What Should We Learn From James Arthur Ray’s Return?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 4, 2013 — 65 Comments

There was a time when James Arthur Ray was a heavy hitter in the world of New Age, self-help, guru-dom. He appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s popular daytime talk show during the height of “The Secret” (aka the “Law of Attraction”) craze, appearing in the 2006 “Secret” film, and collaborating with other Secret authors. His 2008 book “Harmonic Wealth” climbed the New York Times bestseller list, and he had positioned himself as someone who would use New Age teachings to, well, get you rich. This is hardly new, the New Thought movement, which heavily influenced the New Age movement, also concerned itself with the acquisition of wealth alongside spiritual enrichment, but Ray was a particularly turbo-charged and modern variant of this old profession.

Rays kingdom of macho spiritual affluence came crashing down in 2011 when he was convicted of negligent homicide in the deaths of three participants in a makeshift sweat-lodge ceremony that took place in 2009. The tragedy amplified everything wrong with the sort of empire Ray was running: near-abusive indifference to the suffering of his charges, a (deadly) misunderstanding of spiritual technologies that he was appropriating, and the inability to deal with his own edifice of his godlike confidence collapsing. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath, Ray spent a lot of time on damage control, instead of on his fatal failures. One Ray staffer, in a conference call to followers after the ceremony said that “the two that had passed and they left their bodies during the ceremony and had so much fun they chose not to come back and that was their choice that they made.” Ray initially called the deaths an “accident,” but that statement seems to have been scrubbed from his website. Ray, found guilty, served only two years in prison, and was released from custody this past Summer. During his incarceration, the New Age industry shuddered a bit, perhaps momentarily humbled by the deaths, not to mention that opulent spiritual searching had gone out of fashion in the age of Occupy (at least on the surface).

Those who assumed that a chastened Ray, now finally free, would lay low for awhile until the memory of his crimes were faded, were in for something of a shock. Ray almost immediately started blogging again, reaching out to followers, and was soon booked on primetime television. Appearing on the Piers Morgan show, alone, with no counter-point, on November 25th. There, he got to work rebuilding his empire, hoping to appear evolved and transformed from his time in prison.

“I think the most difficult thing I can ever imagine is investing your entire life in helping people, and then finding them getting hurt,” he said. “It’s just the antithesis of anything that I had ever stood for or wanted. And so that anguish has continued every single day since that moment.”

The organization Seek Safely, formed by family members of those killed in Ray’s sweat lodge ceremony, have been pushing for Ray to make real, concrete, promises about his teachings going forward.

“It has been our hope that Mr. Ray would cease and desist from practicing self-help programs. However, Mr. Ray has returned to national media, re-launching his brand, complete with a fresh website, blog entries and testimonials.

In an effort to protect people from further acts of gross negligence, we have asked Mr. Ray to sign the SEEK Safely Promise. The SEEK Safely Promise is a commitment that self-help practitioners can make to provide truthfulnessaccuracyrespectprotectionintegrity andsafety to their customers. While over 20 self-help practitioners have made the commitment to the SEEK Safely Promise, Mr. Ray has yet to respond.

While SEEK Safely supports everyone’s journey of growth and improvement, we do not condone Mr. Ray’s returning to the public stage to promote his business without his first making a commitment to provide a safe environment for his customers.”

The Verge, in a longform piece of journalism, explores Ray’s career, the sweat lodge deaths, and his new attempts at a comeback. At its heart is a James Arthur Ray who doesn’t seem all that different than the one who entered prison.

“The Browns watched the interview, but, they say, were not invited to participate — Ray stipulated he could be the only guest. Ginny Brown watched, looking for some evidence of a changed man. “If he doesn’t understand that he caused this, he’s not a safe person to follow. I do believe that he’s sorry that Kirby and James and Liz are dead. I think he’s sorry that this tragedy happened. But he doesn’t understand that he needs to apologize, that he caused this to happen. And I don’t think he’ll apologize for that,” she says. She and her husband have asked James Arthur Ray to sign the Seek Safely promise. He has refused.”

The question now is, will the New Age Movement allow for Ray’s comeback? Will his former followers? For those in our broader religious and spiritual community who overlap into New Age events, what is our duty, and what are the lessons of Ray? Can a multi-million dollar industry, and those who want a piece of it, ever be truly humbled? When you think you’re speaking with the voice of the universe, or of God(s), what limits you? What stops you from treating students like servants, or pets, and appropriating from cultures one barely understands?

