This Special Comment is dedicated to Coleen Marian Conaway, 46, of Park Rapids, MN, who failed to return home alive from a James Ray event in San Diego, July 2009.
It is with a heavy heart that, on behalf of The Edge magazine, I offer condolences to the family and friends of those who lost their lives and were injured inside the massive “sweat dome” under the leadership of James Arthur Ray. Unfortunately, this loss of life and injury was totally preventable.
Note that this is only my opinion, based on what I have learned from eyewitness testimony in print and on the radio. It will be up to investigators to learn the full truth during the ongoing homicide investigation.
That this tragedy falls under the purview of the “New Age,” that it involves people who are exactly like those who read this publication, seekers of enlightenment and those who attend events to embody more of who they truly are, makes this special comment necessary. To ignore it would be irresponsible. In the interest of full disclosure, advertisements for James Ray’s events have appeared in this publication in recent years.
It must be said from the start that I have no personal experience with James Ray other than seeing him speak during segments of the film, The Secret, telling us that we can envision wealth and then manifest it in our lives. As I watched it, I wondered about his explanation of how acquiring material goods related to a greater understanding of our spiritual self – or if he was trying to attract those who believed that there was an esoteric “get rich quick” formula that only he could give them. I didn’t know, until this tragedy struck, that he was charging close to $10,000 for people to be in his presence for five days.
Stereotypes never paint an accurate picture, but in this case, with transparency such as this, it should come as no surprise when society even further brands “New Age” gurus with the broad stroke of irresponsibility and greed. And worse yet, the sacred ceremony of the sweat lodge, part of the spiritual culture of many indigenous peoples around the world, will be tarnished as dangerous and even deadly.
Based on what survivors have said, James Arthur Ray clearly distorted the intent of the sweat lodge ceremony from one of peace and purification to one of endurance and testing one’s limits. Survivors felt they “wimped out,” that they didn’t “play full on” as James Arthur Ray challenged them to do, when they left the blast furnace of the “sweat dome” before the ceremony was over.
Typically, heat is created inside Native American sweat lodges when water (often infused with natural herbs or plants) is poured over heated rocks that are specially chosen by wise elders. Heated rocks are brought into the lodge four times during the ceremony. It has been suggested that James Ray chose to use as many as eight rounds of newly heated rocks in his ceremony. So what saved the lives of some survivors was that they dared to give up and leave the “sweat dome” – and pass by their spiritual leader who sat safely near the opening – before the ceremony ended.
One of every three people who entered the “sweat dome” that fateful Thursday afternoon, no doubt anticipating the purification they would receive from the experience, was harmed physically. Testing ruled out carbon monoxide as the cause of death and organ failure among those killed and injured. But Jim Tree said in a recent internet radio address on Sedona Talk Radio that Native Americans do not use synthetic materials like the plastic tarp used on James Ray’s “sweat dome” to cover their enclosures. When plastic tarps are heated, they release toxins. When the wrong type of rocks are heated, they can release toxins.
Jim Tree, a Native American who has the responsibility of running sweat lodges, was interviewed on Sedona Talk Radio about the tragedy and he has written a blog about it [see links below]. Tree demonstrates that James Ray did not follow protocol in running a sweat lodge and that his actions – such as using a bucket rather than the typical dipper to put water on the stones to create the steam, and reportedly not allowing participants to leave when in discomfort – seem to have contributed directly to the deaths and injuries in the “sweat dome.”
“I have been attending sweat lodges regularly for over 20 years and have had the responsibility to run lodges for about half of those years,” Tree writes. “I was given this responsibility by Elders who made sure I learned all that was needed to run a safe and successful ceremony. By successful I do not mean how many stones were used, how hot it was or if the songs were all done properly, but rather did the helping spirits show up and bring assistance to those attending. The old adage ‘you know the tree by its fruit’ applies here. The fruit of a well-run lodge is peace, rebirth, answers to prayer, healing and restoration. In all my experience I have never felt sick or vomited as so many of the participants of this disastrous imitation of a sweat did.”
Other testimony from the tragic “sweat dome” experience now filtering out to the public reveals that James Ray challenged participants in other ways to become spiritual warriors. Shaving their heads. Sleep deprivation. A 36-hour group “vision quest” involving a fast from all food and water. And then, only hours later, Ray led them into an environment that further dehydrated their bodies, the “sweat dome.”
Tree called the entire event “a recipe for disaster.” No doubt.
This tragedy is a call for discernment, by each one of us, as we move through our lives in each moment. Discern whether or not you believe what you are being told. Discern whether the teacher before you is requiring more from you than is reasonable. Discern whether you need to push yourself to the edge in order to become more spiritual. And discern how much power you need to create.
As for me, life is challenging enough without James Ray’s test of endurance. It’s all I can do to learn how to be in right relationship with the ego and awaken in the present moment. k
- Interview on Sedona Talk Radio: www.blogtalkradio.com/shawnabowen
- Jim Tree blog: “What went wrong in the Sedona sweat “dome”: http://twsp.bravejournal.com/
- Chief Arvol Looking Horse: “Statement Regarding Sedona Sweat Lodge Deaths: www.nativevillage.org/Inspiration-/statement_regarding_sedona_sweat.htm
- Jonathan Ellerby, Ph.D., expert in the cultural and spiritual healing traditions of sweatÂ lodges and steam baths: http://blog.beliefnet.com/freshliving/2009/10/interview-sweat- lodges-after-the-angel-valley-tragedy.html