Sweat lodge deaths cast negative spotlight on guru

Associated Press/October 16, 2009

James Arthur Ray led a group of more than 50 followers into a cramped, sauna-like sweat lodge in Arizona last week by convincing them that his words would lead them to spiritual and financial wealth.

The mantra has made him a millionaire. People routinely pack Ray's seminars and follow the motivational guru to weeklong retreats that can cost more than $9,000 per person.

But Ray's self-help empire was thrown into turmoil when two of his followers died after collapsing in the makeshift sweat lodge near Sedona and 19 others were hospitalized. A homicide investigation that followed has cast a critical spotlight on Ray's company.

Critics are citing the sweat lodge tragedy as evidence that Ray is a charlatan who is not to be trusted. A relative of one victim accused Ray of exhibiting a "godlike complex" during the event that he said recklessly abandoned the safety of participants. Dedicated followers say they fully trust Ray to lead them through exercises that greatly improve their lives.

Shawna Bowen, once a James Ray fanatic who was among those who tended to the ill, has had a change of heart since the deaths.

"I could not imagine people looking to him after he made such egregious errors with human life," she said. "I don't think he has the right to be leading others right now. I think he needs to take a good look at where his ego, where his power trip got in the way"

Ray wept openly during his first public appearance after the deaths. During a free recruiting seminar for his program Tuesday in Los Angeles, he broke down in tears, the confident pitchman momentarily gone.

"This is the most difficult time I've ever faced," Ray told a crowd of about 200 at a hotel in Marina del Rey. "I don't know how to deal with it really."

Ray has become a self-help superstar by packaging his charismatic personality and selling wealth. Those who first attend his free seminars hear a motivational mantra that promises that they can achieve what he calls "Harmonic Wealth" — on a financial, mental, physical spiritual level.

But his technique is not just motivational speaking. It's a combination of new age spiritualism, American Indian ritual, astrology and numerology. The sweat lodge experience was intended to be an almost religious awakening for the participants.

Ray uses free seminars to recruit people to his expensive seminars, starting with $4,000 three-day "Quantum Leap" workshops and moving on to the weeklong $5,300 "Practical Mysticism" events and the $9,000-plus "Spiritual Warrior" retreats like the one that led to the sweat lodge tragedy.

About 50 people attended the retreat near Sedona, the center of the new-age movement where practitioners draw energy from the surrounding Red Rocks and various vortexes to heal others.

Sweat lodges, commonly used by American Indian tribes, also can be part of the healing process. Stones are heated up outside a lodge, brought inside and placed in a pail-sized hole. The door is closed, and water is poured on the stones, producing heat aimed at releasing toxins in the body.

The ceremonies have been part of Ray's "Spiritual Warrior" retreats for years.

Few details of what actually transpired during the two hours participants were inside the 415-square foot sweat lodge have emerged. Sheriff's deputies in Arizona's Yavapai County are investigating whether Ray or his staff may have been criminally negligent. No charges have been filed.

The Rev. Meredith Ann Murray, spent three hours in a sweat lodge led by Ray in 2007 that she said was done safely and helped her conquer claustrophobia.

"You're warned about all the possible things that might happen, how to take care of yourself, how to listen to your body," said the 56-year-old real estate agent from Bellingham, Wash. "I've done some amazing things I never thought I could do."

But in 2005, during a previous "Spiritual Warrior" retreat at the same resort, a man had to be taken to the hospital after falling unconscious during a sweat lodge ceremony.

Ray, 51, grew up as the son of a Tulsa preacher. Bored with college, he says he pursued a career as a telemarketer and began leading training classes for his employer, AT&T. He began honing his self-help business in the early 1990s.

In a 2008 profile in Fortune magazine, Ray said 5,500 people paid for his seminars in 2007. His books also are major sales drivers, and he told the magazine his revenues went from $1 million in 2005 to an estimated $10 million in 2006.

He soared in popularity after appearing in the 2006's Rhonda Byrne documentary "The Secret," and he later was a guest on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Larry King Live" to promote it. His 2008 book "Harmonic Wealth" made the New York Times bestseller list.

Whether Ray manages to maintain his success in the wake of the deaths depends in part on his supporters, and how long the tragedy dogs him as he goes from city to city recruiting paying customers for his wealth creation/spiritual harmony philosophy.

Critics point to the Sedona events as yet more evidence that Ray is a huckster, who, like other motivational speakers, present their philosophies as a magic bullet to all of life's problems.

"It's honing in on peoples' needs, their hopes and desires, telling them what they want to hear," said Rick Ross, founder of a virtual library of information on controversial groups and movements. "That's how any good con man makes his mark."

Linda Jackson of Brentwood, Calif., already is looking forward to an event Ray has scheduled in the San Francisco Bay area later this year. The 59-year-old says Ray has a rare gift that coupled with charisma, power and a "walk the talk" attitude only helps mankind.

Only God knows whether the recent tragedy will help or hurt Ray, she said. "Maybe it was necessary because he has to be cautious about something."

Ray has no plans to slow down, said his spokesman, Howard Bragman. He'll continue conducting seminars and be a leader, educator and mentor to the thousands who seek his help.

"One of his messages is about dealing with adversity," he said. "He's very clear and his team is very clear that we're going to continue his important work."

Christie reported from Phoenix. Associated Press Writer Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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