Sedona, Ariz. (AP) — James Arthur Ray led a group of more than 50 followers into a cramped, sauna-like sweat lodge in Arizona last week by convincing them that his words would lead them to spiritual and financial wealth.
The mantra has made him a millionaire. People routinely pack Ray’s seminars and follow the motivational guru to weeklong retreats that can cost more than $9,000 per person.
But Ray’s self-help empire was thrown into turmoil when two of his followers died after collapsing in the makeshift sweat lodge near Sedona and 19 others were hospitalized. A homicide investigation that followed has cast a critical spotlight on Ray’s company.
Critics are citing the sweat lodge tragedy as evidence that Ray is a charlatan who is not to be trusted.
Dedicated followers say they fully trust Ray to lead them through exercises that greatly improve their lives.
Ray has become a self-help superstar by packaging his charismatic personality and selling wealth. Those who first attend his free seminars hear a motivational mantra that promises that they can achieve what he calls “Harmonic Wealth” — on a financial, mental, physical spiritual level.
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But his technique is not just motivational speaking. It’s a combination of new age spiritualism, American Indian ritual, astrology and numerology. The sweat lodge experience was intended to be an almost religious awakening for the participants.
Ray uses free seminars to recruit people to his expensive seminars, starting with $4,000 three-day “Quantum Leap” workshops and moving on to the weeklong $5,300 “Practical Mysticism” events and the $9,000-plus “Spiritual Warrior” retreats like the one that led to the sweat lodge tragedy.
In a 2008 profile in Fortune magazine, Ray said 5,500 people paid for his seminars in 2007. His books also are major sales drivers, and he told the magazine his revenues went from $1 million in 2005 to an estimated $10 million in 2006.
He soared in popularity after appearing in the 2006’s Rhonda Byrne documentary “The Secret,” and he later was a guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Larry King Live” to promote it. His 2008 book “Harmonic Wealth” made the New York Times bestseller list.
Whether Ray manages to maintain his success in the wake of the deaths depends in part on his supporters, and how long the tragedy dogs him as he goes from city to city recruiting paying customers for his wealth creation/spiritual harmony philosophy.
Critics point to the Sedona events as yet more evidence that Ray is a huckster, who, like other motivational speakers, present their philosophies as a magic bullet to all of life’s problems.