In the twenty years I have been a part of the Pagan movement, many have (publicly and privately) yearned for “New Age” money, the big paychecks that come from luring the rich and powerful to your classes. But with that inflated pocketbook comes the deadly over-feeding of ego and desire. The guru humbled by controversy is nothing new, power often corrupts. The question is can this industry, and those who would emulate it, really turn toward a more just and accountable system before the next deadly “accident” occurs? Maybe spiritual teachers should never allowed to be rich, maybe a rich spiritual teacher has learned, and is transmitting, the wrong lessons.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Crystal Hope Kendrick

    A teflon conscience like Mr. Ray’s is the result of sociopathy. I don’t think he will ever learn his lesson. Hopefully publishers and media will do what’s right and shun him like the plague.

  • g75401

    Oooooo……..big sore spot with me. When I was a kid, I was fascinated with Native Americans. I loved both the tribes of the Great Plains and the SW deserts. In particular, I was fascinated by both the sun ritual of the Sioux and the sweat lodge rituals of the Pueblo tribes. To me, you cannot look at a sweat lodge ritual thru American/Western eyes and, by that, I mean reducing everything to a competition. The sweat lodge ritual was a sacred ritual, open to only a few and safe guarded by tribal elders. The people completing the ritual were completely desert acclimated, unlike 95% of Americans, even the ones living in the desert SW (after all, they go from their air conditioned houses to their air conditioned cars to their air conditioned jobs back to their air conditioned cars and back to their air conditioned houses). So, you get this guy, finds his business niche selling “New Agey” rituals that are incompletely understood and conducted completely outside of the initial intent of the ritual by Type A+ competitive individuals who are looking to gain some sort of “edge”. This guy, plain and simple, is a sociopath. He’s looking to take advantage of people who have “too much money” and not enough self-esteem or, worse yet, think they need to have some sort of external “validation”. This guy was recently featured on a program on Discovery ID. My hope is, even if he thinks he can return to his former grifting ways, the public has their “eyes opened” and avoids him and his “business”

    • Nyktipolos

      Just so you’re aware sweatlodges rituals are not just found with Pueblo peoples. They are used here in Canada by many nations.

      I do agree with what you are saying here though. This man tried to use traditions not belonging to him and caused people to die because of it. It’s horrible.

  • http://enondragonart.com/ Kelly NicDruegan

    Of course he’s going to jump right back in to his money making schemes. As long as he still has followers why wouldn’t he? Not only will they gladly start throwing money (and adoration) at his feet again, they will gladly bring in new sheep for the shearing.

    Three things to never underestimate:

    1) Human greed
    2) Human gullibility
    3) Human stupidity

  • Gaddy

    “…many have (publicly and privately) yearned for “New Age” money, the big paychecks that come from luring the rich and powerful to your classes. But with that inflated pocketbook comes…”

    Too much time is being spent here berating James Arthur Ray, and not enough time is being spent contemplating the above quote.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Good intentions. Imagine what the American Pagan community could do with as little as $1,000,000.

      The New Alexandrian Library would be set, the Mætreum could get past its current problems…

      Of course, there is a certain path said to be paved with good intentions.

  • http://www.cernowain.com/ cernowain greenman

    Maybe the in-style goatee he is sporting, and his refurbished website, show that he is a brand new person. Naaaaaah.

  • Lupa

    Wow. I think this guy’s a whole lot of things I’m not going to say in relatively polite company, in addition to being irresponsible, egotistic, and possessed of atrociously bad moral judgement and a lack of ethics. I’ve been watching this from the beginning, and it’s been quite the fiasco. But this is just about the worst possible way he could have come back to public life, and I worry about those he may hurt in the future.

    The SEEK Safely promise is a great idea! Granted, it’s no licensing board, but it’s at least a public statement that can be followed up on later. Not that I think Ray would stand behind it even if he did sign it, but I’m glad some others have stepped up. Accountability can be a tough thing to define in spirituality, especially less rigidly delineated forms thereof, but there are some basic things we can probably agree on like “do your best to not get your followers killed”. Additional credentials like degrees and certifications help, but not all pieces of paper are created equal, and not everyone passing on traditions has the time, money, or inclination to get them. It seems a lot of what we still rely on is word of mouth and reputation, which has its pros and cons (pros including things like subjective context that a degree can’t confer, cons including things like unwarranted character assassination).

    With re: to your statement “Maybe spiritual teachers should never allowed to be rich, maybe a rich spiritual teacher has learned, and is transmitting, the wrong lessons”, who is to define what counts as “rich”? Does the number of zeroes matter? I know there’s the joke that the difference between pagan and new age is a decimal point, but as a self-employed artist and author whose spirituality is wrapped into what I do, I’ve had my modest lifestyle given the hairy eyeball simply because I can support my little household with what I do.

    • kenofken

      The answer lies somewhere between vows of poverty and “prosperity gospel” hustling. The issue, I think, has less to do with the dollar amount than with the dynamic that money plays in the teacher/student/client relationship. You’re selling art and your writing. I see nothing wrong with that whether you’re scraping by or making a million.

