in many of these self-help genres. Thanks for reading!

      Comment by cbwhelan | October 26, 2009 | Reply

  2. Using “self-help” as a synonym for the self-improvement industry or the personal development movement blurs the significant distinction between, on the one hand, personal development that is pursued on one’s own with the assistance of books and, on the other hand, personal development that is pursued with the live assistance of others. If paying thousands to attend a live course or retreat is “self-help,” then seeing a doctor or psychotherapist is self-help by the same criteria.

    Comment by Richard | October 27, 2009 | Reply

  3. This did not receive much air play in Australia, which is unfortunate as we are just as into self help guru’s as the USA. I sent a copy to my children and friends for consideration when they become facinated with the next self help guru on the scene.

    Comment by Greg Lynn | November 1, 2009 | Reply

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