The dark side of “The Secret”?

harmonicTwo people died and 21 people were injured — some quite seriously — during an incident at a sweat lodge at an Arizona resort. There is a spiritual component to this story. It turns out that self-help expert and author James Arthur Ray rented the facility as part of a “Spiritual Warrior” retreat that promised to “absolutely change your life.”

The incident is still under investigation and stories about the matter reflect that. Here’s an early report from the Arizona Republic. And here’s a good report from the Associated Press.

Every story I read relied on analysis from Joseph Bruchac, author of “The Native American Sweat Lodge: History and Legends.” The title alone would suggest he’s a good source but it might be nice to see a wider variety of sources who can speak about sweat lodges.

The stories included very little about how Ray is regarded in the New Age community. He was featured in “The Secret” film. And that got him featured on the Oprah Winfrey show multiple times. He’s considered by some to be a huckster who peddles prosperity shamanism and practices his craft unethically by charging participants for his retreats. Folks apparently paid close to $10,000 to be part of this retreat that was marred by the deaths and injuries.

I’m sure there will be more discussed about his particular approach as the story continues and when it does, it would be good for reporters to note the criticisms of Ray. Via Jason Pitzl-Water’s Wild Hunt blog, I found a site called Beyond Growth that has raised questions about Ray’s teachings and methodology for some time. This recent post has some thoughtful discussion of how this event might be viewed “through the eyes of magick.” (I also stole the title of this post from Beyond Growth.)

Another aspect of the media coverage that is interesting to look at is how reporters place the event in geographic context. I noticed how the New York Times handled it at the end of their story:

New Age programs like the ones Mr. Ray offers are common in Sedona. Anna Lisa Brown, a resident, told the Phoenix television station KNXV that people are always coming to the area for such retreats.

“I was surprised that people would put themselves in that situation, but not surprised, because people are looking for things to fulfill themselves and give themselves purpose,” Ms. Brown said.

The somewhat dismissive comment is safely encapsulated in quotes but it is not balanced out by any other perspective. By contrast, here is how the Arizona Republic discussed the location:

Sedona is an international mecca for New Age beliefs and purportedly the site of numerous “vortexes,” or natural energy confluences thought to enhance spirituality and well-being.

Purportedly has a negative connotation and the definition of the word says it’s often used to describe a false allegation. The description also suffers by being in the passive voice. It’s better to ascribe the belief of the vortexes to the specific group or groups of people who hold the view. Still, it’s a better answer to the question of “Why Sedona?” than the one the Times provides.

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  • SjB


    I did not have the same reaction to the Arizona Republic quote using the word ‘purportedly’ as you did. There is no science or evidence to verify the ‘vortexes’ that are claimed and it seems a fair appraisal (kinda like purported UFO claims).

    And I’m not sure that one can easily attribute the claims of beliefs in ‘vortexes’ to one specific group. It seems to be a general misbelief held by all kinds of people who do not belong to specific groups in the Sedona area.

  • Stephen

    This is a very minor point, but there is no verb in the passive voice in that last quotation.

    Informative post, though.

  • Stephen A.

    More of a major point, to me anyway, is the fact that few news stories (as of a Google News search last night, anyway) mentioned “The Secret” in connection with this man. Once I found out, however, YouTube and Google searches (“Ray The Secret”) turned up quite a few hits – this very blog post being #1! And now, a day later, there are more news mentions.

    The man’s teachings and those of “The Secret” film and book(s) seem remarkably similar to the Prosperity Gospel of fundamentalist Christians. A major difference is that Ray and others add New Age elements to it, and fail to name God as the mysterious “Universal Source” that hands out material possessions when one simply wishes really hard for them. I’m waiting for the connection to be made by a reporter, though.

    Once you realize the small size of this sweat lodge, you’ll be shocked that 60 people were in there. Photos showing plastic chairs up against the thing in photos stand 3/4th the height! This seems like shocking abuse of the idea of the sweat lodge concept. One pictures a lodge with 4-5 people inside, with proper ventilation for oxygen. How does one concentrate on a Spirital Journey with people literally packed in beside you?

