In what should serve as a warning to many who follow after the mostly non-credentialed gurus who populate the New Age self-help industry, the once popular James Arthur Ray, a favorite of Oprah Winfrey, was sentenced to two years in prison for the grisly deaths of three people during a New Age sweat-lodge ceremony near Sedona, Arizona in October, 2009.
According to The Arizona Republic, Ray was convicted of negligent homicide Yavapai Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow sentenced Ray to two years behind bars for the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38; James Shore, 40, and Liz Neuman, 49, who died of heat stroke during a bizarre New Age retreat in an over-heated sweat lodge. The event was supposed to be the culmination of a five-day “Spiritual Warrior” retreat in which participants were urged to tough out the heat. More than 50 participants, who paid $10,000 each to attend the retreat, were crammed into a four-foot tall sweat lodge that was packed with super-heated rocks. Many of them became ill and disoriented. Witnesses said Ray refused to let anyone leave the lodge after the door was closed.
During the four-month trial, witnesses described total chaos erupting during the two-hour ceremony with people vomiting and shaking violently, while others dragged “lifeless” and “barely breathing” participants outside. Two of the victims, Brown and Shore, passed out and were left unnoticed in the lodge for 20 minutes after the event ended and later died of heat stroke at a nearby hospital. Neuman died nine days later of massive organ failure at a Flagstaff hospital. Eighteen other people required hospitalization after the event.
Jurors took less than 10 hours to convict Ray on three counts of negligent homicide. Families hoped he would get the maximum sentence of three years per death, and were disappointed when the Darrow gave him just two years.
“Justice doesn’t feel like it’s been served,” said Andrea Puckett, Neuman’s daughter after the sentencing.
American Indian activists, who are also upset by Ray’s misappropriation and abuse of their sacred sweat lodge ceremonies, expressed the same disappointment.
“Now, he’s a convicted felon; let the word go out to others,” said Marvin Youngdog, a Lakota elder who traveled from Pine Ridge, S.D., to watch the sentencing.
His tribe issued a declaration of war against New Age purveyors such as Ray who are making millions off misrepresentations of their sacred rites and articles such as religious pipes, feathers and stones, turning it into one of the fastest growing segments in the New Age spirituality market.
Just like most New Age self-help leaders, Ray had little or no qualifications for the kind of motivational work he was doing. Rather than being educated in psychology, he is said to be a subscriber to the Law of Attraction (as if that qualifies him for anything). His website makes the rather cryptic claim that he “has studied and been exposed to a wide diversity of teachings and teachers – from traditional college and the schools of the corporate world, to the ancient cultures of Peru and Egypt, and the jungles of the Amazon. As a result, he has the unique ability to blend the mystical and practical into a usable and easy-to-access formula.”
Apparently, he also had the unique ability to advocate a variety of unsafe methods into his practice, such as sleep deprivation, fasting, fire and glass walking, as well as the deadly sweat lodge ceremonies. And these practices have claimed many victims.
For instance, in 2005, a New Jersey woman shattered her hand after being pressured by Ray to participate in a martial arts board-breaking exercise. A negligence suit later charged that a “reckless” Ray pushed the victim to smash the board in order to “overcome . . . self-esteem issues.” The woman, who claimed she was “humiliated” and “extremely exhausted” felt “she had no choice” but to do what Ray demanded.
In 2006, participants in a “Spiritual Warrior” exercise similar to the one that ended so tragically in Sedona were made to put the sharp point of an arrow against their necks and lean against it. One participant nearly lost his eye when the arrow broke and deeply penetrated his eyebrow.
In spite of these problems, Oprah Winfrey lent her couch to Ray for two very highly rated shows in 2007 which were devoted to promoting another massive scam known as The Secret which Ray wholeheartedly supported.
“Science tells us that everything is energy, and so your thoughts are energy,” Ray said during the show. “Your body, your cash, your car—everything you think is solid, if you put it under a high-powered microscope, it’s just a field of energy and a rate of vibration. And so are we. So if you think you’re this meat suit running around, you have to think again.”
Science tells us nothing of the kind, but by saying this on national television (without substantiating it), God only knows how many people were attracted to this man and his pseudo-scientific drivel.
Unfortunately, between this show and the sweat lodge deaths, another woman lost her life when she committed suicide after attending a James Ray International seminar in July, 2009, just a few months before the sweat lodge deaths. She apparently threw herself off the balcony of a San Diego shopping mall and fell three stories to her death. Witnesses say Ray and his staff left the mall afterward, even though they knew the woman was “missing” from their group.
Of course, Oprah was quick to distance herself from Ray after the sweat lodge deaths. “Oprah has no personal or business relationship with James Arthur Ray,” the spokesman told The Daily Beast shortly after the Arizona deaths. “She, like everyone else, was shocked and saddened to hear of the tragedy in Arizona and hopes that a thorough investigation will help find answers for those who lost loved ones.”
The sorry saga of James Arthur Ray is a wake-up call for all spiritual seekers. The New Age might seem like a funky collection of mind-blanking, mantra-chanting, think-yourself-rich schemes, but it’s infested with charlatans who have little or no credentials and whose wacky ideas could be the death of you!
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