When James Arthur Ray asked Tucsonan Alexcis Reynolds and her mother to bend a piece of rebar by placing one end of the bar against each woman's throat then pushing on it, they thought it was dangerous and maybe impossible.
But they did it.
Pushing people past their perceived limits is what many leaders of personal-transformation seminars try to do, using physical demonstrations like bending rebar and walking on fire, as well as techniques that draw on psychology, group dynamics and spirituality. The idea is a simple one of mind over matter: Show participants a way past self-defeating habits and free them to exploit their own unlimited potential.
The reality, experts say, can be psychological practices carried out by dubiously qualified practitioners, toward manipulated ends - all at a high cost to the participant.
On Oct. 8, Ray pushed Reynolds' mother, Sidney Spencer, far past her limits during his Spiritual Warrior seminar near Sedona, said Spencer's attorney, Ted Schmidt. Spencer, who runs a ranch near Patagonia, fell unconscious inside the jampacked sweat lodge where Ray had led her and about 55-65 others.
She ended up in a Flagstaff hospital's intensive care unit for four days, suffering from organ failure. She remains in Tucson with her daughter, recovering from the incident that killed three others. Inside the tent, Spencer was sitting between two people who died, said Schmidt, who is representing Spencer in a lawsuit against Ray.
Ray would not respond to questions about the incident or his seminars, but said via an e-mail from his publicist: "I am continuing to devote all my energy to determine the facts surrounding the tragic accident at Sedona."
The experiences of Reynolds and Spencer at Ray's seminars could be a warning about seminars promising transformation. But they also show that many participants in these seminars - which may cost more than $1,000 for a weekend course, plus the cost of travel and lodging - come out feeling they have gained something valuable. Even Reynolds, the 32-year-old owner of a Tucson alternative-therapy business, says she and her mother benefited from attending five Ray seminars together. "Some of it I agreed with and some of it I didn't," she said. "But my take on it was, you know, I'm going to take what I like and I'll leave what I don't. My mom was the same way."
Critics say Ray and other sellers of personal transformation manipulate their customers into false feelings of transcendence, then profit immensely from the trick. Among the specific problems critics cite with seminars conducted by Ray and others:
- They sell a one-size-fits-all solution to people who may have complex, individual issues.
- They use coercive communications, controlled environments and group dynamics to manipulate participants.
- They use carefully timed hard-sell pitches to turn participants into "seminar junkies" who spend thousands of dollars on repeat visits.
- The industry is unregulated and lightly studied, so participants' outcomes may be anecdotally positive but unpredictable and self-justifying.
Like many seminar participants, Reynolds was persuaded to pay for a James Ray seminar by attending a free one he offered, this one in the summer of 2008 at a hotel near Tucson International Airport, she said. At the end, a "2-for-1" deal was offered for the introductory seminar, called Harmonic Wealth, in Ray's "Journey to Power" series.
Reynolds bought the deal for about $1,200, she said, and invited her mother to go the seminar in August 2008 in San Diego.
"All these things interested her, but she hadn't had the opportunity like I had to study them. Responsibilities and life got in the way. So this was her chance," Reynolds said.
Spencer's attorney declined a request to interview her, citing her health problems.
Reynolds was receptive to some of Ray's pitch - in essence, that by transforming your self-limiting beliefs, you can "attract" the life you want -because she had studied some of the same teachings, she said. "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," Reynolds said. Ray "puts it together in a really interesting and really comprehensive package."
What some critics object to about this kind of presentation is that it can appear to be an answer to anybody's problems.
"The underlying assumption is that one size fits all, and this world view or mindset will resolve all your problems," said Rick Ross, who runs a New Jersey-based institute and Internet archive on groups he considers cults or otherwise controversial.
Seminars can be intense
Personal-transformation seminars can be intense, said seminar practitioners, participants and researchers. They generally take place in hotel meeting rooms and stretch over two or three long days. Each day may last from dawn to dusk and beyond.
At Ray's seminars, Reynolds said, "It's 12- to 16-hour days, and he will keep that going. You don't find people falling asleep."
Leaders sometimes maintain control over the environment, including when participants can come and go or eat and drink, Ross said. They also use communications techniques designed to break participants down and build them back up with the leader's "program" now installed.
"What it boils down to is the use of coercive persuasion techniques," he said.
Reynolds noticed Ray using a communications technique she has learned, known as "Neuro Linguistic Programming," she said. Some scientists question the legitimacy of the practice despite its scientific-sounding name, but Reynolds said Ray used it skillfully, though not always ethically.
After so much stimulation in a Ray seminar, Reynolds said, "at a certain point your conscious mind becomes overloaded. You can't take anymore. And your unconscious mind takes over, which means now he's teaching directly to your unconscious mind," she said.
After working hard on the seminar crowd, Ray would bring his seminars to a rousing conclusion, Reynolds said.
"You're excited, you're pumped, you've been entertained for 12 to 16 hours," she said. "And a lot of the stuff he was getting across to people was very exciting, was a lot bigger than him."
That outcome is predictable, said Michael Langone, the Ph.D. psychologist who heads the International Cultic Studies Association. He calls it "The engineering of experience."
"If you run people through a predetermined set of exercises, you can almost guarantee that they'll have an experience they'll define as transformative. It's going to be an emotional experience, a cathartic experience," he said.
Whether it lasts, Langone said, is a question science has not adequately answered.
The emotional high, Langone said, provides an opportunity for the leader to sell books, DVDs and, perhaps most importantly, subsequent seminars. Reynolds said she and her mother didn't like Ray's sales tactics, but they succumbed to them.
Among the pitches Ray would make, she said, was to ask, "Do you really want success?", then point to his seminars as the way to find it. He argued that if you spend the money on his seminars, you will attract money to cover the expense, she said.
"I was like, 'I don't know about that.' But again, because we saw some benefits in it, we decided we'd go ahead and buy some of them," Reynolds said.
A kick-start for some
Many participants report positive results from transformational seminars, led by Ray or others.
Leah Levkowitz, a Tucsonan who works as a spiritual teacher and intuitive guide, called attending a Ray seminar "probably one of the biggest kick-starts for me in my spiritual life."
Social psychologist Stephan Desrochers, of Colby College in Maine, questions whether such judgments can be trusted.
"What I think is the most powerful thing going on in these groups is the process of self-justification for the people who are there," he said. "At some level, people are often asking themselves, 'Why am I here and why am I doing this?' The fact that they are there requires some kind of justification."
For Spencer, the rewards were good enough for her to want to continue along Ray's Journey of Power. The climax of that journey was the five-day Spiritual Warrior seminar. Cost: more than $9,000.
Reynolds heard the seminar might involve one-on-one interactions with Ray and decided not to go, but her mother went ahead.
Even at the earlier seminar, when they were watching fellow participants bend rebar with their throats, they figured Ray had medical staff available.
"It didn't enter our minds that he would not have the best interest of his groups in mind," Reynolds said.
But when her mother was falling unconscious in the sweat lodge and people were collapsing and dying next to her, Ray was encouraging the participants to continue on, said Schmidt, Spencer's attorney. Only in hindsight, Reynolds said, was it clear that he was pushing clients past their real limits - not just self-imposed ones.
Despite that hindsight, however, Reynolds holds on to what she gained from the experiences.
"It's not like James Ray came up with something that was totally his own. He just packaged it a particular way," she said. "So a lot of the teachings are a lot bigger than him and can remain true despite his actions."