      The problem comes in with guys like Ray and other “New Age” hustlers because they propose to sell spirituality and wisdom itself, and to do so exclusively. They offer to sell you a pre-packaged “authentic spiritual experience” with the implication that only they have it to sell, and that such a thing can be bought rather than earned for oneself.

      They also tend to demand uncritical acceptance of them and their “wisdom”, and money is absolutely central and all consuming. Of course they often like to cultivate a public image of austere barefoot “money means nothing” aceticism while they’re raking in millions.

      It is this ethic, the idea of selling enlightenment and spiritual development, that is toxic and will ALWAYS lead to hideous abuse.

      • Lupa

        *nods* The issue, then, becomes a matter of degree. American culture has a tough time with continuums and instead relies heavily on dichotomies. So it’s always one extreme or another (look at the state of our political system!) and it’s easier to jump on what seems to be a clearly-defined position (money is bad! Money is not bad!)

        I do think you bring up a great point with regards to “ALL THE SECRETS ARE BELONG TO ME!” and the myth of buying a quick fix. Again, this is cultural in nature; we’re big into instant gratification and immediate results. If enlightenment could come in the form of a single pill you take, Americans (and others) would be lining up like crazy. (Of course, that completely misses the point of enlightenment, but I digress.)

        And then there’s the angle of “is being a teacher/clergy person/etc. a profession?” It’s one thing to sell art and writing because those are tangibles. But if I give a workshop and ask a flat rate to compensate me for my time, is that different?

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          “is being a teacher/clergy person/etc. a profession?”

          Undeniably. More than that, though, it is a vocation. In most circumstances, however, teachers and clergy are held to account by a larger authority.

          It is the concept of a larger authority that becomes a sticking point.

          • Lupa

            I’m in agreement here. And since we don’t have a larger authority to go to (and every attempt to start one has gone down in flames, or at least sputtered out after so long) it’s become a more hodgepodge policing via word of mouth. (Which, again, gets into personal biases and prejudices, theological disagreements gone personal, who slept with whose ex how many years ago, etc.)

            Bringing things back around to my original comment, this is why I like the SEEK Safely pledge. It doesn’t try to impose particular theological restrictions; rather, it’s a list of best practices. Unfortunately, there’s nothing the people who created it can do if someone signs and then violates the pledge, but it’s one of several things to bring into consideration as we continue the discussion of accountability.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I think the pledge is great and necessary. However, I will warn against things going too far the other way. Here in the UK, we have the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). They make things so awkward that all kinds of things can get suffocated, from rolling cheese down hills to playing conkers.

            Even when the HSE doesn’t actually take an active interest, people presume they will and are proactively over cautious.

          • Lupa

            Also a very good point. And I think pagans in general have a tendency to want to avoid that level of “all up in your business” (though, as with everything, there are inevitable exceptions).

            I rather like the level of involvement of a medical licensing board. They offer guidelines and tests to prove that one is competent to practice, and then other than paying your yearly dues, reporting your hours and continuing education, they generally leave you alone unless you get reported to the board. Then they investigate and go from there, sometimes with disciplinary action.

            Of course, there’s a big difference between the university degrees and other (relatively) objective credentials needed for licensure, and the mostly lack of credentials needed to teach spiritual things in pagandom (tradition-specific lineages notwithstanding). And while things like Cherry Hill Seminary are gaining momentum, I can only imagine the furor that would occur if someone suggested you needed to go through their or a similar program to be an “official” teacher.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            It’s a mindset completely alien to me, I have to say. If there is one thing we (Pagans and Heathens alike) can learn from Christianity, I’d say it was how to develop infrastructure.

            Allowing for the massive resistance against that kind of mentality, surely licensing those who offer a physical service such as the sweat lodge makes sense? They do for other physical therapies, after all.

          • kenofken

            I don’t think we even need the Christian mindset of physical infrastructure and hierarchy to accomplish this. It’s just basic business regulation which recognizes that some goods and services have unique dangers which must be recognized and minimized in a consistent way. If Ray had been offering tattooing, or massage, or hypnotherapy or counseling, he would have been subject to licensing and an inspection regime of some sort in most jurisdictions.

          • Nick Ritter

            How about a non-Christian mindset of physical infrastructure and hierarchy?

          • kenofken

            I’m a big believer in letting organizations and infrastructure evolve to reflect who WE are as pagans (a very diverse group). I’m not a fan of the impulse to start building churches and having paid permanent clergy for the sake of mainstream acceptance or other perceived perks.

