"He didn't do anything, he didn't participate in helping. He did nothing. He just stood there."I've become obsessed by the sweat lodge tragedy that occurred here in Arizona a few weeks ago. I've been reading every article that gets posted on the Web. I've heard audio and watched videos. And, still, I can't understand how this so-called guru, James Arthur Ray, could take a group of his followers, teach them all these wonderful things about how to live a spiritual life, and then lead them to their spiritual deaths.
~Beverley Bunn, participant
Of course, Ray can claim success to one thing; he promised his people they'd be transformed, and surely they have been, though, hopefully not in the way he intended. From the quote above, about what he did after the now infamous sweat ended, it's hard to tell what he intended. One cannot wish to believe he expected any of his idol worshippers to fall to their deaths inside this primitive and poorly planned sweat lodge. But some of them did.
In addition to the AP story source quoted above, an article in today's Arizona Republic also included an interview from one of the participants at the ill-fated sweat lodge ceremony, which took place near Sedona in early October. In it, the article exposes how Ray urged the 50-60 participants crowded inside this small, dark airtight space for several hours, heated by hot rocks that filled the room with steam, to push past their pain. It must have been extremely uncomfortable pain if some lost consciousness, and the people farthest away from the door fought the most for oxygen. If they weren't baking to death, they were certainly suffocating.
How could Ray have not noticed this? He sat next to the door, had light to see, and had the most air of all to breathe. People even cried out for help. What did he do? He chided them. He told them to push themselves harder.
I understand the importance of pushing past your limits, which is the purpose behind his "Spiritual Warrior" retreat. I've done that on my bike. I've done that at work. I've gone the extra mile when I felt I couldn't. I've climbed up a hill when my legs didn't want to pedal any longer. I've made a dozen more calls when I felt all talked out. I've squeezed in another assignment when I knew it would be overkill on my schedule. I did it to push myself. Just to say that I could. To build confidence. Whatever you want to call it, I've done it.
And once I even put my life in danger. I remember riding my bike a few years ago during the mid-afternoon heat of a summer day, 110 degrees or more outside here in Phoenix. I missed my early morning ride, and so I rode in the afternoon--even though I knew it was too hot. I drank water before I left, and I drank water during the ride. But the heat proved to be too much for my body to handle. I listened to what it was telling me, and I had to turn back. This wasn't because I am weak or can't hack it. It's because I knew I'd pushed myself too far. It would have been stupid of me to continue the ride.
That became very clear on my way back home, I had to stop and find shade. Fast. Or I might have passed out. It wasn't easy getting off my bike. I nearly fell, my legs were shaking so much. But I managed to sit down on a neighbor's wall and put my head between my legs. I felt nauseous. Was this heat stroke? An older woman in my neighborhood had just been found underneath a mesquite tree that same week, dead from heat exhaustion. She'd hiked up the nearby mountain, never making it home, even though she, too, stopped to rest. She died sitting right there underneath the tree. I was thinking of her when I got home and walked inside my air conditioned home, my legs still shaking. I still felt nauseous and now had a headache. I sipped more water and sat down on the couch to rest until I felt okay about an hour later. I didn't do anything. I just sat there. That was stupid of me to ride in the mid-day sun. And I've never done it since. I learned my lesson.
But this guy didn't learn his. He'd taken his followers into such a sweat lodge before, and people passed out. I'm not sure if anyone died, but they passed out. Isn't that too close enough? I'd say so. I'd say it wasn't worth the risk to try something like that again. But Ray did.
Regardless of what he was thinking as he carried out his plan for his "Spiritual Warriors," there's no growth to be gained in pushing yourself so hard you can't walk or think, or in going so far past your limits that you die.
Who would encourage that but a fanatic!
It's scary to me to think that even after the Mansons and the Hitlers of the world, we can still be lured by a fanatic. That's what I think of when I hear Ray's name. And I wonder, why can we still be so gullible? How can one man hold that much power over us? Is it because we pay him to? These people forked over $9,000 or more to attend this retreat. Prior to that, they'd paid thousands more to attend his other workshops in the classroom. They'd bought his books, his CDs, and even paid extra for food and lodging--even though some of the time they spent there at the retreat was spent out in the wilderness, fasting. He's raked in a lot of dough to teach his beliefs. The fact that he's appeared on Oprah even gives him a credibility that not many of us have. These people must have believed Ray knew what he was doing and where he was leading them. Ray must have believed that.
