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Rise from the Shadows October 23, 2009

Posted by monty in news.
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The recent deaths of three people in a sweat lodge ceremony in Arizona provides a nice, albeit sad, complement to yesterday’s post about “the greater purpose” behind the death of an 11-year-old boy from inoperable brain cancer.  For those who don’t know the whole story, self-help guru (a title which should make any reasonable person run screaming in the opposite direction) James Arthur Ray ran the ceremony, leading the group in chants and prayers, and breaking the session up into 15-minute “sessions,” when more heated rocks would be brought into the tent.  According to reports, some of the participants began vomiting and collapsing within the first hour of the two-hour ceremony, and Ray, while not physically restraining them, would chide them for their weakness if they tried to leave.  By the time it was all over, two were dead, two dozen others were hospitalized, and one more of them would die within the week.

The real kicker came this morning (on Today, natch) in an interview with one of the survivors.  In a conference call earlier this week between survivors of the sweat lodge and officials from Ray’s self-help organization, one of Ray’s employees said that the two people who died that night “were having so much fun because of an out-of-body experience they chose not to come back into their bodies because they enjoyed where they were more.”

Do I even need to comment on this?  Isn’t the lunacy of that statement self-evident?  Even if I believed in out-of-body experiences (which I don’t), isn’t there something just a little creepy about a shill for James Arthur Ray claiming that these deaths were a conscious choice made by the – I guess – souls of the people in question?

What we really have here is Ray trying feverishly to cover his own ass with as many hands as he can enlist.  The people in the ceremony paid $9,000 a piece to take part in Ray’s five-day retreat, where they chanted and fasted and underwent role-plays where Ray allegedly took on the part of God.  In the pitch-dark sweat lodge ceremony, Ray saw the thing through to its bitter end, even after it became clear that things were, shall we say, not going according to plan.  The police are right to treat this as a homicide, and the fact that Ray’s organization is claiming these two deaths are a sort of supernatural suicide is a cowardly and transparent move to keep their boss out of jail.

But again, the fact that people willingly pay money for this sort of thing makes my head hurt.  I’m not ignorant.  I know the sweat lodge is a long-standing tradition in some Native American cultures.  But that doesn’t make it any less preposterous than exorcisms or speaking in tongues or traveling to Lourdes in the hope of divine intervention.  And what makes it worse is that people fork over their money to people like Ray and Tony Robbins and other self-help charlatans to “program” them or, in Ray’s case, induce these out-of-body experiences through fasting and exposure to extreme heat.

In much the same way that Mikey Czech’s father chalked up his son’s death to God’s “greater purpose,” these people turn over their identities and their health (and their money) to someone else, presumably because they can’t hack it on their own.  I guess it’s just another form of surrender in the face of powerlessness.  I can understand wishing that someone else would take the wheel for a while, but that doesn’t mean you should become disconnected from reality.  And that’s what happened to everyone involved in James Arthur Ray’s sweat lodge – in their hope for a bogus cure for whatever psychological tics ailed them, they gave a snake-oil salesman the right to blame the deceased for a crime that was his, and his alone.

Current listening:

THey might be giants john henry

They Might Be Giants – John Henry

Current reading:


Jessica Anthony – “The Death of Mustango Salvaje” (in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, ed. by Dave Eggers)



1. Amanda - October 23, 2009

In the Native American Religious studies class I took the professor discussed sweat lodges. She had been going to them since she was young and said that they weren’t really for “out of body” experiences, they were designed to be places where people could meditate and get advice from elders about their life. Obviously this person had some sort of God complex and I am sure he got his jollies from getting paid to hurt people.

P.S. I’m guessing trying to convince you to go to a sweat lodge with me is out of the question now. Damn!

rcm - October 23, 2009

Yeah, I’m not trying to be disrespectful to authentic sweat lodge ceremonies. I understand their place and function in Native American cultures. But this guy was just a phony preying on the kind of people who feel like they need a self-help “retreat.”

If I wanted a sweat lodge, I’d just close my windows and crank up the furnace. At least I could still watch TV.

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