The news is going around that our pal James Arthur Ray has two dead participants and 19 hospitalized after a 2-hour long sweat in Sedona, AZ. Some partipants paid up to $9000 for this “Spiritual Warrior Event.” From the AP release:
Many people began feeling ill after about two hours in the sweat box, emerging lightheaded and weak, said Verde Valley Fire District Chief Jerry Doerksen.
Two hours in a sweat lodge!? This is insane. (UPDATE: I’ve been informed–by my girlfriend–that 2 hours or even much longer is commonplace for sweats. I still think this is insane.) I remember doing a sweat with the Boy Scouts, and it was about 15 minutes before we got out and dumped ourselves with cold water. Ever spent 2 hours in a sauna with no break?
But this is the logic of these kinds of workshops–break you down to build you up. Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within is very similar–long hours, no breaks, constant full-on exercises. While there is usually no explicit instruction that you must remain with the group, the pressure to do so can be enormous even when way beyond your limits.
I’m guessing that these deaths and injuries were not a result of “carbon monoxide” (which tested negatively) but intense psychological pressure to remain in a dangerous situation far beyond the limits of safety and sanity.
I know several people who have gone to the hospital for various reasons after “large group awareness trainings” such as Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior Event.” Many people online have complained of received mild to moderate burns on their feet after Tony Robbins’ firewalk, for example. It’s time we brought these gurus to justice and demanded that personal change workshops be safe for all.
When something goes wrong in such a seminar due to it being overly intense and dangerous, usually the victims are blamed for “not taking 100% responsibility,” thus dodging the responsibility of the seminar leaders. Personally, I think we should hold James Arthur Ray 100% personally responsible for the death of these two seminar participants, up to and including going to jail.
Seminar leaders are responsible for making their workshops both effective and safe for all. There are many safe and gentle methods and techniques for powerful change that have little-to-no risk, and do not require having a breakdown in order to have a breakthrough. It is long past time that we put limits on dangerous techniques for change and promoted safe and effective ones.
UPDATE 6:56pm 10/9/09
James Ray has deleted all of his recent tweets that had to do with the Spiritual Warrior Event or death. I think these tweets are interesting and instructive, given the context. Luckily, they are all still available in search.twitter.com.
These were posted on JamesARay’s Twitter account before and during the Spiritual Warrior Event (shown from oldest to newest, the opposite order as to how things appear on Twitter):
James Arthur Ray has an opportunity in this terrible situation to be a spiritual warrior and take full responsibility. Rise up to the challenge, Mr. Ray. It’s time for a new paradigm in personal change workshops, don’t you think?
UPDATE #2, 7:57pm 10/9/09
The news is breaking all over the web. Here’s a great little piece about James’ Ray’s Death Lodge, where we learn that some of the participants lack health insurance. 🙁 So in addition to the almost $10,000 ticket price, expect another $10,000 in medical bills. I smell class-action lawsuit.
Here’s a slideshow from ABC news in Arizona, with a recording of the 911 call, and a short video (upper right). Two people were not breathing, and then on a later call there were three people not breathing. Just awful. Why didn’t they catch this earlier?
$9695 each times 64 people = $620,480. James A Ray could have easily afforded to have medical staff on hand.
Here’s some sales copy from James A Ray’s site (before they take it down):
You’ll accelerate the releasing of your limitations and push yourself past your self-imposed and conditioned borders (no more coloring inside the lines)…
The excessive focus on pushing past your boundaries (treating inner objections as “resistance”) is in my opinion what creates the conditions for dangerous approaches to personal change.
You’ll define and enforce your own boundaries—without someone else telling you what they should be…
Clearly this did not happen on this retreat, or those who were feeling ill would have simply stepped out of the sweat lodge. The psychological pressure to conform is often enormous in such workshops, and individual boundary-setting is usually discouraged.
You’ll experience, at the spiritual level, the ancient methodologies of Samurai Warriors; and gain a true understanding of the authority and strength that come from a life of honor…
Again, this is an opportunity for James A Ray to act with honor in the face of death. Deleting Twitter posts to cover your tracks is a bad start. And the patriarchal hypermasculine metaphor of the samurai again shows its shadow in the death and injury of these workshop participants.
The investment is ONLY $9695 per person.