            In the present time, I see relatively little interest in congregational worship and a separate caste of professional clergy. At the same time, I think we have grown beyond the past, which had either initiated trads or nothing at all, or the ad-hoc “build it and they will come” generic community centers. We have institutions that are filling particular needs – legal advocacy, learning (Cherry Hill, the New Alexandrian etc.).

            I have no doubt others will evolve in time. I expect we will see some traditions embrace the temple and priesthood model, and others will not.

            I’m not sure how a pagan infrastructure would have helped in Ray’s case. He was not pagan per se and did not so far as I know belong to any pagan group like COG or ADF which would have made him beholden to their regulation. I would like to see some sort of codified protections against misappropriation of Native American traditions, but that’s tricky, given First Amendment freedoms. There are provisions within the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, but last I knew, we rejected that, along with a few other Western powers (ie the ones who most screwed indigenous people!) The Lakota also had some claim against Ray under a 19th Century treaty, but that was not upheld for one reason or another.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            “who WE are as pagans (a very diverse group).”

            I think that is a fallacy. Modern Paganism is a collection of massively diverse groups with very little in common (other than numbers) vaguely held together by a morass of eclectic practitioners.

            The sooner realise that they are not all the same, the better.

          • Nick Ritter

            “I expect we will see some traditions embrace the temple and priesthood model…”

            I daresay, especially those Reconstructionists with such a historical model to base something on.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I’m not saying we need that mindset to accomplish it. I was talking about two different things in each paragraph.

            You basically echoed my second paragraph, in more detail.

          • Lupa

            It’s a start. Though there’s a debate over whether the sweat lodge even belongs outside of its indigenous context, but the point is still having official credentials to offer a service. OTOH, then you have people creating their own ceremonies, including some that could be even riskier.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            We could debate without resolution as to whether *any* ritual or practice belongs outside of its indigenous context.

  • PhaedraHPS

    “Maybe spiritual teachers should never allowed to be rich…” Hmmm, or maybe we should always remember to never say never or always!

    In all seriousness, there’s also a difference between being poor, getting by, making a comfortable living, and being rich. Our Pagan teachers fall all along that spectrum, and for the most part I don’t think you can tell from their teachings which is which. But it is an interesting question–can we think of any spiritual leaders who are/were rich? Besides the pope, I guess.

    Ray’s story also shows the potential for abuse in the guru system. But even then, not all gurus are abusive or exploitive–or rich, for that matter. My sister has a guru, and while it’s certainly not the path for me, she has gotten a lot out of the relationship, which has lasted a good 40 years now. It’s hard to generalize.

  • PhaedraHPS

    Then there’s the other side, which is looking at rich=materialistic=bad, while poor=spiritual=good. That’s a dichotomy that doesn’t make me comfortable and really doesn’t make much sense in my theology. For me, the material and spiritual are not separate, discrete things. They are intertwined. The fact of wealth or poverty alone does not tell you anything for certain about someone’s inner life, nor of what they may be able to teach you.

    Of course, I’ve also heard it said that if a spiritual teacher’s life is a mess, they might not have much to teach you, either. Or at least not things about not having your life a mess!

  • Northern_Light_27

    If this guy is charismatic enough, he’ll still have followers. There are entirely too many people with a need for spirituality and a craving for validation so deep and wide that they’ll make the excuses to bridge the cognitive dissonance and absolve him.

    I don’t, though, think you need deep pockets for a dangerous situation to happen between teacher and students, either dangerous physically or dangerous emotionally. The money quote from your post, IMO, was this one: “When you think you’re speaking with the voice of the universe, or of god(s), what limits you?” I’d like to think the answer is “reputation”, but like I said, if you’re charismatic enough there will always be people who want what you put out badly enough to ignore “the haters” and sign up. And if you speak out, it’s “character assassination” unless you have unshakeable proof– and short of something like what happened with Ray, proof is not a thing that generally happens when someone goes to a teacher in good faith and finds fraud and abuse, because teachers like that and groups like that are very good at making their followers believe any ill their followers see is the followers’ fault. They didn’t believe enough, trust enough, etc. If you get out at all, you’re doing well. (And cult counselors will counsel against staying in an effort to get evidence– it simply is not safe.)

    We don’t need to look to the New Age movement to find abusive, coercive teachers, we have plenty of them in our own umbrella community. I don’t think we need to limit the wealth of teachers, I just think we need to take the mineshaft canaries a bit more seriously. Yes, sometimes people start untrue rumors, but there are cult-behavior red flags that you learn to recognize if you’ve studied cults enough (or were unlucky enough to have joined one or had a family member or loved one join one) and those really don’t collect around functional, healthy teachers and functional, healthy groups. There’s no oversight for our religions, so it behooves us to be a bit less dismissive when someone says they felt coerced, manipulated, or abused by a teacher or group they were in.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    Ray isn’t the problem. He’s just a symptom. The problem is stupidity.

