I have been putting off writing about the Sweat Lodge tragedy at a spiritual retreat center near Sedona, Arizona, that has left three people dead. I didn’t want to write until I heard the man in charge explain what happened. But James Arthur Ray, a best-selling self-help entrepreneur and promoter of financial abundance, is not talking.
Ray hasn’t said anything about what happened inside that sweat lodge. On his website he says only that he is being tested, shocked and saddened by the tragedy, and because there are so many more questions than answers at this time, he believes it inappropriate to comment further until we know more. Indeed we do need to know more; we need to know more from Ray, because otherwise we have to draw our own conclusions from what we do know about him.
I met James Ray at a professional speakers’ meeting. Handsome and charming, he wanted to show me how he could help me market myself and increase my revenue stream exponentially. I didn’t buy — his huckster smoothness left me squirming. Ray is a self-help financial guru preaching the gospel of abundance and has appeared on Oprah, Larry King, and The Secret. He is the CEO of JRI, a multimillion- dollar business that was recently named on Inc. magazine’s list of America’s fastest-growing private companies.
James Arthur Ray got over 60 people to pay $9000 apiece to participate in a five-day “Spiritual Warrior” retreat he teaches and that culminated in a sacred Native American ceremony. Ray’s ceremony, however, bears little resemblance to the holy ritual that I know and practice. Ray’s sweat lodge was 415 square feet! This is a structure large enough that the county requires a building permit. The traditional sweat lodges of the Plains tribes are small structures, maybe 10 feet in diameter and 4 feet high (90 square feet), whose frames are made out of willow saplings and then covered with blankets and canvas. The Navajo dig them into the ground and then cover forked sticks with earth. Whatever the style, they all are built to accommodate a small group, perhaps 15 people (maybe a few more if really squeezed). The ceremonial leaders conducting the ceremony are recognized by the Native community as “keepers of a lodge,” a traditional fireplace that has been handed down to them from a recognized spiritual leader.
The ritual takes between 1-2 hours, but there are four rounds or “doors.” Between each round, the flap is opened, more stones are brought in, and people can choose to go out for a short time and return. I have been participating with Native American people in sweat lodge ceremonies for over 40 years. I am the keeper of a lodge at my home, an honor bestowed after a long apprenticeship. I use the lodge regularly and people from all faiths and ethnicity participate, there is no charge, and we generally have a pot-luck afterwards.
I have participated in sweat lodge ceremonies with thousands of people in North and Central America, and Europe as well through the nonprofit Turtle Island Project. No one has ever died; not old people or children, not the sick or the wounded. Most people have found the ceremony as profoundly enlightening as it was intended to be.
My heart reaches out to the families of those who died and are ill. This retreat and sacred ceremony were sold as an opportunity to illumine the spirit. What it delivered, however, was the result of perverting something sacred into something profane.
How can you tell the difference? Before you come to this sacred ceremony find out if Indian people are involved, and if the ceremonial leader is trained in the tradition. You can be sure that if the sweat lodge can fit 60 people and costs $9,000 to participate, you’re probably just feeding the bottom line of one of the fast-growing private companies in America.