    The Greed Angle ($10K a pop) is being well explored.

    One Australian paper (which broke this part of the story I believe) reported that James Ray posted these messages to twitter (later deleted) as people were dying and injured: “The Spiritual Warrior has conquered death and therefore has no enemies, and no fear, in this life or the next,” he wrote in one.” and “… for anything new to live something first must die. What needs to die in you so that new life can emerge?” Amazing.

    The anachronistic use of Native American and other religious symbols (a “Yin/Yang” symbol painted on a TeePee, as well as the sweat lodge itself being used out of context) would be great theological/religious fodder for a reporter as well, though in the New Age, apparently “anything goes” is the only dogma.

  • Dale

    Stephen A. wrote:

    The man’s teachings and those of “The Secret” film and book(s) seem remarkably similar to the Prosperity Gospel of fundamentalist Christians.

    Er, “prosperity theology” isn’t linked to Christian Fundamentalists– it’s an offshoot (and fringe) of the pentecostal and charismatic movements, who historically have been at odds with Fundamentalists.

  • Stephen A.

    Er, thanks for setting me straight, Dale!

  • Stephen A.

    Of course, many, many conservative Christians not in those admittedly fringey (but widespread) groups see God as a slot machine and Lottery, much as The Secret teaches.

  • Northcoast

    My reaction to ‘purportedly’ is a little more blunt than Mollie’s. These ideas of new age therapy strike me as a convergence of junk science with junk therapy.

  • John Willard

    Stephen A. wrote:

    Of course, many, many conservative Christians not in those admittedly fringey (but widespread) groups see God as a slot machine and Lottery, much as The Secret teaches.

    That’s quite a bold statement and one I’d have to disagree with. Your use of the word ‘conservative’ needs to be defined more clearly. For example, I’m not sure I would refer to the pentecostals and charismatics as ‘conservative’ Christians, but I know may who would strongly disagree with me.

  • Stephen A.

    John, the use of the world “not” in that sentence meant I was NOT referring to Pentecostals and charismatics in that way, though their theology is very much “conservative” and it’s certainly debatable.

    I’ve known those in the Assembly of God, Pentecostal and even Southern Baptist traditions who are certain that if they pray for material wealth they will receive it because they are faithful and asked Faithfully. (Ironically many of these same folks will condemn “works salvation” because it would seem as if they were claiming to be “entitled” to salvation from God by their works or faithfulness.)

    Many people of all denominations have been sucked into the Prosperity Gospel way of thinking, and I still find it a bit humorous that a secular version, The Secret, has become so popular.

  • dalea

    It would be helpful to have Ray placed somewhere in the New Age spectrum. And comments from other New Agers would have been nice. The plain fact that he charges almost 10 grand for his teachings is troubling. Even more troubling is that people pay so much.

  • http://“Thedarksideof“TheSecret”?” moonjustice

    “The dark side of “The Secret”?”
    James Arthur Ray, a noted proffessional in Sweat Lodge Medicine, leaves us feeling like broken soul’s as having been in charge of a Sweat Lodge that had two people die, and 19 people in need of hospitalization? James Aurthur Ray, a victim himself to the loss of life occurring in a sweat intended to serve and cure those seeking extended graces in this life – onto another; hazard came as chaos errupted and fear entered the camp among the attending sweat Lodge Participants? During a Sweat, especially while the sweat ceremony is occurring, the participants are to be still, calm and verbally soothed in relaxation postures: The participants must focus on the Creator, and in thought listen to the steps voiced softly by council teacher and ceremony Leader? The invovement during this treatment with other bodies in the tent – is none. The cost is not a contract but a tocken gift, in proportion to ones gratitude. The activity in the ceremony is pure, sincere, and not a hoaz! When the Spirits enter the tent it as though the Mass is about to end and the Holy Spirit to send the Sun to greet the Faithfilled Parissioners leaving the Sacred Ceremony! The Spirits are gentle that visit, but the problem may be from the post-exterior, by the Warriors Foe? If the Foe is Electric-base positive then the Foe, can increase the heat various participants are experiencing, this in turn will be missed and the cause of this famous proceedure be over-ride onto closure? The Warriors need to grow in number, and position themselves around the premise, locking the foes paraphenilial electric-based gadgets from play on the premise.
    During a Sweat noone is allowed to carry anything with them into the Sacred Chamber, this being so I must suggest that the problem is Post-Exterior?