    • thehouseofvines

      Not just stupidity – where were these people’s personal boundaries? Why didn’t they take responsibility for their own safety and spiritual well-being? Did Ray tie them up and hold a gun to their head?

  • kenofken

    Ray is a parasite, and he will continue to seek new hosts, and he will succeed, because parasites are nothing if not clever and persistent.

  • thehouseofvines

    I, for one, am glad that Ray is out and I wish him continued success in his endeavors. Stupid people deserve to be separated from their money. And I’m sorry but anyone who doesn’t stop to think “Hey, this guy says he’s got the secret to unlimited wealth, power and potential – so why is he shilling weekend seminars to bored and lonely housewives instead of running a megacorporation or small country?” is stupid. As stupid as the guys who see pop-up ads on pornos and don’t think, “Wow, scientists have discovered a way to add three extra inches to my penis – why is it so cheap and why am I hearing about it for the first time here?” instead of digging out their credit cards. Flim-flam artists give people exactly want they want: impossible dreams, attention and external validation. Mind you, that lasts only as long as their money does – but what else are you going to spend your money on? In the end the advertisers are peddling the same thing. It’s never the product you’re buying, but what that product represents. At least with the flim-flam artist you get some personal attention too.

    • kenofken

      So preying on people is cool if you can get away with it (ie the victim was stupid, so they deserve it). Would you say that women who get raped by someone they trust deserve that too? Why not? If he seemed too good to be true, surely they should have spotted that a mile away….

      • thehouseofvines

        Completely different situation, and you’re belittling victims of rape by making that comparison.

        • kenofken

          You’re belittling the deaths of three people whose only failing was misjudging the expertise and responsibility of a man who had been promoted heavily as a top practitioner in his field.

          No, he didn’t force them to participate, but they were not fools merely for the fact of taking on an experience outside of their comfort zones.

          ALL spiritual or self-help work is about going outside of our comfort zones to achieve something beyond our baseline. The safest, best-run sweat lodge, as purification and potentially vision work, by its very nature demands departure from our comfort zones. Whether they are fitness coaches or sweat lodge facilitators, we hire these people to help motivate us outside of comfort zones, to do so productively, and of course to do so with as much safety as possible.

          People have a responsibility for themselves to try to do some due diligence about the facilitator, and to maintain a sense of personal safety and boundaries. That in no way dilutes the responsibilities of the facilitator to represent their expertise truthfully and to exercise care for their clients. Both were grossly neglected in the case of Ray. He is scum, and if he had been practicing medicine or any responsible profession, he would have done far more time and would never be allowed to practice again.

          At a bare minimum, the legal system should arrange to attach every dollar he earns until all injury and wrongful death claims are settled in full. All future clients should also have to read and sign a release which details the facts of his past negligence.

          • thehouseofvines

            No. I’m merely pointing out that they shared some responsibility in their own deaths because they didn’t know or insist on their own personal boundaries. It’s sad, it’s horrible, but it happened. And the title of Jason’s post is “What can we learn from James Arthur Ray” – I think a good lesson to take away from this is don’t be duped by con-men. And the way you do that is by knowing yourself and questioning everything. Everything. Maybe if people took that lesson to heart, then the deaths of these sad bastards will have actually meant something. But if you want to keep putting all the blame on the villain, go right ahead. Because that will set up a perfect situation for you to be taken advantage of. I hope when it happens to you it will be a very, very expensive lesson because then maybe it’ll actually stick in your head.

      • thehouseofvines

        But, I’ll play your game. The reason that this isn’t remotely like rape is because these people consented to everything that happened to them. It’s easy to blame the bad guy, too easy. I mean why are they going to some obviously slimeball white dude to have this ceremony done instead of an actual Native person? Cause really, even before all of this came out I could tell he was fake as a three dollar bill. They are just as guilty of cultural appropriation as he is, more so since he wouldn’t be doing the pseudo Native American schtick if they weren’t creating a clear demand for it. Secondly, did he hold a gun to their head and take their money or force them to remain in the sweatlodge longer than they should have? No, in both cases. It was their voluntary choice – and they stayed in the sweatlodge for incredibly stupid reasons such as not wanting others to think they were weak or not as seriously into it as everyone else was. You have to know your limits and you have to be willing to insist on them no matter what. Now if those people clearly articulated their boundaries and were forced to remain in the sweatlodge against their will THEN the situation would be comparable to rape.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        It isn’t cool, but he *is* telling the truth about having the secret to wealth. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be wealthy.

        • thehouseofvines

          Yup. Start a con and you’ll rake in the bucks. Sadly, that’s the only secret he had and it wasn’t the one he was sharing with them.

