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 truthfulness, accuracy, respect, protection, integrity 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.