This was an advanced, 6-day seminar for people who had already attended one of James Arthur Ray’s introductory workshops. The structure appears to be the same as Tony Robbins’ workshops–get them in for free or cheap for the first seminar which is structured to be one big sales pitch for the very expensive advanced course. Caveat emptor!
Techcrunch has picked up the story, due to the issue of the deleted Tweets. I think we should read this as the Law of Attraction in action—dishonorable acts of cowardice actually attract more attention than transparency and honesty, a lesson for us all.
Please also read my followup post to this one, entitled The Dark Side of The Secret: Reading James Arthur Ray’s Sweat Lodge Disaster through a Magickal Lens.
The New York Times has picked up the story (requires login). Here’s a quote:
Joseph Bruchac, an expert on Native American traditions and author of “The Native American Sweat Lodge,” said that number far surpassed the 8 to 12 typically present at such a rite. “It means that all these people are fighting for the same oxygen,” he said.
Traditional lodges are usually made of willow branches and covered in canvas or animal skins, and are not meant to be air-tight. The authorities said that the lodge at Angel Valley was covered in plastic and blankets.
Questions have also arisen about the length of time the people were in the lodge — about two hours. A ceremony usually lasts no more than an hour, Mr. Bruchac said.
Wonderful news! This post has been linked to from Steve Pavlina’s forums by “Antarananda,” the very forums I was banned from (by Pavlina himself) for questioning the gurus. If anyone wants to log into the forums and thank Antarananda for me, I would very much appreciate that.
AOL has a new article giving some back story on the two who died. The woman, aged 38, “was an avid surfer and hiker who was ‘in top shape,’ took self-improvement seriously and had a passion for art, a family spokesman said.”
Some other relevant quotations from the article:
Nineteen other people were taken to hospitals, suffering from burns, dehydration, respiratory arrest, kidney failure or elevated body temperature. Most were soon released, but one remained in critical condition Saturday.
Brown had no pre-existing health conditions that would have kept her from participating in an otherwise safe activity, said cousin and family spokesman Tom McFeeley. That two people died and 19 others became ill at the Angel Valley Retreat Center indicates that “something went horribly wrong.”
Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh said Saturday that his detectives were focusing on self-help expert and author James Arthur Ray and his staff as they try to determine if criminal negligence played a role. Waugh said Ray refused to speak with authorities and has since left the state.
“We will continue this investigation down every road that is possible to find out if there is culpability on anybody relative to the deaths of these individuals,” Waugh said. He said it could be three to four weeks before they knew if criminal charges would be filed.
On Saturday, Amayra Hamilton said Ray has held the event at the resort for seven years, and there never have been any problems.
Every 15 minutes, a flap was raised to allow more volcanic rocks the size of cantaloupes to be brought inside.
Authorities said participants were highly encouraged but not forced to remain in the sweat lodge for the entire time.
The participants had fasted for 36 hours as part of a personal and spiritual quest in the wilderness, then ate a breakfast buffet Thursday morning. After various seminars, they entered the sweat lodge lightly dressed at 3 p.m.
Sheriff’s Lt. David Rhodes said authorities were checking whether there was a lag time between the first signs of medical distress and the emergency call.
I am especially concerned that participants had fasted for 36 hours and had just broken their fast. I recently tried fasting for 36 hours. The first 24 were wonderful, then I started going into a kind of toxic shock, feeling nauseous like I had the flu (which is apparently common), so I broke the fast at about 36 hours. I wasn’t ill, but it did take about 24 more hours to feel normal again. I would have had a very difficult time doing anything strenuous, let alone a two hour sweat. A friend who fasts regularly says that one’s first fast can be the most challenging, but that they can get easier over time. For anyone fasting for the first time, this fast alone could have been quite challenging. If it had only been a two hour sweat, the risks would have been greatly reduced.
And again, “highly encouraged” to stay within the sweat lodge is almost certainly an understatement of the intense psychological pressure most participants in such an event feel to conform to group norms. I think participants in seminars should be “highly encouraged” to speak up when they feel that a process is too much for them. In my direct experience on both my own path and in facilitating change with others, there is no sane reason to push yourself or anyone else so close to death in order to engage in conscious transformation.
UPDATE #8, 10/13/09
The NY Times has an update. Here are some relevant quotations:
Tom McFeeley, Brown’s cousin and family spokesman, called on Ray to assure that the participants ”were not mistreated and not put in a reckless situation.