  • Genexs

    The Greek philosopher Diogenes was penniless, owned just a stick and a bowl, and lived in up large upturned ceramic jar near the marketplace. He humbled Alexander the Great, and was one of the founders of the school of Cynicism. He shunned pleasure, and even tossed his bowl away when he saw a peasant drinking from a cupped hand. How much we’ve changed! Then again, Diogenes did have some fun, as at one point he acquired a lady friend who moved into the jar with him.

  • yewtree

    What can we learn from this situation?

    As students of the occult & Pagan paths: learn what the warning signs are of a manipulative group, and withdraw from any situation where those warning signs appear. See the section “some danger signals to watch for” in this excellent article by Phil Hine: http://www.philhine.org.uk/writings/gp_appgrps.html

    As teachers of the occult and Pagan paths: we need to examine our own ethics and safety procedures. Do our practices and rituals empower people? Can people leave your rituals if they feel uncomfortable? Do you consider health and safety in your ritual set-up? I once attended a ritual where the temple had a polystyrene ceiling, and there was a cauldron of burning methylated spirit, which we danced round. I was very scared when I thought about it afterwards – but I didn’t leave. Not because I felt coerced into being there, or anything like that, but because I was “away with the fairies”. If you are in an altered state, it is very difficult to make rational judgements. It is not a matter of being gullible and stupid – it is how group dynamics work, as any social psychologist will tell you.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Group_dynamics

    If you have a lot of incense, make sure the room is well-ventilated. If you have asthmatics in your group, make sure they have access to their inhaler whilst in circle. If someone feels ill in your circle, stop everything and make sure they are OK before carrying on with the ritual. Their well-being is more important.

    Make sure your group has sensible guidelines about personal interaction between members, and have regular meetings where people can air any problems that arise.

    You would think that all these things were common sense, but people do frequently forget health and safety concerns, and they don’t learn about how group dynamics work, and then seem surprised when groups fall apart, or bad things happen.

  • yewtree

    I have expanded my comment into a blogpost on ritual safety.

  • Franklin_Evans

    I wish to echo and emphasize Phaedra’s point: we are looking at a trap defined by the extremes of a spectrum and the false notion that they define the entire spectrum.

    With respect, isolated examples like the one about Diogenes are playing into the false dichotomy. Having wealth or being poor are not by themselves a valid criterion. Indeed, judging an individual — be the label elder, guru, shaman, etc. — by anything less than the totality of that person is invalid on its face.

    Thehouseofvines: You are making a valid point, but I find your emphasis problematic. Personally — not intending to speak for anyone but myself — consent by itself is not the standard, it’s informed consent. I will immediately and emphatically agree with you that people in general are responsible only for themselves, and if any given person fails to invest due diligence is going to get burned at some point. Any implication, though, that they “deserved it” simply fails as a generalization.

    I have a specific objection to the rape analogy, though. The first part is in using it in the first place. It puts lines in the sand that cannot be crossed, and kills any semblence of civil debate around the original topic/issue. If one insists on its relevance, the chance of not being offended by rebuttal approaches zero. Is that how we want to discuss this or any topic?

    The second is a question: Is separating people from their money exactly the same as the physical violation and injury from sexual assault? Rape is a crime, no exceptions. Getting rich can be an outcome of a crime, but not always. I hold the personal opinion, biased by loved ones being victims of sexual assault, that the use of rape in an analogy right there diminishes both the crime and the victims, before anyone can offer a response.

    • kenofken

      We’re not talking about making rape analogous to people losing a few bucks. We’re talking about homicide, and the dynamics of victim-blaming are every bit as ugly in both crimes.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Homicide can be justified. Not in this case, obviously, but there are circumstances where homicide can be condoned.

        There is never grounds for rape.

        • kenofken

          True, but that’s neither here nor there in this case. Saying Ray’s victims brought it on themselves is NO different than the rape culture attitude of “she wore THAT out, what did she expect?”

          • Franklin_Evans

            I honor your passionate outrage concerning victim blaming. However differently I may choose to express it, I believe in my heart that I match that passion. Where does the comparison to rape get us?

            Victim blaming is a stain on our society. It happens at every level, from the father who tells his bullied son to suck it up and give as good as he gets, to the opinions expressed about Ray’s victims and infinite points of gradation in between. If we cannot figure out how to deal with the practice of victim blaming, it will remain that stain and continue to leave a trail of broken spirits behind it.

            From my personal POV, this argument’s only outcome is elevated blood pressure and possibly broken friendships, all while the participants clearly agree on the basic principles.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            It is very different.

            He is a predator, yes, but on a far less serious level.

          • kenofken

            I’m having trouble seeing how the deaths of three people and the reckless endangering of dozens of other lives ranks as “less serious”.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Moral relativity and motive.

