In Hot Water

James A. Ray, whose catastrophic sweat lodge ritual killed three people on October 8 of last year, has been indicted for manslaughter.  This might actually be a good thing.

It is clear that Mr. Ray never intended his victims to come to any harm.  He probably had their best interests at heart.  Even if not, killing your clients is bad for business.  But I’m sure Mr. Ray was horrified and saddened by what happened in the sweat lodge.

Mr. Ray is not guilty of malice; but he is guilty of willful ignorance.  He did not know how to run a sweat lodge.  He did not understand that different people had different tolerance to stress, and that what most people could survive could kill less robust people.  From what the reports said, Mr. Ray indulged in considerable macho rhetoric, pretty much like some rabid football coach exhorting his players to fight, fight, fight.

Probably Mr. Ray’s most egregious error was to believe, or claim, that people could become “spiritual warriors” in a few days’ time.  This is complete, unmitigated bullshit.  Any kind of spiritual or martial skill takes years to develop.  You can’t force-feed it over a weekend or even a few weeks.  Both the mind and the body need time to adjust, to grow, to strengthen.  You have to start out slowly, push the student without breaking him, move him beyond his present level while ensuring he survives the experience.

What Mr. Ray did was to cater to the New Age demand for instant results, a weekend or two to attain satori or nirvana or whatever it was Mr. Ray promised.  Harmonic wealth, I think he called it.

The sweat lodge ritual was supposed to let people sweat out whatever spiritual ailments they had.  If it were that simple, there’d be fewer therapists, and more saunas.  Ray’s retreats were useless at best.  Now it is clear that they were also dangerous.

Ray is in Sedona.  The people there who would be on his jury are likely to be highly sympathetic to Ray’s retreats and sweat lodges and such.  That should help Ray’s case.  What may do him harm is the fact that he had two other sweat lodge rituals during which people had medical issues.  That makes it harder to claim that this event was an unforeseen tragedy.

Whatever the outcome of this case, I hope that it leads to people using more caution when attending retreat and ceremonies by self-professed leaders.  Just because they talk a good game, doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing.

Update:  Turns out, the people of Sedona weren’t as understanding as I’d thought, and Ray was convicted of three counts of negligent homicide.  He was imprisoned for two years.  Evidently he’s back to his New Age business.  One hopes he’s at least learned his lesson.

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