  • barefoot john

    moonjustice’s post leaves me practically speechless. The vocabulary and concepts have nothing at all to do with First Nation’s ceremonial practices. The whole post reads like it was written by one of Ray’s followers trying to justify this travesty.

    I feel safe in saying that not a single band, tribe or nation would support the position that moonjustice is presenting, or would consider James Ray “to be a noted proffessional in Sweat Lodge Medicine”.

    If this post is an example of his teachings, the most apt term for James Ray would be a fraud.

  • Stephen A.

    I’m with barefoot john: WHAT, moonjustice? This is gibberish, I’m sorry to say.

    One line at random: “During a Sweat, especially while the sweat ceremony is occurring, the participants are to be still, calm and verbally soothed in relaxation postures.” Seriously? In this case, 60 people were crowded into a 3 foot tall, makeshift lodge built for 12 at most. How is one supposed to “relax” or have a spiritual journey, as they suffocate and gasp for air?


  • Sandy

    I was sorry to hear this story. It is just terrible that these people had such horrible, and for some fatal, experience! Sedona is one of my favorite local places to visit, so I am especially saddened by the tragedy there :( I am shocked that he was charging (from what I have heard) $10k for this retreat! I understand the principle of attraction includes spending, and giving away, money like you have too much of it, but I don’t know that it needs to be to the tune of $10k. Unless of course he was donating the bulk of that money, thereby practicing what he preaches.

    I hope the injured recover quickly and completely. My thoughts are with them.

    To address the other topic being discussed here, I don’t see anything wrong with the book The Secret. It is about positive thinking, assertive action, being a good person, doing onto others, and faith. What part of that is bad? Just because someone perverts the concept, doesn’t mean the concept as a whole is flawed. If that were true, there would be no religion, and no science, as both have been severely perverted from time to time.

  • Dave

    Many people of all denominations have been sucked into the Prosperity Gospel way of thinking, and I still find it a bit humorous that a secular version, The Secret, has become so popular.

    The Secret isn’t secular; it’s New Age.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, you really know a way to this reader’s heart. First you display math knowledge and now your post title is an allusion to Star Wars.

  • Stephen A.

    Sandy, the book/movie probably is probably OFF topic here, but to say it’s just “positive thinking” is an oversimplification. If that’s all it was, it would be totally non-controversial, like a Zig Ziglar book.

    The movie itself implies that it is a tapping into the strange harmonic Sources in the Universe in order to manipulate them (it?) into INSTANTLY giving you what you want, be it the nice necklace in the store window (example from the film) or the destruction of your enemies (illustrated by the destruction of the gay person’s mean co-workers simply by his “wishing” them to be destroyed.)

    This isn’t a pure concept that was “perverted” by some break-away denomination, it’s a New Age Teaching from the start, although the “magical” elements seem a bit covered up in the film, which I sadly saw during a business presentation – it was totally inappropriate in that venue, IMO.

    And yes, technically non-secular, Dave. Though not quite religious either.

    Note also, Sandy, that some folks in the film apparently have denied the entire “Law of Attraction” concept, while others have taken it in a new direction, like the woman in the film who channels a Divine Being of some sort.

  • Dave

    And yes, technically non-secular, Dave. Though not quite religious either.

