The following story about a sweat ceremony gone tragically wrong has been bothering me all week. I'll have more to say after the article.
Sheriff probes sweat lodge deaths as homicides
By FELICIA FONSECA -Associated Press Writer -Friday, October 16, 2009 PRESCOTT, AZ --
The deaths of two people during a sweat lodge ceremony led by self-help expert James Arthur Ray are being investigated as homicides, authorities said Thursday. (As well they should.)
Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh said the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown N.Y. and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee were not accidental. (This is not to say they were pre meditated, but I think the sheriff could make a pretty compelling case for negligent homicide.)
"A combination of circumstances led to the deaths," Waugh told reporters. "Whether or not we can prove a criminal case, that has yet to be determined."
Waugh said investigators are looking at the way the sweat lodge was built, the fact that people had fallen ill at previous sweat ceremonies led by Ray, and questionable medical care on site. Ray is the primary focus of the probe but others also are being investigated, the sheriff said.
A call to Ray's spokesman wasn't immediately returned after the sheriff's announcement. Ray led more than 50 people into a makeshift sweat lodge at a retreat outside Sedona on Oct. 8. After about two hours, Brown and Shore were pulled out of the sweat lodge. Nineteen other people were taken to hospitals, and one remains in critical condition. (Original reports had 64 participants in the sweat.)
"He's a motivational speaker who tried his hand at very dangerous physical things, and it was reckless," Brown's cousin and family spokesman Tom McFeeley said of the sheriff's announcement. "It doesn't surprise us in the least."
A search warrant was served Wednesday at Ray's Carlsbad, Calif.-based company, James Ray International. Deputies were looking for medical records of those attending the Sedona retreat and other, unspecified items, Waugh said.
Ray declined to be interviewed by the sheriff's office on the night of the incident and returned to California. The motivational speaker, author and self-help guru offers clients the promise of both spiritual and financial wealth if they sign on to his programs. The five-day "Spiritual Warrior" course during which the deaths occurred had about 50 participants who paid more than $9,000 each. (Imagine you too can be a "Spiritual Warrior" for just nine thousand dollars--not guaranteed you will survive basic training.)
The culmination was the sweat lodge ceremony that ended in tragedy. Records obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday showed local fire officials responded to the same retreat for a person who fell unconscious during a Ray-led sweat ceremony in 2005.
Ray held a telephone conference call with many of the sweat ceremony participants on Wednesday, according to people on the call. A recording of the call was made and transcribed by one of the listeners, said McFeeley, who also listened in and provided the transcript to the Associated Press.
During the call, Ray stressed the importance of eating healthy food, exercising, resting, meditation and surrounding themselves with "like-minded individuals."
"Remember all that we've learned and experienced and knowing by law of the universe that out of every apparent chaos comes a greater state of order, an order that never existed prior to the chaos," he said, after asking those on the conference call to imagine themselves standing in a prayer circle. (Such as the order found in perhaps a state prison.)
Ray said he used the call as a way to provide closure to those attending the retreat outside Sedona, according to the transcript. Ray's spokesman, Howard Bragman, confirmed the telephone conference was held.
Ray stopped short of apologizing to participants for not being at the Angel Valley Retreat Center the morning after the deaths, saying "I hope you understand it certainly wasn't my wish not to be with you and bring you some kind of closure." (He couldn't be with them because he had to consult his attorneys, and he couldn't apologize because his attorney's must have told him an apology could be incriminating. My ass it's about 'closure'.)
Fewer than a dozen callers were identified in the transcript, all of whom praised Ray and described his intentions as "pure" and their experiences as "profound." They also expressed sympathy for the families of the victims but suggested that the deaths of Brown and Shore were by choice.
"It breaks my heart to know that the families are suffering," said one caller identified as Brent. "I think that the people that left, I do believe they made their own choices, whether on this level or the next, but I do feel really for the families."
McFeeley said the comments on the call solidify his belief that Ray is controlling the people involved in his self-help program."There were reasonable people at this event, and it shows the power one man can have when you combine physical and mental mistreatment," McFeeley said. "Everything in this retreat seems to have been taken too far, and those statements were hurtful to hear and probably more hurtful to communicate them to the family last night."
