Sweat-lodge trial: James Arthur Ray often misused teachings, critics say

The Arizona Republic/April 10, 2011

They trusted him - or rather, the man they thought he was.

But that trust may have cost three of them their lives.

If anything has become clear in the manslaughter trial of James Arthur Ray over three deaths at a so-called sweat-lodge ceremony he led near Sedona in October 2009, it is how strongly the men and women who spent up to $10,000 to take part in Ray's retreat believed that the self-help entrepreneur knew what he was doing and could help them transform themselves.

"I made great progress in stuff I wanted to change in my life, so I had great trust in him," sweat-lodge participant Stephen Ray (no relation), 47, testified in Yavapai Superior Court. The California psychologist attended every retreat Ray offered for more than two years.

Other participants have detailed on the stand how Ray had assured them of his extensive experience with sweat lodges and other Native American spiritual practices, designed to imbue them with powerful self- belief.

And why shouldn't they trust him? Ray seemed the embodiment of his own teaching that you can attract wealth into all areas of your life: charismatic, confident, fit and seemingly younger than his 51 years; the author of a New York Times bestseller; a star of the hit motivational book and DVD "The Secret"; a media darling who rubbed elbows with Oprah Winfrey and Larry King; the subject of a recent profile by Fortune magazine; and chief executive of James Ray International, which claimed $9.4 million in annual revenue and had just been named to Inc. magazine's list of 500 fastest-growing private companies.

At seminar after seminar, Ray would recount how he had trekked to the Andes, the Amazon and other remote reaches to learn hidden teachings directly from normally inaccessible masters.

But those attending the Spiritual Warrior retreat did not know that Ray already was being accused of misappropriating and misusing others' teachings without permission or proper training. They did not know that his claims to have been initiated into three shamanic traditions, gaining expertise in a variety of spiritual and esoteric teachings, were either exaggerations or questionable.

And they did not know that Ray's way of running a sweat lodge violated the spiritual and safety practices of the Native American traditions he claimed to follow.

Ray, whose trial on three charges of manslaughter is entering its seventh week, is subject to a judicial gag order - as are his attorneys, the prosecutors and all the witnesses in this case - and could not be interviewed for this story. Ray has pleaded not guilty, and his defense attorneys argued in court that the deaths of Kirby Brown, Liz Neuman and James Shore were a regrettable accident for which Ray was not responsible.

Lacked training

The sweat-lodge ceremony was the culmination of five days of retreat activities linked by a common thread: Ray's lack of training or authorization to teach them.

He guided participants in Holotropic Breathing, an accelerated breathing technique intended to help people reach altered states of consciousness without drugs. The trademarked technique was invented by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, founder of Grof Transpersonal Training. According to Grof's attorney, Ray never trained with or even met Grof. "You are not, nor have you ever been, certified to conduct holotropic breathwork," attorney Jack Silver wrote in a March 7, 2011, letter to Ray. The organization says it takes two years of training to become a certified practitioner.

Ray also led participants in a leadership exercise called the Samurai Game, in which he played "God" and could declare participants dead, requiring them to lay for hours without moving or speaking. This team-building exercise is trademarked too.

"To put this on, you have to be trained, certified, sign a contract and pay royalties - and that did not happen in this case," says Lance Giroux, managing director of Allied Ronin Leadership Training and Consulting, which holds exclusive rights to train and certify facilitators.

Several Native American elders and experts in indigenous spiritual practices said that a lack of proper training also explains what they called Ray's mishandling of the sweat-lodge ceremony. His approach to the ceremony, they said, was part and parcel of a broader misuse of shamanic teachings, from various traditions, in which his claimed expertise was questionable.

Ray used techniques that he said he had learned from being initiated into the shamanic rituals of Hawaiian huna, traditional spiritual and healing practices of the islands.

But Ray was not initiated or ever given permission to pass on these teachings, of which he had only superficial knowledge, according to his huna teacher, Dr. Matthew James, president of Kona University. He said the training process to become a huna teacher takes a decade or longer; Ray took several short introductory workshops from James in 2004 and then began holding his own version of huna ceremonies at a local hotel.

"I had someone from my office call James up and say 'what you're doing is improper, you weren't given permission, you need to stop right away,' and his response was that he was going to keep doing it," James said. "So we informed him he would no longer be able to take training with us."

Ray also claimed in seminars and interviews to have been initiated in Peru by a Q'ero shaman named Don Jose Luis, with whom he studied for three years. But former clients who traveled to Peru with Ray in August 2009 said he seemed to have little familiarity with the country, and wouldn't let anyone meet Jose Luis, who local guides said was not a shaman.

