James Arthur Ray Convicted in Sweat Lodge Deaths

New Age guru and The Secret celebrity James Arthur Ray has been convicted of negligent homicide for the deaths of Kirby Brown, Liz Neuman and James Shore in a sweat lodge ceremony he ran in 2009. Here’s a link to a story in the Los Angeles Times, commentary collected by Jason of The Wild Hunt, and some good thoughts on free will and manipulation by Brendan Myers.

I did not follow the trial closely, but based on what I’ve read this verdict seems right. Ray didn’t intend to kill anyone, but he was clearly – and criminally – negligent. He asked a Native expert for advice on building a sweat lodge, but then modified it to make it even hotter. He failed to recognize the difference between discomfort on the part of his clients and genuine medical crises. Most importantly, he convinced his clients – and himself – that completing the ordeal was more important than life itself. Ray could be sentenced to as much as 11 years in prison. He deserves every day of that, but more importantly he deserves to be stripped of any and all credibility as a spiritual teacher.

Much of the discussion – at least on The Wild Hunt – is focused on the issue of cultural appropriation, an issue I don’t have a lot of passion about. Credit your sources, don’t claim to be something you’re not, but beyond that religions and cultures have been borrowing and blending for millennia and I see no reason to stop now.

I want to focus on what we can learn from this crime. I won’t call it a tragedy – it wasn’t an accident and it could and should have been prevented. Let us learn from others’ mistakes.

First, there is a demand – a need – for authentic spiritual experiences. These were not weak, ignorant “sheeple.” These were intelligent, well-educated, successful people: you don’t get many high school dropouts for a seminar costing $10,000 a person. They had material success but it wasn’t enough. They were looking for something more, something deeper, something real. They just showed a lack of judgment in where they tried to get it.

Paganism is supposed to be an experiential religion. What can we do to make our circles and celebrations more real?

Real spiritual experiences can’t be purchased with a week’s vacation and a high-limit credit card. Occasionally we experience a moment of ecstasy, but more often they are a product of years of study and practice. The American Buddhist teacher Baker Roshi said “enlightenment is an accident, but practice makes us accident-prone.” There simply is no substitute for doing the work.

What work are we doing – both in this world and between the worlds – to learn and grow in spirit?

With great power comes great responsibility. Yeah, I know, I got that from a comic book movie. It’s still true. Any teacher-student relationship is one of imbalanced power. You trust that the teacher knows what she’s talking about, that his methods are sound, and that she has the student’s best interests at heart. The people in this sweat lodge put their lives in James Ray’s hands and he failed them. A teacher has no right to take a student farther than that student is capable of going. Now, most people are capable of a lot more than they think they are, and a good teacher can inspire a student to push past his self-imposed limits. But some times those limits are hard and real – the teacher has to know the difference.

Do we construct our classes and workshops and rituals with the needs of our students and participants in mind, or do we just want to make ourselves look big?

We all have ultimate responsibility for our lives, for ultimately it is us and us alone who will live or die with the consequences of our decisions. In order to do this well, we must follow the best-known of the Maxims of the Temple at Delphi: know thyself. An athlete has to know himself well enough to distinguish between pain he can push through and an injury that requires him to stop. A seeker has to know herself well enough to recognize when she’s being asked to do something that’s going to be harmful. There is risk in genuine spiritual exploration and we should not avoid “dangerous religion” – we just need to practice it wide awake.

How well do we know ourselves, and what are we doing to grow that knowledge?

Back in January I wrote several posts on the topic of Pagan initiation. I only touched on the subject of ordeals, saying “initiatory ordeals build confidence” while cautioning “they are highly unpredictable” and warning ritual creators that “a candidate who asks for a ritual ordeal places a tremendous amount of trust in the person conducting the ordeal. Make sure you are worthy of that trust.”

James Ray was not worthy of the trust his clients placed in him. May he spend years in prison learning humility, and may these deaths stand as a warning to all of us, those who seek and those who teach.

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