The New Age Sweat Lodge Death Controversy

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 10, 2009 — 30 Comments

The blogosphere is abuzz over the news that two people died, and several more sickened at a retreat held by New Age huckster, “Secret” booster, and two-time Oprah guest James Arthur Ray. The deaths occurred as a result of the careless use of a large plastic “sweat lodge” that held 64 people at the time of the incident (you can hear the 911 calls, here), and was the culmination of  a 9695.00-per-head “spiritual warrior” workshop.

In all, 21 of the 64 people crowded inside the sweat lodge Thursday evening received medical care at hospitals and a fire station. Four remained hospitalized Friday evening – one in critical condition and the others in fair condition … Among those sickened were a middle-aged man and a woman who were unconscious, according to a 911 call, and a third person who was found not breathing. “It’s not something you’d normally see at one of the resorts there, and it’s unfortunate regardless of the cause,” D’Evelyn said. Investigators were working to determine whether criminal actions might have been a factor in the incident, D’Evelyn said. The Angel Valley Retreat Center sits on 70 acres nestled in a scrub forest just outside Sedona, a resort town 115 miles north of Phoenix that draws many in the New Age spiritual movement. Self-help expert and author James Arthur Ray rented the facility as part of his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat that began Oct. 3 and that promised to “absolutely change your life.”

Well it certainly did change several people’s lives, two it changed rather permanently. It makes Chas Clifton wonder if you can sue your shaman, especially if you signed a lengthy liability-release form beforehand. Meanwhile, Gus diZerega and Kathryn Price NicDhana point out the dangers of this kind of ignorant appropriation.

“The newage, pyramid-scheming, scam artist crammed 21 people into a plastic sweatlodge. In the hot, wet dark with the man who had no idea how to lead an Indian ceremony, and no connection to any culture that could have taught him how (or told him this was a really bad idea), they sweated for two hours… till two were dead, three were unconscious, and everyone else went to the hospital.  Hazmat teams and crime scene tape now surround the site. Native American ceremonial people from the area are saying that, by imitating a ceremony he was not trained to perform, this newage plastic shaman killed these people. I agree. They used materials in this fake ceremony that should not be used, they used things that were physically and spiritually dangerous. They payed $9,000 for a sad death at the hands of a greedy con man.”

The Beyond Growth blog, a longtime critic of James Ray, points out that these “large group awareness trainings” often push people past their safe limits through peer pressure and the fear of failure.

“I know several people who have gone to the hospital for various reasons after “large group awareness trainings” such as Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior Event.” … It’s time we brought these gurus to justice and demanded that personal change workshops be safe for all. When something goes wrong in such a seminar due to it being overly intense and dangerous, usually the victims are blamed for “not taking 100% responsibility,” thus dodging the responsibility of the seminar leaders. Personally, I think we should hold James Arthur Ray 100% personally responsible for the death of these two seminar participants, up to and including going to jail. Seminar leaders are responsible for making their workshops both effective and safe for all.”

Beyond Growth’s post also has a screen-shot of Ray’s creepy death-haunted Twitter posts made before and during the event, since deleted after the sweat-lodge debacle. I highly recommend reading his follow-up post “The Dark Side of The Secret” for more insight.

This mixture of cultural appropriation, magical thinking, New Age brainwashing, and a success at all costs mentality ends up creating unsafe environments for those merely looking to improve themselves. I’m not sure his liability release forms will protect Ray (not to mention Michael and Amayra Hamilton, who hosted the event) from the coming storm of inquiries, litigation, and increased scrutiny that are sure to follow. Lets hope this tragedy opens the eyes of those gulled by the Secret-peddlers and Plastic Shamans interested only in improving their bank-accounts, not your life.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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