Sweat lodge survivor describes fatal ceremony

Survivor of Ariz. sweat lodge ceremony speaks out

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — More than 50 followers of spiritual guru James Arthur Ray had just endured five strenuous days of fasting, sleep-deprivation and mind-altering breathing exercises when he led them into a sweat lodge ceremony.

It was supposed to be a religious awakening, the culmination of a $9,000-plus-a-person retreat outside Sedona, Ariz., aimed at helping people find a new vision for life. But it wasn’t long before the ceremony turned into a terrifying experience.

People were vomiting in the stifling heat, gasping for air, and lying lifeless on the sand and gravel floor beneath them, according to participant Beverley Bunn. One man was burned when he crawled into the rocks, seemingly unaware of what he was doing, she said. Ultimately, three people would die.

When participants exhibited weakness, Ray urged them to push past it and chided those who wanted to leave, she said. “I can’t get her to move. I can’t get her to wake up,” Bunn recalls hearing from two sides of the 415-square-foot sweat lodge. Ray’s response: “Leave her alone, she’ll be dealt with in the next round.”

Bunn, a 43-year-old Texas resident, provided her wrenching description of the sweat lodge tragedy in an interview with The Associated Press, the first public account from a participant in the Oct. 8 ceremony.

It also marks a significant revelation in the criminal investigation into Ray over the episode because it portrays him as driving participants to stay in the lodge despite signs all around him that the situation had gone bad.

Investigators are considering bringing charges against the guru and trying to learn about his actions that night in a case that has cast a harsh spotlight on Ray and his self-help empire.

Robert Brown, brother of sweat lodge victim Kirby Brown, and Tom McFeeley, a family spokesperson, talk to Harry Smith about what they’ve learned in the wake of three deaths in the Arizona desert. CBS News.

Ray told participants the sweat lodge ceremony would be one of the most intense experiences of their lives.

As it neared the end, Bunn said some participants found themselves physically and mentally unable to tend to those around them. After the eighth round, Ray instructed them to exit the sweat lodge just has they had entered — going clockwise, a movement meant to symbolize being inside a mother’s womb.

What followed was a triage situation with people laid out on tarps and water being thrown on them to bring down body temperatures. Some people weren’t breathing and had bloodshot eyes. One woman unknowingly walked toward the fire before someone grabbed her, Bunn said.

Shouts of “we need water, we need water,” rang out. “They couldn’t fill up the buckets fast enough,” Bunn said.

Off to the side, a medical doctor participating in the retreat performed CPR on Shore and Brown with the aid of others. When Bunn asked if she could help because she knew CPR, she was told to stay back.

Ray was standing about 10 feet away, watching, Bunn said. “He didn’t do anything, he didn’t participate in helping. He did nothing. He just stood there.”

– Source / Full Story: Survivor of Ariz. sweat lodge ceremony speaks out, Felicia Fonseca, AP, Oct. 22, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Survivor’s story offers look inside sweat lodge

The leader of a Sedona-area sweat-lodge ceremony that left three people dead had encouraged participants to fight through the pain brought on by the extreme heat in order to achieve a higher level of consciousness, said an attorney for a southern Arizona woman who survived the ordeal.

Sweat-lodge participants say leader urged them to stay inside, AZFamily.com

Before the ceremony, the leader, personal-development guru James Arthur Ray, had sent participants on a 36-hour outdoor fast in which they were denied food and water, the attorney said Tuesday.

Sidney Spencer passed out in the two-hour sweat-lodge ceremony that Ray ran at the culmination of the “Spiritual Warrior” retreat, said her attorney, Ted Schmidt. She spent four days in a Flagstaff hospital with multiple organ failure, he said.

Schmidt gave The Arizona Republic Spencer’s account of the ceremony at the Angel Valley Retreat Center, the first description from a person who was inside the sweat lodge that day.

A representative for Ray declined to comment Tuesday and pointed to a statement the spiritual leader released at a conference in Denver that same evening.

“I have reached out to all of the families personally, but feel the need to say more. I feel your pain. I accept your anger. And I pray for you all to have some measure of peace and comfort. I want you to know that I too want to know what happened that caused this horrible tragedy,” the statement read. “People are throwing out accusations and disparaging me and our mission.”

Schmidt said Spencer plans to file a civil lawsuit against Ray in coming weeks.

Schmidt said most of the attendees at Ray’s retreat had participated in other events with the spiritual-financial guru in the past; they had developed a sense of trust in Ray’s teachings to fight through obstacles to achieve a higher realm of spirituality.

Ray has kept up a slate of national appearances with supporters who have participated in past events.

– Source / Full Story: Survivor’s story offers look inside sweat lodge, J.J. Hensley, The Arizona Republic, Oct. 21, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog
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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday October 22, 2009.
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