The sweat lodge experience was the culmination of a five-day nearly $10,000 “Spiritual Warrior Event” advertised as a retreat to “accelerate the releasing of your limitations and push yourself past your self-imposed and conditioned borders.”
More than 60 participants entered a makeshift structure where hot stones created intense heat. Rituals in sweat lodges are a common Native American purification practice intended to raise the body temperature to somewhere between 102 to 106 degrees. Given the intense heat, supervision is required -- and in most sweat lodges, attendance is limited to 8 to 12 people. Participants should leave when the heat becomes too intense. However, after a week of brainwashing about pushing past “self-imposed” borders, human instinct was overridden by orders from a so-called great leader.
James Ray is one of the hottest new self-help gurus – featured on Oprah, Larry King Live, and The Secret – who has only become more popular during the last year’s economic uncertainty. Ray preaches that it is our negative attitude and negative energy that holds us back from true wealth.
Let me be clear: The 60-plus people in that sweat lodge weren't stupid. They weren't lemmings. They trusted a well-known, well-loved inspirational leader who had been given the popular culture seal of approval. The attendees are the victims here because they trusted a leader who claimed to have expertise in a potentially dangerous practice. The idea that we trust our leaders isn't anything new -- and the idea that this trust can be misplaced and used to harm us or others isn't new either. (Remember the famous Milgram experiments dealing with how receptive people are to authority?) But this recent tragedy is a terrible way to re-learn those lessons.
The obvious question is: Why did these men and women stay in such a hostile environment, even as their lungs burned from the heat and they felt themselves slipping into unconsciousness? Why? Because James Ray told them their limitations aren't necessarily where they think they are, to trust him and push past them.
Indeed, just hours before the deaths, James Ray posted this to Twitter: ''Still in Spiritual Warrior ... for anything new to live something first must die. What needs to die in you so that new life can emerge?''
We often think of self-help as harmless and silly, but the charismatic leadership that these gurus wield is a powerful psychological force. Just because a ceremony is New Age or from a native tradition doesn't mean that it's benign. As with all powerful experiences, training and supervision is crucial. And when a leader encourages his followers to override their own bodily signals -- encourages them to trust him over themselves -- there are terrible consequences.
Follow Christine Whelan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/christinewhelan