U.S. senator calls for federal investigations into ‘sweat lodge’ deaths

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is asking for federal investigations of an Oct. 8 “Spiritual Warrior” incident in Arizona that killed a Minnesota woman and two others.
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Klobuchar is asking both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate the circumstances related to the “Spiritual Warrior” program run by motivational speaker James Arthur Ray.
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– Source / Full Story: Klobuchar calls for federal investigations into ‘sweat lodge’ deaths, Pat Minelli, Shakopee Valley News, Oct. 27, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Christine B. Whelan, visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Iowa, writes in an opinion piece published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she has “studied the self-help business for nearly a decade, curious about the sociological and psychological impact of this $11-billion-plus-per-year industry.”

“Notions of self-help are part of the fabric of our self-reliant culture,” she says, noting that “Ray’s attempt to combine the spiritual wisdom of the ancients with cutting-edge science has been a popular strategy of American self-help gurus for more than a century €” pairing the gut-level search for truth with the logic of science, usually with benign results.”

She mentions the New Thought movement as an example, but also says:

In past decades, motivational gurus have incorporated increasingly exotic spiritual practices, holding their audiences’ attention by claiming skills that usually are beyond their expertise.

This spiritual element has the most persuasive effect. Religious authority figures claim to have knowledge not just about our fate €” why we’re in a dead-end job and what to do about it €” but about our eternal well-being too. Just hours before the deaths, Ray posted a darkly prescient message on Twitter: “Still in Spiritual Warrior … for anything new to live something first must die. What needs to die in you so that new life can emerge?”


Beverley Bunn, Arizona sweat lodge ceremony survivor, spoke to Harry Smith (CBS News) about her memories of the tragic ordeal, and her feelings of abandonment by spiritual guru James Arthur Ray.

As the sweat lodge got hotter, the underlying psychological message was quite clear: If you leave, you’ll be a failure, not just in this ceremony but forever.

While Ray told participants that he had received training in proper sweat lodge rituals, he also bragged that his lodges were much hotter than those used in Native American gatherings.


But Joseph Bruchac, author of “The Native American Sweat Lodge,” said that a proper sweat lodge is a purification ritual, not a physical endurance test. He has received dozens of e-mails from Native American elders expressing how upset €” but unsurprised €” they were at the tragedy.

– Source / Full Story: James Ray and the dangers of self-help, Christine B. Whelan, Atlanta Journal-Constitution — Summarized by Religion News Blog

“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,” Scott Kraft reports in the Los Angeles Times:

“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.

– Source / Full Story: Sweat lodge deaths a new test for self-help guru, Scott Kraft, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 27, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

James Ray Gives “Laughable” 50 Percent Refund to Sweat Lodge Victim’s Family

ames Arthur Ray, the new age guru whose Sedona, Ariz. sweat-lodge ceremony may have caused three deaths, sent one victim’s family a check for $5,000, about half the participation fee for the event, the family told CNN’s Larry King on Monday night.

According to the mother of victim Kirby Brown, the check came in a sympathy card on Oct. 22, two weeks after the Oct. 8 tragedy, along with a note that read, “Please accept this financial assistance. And on the check he (Ray) wrote, ‘In honor of Kirby Brown.'”

“It’s laughable,” Virginia Brown said on Larry King Live. “My daughter paid twice that to go to his event.”
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– Source / Full Story: James Ray Gives “Laughable” 50 Percent Refund to Sweat Lodge Victim’s Family, Edicio Martinez, CBS, Oct. 27, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

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This post was last updated: Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 12:44 PM, Central European Time (CET)