    I would say the label “religion” is out there if the New Agers want to put it on. Not being New Age myself, I’m not sure whether they would.

  • Arupa Freeman

    I saw this guy and his buddies on Oprah. They were offering a mishmash of warmed-over Buddhism and new age slogans that they actually claimed to have “discovered.” It was a giant load of horse hockey. And now this!

  • Marcia

    I did a few New Age sweat lodges when I was in the New Age (and I was in it for many years). I recall feeling like I was going to pass out in the first 10 minutes or so – the heat is extremely intense. There is supposedly a spiritual purpose in this practice, and it’s something to note that so many New Age spiritual practices can actually be dangerous.

    The teachings of “The Secret” are nothing more than sorcery — using a technique to alter reality supernaturally. Such teachers as James Arthur Ray are part con artist and part occultician, a truly dangerous mix for anyone who listens to them. Go to my website for 2 articles on “The Secret.”

  • Mollie

    Keep comments focused on the journalism and not the underlying beliefs themselves. Thanks.

  • dalea

    There are two simple facts omitted from the news accounts. One is that Sedona stands at about 4700 feet above sea level, which altitude can take some adjusting to. Two is that Sedona is in a desert. When one realizes that some one not yet altitude adjusted, dehydrated from being in a desert and then goes into a sweat lodge, becoming further dehydrated. With electrolytes out of balance, heart failure is a real possibility. As are other problems.

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  • How sad

    Ray is a loser, just a salesman trying to rip off vulnerable people who are trying to find fulfillment in their lives. And hey, Oprah has endorsed him and we all buy into what Oprah endorses, don’t we? Barf.

    I’ve been doing sweats for 20 years and have only ever heard of things like this when people don’t know what they are doing or are charging. Sweat lodge ceremony is sacred space and sacred space is free.

    He also put accelerant on the fire. The accelerant got on the rocks, the rocks go in the sweat, water gets poured on the rocks and what do you get? Steam with toxic fumes. The lodge was covered with plastic tarps too. Plastic tarps eliminate the ability for air to move through the blankets that are normally used. Too many people sucked up all the oxygen and after 36 hours of fasting…well, yeah, they suffocated, dehydrated, got acute toxicity and now he’s trying to blame someone else.

    And he calls himself a spiritual warrior. What a joke.

  • Mia

    There is nothing new under the sun – that’s old testament.

    With the faith of a mustard seed, you can move mountains – that’s new testament.

    New age is really old school. “The Secret” simply puts a modern twist on ancient spiritual principles, found in every major (and probably minor) religion.

    Jimmie Ray, however, played God, very badly, and lost two lives in the process. We’re probably very fortunate it wasn’t more. And that’s what this is really all about.

    Mollie – thank you for a great article.

  • Love

    Why does the teacher say “Judge not, less you be judged”? Doesn’t it say that God is LOVE. James is a poor soul, his followers are as well. I pray for all of them. I pray for all of them, and for all Christian Televangelist caught in scandals, the Catholic Priests who are perverted, the Preachers who’ve had affairs, Jim Jones, Jimmy Swagart, all their victims and followers, all the self righteous, all the sinners. I pray for all the religions (including Christianity (Crusades!)) who have been responsible for many of the wars and suffering throughout mans history. May someone more spiritual, wise, and understanding than humans please step in and heal all people so that the blind sheep no longer follow blind sheep! Love overcomes hate, where is human caring, where is the love and concern. Where are the prayers for these unfortunates? Sadly, I will probably be judged now because I promote the Godly principles of Love and Mercy! Why not let God judge, only He knows the real heart of men, the real circumstances. Why don’t we pray for our fellow man and remember that but for the grace of God, go I. Blessings to all of you!

  • Stephen A.

    The comments by “Love” are a wonderful example of moral relativism.

    Or is that “amoral”? Just because “others did bad stuff” (the Crusades? Really?) doesn’t exonerate this modern-day shyster.