McFeeley also said he is concerned that Ray exhibited a ”godlike complex” during the event that might have kept people from opting out of activities Ray acknowledged could cause ”physical, emotional, financial or other injuries.”
”We need to look at this way beyond the sweat lodge,” McFeeley said. ”If we could understand minute by minute what happened this week, I think we’ll get a much greater view on what kind of event this was and the level of danger that existed.”
This is exactly my concern as well. It’s not just the sweat lodge, but the intense days leading up to the lodge, as well as the meglomania that often occurs amongst such guru figures which leads to unsafe conditions. I’ve seen this again, and again, and again.
Fire department reports released Tuesday show the incident wasn’t the first involving a sweat lodge ceremony at the resort. Verde Valley Fire Chief Jerry Doerksen said his department responded to a 911 call in October 2005 about a person who was unconscious after being in a sweat lodge.
Angel Valley resort owner Amayra Hamilton confirmed that Ray was leading the sweat ceremony during the 2005 event. Ray’s spokesman declined to comment.
WOW! Ray almost killed somebody in 2005, but wasn’t stopped. This is exactly what I’ve been attempting to warn people about with my guru criticism on this blog and elsewhere.
Ray’s spokesman, Howard Bragman, has said Ray would speak when it’s appropriate. He declined Tuesday to address the Brown family’s concerns.
”The facts are going to come out,” he said. ”We’re not going to conduct our investigation in the media. We’re going to let the investigative bodies do their jobs.”
Ray is still not talking to police, nor the media, but gave a talk to 200 people (I’m guessing he’s trying to stay on his seminar schedule). He says he’s not going to conduct his investigation in the media, but won’t conduct his investigation with the police either. Again, what would a true spiritual warrior do, Mr. Ray?
A statement released by the family of Liz Neuman, who remains in critical condition at the Flagstaff Medical Center, said she is in a coma and doctors are working to stabilize damage to multiple organs
In addition to the other two dead, there is another woman in a coma!
Two others remained hospitalized. Fire officials say the victims exhibited symptoms ranging from dehydration to kidney failure after sitting in the sweat lodge.
Two dead, one in a coma, two more hospitalized. Do they have health insurance? Why kidney failure?
Officials say the sweat lodge, built specifically for the five-day retreat, lacked the necessary building permit.
Here’s a great 90 minute podcast about the event, with an interview with someone named Shawna who was there, helping with the fire (thanks to commenter “Singularity” for the link).
Here are my rough notes from the podcast (so you don’t have to listen to the full 90 minutes unless you want to):
Shawna has done many sweats in the past. She was invited to help with the fire for the sweat. When Shawna arrived at the location, her friend who had invited her was very upset and said “something went terribly, terribly wrong.” She ran to the sweatlodge. There were people lying in the dirt and sand around the lodge, with other people attending to them.
There was a woman in a golf cart to take her to her lodging area because she was cold and they wanted to get her into her sleeping bag. The woman started to speak in a very bizarre way, and had a very blank look, went into seizures with foam coming out of her mouth. (FROM DUFF: This is exactly what I’ve observed from someone very close to me after an overly intense personal growth workshop.)
A paramedic came to get her vitals. Shawna spent an hour or two holding her down so that she didn’t hurt herself or pull out the IV the paramedics put in there.
2 hours later, the other people still looked like they had suffered from physical trauma, shivering in blankets.
One woman told Shawna her story, she passed out in the sweat lodge. She was in the very back of the sweat lodge. Most of the people who ended up with a severe trauma were in the back of the sweat lodge.
When the door was being opened in the lodge to put in more rocks, air rushes in. She was so far in the back and the door was so small, she never felt any relief, no fresh air. This is very unusual, probably unintended. Usually opening the door, everyone feels some fresh air before the next round. She wondered if she was even breathing any oxygen by the end.
2 days prior attendees had gone into a vision quest where they were encouraged to fast and not drink any water. Sedona is a desert, an extremely dry climate. Participants were already dehydrated and then sweating it out.
That morning they had a breakfast and encouraged to hydrate, had about 4 hours to rehydrate and get nutrition in them. In Shawna’s opinion, the sweat was way too long, should be 4 rounds not 6.
People were throwing up water.
Shawna prepared to leave, Sheriff asked her to stay and took a small statement.
