As a long time participant of Sweat Lodges and fasting traditions, I was deeply sadden by the tragic deaths and injuries sustained at the James Ray Spiritual Warrior's retreat in Arizona. The whole thing was too close to home for me as a spiritual teacher on the circuit, offering self-help and even leading INTERFAITH ceremonial steam baths. A part of me wondered if that could have happened to anyone, if that could have been me instead of James Ray?
But then I know for certain that the decades of experience and training that I bring to my work has taught me some very critical skills that include not only knowing how to bring others to the edge of their limits and fears and into something new and healing, but also how to know my own edge and the limits of my qualifications and abilities. I have limits, boundaries and humility as best I can.
Can't We Talk About What Matters?
What is becoming concerning to me about all this is the inability of the media and the general public to have focused conversations about what all the fear and anger is really about: was James Ray qualified to run that Lodge and did he follow a specific tradition based on extensive experience? Why are we more concerned about the "bubble boy" and not the big question people are thinking without asking: do all these self-help teachers and experts that we all love to follow really have the credibility to do what we expect? The bubble boy's father is obviously unstable and the kids are obviously not being raised in an ideal home. That's not slander, that's just plain obvious. Worst of all, the only thing that amateur weather man wanted was to be famous and the media has handed him his dream on a platter. Congratulations! One point goes to insanity, zero for dignity of the press.
How Do We Pick Our Heros?
I return my attention to the James Ray disaster and can't help but feel that, in a way, we are all responsible for this situation. We are used judging a book by its cover and TV show by its HD quality. Most of us like our experts to have high priced websites, look like a million bucks, and sell a million books. That's how most Americans judge who is worth following.
But what if a person has another means to get a nice website, flashy smile and a spot on The View? What if they just have lots of money? Or connections? Or sex appeal? Or the power of persuasion? Its like that guy who wrote that book about relationships: "Think Like A Man, Act Like a Woman." This comedian (not a therapist) and veteran of a string of failed relationships (not married) became a best-selling relationship author! How does that happen?
In the end, I am not interested in passing judgment on the personalities. It can be fun but serves no one. One day I too hope my book will be a best seller and people will attack and blame me - I "get" that. I don't really care if James Ray was greedy or egocentric, as some claim, I just want to know if he really understood the responsibility he held and did he have the training to make the decisions he made. I want to know if he was passing his ceremony of as Native American and on what grounds? I don't have an answer and I have no accusations of James Ray. Though I have been on BBC and CNN as an "expert" on this topic, even I don't know enough to pass any judgments.
Anyone who does what it takes to be a truly well healed and accomplished self-help spiritual teacher with ample training and years of study and supervision I will stand up for any day and I'll defend any practice they lead. I wrote "Return to the Sacred: Ancient Pathways to Spiritual Awakening" because I do believe that spiritual practices change our lives and that people can learn from other cultural traditions. But I also believe in integrity, rigorous training, accountability and cross-cultural respect.
Charging Too Much?
I don't care how much James Ray charged - the churches and synagogues charge, doctors charge, psychologists charge, and yes, despite what you hear, only 100 years ago there is plenty of evidence that Native American healers also used to charge (horses, blankets and more). If he can truly change a person's life in one week, how can we put a price on it? To me the question is not cost - but value. I look at the Lodge in the new reel and wonder how much of the over $500,000 that the workshop took in was invested in that broken down looking Lodge? I have built a Lodge at a resort with the finest materials possible including modifications for ventilation and other factors - lets just say, they could have afforded to do the same and would have had about half a million left over.
Maybe its sour grapes, and I am showing my own lack of wisdom or inner peace. But I am tired of the easy slander and disappointment that people in my field generate. I don't want the few to spoil it for the many. I like many spiritual teachers and many of the so-called self-help gurus, have actually dedicated my entire life to the work that I do, to living the message that I share and to deeply and personally experiencing the techniques and answers that I offer others.
For me an ordination was not enough, a PhD was not enough, travels around the world were not enough, mentoring and training was not enough. Only through all these things and profound sense of personal investment, and on going practice did I feel my time to teach finally came - and still I train, heal and seek to better myself.
I am not suggesting James Ray is any different than me. That's the problem. We don't know. We don't have enough dialogue about any of our "experts." I don't think they should all fit in to the same mold and I myself took many alternative routes. Mainstream or alternative is not the issue, its about some kind of qualifications, training, and credibility. I think we need to take back some of the media's power to define those things for us. We need to demand and expect those things from our leaders, and from ourselves.
Follow Jonathan Ellerby on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JonathanEllerby