"He talked about him all the time," said Connie Joy, a member of the group that went to Peru. "Ray said (he) was so amazing he didn't have to call ahead to Peru because Don Jose would just psychically know to meet him," said Joy, author of "Tragedy in Sedona," a book about Ray and her membership in his inner circle.

But Denise Kinch, who has spent 20 years working with the Q'ero, said she knows Jose Luis well, and that he is neither a Q'ero nor a medicine man, but a guide who teaches an "Easy-Bake," weekend version of Q'ero rites. Kinch is the author of "A Walk Between the Worlds," a book about Q'ero traditions.

Several academics who study shamanic practices said that initiation usually requires a decade or more of direct apprenticeship to a shaman. Matthew James noted that this might be why, in discussing his shamanic initiations, "Ray was vague and ambiguous about where the information came from. I talk about who I learned from and my teacher's teachers and where their information came from. You do need to have credentials."

A review of Ray's writings and recordings, and interviews with followers, did not reveal any reference in which he specifies from whom he learned two Native American spiritual practices he adapted for his Spiritual Warrior retreat: the "sweat lodge," in which participants gathered in a low, wood-frame shelter covered with tarps; and a preceding "vision quest," in which each participant was led into the countryside, required to mark out a 10-foot circle, and then stay there alone without food or water for 36 hours.

Years before the deadly 2009 ceremony, Ray "was approached several times by native leaders and told he was not trained to run Native American ceremonies," said David Singing Bear, an Eastern Band Cherokee and Sedona resident who has run sweat lodges. Singing Bear said that Phillip Crazy Bull, a Lakota chief who died in 2006, spoke with Ray in 2005.

Such training matters for physical safety reasons as well as for spiritual authenticity, says R.J. Joseph, a Cree filmmaker and former Native American program director at Sedona's Enchantment Resort.

"Desert people aren't really vision-quest or sweat-lodge people; they've adopted those ceremonies from Plains Indians. So when you have a fast or vision quest, it's generally in cooler climates. You certainly wouldn't put anybody out in the desert for two days with no water. Not in the desert," he said.

Almost every aspect of Ray's sweat lodge was inauthentic, said Wambli Sina Win, a former Oglala Sioux tribal judge who has written about sweat-lodge practices.

"Whatever he led was not a sweat-lodge ceremony as I understand it," she said. "He evidently learned bits and pieces and created a Frankenstein."

Ray's lodge was much larger, built to hold 75 people, vs. the traditional 10 to 15. And it lasted twice as long, with eight 15-minute rounds, vs. the traditional four rounds.

In addition, "it was much hotter than any one I'd been in before," Linda Andresano testified on the stand last month. Andresano, a nurse who had been in traditional sweat lodges elsewhere, passed out and had to be carried out of the lodge. She said that unlike Ray, leaders at traditional sweat lodges "every round would ask how everybody was doing, and pass water around."

Ray bragged beforehand that he ran the hottest sweat lodge, repeatedly telling participants that they would feel like they were going to die, that their skin would feel like it was coming off - but that they wouldn't die. Andresano testified that Ray, rather than asking people if they were OK, repeatedly encouraged participants to stay inside, saying, "You're better than that," if someone got up to leave between rounds.

"No native spiritual leader would ever say something like that," said Carl Hammerschlag, a psychiatrist at the University of Arizona's College of Medicine who runs his own sweat lodge, after, he says, decades of training. "It's not a contest of endurance or strength. It makes a mockery of it."

Wiconi Was 'te, an Oglala Sioux sweat-lodge leader and shaman from Pine Ridge, S.D., agreed. "In our way, if you get sick or you are unable to stay, you are encouraged to leave," he said. "A wise spiritual man will tell people to step out. It's not looked upon as bad."

He said that as a sweat-lodge leader, "you are responsible for the lives of the people in there."

Ray's attorneys have said the participants were free to leave at any time.

Bob Proctor, a personal-development teacher who has been a mentor and friend to Ray, says it's standard practice in the business to cobble together teachings from all over. "If it works, try it," he said. While Ray drew on disciplines from physics to psychology to mold together his own approach, Proctor said that the bulk of Ray's teachings focus on "understanding how your mind functions, on how to improve your quality of life - pretty basic stuff."

As for Ray, "he's a good guy, and he's helped lots of people," he said.

