Today is a sad day for spiritual seekers. James Arthur Ray, the incredibly popular New Age guru who was featured on The Secret, was arrested this morning on three counts of manslaughter. He is charged with causing the deaths of Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman during a grueling sweat lodge he led in Sedona last October.
The reason I am sad doesn't have anything to do with the legal challenges Mr. Ray now faces. Instead, my heart reaches out to those family members who needlessly lost their loved ones, seemingly because of one man's stupidity, selfishness, and greed. Moreover, my knickers are in a twist because I fear that the sanctity of the sweat lodge and other indigenous ways of prayer will be unfairly paired with the thoughtless, self-centered behavior of one unqualified man.
Being in a sweat isn't about who has the biggest balls (as in the case of Mr. Ray's "Gut it out!" mentality); rather, it is a profound indigenous practice of cleansing the body and deeply connecting to the Creator. If you haven't ever done one before, you can't fully appreciate it's magnificence. I have had the privilege of participating in several sweat lodges and found each experience to be incredibly healing and transformational. When properly facilitated, each element of the lodge -- the way in which the ribbing is constructed, the types of blankets used, the number of rocks placed in the pit, the songs sung, the prayers said, the seating arrangement, the herbs used, and the duration -- are all carefully managed by a skilled elder who is in tune with the energy of every participant. But, believe me, being in a sweat lodge isn't a walk in the park. I have sat in ungodly hot sweats where I slithered to the ground just to press my face against the cool, moist Earth. I have plaintively wailed to Spirit to help me through the intense discomfort of the heat. My clothes have been dripping wet after sweating my sins away on a mountain in California for hours. Yes, sweat lodges are one of the most physically demanding things one can do, but I have NEVER once felt unsafe. Not once. It is all due to the trust I have in my spiritual elders and their acute ability to "hold space" for each of us. Never in a million years would my sweat lodge leaders allow people to vomit and pass out in one of their lodges, as what happened in Sedona on Ray's watch.
James Ray's careless behavior has sullied the reputation of the sweat lodge. It is akin to what a handful of Catholic priest pedophiles did to the reputation of the entire Church. Not every priest is a pedophile, and not every sweat lodge is dangerous. In the end, it is the person we need to scrutinize, not the practice. If you are ever given the blessed opportunity to participate in a sweat lodge -- or any other spiritual ritual for that matter -- ask yourself some tough questions first: Where did this person learn his/her skills? How long has he/she been doing it? Does he/she have the support and blessing from tribal elders? Does it look and feel like the practice is based on sacredness or selfishness? Do I feel honored?
Mr. Ray, this is a great life lesson for you. It looks like you'll be staying in your jail cell longer than you feel comfortable doing, just as dozens of people stayed in your sweat lodge for longer than they should have. The difference is that your high-priced lawyers may, just may, get you out in time. As for Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman, they weren't so lucky.