First a few clarifications. Sweat Lodge ceremonies are not truly comparable to saunas or hot tubs. They are not primarily about physical cleansing or sweating away pounds, toxins, or any other reason people get hot and sweaty. They are first and foremost a spiritual ceremony with definitive procedures as important to the nature of the sweat exactly as Catholic rubrics are important to the nature of the Mass. Native Americans are outraged with how this sweat was conducted and sick to death of the New Age movement co opting their spiritual ceremonies--especially self proclaimed gurus like James Ray who pocket huge money off their ceremonies.
Their view of the sacrilege of this process of hi jacking their ceremonies can only be understood if you can imagine James Arthur Ray claiming the authority to say Mass and charging huge sums of money for the experience. James Ray, and others like him (including some Natives), are pitching the novelty of Native American ceremonial practices for their own profit.
This profit motive in and of itself completely denies the spiritual reasoning for the ceremony. Native Americans who are legitimately authorized to lead sweats, never ask for payment because they do not see themselves as the operative agent which brings healing or any other boon. Those agents are their spiritual ancestors or Holy Ones. Any gifts given by participants are by the choice of the participants, not as a mandated entry fee.
I've participated in many sweats and might have a pretty good idea of what went wrong. A sweat lodge big enough for this many people, (and this one wasn't), needs a lot of rocks to get generate the heat necessary for an effective sweat. To get the back of the lodge to this temperature the people sitting around the central rock pit are experiencing a great deal more heat. I suspect it's from the people closest to the rock pit that the fatalities and injuries resulted.
A traditionally constructed sweat lodge never uses plastic tarps because plastic doesn't let the lodge breathe. Ray's sweat was constructed with plastic tarps. Traditional sweats use blankets, or cloth canvas, because they will allow the lodge to expand and contract with temperature fluctuations. This can be especially critical when a prayer round lasts a long time.
Sweats are normally composed of four rounds. At the end of a round participants are allowed--many times encouraged-- to go outside and cool down. I have never participated in a two hour round, but I have participated in sweats where we were allowed outside in the middle of a round because the ceremonial leader was concerned with the length of time the round was taking.
Sweat lodge ceremonies are first and foremost spiritual ceremonies. They are not generally exercises in physical endurance. Unless, I guess, you've paid nine thousand dollars to become a New Age version of a 'spiritual warrior'. From other reports, it appears to me that James Ray was attempting to put people in a state of physical deprivation in which a neural chemical process would be triggered which fosters visions. Previous to the sweat participants also engaged in a 36 hour vision quest in which they were encourage not to take food or water. The state of deprivation necessary to trigger visions is also puts the person very close to physical death.
Native medicine people are well aware of this phenomenon and it's potentially lethal consequences. Their ceremonial leaders are generally also gifted psychics who can follow the progress of their participants and intervene when necessary. Somehow I doubt James Ray went through the decades of training it takes to bring a medicine person to this level of psychic ability. If Ray was relying on the ability of his participants to make rational choices about their physical being after his program purposely induced this kind of mind altering state, he was a complete and total idiot.
One of the other things which has really bugged me about this incident is it's another example male 'spiritual' leaders extolling the virtues of 'spiritual warriors' and spiritual warfare. What is with this? Good God, aren't Americans engaged in enough real wars?
The spiritual path isn't about overcoming or defeating anything external to one's self. If there is such a battle, it's not a battle at all, it's an internal process of moving through personal issues, of getting beyond them, not beating them into submission.
Spirituality can be about changing energy, but that isn't accomplished by demonstrating how physically tough you are or how much hate and anger you can generate. It's accomplished by the depth of love, compassion, and connectedness you can give and receive to and from others.
The kind of change real spiritual leaders talk about is accompanied by life giving acts, by healing, by symmetry and beauty, by a sense of personal peace. It is not accompanied by death and destruction, huge amounts of material wealth, or hiding behind lawyers after you've really screwed up.
James Ray is hardly a spiritual guru. He is just another in a long line of opportunistic predators. Like any other spiritual or religious movement, the New Age movement is full of them. Seeker beware.