Increasingly remote

The Ray his followers saw was a self-made man - though not, perhaps, in the usual sense of the phrase. The details of his biography, as provided in his books and versions of his website, have evolved over the years. His 2008 book "Harmonic Wealth," describes his childhood in Tulsa, Okla., as the son of a preacher, ignored by classmates and too poor to afford a baseball glove or a Cub Scout uniform. A high-school classmate recalled things differently, telling The Republic two years ago that Ray always dressed well and knew he'd make something of himself.

Ray's current website biography vaguely refers to his "collegiate learning"; he dropped out of Tulsa Junior College in 1978. Several jobs later, he joined AT&T's sales department, eventually working his way into the managerial training group, according to June Maul, a retired AT&T district manager for business education.

There, he was exposed to training in the business-management techniques of Stephen Covey, author of "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" and co-founder of the professional-services firm FranklinCovey. Ray used to claim in interviews and his biography that he worked for Covey's company for four years - until Fortune reported in a 2008 profile that the company said it had no record of him.

"I went back 22 years," Debbie Lund, a FranklinCovey spokeswoman, recently confirmed. "None of us remember him ever working for the company, nor ever being a contract employee."

Ray moved into motivational speaking and self-publishing in the early '90s, and catapulted into fame as a featured speaker in the 2006 film and book "The Secret," which posits a "Law of Attraction," that your positive or negative thoughts attract good or bad things into your life. That appearance sparked repeated invitations to the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Larry King Live" - and, say some followers, led to changes in Ray.

Ray previously had created an inner circle, the Messengers of the Light, who participated in mystical ceremonies wearing white robes. He ditched the robes, disbanded the group, and replaced it with what he called the World Wealth Society.

"I felt a shift with James, it was all about networking and making money," said Lori Lovins, a Chicago business coach who attended Ray's seminars before "The Secret," became a member of his inner circle, and recently published "The Labyrinth," a book about her experiences in Ray's orbit. "He really saw, after the "Oprah" appearances, that he had a window to be really big."

Ray began to hold much larger events. His prices also skyrocketed, followers say.

"I happen to think money is pretty cool, and I can help you attract a lot of it," Ray says, in a videotape of one of these events, on his website. At the 2007 Spiritual Warrior retreat, Ray announced his intent to become the world's first spiritual-teaching billionaire, participants said.

Ray also became increasingly remote. "When he'd sit down at Thanksgiving, the whole team eating out somewhere, he had his personal assistant on one side and his business assistant on the other. Even his own employees couldn't get close to him," said Joy, a frequent volunteer team member.

'Mind over matter'

As Ray became more popular and his events grew larger, other issues arose.

Borrowing techniques often used at corporate team-building exercises and by other self-help practitioners, Ray had seminar participants walk barefoot on broken glass or across hot coals, bend rebar against their throats, or punch through boards and bricks with their hands.

"The whole thing was mind over matter," recalls Connie Joy, who attended 27 Ray events over three years. "We were taught the bar is energy; I am energy; I am more than the bar; the bar will bend to my will."

Lovins and others say these activities inspired them to trust Ray, and his teachings about the power of their thoughts.

However, it's the power of simple physics, not of one's thoughts, that's at work, says David Willey, a physics instructor at the University of Pittsburgh who frequently demonstrates these stunts. "The vast majority of people can do any of these things if they just do it the right way," he says.

Lovins said participants at Ray's retreats always received meticulous coaching and preparation for the stunts. But at a seminar in Hawaii in 2008, with Ray's new fame attracting a much larger crowd, "there was very little instruction or coaching in breaking blocks," she said.

Lovins said Ray dismissed as unimportant the fact that a dozen people, including her sister, broke bones in their hands at the event.

Lovins said that incident, and Ray's lack of reaction, broke her trust in him.

At both the 2007 and 2008 Spiritual Warrior retreats, participants passed out and suffered other medical problems, Ted Mercer, who tended the sweat-lodge fires, testified in court Thursday.

Then the deaths at the 2009 sweat lodge turned Ray's fame into notoriety and decimated his self-help business. Ray's lawyers dispute the medical examiner's findings that the victims died of heat stroke; his attorneys maintain that they may have died of some toxics given off by tarps or wood used to heat the stones.

Whatever the cause of death, Proctor, Ray's mentor, cites the Law of Attraction. "He has attracted this; why I don't know. There's a great lesson in it for him, whether he learns it or not," Proctor said. "Since the trial started, I've talked with him by text message, and he's asking himself some very serious questions."

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