Cooking people is wrong

I saw a thing on tv a few days ago about a “spiritual retreat” in which some people looked for spiritual whatevers via a sweat lodge, and three of them died.

The “self-help guru” who ran the show was convicted of negligent homicide last June. He could have been convicted of manslaughter but that required ruling that he knew the sweat lodge was potentially fatal, beyond a reasonable doubt.

I was glad I didn’t have to be on that jury, because I would have been sorely tempted to convict, for legally bad reasons. I would have thought that if he didn’t know a sweat lodge could be dangerous, he should have. I thought the same thing about that “therapist” who suffocated a child to death in a crack-brained “rebirthing” exercise in 2000. Candace Newmaker, was the child’s name.

Mr Sweat Lodge.

Before the disastrous ceremony outside the New Age playground of Sedona, Ray had been on a rapid ascent in the rarefied, $11-billion industry of self-help gurus. Thousands attended the free lectures he gave around the country, and many of them later ponied up thousands of dollars to enroll in one of his many workshops.

Propelled by an appearance in a 2006 documentary called “The Secret,” about rules for success, he had appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Larry King Live.” His business, based in Carlsbad, Calif., brought in $10 million annually and was growing fast, according to Inc. magazine.

During the trial, witnesses testified about the chaotic, two-hour event in the steam-filled sweat lodge. It ended with dozens of clients being dragged from the building. In addition to the deaths, more than 20 people were hospitalized.

Self-help gurus shouldn’t go around putting people in physical danger. That’s not asking too much, is it?


  1. Your Name's not Bruce? says

    Dozens of people? Sounds like a mighty big lodge. He must have really been packing them in. I guess he was going for mass production and economies of scale.

  2. Julia F says

    The local Native people were particularly outraged by the mis-appropriation of their tradition.

  3. says

    One man’s sweat lodge is another man’s ssauna…

    And there are warning labels on saunas. Many people are specifically told that they aren’t for them and that they can kill you via heat exhaustion and dehydration.

  4. Kevin says

    I could be a self-help guru…but I can’t for the life of me figure out how to make a long, enduring, profitable career around:

    1. Eat more vegetables and less fatty meats.
    2. No more than 2 alcoholic beverages a night.
    3. Take a nice walk after dinner.
    4. Don’t let other people get under your skin. You can’t control them, but you can control your reaction to them.

    That’s pretty much it.

  5. sailor1031 says

    “I would have thought that if he didn’t know a sweat lodge could be dangerous, he should have.”

    I quite agree. But then so should the people who offered themselves for cooking. It’s really not hard to get the information.

  6. says

    Am I the only who reads a Flanders & Swann reference in the headline?

    I quite agree. But then so should the people who offered themselves for cooking. It’s really not hard to get the information.

    When I get overheated I feel sick and dizzy and I quickly remove myself to somewhere cooler, and drink something. What kind of determined delusionality does it take to continue to subject oneself to that level of discomfort. Information, hell — all it takes is responding to basic bodily signals of distress.

  7. says

    Eamon, it was significantly more evil than that. These people were told that their physical distress was something to be overcome, that if they gave into it, they were spiritual failures.

    It pisses me off that we allow people to deal with the emotionally vulnerable under the guise of religion, and sometimes to create those emotional vulnerabilities, without making them significantly more responsible for the outcomes rather than less.

  8. Brean says

    This kind of thing opens up a contentious can of worms for me. I was once invited to a real First Nations sweat lodge for a course at school. I was really uncomfortable about having to go both because I can’t handle a sauna for more than 5 mins and because as an atheist, I can’t listen to the officiant explaining that their “ways of knowing” are just as good as if not better than science, invoking their creator and making me inhale plant smoke for its purifying properties.
    The type of work I do and the agency I work for requires that we consult with First Nations representatives in our area for any major projects. Generally, I enjoy that aspect of my job, love working with the people and feel that I can maintain quite a bit of cultural sensitivity to the traditions they bring with them. I will sing with them. I will dance with them. Where I become uncomfortable is when I participate in a meeting (which always starts with a prayer) and have to partake in superstitious if not religious ceremonies (and only if I’m not ‘visiting my grandmother’ – read: menstruating). I’ve heard some people claiming that these traditions are not religious, but that they just talk about and to a loose idea of “Creator”. They’re still theist traditions and I feel that the traditions are afforded special status because they belong to a minority group that has been and is currently being treated abysmally by the government. That doesn’t mean the government should be endorsing these traditions as some bizarre form of recompense.
    Has anyone else encountered this?

  9. says

    Eamon, well done spotting the reference. And yes quite, but Ray was busily telling them not to do what their bodies were telling them to do. He also warned them not to ahead of time (along with telling them to hydrate hydrate hydrate etc – he repeated it many times – good but woefully inadequate).

    I once had a supervisor like that when I worked seasonally for the Parks Department. One super-hot day (in Seattle, where people aren’t acclimated to super heat) he had us working with heavy machinery in the direct sun for hours. A couple of higher supervisors stopped by specifically to remind us to take extra breaks because of the heat – then they left and Roland (our supervisor) proceeded as if they had never been there. No extra breaks. This was about 2 weeks after a guy in a neighboring district died of heat stroke on the job.

    I quit the next day, and told the higher ups exactly why. I was pissed.

  10. 24fps says

    My husband attended a genuine sweat lodge with a friend of ours who works in the justice system and specifically with First Nations communities.

    Everyone was very clear that there was risk involved. The Elder himself wanted to make sure that my husband understood that before joining them. I don’t think my guy would have gone in had he not been fit and healthy, and certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with blood pressure or heart issues. He said it was a moving experience and gave a real insight into the culture.

    One of the other factors with the New Age guru’s sweat lodge, IIRC, was that it was too large, had too many people crammed into it and was constructed incorrectly – using non-breathable tarps, unlike a real sweat lodge – which increased the dangers for the people participating. He also made it clear that the physical discomfort was a manifestation of the spiritual struggle and that it was something they should endure and ignore. He absolutely should have been put away for manslaughter.

  11. says

    I saw a documentary on this situation a while back. I would never be able to stand such a thing. I got coaxed into a sauna for the first time this summer. Those hellacious two minutes I lasted will satisfy me for the rest of my life it’s not for me.

  12. Grace says

    At another James Ray seminar, a woman jumped to her death during a “homeless exercise” at Horton Plaza in San Diego. It was covered up by the JRI staff and no charges were made. This was left out of the trial.

    I’ve been to a sweat lodge ceremony, I thought it was going to be like an uncomfortable sauna, it was NOT. The heat was unbearable. After the first round I asked if I could bow out of the rest of the ceremony and they were fine with it, no pressure, no calling me a failure or someone afraid of “playing full on” (JR’s term), not one telling me that my symptoms were to be expected and to be ignored. Still, I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t handle it and had to sit it out.

    You should get more information before accusing people of “offering themselves up” or some other crap. These people trusted James Ray not to be harmed. Ray used all sorts of techniques that break people down and make them more suggestible. It’s not about these people being stupid, maybe educate yourself on this topic before making such arrogant, snarky comments about the victims.

    There is SO much more to this story, I recommend Rick Ross’ Cult Awareness website for more info….also for information on how someone like James Ray can break down even intelligent people and get their trust and loyalty, only to exploit it.

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