Sweat lodge deaths a new test for self-help guru

Motivational speaker James Arthur Ray teaches that success comes from adversity.

October 22, 2009|Scott Kraft

DENVER AND CARLSBAD, CALIF. — The story that self-help guru James Arthur Ray loves to tell his new audiences is a modern-day parable, a tale of overcoming adversity. The key character: James Arthur Ray.

In 2000, he was living in a house on Mount Soledad in La Jolla ("higher than Deepak Chopra's," he says) with ocean views from seven rooms. "I was carried away with myself," he told 300 listeners on a chilly night in Denver this week. Then, a stock market plunge wiped out half his assets. His live-in girlfriend moved out and demanded half of what was left. "I went from the king of Soledad Hill to the bottom of the heap," he said.

The moral, of course, is that the secret to personal success is overcoming hardship. Just last month, Ray's motivational business was ranked one of America's fastest-growing private companies.

Two weeks ago, Ray found himself with a new, troublesome chapter for that personal story of adversity. Three people collapsed in a sweat lodge during one of his $9,695-a-person "Spiritual Warrior" retreats outside Sedona, Ariz., and later died. The sheriff considers it a homicide investigation; no one has been charged.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, October 24, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Sweat lodge: A photograph in Thursday's Section A with an article about an Arizona retreat in which three people collapsed during a sweat lodge ceremony and later died was cropped and did not show the structure where the ceremony occurred. That structure is in the lower left corner of this photo, which is the full image.

Ray was interrupted in Denver by a man who stood and shouted: "Tell people the truth, James. You are being investigated for murder." A man next to him added, "Tell them what really happened in that sweat lodge." The hecklers were shouted down by others in the audience, who told them to "go home," while Ray repeated, "This is not a press conference." After about two minutes, the men left the hotel conference room, trailed by two security officers.

The sheriff says his investigation includes a look at Ray's role, but he has drawn no conclusions. Authorities also have searched his headquarters for medical information on the participants as well as risk waivers they may have signed.

Ray uses the sweat lodge, a spiritual feature of some Native American traditions, to show participants that they can gain strength and confidence by mastering physical discomfort. Some Sedona survivors have said Ray discouraged them from leaving the sauna-like lodge. One said Ray seemed unmoved that some participants were vomiting and appeared desperately ill during the two-hour ceremony.

After the hecklers were removed, Ray asked the audience to observe a moment of silence for the victims, whom he described as friends. As he launched into his 90-minute talk, his first bit of advice seemed directed at himself. "Let go of the illusion that you're going to have a life without challenges," he said.


Back on the road

Though shaken by the deaths, Ray has quickly returned to the road, teaching his secrets of success even as he uses them to cling to his own.

"I've taught that we're all going to have adversity and we can't run from it," a somber, teary-eyed Ray said Tuesday night at the beginning of his free recruitment session in Denver. "I've certainly learned a lot in the past 10 days."

Some weren't aware of the Sedona deaths until Ray addressed it. But Lyle Guthmiller, 44, a heating and air conditioning technician, said it didn't dissuade him from considering signing up for one of the retreats. "When you're pushing the limits, unfortunately, things can happen," he said. "I'd rather live that life than be a couch potato."

Like other motivational speakers, Ray travels much of the year giving free lectures, after which people are encouraged to sign up for paid events. Of the nearly 11,000 who heard his pitch this year, more than 1,000 enrolled in a two-day, $1,297 "Harmonic Wealth Weekend," his most popular seminar, where he teaches that conquering the mental, emotional and spiritual challenges of life is the key to success at home and work.

Many of his students then move on to one of a half a dozen other retreats, such as "Practical Mysticism," where Ray explores spirituality (for $5,295), and the "Spiritual Warrior," where he uses techniques he says he "searched out in the mountains of Peru [and] the jungles of the Amazon."

The deaths, though, have led critics of the self-help industry to step up their attacks.

John Curtis of Asheville, N.C., a former marriage therapist and founder of the website Americans Against Self-Help Fraud, argues that the unregulated industry preys on troubled people to make money.

"I'm hoping and praying that this will put a chilling effect on the self-help industry," he said.

But Hermia Nelson, 45, from New York, says the two "Spiritual Warrior" retreats she attended were intense and cathartic. "You go into super-turbo-therapy mode, and he makes you get into all those things you have hidden," she said.

The sweat lodge sessions didn't seem particularly dangerous, Nelson added. "Everyone was very encouraging, and it was a very loving environment in there."

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