Earlier this month in Sedona, Arizona there was a tragic event that occurred at the Angel Valley Retreat center. It happened during a sweat lodge ceremony that left 3 people dead and many more hospitalized. Over 60 people had paid just under $10,000 to take part in a “Spiritual Warrior” training led by the infamous James Arthur Ray, who was introduced as a “philosopher” in The Secret, the well promoted movie and book.
Over the years I’ve felt a strong resistance towards what would be considered the “New Age” movement. It’s a strange reality for me, as my background and abilities are primarily in areas often considered new agey. Things like life coaching, psychology, astrology, psychic and healing abilities. Even though it appears that I’m completely in the new age camp, I am not exclusively aligned to it or any other methodology of growth whatsoever.
Regarding James Ray, I don’t know him personally, never followed his work and haven’t been very curious about most of the people who were highlighted in the movie The Secret. As far as I’m concerned, the best aspect of the movie was it’s mainstream impact regarding self responsibility.
Although I watched the movie I felt that the message it presented, namely The Law of Attraction,was completely over simplified. Still, there were some jewels within it; perspectives that could be extremely helpful to someone struggling with their life. Being accountable for one’s experience IS incredibly empowering and the best part of the movie. What happened in Sedona though, is an example of what happens when you put your faith in a person, not yourself and your personal relationship with Spirit.
Leaders have a responsibility to the people who attend their workshops to provide them with an experience inside a container that is fundamentally safe. Spirit never teaches us using dangerous or scary methods and neither should we. When someone pays us to help them find the deeper current of power that naturally lives inside them, there is a line of responsibility that is invisible but obvious and must be honored. That didn’t happen at the death sweat. Even when many people began collapsing and vomiting, James Ray encouraged the attendants to go beyond their physical limitations to achieve spiritual transcendence.
After paying a significant amount of money and spending a good deal of time cultivating a sincere level of trust in their leader, the people inside the sweat lodge did not act on their own authority, even when everything around them indicated that they were in a lot of physical danger. (See this blog post for what would be the function of a truly sacred Native American sweat lodge with references directly to this tragedy.)
James Ray strongly encouraged his followers to push past their limitations and get to the end of the path he was leading them down. In fact, he chastised one man who crawled out the back of the lodge crying that he couldn’t breathe and couldn’t do it. In front of the group, James reportedly criticized the man saying he was weak and would not succeed in anything. So even though no one was “forced” to stay or locked into the sweat lodge in a physical way, they were fundamentally locked in there in other ways.
We are social animals and instinctively know that being a part of the group usually supports survival. If someone is seen as going against the social norms or the leader, they are punished by being rejected (and will “die” from exposure, making the “tribe” essential to our instincts). This can feel more compelling on that deep unconscious level than we consciously understand. It also make us do things that look ridiculous, even dangerous to someone outside that circle. Once the structure of the group is formed and the sense of being a part of it is strong enough, people can and will do or not do things that appear absurd. Like following the leader into death or illness.
Once all hell broke loose and people were pouring out of the structure, James physically left the area and didn’t help anyone. In fact, the next morning his workshop attendants found a note from his staff letting them know he was in “prayer and meditation” and unavailable to them.
No matter how wonderful, kind or charismatic James is in person, his actions in the face of this tragedy leave me with an extremely bad taste in my mouth. Not only did he leave the area, he has yet to take any public responsibility for what happened and only offers that he has hired investigators to figure out what happened that night. He has had little contact with his followers (if any) and continues to present himself as an innocent bystander to what actually is his responsibility.
He was paid a ton of money to take them to themselves, in essence. With their payment of time, money and energy they put their trust in him. In his lack of presence or accountability he shows himself to be someone who does not have the ability to lead anyone, is not someone who can be trusted and is not someone who knows he has a direct line to God and needs no one else to achieve that.
Instead, he’s been taking the energy of his followers to build up his egoic mind’s desire to be rich and famous, regardless of even his own belief that he was acting in integrity. One family who lost their daughter and sister, was given a $5000 check. The mother said to reporters, “it’s laughable, my daugher paid twice that to attend this event.”
The fallout from all this is a huge stain on something that can offer some actual good to humanity. James Ray’s lack of accountability has given the media the opportunity to clump an entire industry and methodology of living together, vilifying it completely.
The New Age movement does have remarkable teachers within it’s ranks, people who do have tremendous spiritual integrity and live by it. It’s sad when someone puts on the mantle of “teacher”, promotes themselves as someone who is trustworthy but does not do the deep work themselves. In my opinion, this is what happened.
No matter how much my work helps another human being, I have NO illusion that it’s “me” that did anything. I enter into a partnership with my clients and meet them where they are, allowing Spirit to work with us in concert. This is what brings the true transformation about for my client, not my knowledge, abilities or personal wisdom.
In serving Truth, I am a conduit for energy. Nothing more. Because I can listen and hear a deeper current that exists within my client’s soul and tell them, I never insist that it’s “true”. The only thing that’s true is what my client knows, I simply offer the possibility that there’s something else there, too.
If someone in the position of teacher ever acts as though they know what’s best for you… find another teacher. It’s that simple.
To James Ray; your human self is probably reeling. Everything you’ve built your life on is crumbling around you and will take a lot of your vital energy to not see your significant part in this nightmare. This all must be very hard for you, but face it head on. Be the Spiritual Warrior you propose to teach others to be. Now’s your chance for complete healing on all levels, on all planes of existence and in all lifetimes.