She shared with her husband that she was seeing people dead, passed out, etc. when “relief was on the other side of that door.” One man said “yea, I wimped out, I got out on the 5th door…I wasn’t playing full on.” This man had shamed himself, felt like he was letting Ray down. Shawna defended him as maintaining his own limits, speaking up to authority. This man questioned Ray’s authority and took care of himself, Shawna told him. And then he took that in and said “and thank God I did that, because I was well enough to carry the other people out.”
(FROM DUFF: Tony Robbins uses the phrase “play full out,” and his community enforces conformity towards excessive personal boundary crossing with this phrase.)
Many people had passed out in the sweatlodge.
The whole point of the conversation is checking in with yourself in any situation where there is an authority figure, says the show host.
When Shawna told her husband had happened, he said, “well, I know that you would have questioned Ray” she started crying and said “would I have? Would I have tried to impress him by ‘playing full on’?”
Shawna said she personally might have been one of those people who did not take care of herself. Shawna is a therapist, a motivational speaker, and (until recently) was a fan of James Ray. Shawna was humbled to be completely and totally responsible to the people she serves.
Shawna still recommends all the gurus CDs and books and seminars, and encourages others to self-searching, but does not “allow someone to have my answers.”
One of James Ray’s quotes is “your life begins at the end of my comfort zone.” Shawna still believes this, and people got pushed too far. Shawna draws the line with pushing myself, not for other people’s approval.
James Ray is a good example of what to look for. His message was “you’re not going to get this message somewhere else,” didn’t give credit to other teachers.
Power implies responsibility. Shawna can feel judgment from James Ray.
Shawna interviews Jim Tree, a Native American man who does ceremonies. Many reactions from the community–not a sweat lodge ceremony, but a huge aberration from what a Native American sweat lodge is like. He’s never seen more than 20 people at a lodge.
Years of training to be sensitive to everyone in the lodge. Sweat lodge construction has certain materials–red willow branches for frame. There is a reason for this. Plastic tarps trap in gases.
Time to talk about sweats, results, etc. What is this event/ceremony? What is the fruit? Rebirth, cleansing, regeneration.
We do fast the day of the sweat, but don’t fast from water. Start hydrating all day of sweat.
“This was a recipe for disaster.”
“Usually people prepare for a year for a vision quest.”
The elders have been warning people. Apparently the elders went to Ray and confronted him and told him that he shouldn’t be doing this, that “you’re hurting people.” Most every time people have been nauseous and sick for the six or seven years Ray has been doing this event.
If you paid some money for a weekend seminar and they said you’d be a Jewish rabbi after the weekend ended, you’d find it ridiculous. We sample all these different nature-based religions, starving for spirituality (including Native Americans on the reservation). When we find something that feeds that need, we jump right into it without questioning.
The number one thing about a sweatlodge is that you humble yourself. You crawl on the ground to get it. If the lodge leader is exhibiting a bit ego, that’s a warning sign.
“We do not charge for our ceremonies.” The person doing that is supported within native culture–fed, travel paid for, etc.
“You physically cannot build a lodge that big out of the materials we use.”
Our people have been taught to keep their mouths shut. Less than 20 years ago, it was illegal to do a sweatlodge. Before that, medicine people were put in an insane asylum. “It’s not that time anymore.”
Jim Tree encourages people to turn this event into an opportunity to talk openly about sweat lodges, explore the significance of all the aspects of the ritual, etc.
Shawna answers questions: there was a nurse there, she was outside the lodge. Shawna asks if anyone took a psych or health evaluation on anybody? She heard in return from a woman was her first and last name and her date of birth, so probably not.
Caller had been to other James Arthur Ray events, this was the final event in a series of seminars.
Jim Tree—3 types of people shouldn’t be in a lodge: pregnant, high blood pressure, heart history. The only way you can tell is do a health history. Also, woman who died was in perfect physical health.
Jim was stopped from doing lodges after a year from the elders and trained more to sense the condition of people in the lodge.
During the 5th or 6th run, people were calling out to be let out and were denied. “That would never happen” in Jim’s tradition.
Pouring the water is gently sprinkled on the stones to precisely control it. Ray poured water from the bucket directly onto the stones, creates an uncontrollable amount of heat.
Jim would be glad to have Ray call him and talk to him about all of this.
Shawna originally saw James Ray on the Secret, used “the secret” to meet James Ray, met him 3 weeks later at a restaurant.
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