So then what happened?
As Ray sat at the entrance to this makeshift sweat lodge, as he breathed in the fresh air coming in from the door and called for more rocks to be brought in, and as he poured the water over those hot rocks, he must have sensed anxiety. As minutes turned into an hour, and as more time passed and he heard the cries from people in back asking to be let out so they could breath fresh air, too, he must have heard the sounds of people slouching forward or sideways as they passed out from the heat. As he encouraged them to fight through the pain, what was he thinking? Why wasn't he concerned that the limits he was asking these people to go beyond was not to their benefit? It's not like he was suffering the same as they. It's not like he was stronger. It's not like that at all because he was sitting near the entrance; he had fresh air to breathe.
It seems to me that he just might be so caught up in his own words that he's incapable of seeing reality. The reality is that he let people die that day. He let them die. And he didn't do anything to stop it. He didn't even do anything to help, it now appears.
People who weren't there have suggested that since the participants went in of their own free will, they could have left of their own free will. Yet, people who were there said it wasn't that simple. Ray wanted these people to push themselves, to push past their pain. He wanted them all to stay in the dome for the entire two hours. Was this his ego trip? So he could sell his next group of gullibles on his success rate? It makes me wonder. It seems as though this guy exerted a scary kind of control over these people. They believed in his words. They believed they could push beyond their own limits because he was telling them they could. He was encouraging it. By doing so, he disregarded lives. And lives were lost. Needlessly.
If I were one of the people signed up for his upcoming classes, it would be hard for me to look to him for advice now.
We can often deny the truth because we believe what someone we know and admire tells us. We ignore warning signs or things that may not seem quite right. It's easy to do. We hang onto the words. We trust them. And we trust the person from which they come. But the real truth is that words don't necessarily mean a thing unless you can back them up with action. It matters not what you say; it matters what you do. You can be the most powerful speaker in the world. Your words can touch the hearts of many. But if you don't live up to the words you speak, if you don't act on them in the same way, the meaning is lost. And all the hearts of the people you touched will be hurt--lives will be ruined. Lives, in fact, have been ruined. The dead are being buried.
And to think that he could only stand there and watch.
I want to know what this man is now thinking. If he knew then what he's experiencing now, would he have done things differently? He's not said much on the matter. He's acknowledged very little, and instead of helping the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office with the investigation, he says he's organizing his own. Why? Since he gladly accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the people he surrounded himself with that week, it seems to me he owes them something. He owes them the willingness to take responsibility for his culpability, whatever that might be.
I find it telling that he hasn't exhibited the strength he expected of his "warriors." When the heat got too hot for him, he left. To his "warriors," he preached toughing it out. Yet, the guru did not do that at all. Not only did he deny his victims help, but he also didn't even bother to step in to help them when they needed him most. Instead, he abandoned them. He left them all behind in Sedona--his pockets filled with their cold, hard cash. I even heard he's not once offered a refund.
Some of his followers who've attended his retreats in the past believe he will step up, but I'm not so sure. His actions thus far have suggested otherwise, though I realize, by now, he's certainly been advised not to say much at all--for his own good.
But what about the good of his followers. It really, really saddens me that people had to die because they believed in what this man said. This tragedy points to what can happen when we put our faith and trust in the words of one man without researching further on our own, without paying attention to one's actions. If these people had done their own research, maybe they would have been skeptical about stepping inside a sweat lodge covered in plastic. Maybe they would have understood it's a place of peace and calm, not chaos. When the Native Americans say the sweat lodge ceremony is about rebirth, they do not mean that anyone will die. They mean you will exit the sweat with a renewed spirit. That is a beautiful thing. Death by suffocation or dehydration (or organ failure caused by either) is anything but beautiful.
Whatever happened inside that sweat box two weeks ago, it left three people dead, others injured or sick, and all of them spiritually wounded. And if there's anything I know right now about this whole ordeal it's this: I'd really hate to be James Arthur Ray.