Oct 11, 2009

The Secret, a Sweat Lodge, a Dreadful Tragedy

Two people have died and 19 others were hospitalized, in a sweat lodge ceremony that appears to have gone horribly awry. My heart goes out to the families of Kirby Brown and James Shore, and to those who are recovering in hospital. James Arthur Ray, "Personal Success Strategist" and contributor to The Secret, included the sweat in his Spiritual Warrior seminar.

Consider this a lesson in the dangers of dabbling. Ray claims to have studied with native shamans in Peru, the Amazon, and other places he doesn't "care to recall." He even claims to have "mastered" the techniques of these indigenous people. Somehow he seems to have missed this basic bit of wisdom: Don't cram 64 people into a sweat lodge.

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.

It also means it's very, very hot, because the body heat of all those participants has to be factored in. From early reports, it seems clear that the heat was dangerously excessive.

Authorities said 21 people were taken to hospital suffering from burns, dehydration, respiratory arrest and elevated body temperature after sitting in the sweat lodge at the Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat in Arizona. One of those people is in a critical condition.

. . .

Similar to a sauna, a sweat lodge, is an enclosed space where water is poured on heated rocks to cleanse the body. Used in Native American ceremonies the traditional lodges are made of willow branches and covered in canvas or animal skins. They are not meant to be air-tight and participants normally spend less than an hour inside.

However, authorities told the New York Times the James Ray's sweat lodge was covered in plastic and blankets. It is believed temperatures inside the lodge reached up to 49 degrees. [That's 120.2 degrees Farenheit.]

I have been very critical of The Secret, for, among other things, its glib, superficial approach to spiritual growth. This latest incident, involving a member of its brain trust, is a reminder that you can't just pluck things out of the context of spiritual traditions and repackage them as "self help" seminars, without risking psychic, emotional, and even physical injury.

That superficiality is readily apparent in the marketing copy for the seminar. I'd be wary of anyone claiming to teach any sort of warriorship or spiritual mastery, that won't require personal sacrifice.

There is no sacrifice—only greater and more magnificent results, wealth, adventure and fulfillment.

It would seem he gave the lie to that bit of slick marketing with his now deleted tweets, during the seminar.

JamesARay: Day 2 of SPW: "Ware must you be willing to give up to live the life you say is important to you?"

JamesARay: is still in Spiritual Warrior... for anything new to live something first must die. What needs to die in you so that new life can emerge?

Once again, once we know the "Secret" everything is really simple and painless... except when it isn't.

I picked through more of his site, and found more facile platitudes. There's this from his Practical Mysticism seminar:

Maybe you, like me, are tired of the so-called "spiritual individual" who is sick and broke all the time, or the "mystic hopeful" who can't carry on an intelligent conversation about real life.

Where, oh where, would motivational speakers be, without the mythical ne'er do well to use as a whipping boy? His disdain for the sick and economically disadvantaged is also highlighted on the home page.

Likewise, there are others who qualify as a creative genius, and they're physically sick all the time. That's not real wealth!

Then there are those who claim to be really "spiritual," and they're always financially broke. That's not wealth either!

Is it any wonder that so many people came away from The Secret feeling like their illness and adversity meant that they had failed somehow? If there's one thing I genuinely hope we learn as result of the economic downturn, it's to stop viewing poverty as a character flaw or spiritual weakness.

Many have criticized The Secret for its relentless focus on money. In the wake of this incident, I've seen much criticism of James Arthur Ray for charging nearly $10,000 for this training. I disagree with those who claim that real shamans don't charge anything, and that it's inherently wrong to accept remuneration for spiritual teaching. It is absolutely untrue that traditional shamans work for free. You can't compare tribes that live communally with the modern, western world and its economic system. Indigenous peoples use barter, which is just a simpler, more direct currency. Shamans and healers in many cultures receive produce, livestock, and other necessities as offerings for their work. That's a form of payment, and an exchange of energy that is wholly integral with their lifestyle. Trained, practicing shamans who live in our culture, require payment consistent with our economic system. There is nothing wrong with that. HOWEVER, $9,695.00 for a 5 day seminar is indefensible. It's hard for me to believe that this tragedy is, at bottom, about anything other than simple greed.

A little learning is a dang'rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

~ Alexander Pope in "An Essay on Criticism"


Anonymous said...

How do you recognize "simple greed" in New-Age gurus-shamans ?
Do you have your moral-calulator ?
How does it work ?

david2goliath said...

I suspect you agree that supporting the teacher is different from CHARGING for spiritual teaching or ceremony.

LaVaughn said...

I'm afraid I don't quite understand your question. In what way do you mean "support?" Financial support? Emotional support? Some other form of material support? And who would be doing the supporting? The community? Participants in ceremony?

I just need more context to understand what sort of system you're describing.