James Arthur Ray was scheduled to be released Friday after serving 20 months in prison for the deaths of three people during his 2009 sweat lodge ceremony, and it appears that he will try to rebuild his motivational video, book, and seminar business. Ray marketed “success” CDs from prison, and his website is being renovated. Consumers must understand that “if something has the power to transform for the better, it is also powerful enough to do harm.” In order for consumers to make informed choices, Self Help That Works reports psychologists’ evaluations of popular books and programs on the subject. (USA Today, 7/11/13) [IT 5.1 2014]
James Ray, who promoted his New Age ideas in two visits to the Oprah Winfrey TV show in 2007, is being investigated in connection with the deaths of three people and the hospitalization of dozens more who took part in a “faux” Indian sweat lodge event during a “spiritual warrior weekend” in Sedona, AZ, in October. Participants paid $10,000 each to attend the event, run by Ray, “a handsome, charismatic prophet of profit.” Winfrey has “passionately promoted all manner of unified field theories of health, wealth, and spiritual renewal on her television program, in her magazine, and on her web site.”
Christine B. Whelan (Washington Post, 10/25/09) believes Ray and the sweat lodge incident are part of a phenomenon, several decades old now, during which “motivational gurus have sampled from cognitive behavioral therapies and incorporated increasingly exotic spiritual practices, building their brands and holding the attention of their audiences by claiming skills that, for most, are well beyond their field of expertise.”
Ray’s seminar, “Harmonic Wealth”—part of his “Journey or Power” series—aims to transform the individual’s sell-limiting beliefs and enable him or her to “attract” the life they want. Like other leaders of personal transformation seminars, Ray tries to push people beyond their perceived limits. Said one participant:” He brings in business, he brings in quantum physics, he brings in the law of attraction, he brings in spirituality, religion, different philosophies, esoteric traditions,” and “puts it together in really interesting ways.” The personal transformation seminars, which take place usually in hotel meeting rooms and last two or three long days, can be intense.
Cult expert Rick Ross remarks: “The underlying assumption is that one size fits all, and this world view or mindset will resolve all your problems.” He also notes that leaders sometimes closely control the environment, even dictating when participants can come and go and eat and drink. He says they use communications methods to break down participants and then rebuild them with the leader’s “program” installed, “What it boils down to,” Ross concludes, “is the use of coercive persuasion techniques.”
Michael Langone, the PhD. psychologist who heads the International Cultic Studies Association, calls the process “The engineering of experience. . . . If you run people through a predetermined set of exercises, you can almost guarantee that they’ll have an experience that they’ll define as transformative. It’s going to be an emotional experience, a cathartic experience.” The emotional high, he says, provides an opportunity for the leader to sell books, DVDs and, perhaps most important, subsequent seminars.
Langone, responding to a query about Ray and the sweat lodge incident, said that some of the statements made by participants in the New York Times about Ray and the sweat lodge deaths “tweak my nose.” One such statement cited by Langone was: “Deaths have not shaken all of Mr. Ray’s supporters.” “Why are some of his supporters,” Langone asked, “so loyal to this man after such a horrific event? What has been his relationship to his supporters? Has he actively promoted an uncritical adulation? I’d want to talk to a large number of people who have gone through his trainings to determine whether or not a cultic dynamic is at work.”
Langone cited the remarks of sweat lodge survivor Yana Paskova, who described a game played at an earlier retreat in which Ray, wearing white robes, plays God and orders some participants to commit mock suicide. “This adds to my suspicions about grandiosity leading to more grandiosity and ultimately to very poor judgments,” Langone said.
Langone also addressed a statement, made by the lawyer of a third participant, to the effect that Ray was very intimidating and discouraged people from leaving the lodge. “Did some people,” Langone asked, “assert themselves sufficiently that they left the lodge, even though Ray seemingly was discouraging them? If so, this will probably form part of his defense in legal cases that may arise, i.e., if some people left, then, he may argue, he did not force people to stay. This is a common argument made by manipulators. It ignores the reality that the effectiveness of a particular manipulative tactic is partly a function of the manipulator’s ‘skill’ and the manipulatee’s psychological makeup. It also ignores the question of what are the leader’s ethical and legal obligations to participants. . . We have all kinds of laws constraining would-be fraudsters in the business realm, but we have virtually nothing constraining manipulators in the psychological realm.”
Ray, in a statement on his blog, seems to deny responsibility (as does Oprah, who promoted him). “I have reached out to all of the families personally, but feel the need to say more. I feel your pain. I accept your anger. And I pray for you all to have some measure of peace and comfort. I want you to know that I too want to know what happened that caused this horrible tragedy. My team and I are working with the appropriate authorities and have even hired our own investigators to find out the truth.” The daughter of one of the people who died in the sweat lodge says that Ray encouraged participants to continue even as she saw her mother and others collapsing and dying around her. She says, nonetheless: “It’s not like James Ray cane up with something that was totally his own. He just packaged it in a particular way. So a lot of the teachings are a lot bigger than him and can remain true despite his actions.”
A participant in several of Ray’s previous seminars and retreats who was injured in the sweat lodge says she had gained a great deal from her earlier experiences. “James had put us through so many wonderful experiences that we’d built up a great deal of trust in him.” But she had concerns about the lodge: “The lack of emergency back-up, the intensity of the heat, and not monitoring participants during the sweat, which all led to negligent behavior that is disturbing.” Ray reportedly sat continuously at the entrance to the sweat lodge, as a participant, in order to prevent others from leaving. He seemed elated at having completed the test himself and unaware at first that some of the participants were dead or injured.
Lawyers for defrocked Massachusetts priest Paul Shanley are challenging his 2005 rape conviction on the grounds that repressed memory is “junk science” and that prosecutors should not have been allowed to present evidence that the victim repressed memories of abuse for 20 years. They say they aren’t trying to prove that repressed memory doesn’t exist, only that “it’s the burden of government and those who say it exists to demonstrate that it does.” Nearly 100 psychiatrists, psychologists, and scientists have submitted a brief claiming that repressed memory is “one of the most pernicious bits of folklore ever to infect” the mental health field. [csr 8.3 2009)