            Those deaths were accidental. They were manslaughter more than murder.

            A person is never accidentally raped.

            Rape is the most serious crime I can think of. Simply because there is never a case where rape is justifiable.

            Further, to the ‘endangering of lives’, plenty of people die from accidental causes every year, some of which are people doing things outside their comfort zones (extreme sports) and some are due to negligence (industrial accidents).

            The people who died knew they were doing something potentially risky as they were wilfully putting their bodies through extreme trials in order to alter their state of consciousness.

            Yes, Ray is guilty of negligent homicide but that simply does not compare to a premeditated act of harm against another person for personal gratification.

          • thehouseofvines

            The only reason you’re bringing up the rape analogy is to shut down discourse. It is completely irrelevant and a pathetic technique of internet trolls. Do you have anything else to contribute to this discussion or are you just going to keep repeating yourself?

          • Franklin_Evans

            Ascribing intentions to kenofken — with your present wording, tantamount to putting words into his mouth — is as egregious a shutting-up ploy as any other.

          • thehouseofvines

            Well, if he’s got something more to say beyond repeating the same claim that he already has numerous times, then I’ll modify my judgment. Until then his actions speak quite loud.

            Really, though, I’m baffled by this whole thing.

            Ray is a predatory shit. That’s the obvious lesson to take away from this. The less obvious but more important one is how do we not let ourselves become victimized by such people. To do that we have to ask hard and unpleasant questions and take personal responsibility for our choices and actions. I do not understand why that is so controversial.

          • Franklin_Evans

            Well, speaking from a self-proclaimed stance of relative objectivity — arguable and not an intended tangent — it’s my opinion that you are the controversy here, not the topical debate.

            I suggest — hoping to avoid a hypocritical implication that I’m putting words in your mouth — that my agreement with you in principle is mitigated by your choice of phrasing. Sometimes, it’s just not worth the grief on all sides when emotions run high. I offer that from personal experience being in kenofken’s shoes and not as a passive criticism of him.

            During his high school years, my son was mugged. The gods smiled on him, his worst physical injury was bruises, but his psychic injury was significant. I tried to guide him through that with some questions:

            Were you aware of your assailant before he hit you? No, my son replied. Why is that, I asked? I was wearing headphones and listening to music, my son replied. So, I said, is it not reasonable to ask you to not wear headphones while traveling on foot, given that you might have at least had the chance to run away if you’d seen him coming? The most important thing I did was avoid any semblance of “I told you so” out of years of telling all my children that being careful required a personal effort.

            In typical teenager fashion (from my parenting POV) his final response was surly and not relevant to the question. I can well imagine his being upset that I was blaming him as the victim. However, he never since has worn headphones while walking in our fair city.

            Where death — yes, or rape — is involved, I expect no more control over emotions from others than I expect from myself, which is very little.

            I’m sorry if you take my tone here as lecturing. I’m just longwinded to a fault sometimes (as my son and daughters will readily attest).

          • thehouseofvines

            You, sir, are a gentleman and a sage. The community would be better with more people like you in it.

          • thehouseofvines

            I do want to say that I appreciate your balanced and reasoned contributions to this discussion, Franklin. It’s especially telling that you’re able to see the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of the argument – a trait that is certainly needed in our communities today.

            I’m not sure I have anything to say beyond what I already have and so instead of repeating myself incessantly I’m going to bow out of this discussion.

          • Franklin_Evans

            I didn’t see this post displayed until after submitting my “lecture” post. Thank you for the compliment. Be well.

          • kenofken

            Victim blaming is scummy in whatever context it occurs. I don’t see that as shutting down discourse at all. Clearly it’s spawned a half dozen or more posts. There is a point to be made about how we should all be more careful in choosing teachers/gurus. Your original post on the matter is victim blaming, and a celebration of social darwinism. I stand by every word I said on that point.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Social Darwinism has its place. We are eroding common sense and breeding idiocy. Social Darwinism can combat that.

          • kenofken

            Yes, and in cases where people demonstrate proclivities for extremely stupid behavior (racing trains at crossings, homemade bungee lines etc), I can see a point. I’m not sure we need to have people filtered from the gene pool in such a harsh fashion for seeking to use spiritual techs which most of us have sought out at one time or another. When we sit here and proclaim we would have seen this guy a mile away and so should everyone, we’re operating with the benefit of perfect hindsight and, in most cases, years or decades of experience and hard-won lessons. Most people drawn to things like New Age seminars don’t have either.

            People should do their research, but it’s not easy in an industry which has no regulation or licensing whatsoever, nor even any resource for unbiased information on a given practitioner. How many of us even have the background for being able to discern whether an alleged Lakota sweat lodge is being properly constructed or operated? If it were 2010 and I passed over Ray for a guy who appeared to be a “real Indian”, how I would I know THEY know their stuff (or had the temperament to use what they know responsibly)? Shamanic work is always grueling and always carries an element of danger. How does the average person know when acceptable risk crosses into potential suicidality?

            A basic aspect of shamanic/ordeal work is that you can’t be as fully engaged in the “normal” world as you would be driving to work or crossing a street. You simply won’t get any serious work done if that is the case. Unless you are fairly advanced, you need to be able to have someone trained and responsible looking after you, at least as a backstop. The work cannot happen without participants rendering themselves vulnerable to some degree, and having someone take on that duty of care properly.

            That average person should be on the hook for common sense. The operator must be held responsible for the advance knowledge they purport to have.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            “Shamanic work is always grueling and always carries an element of danger.”

            Agreed. If someone has done their research and accepts the related risks, then dies, it is a shame. But, if someone does no research and then dies because of stupidity, I’m not going to shed a tear.

          • Franklin_Evans

            A general comment, not intended to be argumentative…

            The precision of language peeve that I continue to gnash my teeth over is the term “shaman” and its derivations. It goes on the list of New Age objectionables in my previous post.

            I use the term “shamanic” in attempting to describe my personal path to others, and take on the further burden of explaining that no, I am not a shaman, but yes, I look for guidance and strength to certain traditions in which a shaman was the central role.

            “Shaman” in New Age parlance is interchangeable with “guru”, etc. It carries a veneer of credibility for people who have encountered the term but don’t really understand its connotations. From my POV, informed by personal research and more than a little stubbornness over what I consider to be proper usage, a person can’t be a shaman without a cultural matrix in which the role is clearly defined.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            [...A] person can’t be a shaman without a cultural matrix in which the role is clearly defined.And in which a process for becoming a shaman is defined. I, too, rely on shamanic techniques — much more when I was a new Pagan than now — but never refer to myself as a shaman. I’ve read a book by Michael Harner and gone to a workshop by Isaac Bonewits. That doesn’t make me a shaman.

          • thehouseofvines

            I would characterize the views expressed in my original comment as Thrasymachean, not Darwinian.

          • thehouseofvines

            I’m a pragmatist. Rape is never excusable. It should never happen, ever. And the person who does it deserves to have a bullet put between the eyes. But on the other hand, there are actions one can take to minimize their exposure to the risks of this happening. Not in every situation, obviously. Most rapes are committed by people we know, not strangers. But on the other hand I would unquestionably advise people to wear clothing that permits full mobility while out on the streets, especially if they are in unfamiliar territory, even if that does not conform to society’s current notions of what is sexually attractive. Because at the end of the day an actual, living person’s safety is at stake and that’s more important than your abstract philosophical principles.

          • TadhgMor

            I would suggest you look up “rape culture”.

            Because what you’re saying doesn’t address the underlying problem. That is as politely as I can say it.

  • Franklin_Evans

    A bit of soapboxing here, grains of salt readily available right next to the box… :D

    I don’t know what to do about it, I agree that nothing of any general level will ever get done about it absent a hierarchical structure that we all can respect, and I remain upset in a general way about how certain New Age attitudes drive this entire situation. In this, I’m in complete agreement with TadghMor on using the label.

    We give credence and trust to people who make claims because we want to believe them, or because we’re afraid they might be right and we don’t want to miss out on whatever it is they are selling.

    For me, it’s all suspect and worthy of disdain: the telephone and internet oracles that claim to be able to “read and advise” you without ever seeing your face or connecting with you in person. The people who will put you in touch with your personal angel, who will make your life a non-stop celebration of life and joy. I could make a long list of examples, but they all have one thing in common: they convince us to ignore our darkness as if it doesn’t exist or can be “cured” in four easy steps.

    I get sick just thinking about the time and money wasted by people on these things. I want injured — and yes, killed — “customers” to receive justice, but I really want to go back in time and do what it takes to open their eyes and see what they’re lining themselves up for.

    We can be tolerant of the plethora of belief systems out there, but there comes a point when a simple, objective standard can be applied, and common sense will show the consequences. If the “cure”, whatever form it takes, spiritual practice or buying products and services, is predicated on trading personal effort for purchasing a shortcut to the promised results, it has no place in our spiritual worldview and must be criticized.

    We do not wish upon others that their lessons in life be potentially fatal ones. Neither can we babysit them. We can offer them our perspectives, the benefit of the harsh lessons we learned, but we cannot be responsible for their choices, especially when we can clearly see that they had ample opportunity to learn before getting hurt. Punish the criminals and offer them no trust thereafter. Pity their victims, but do not take on their burdens. They will only crush you, sooner or later.