AFTER 20 MONTHS IN PRISON and an
equivalent period of self-imposed exile from Gurudom—served
concurrently—James Arthur Ray is back among us as a somewhat
rebranded, slightly “lite” version of the New Age shaman he once
was. It was in October 2009, you may recall, that Ray cajoled and
coerced disciples through an interminable sweat lodge ceremony billed as the capstone of his $9695-a-head Spiritual Warrior weekend
in Sedona, AZ. He exhorted followers displaying
obvious signs of heat stroke to stay the course, to “play full on,”
as if by sheer willpower they could squelch the breakdowns that were
occurring in their bodies amid temps estimated at near 200 degrees; they needed "to surrender to death," he told them, "to survive it."
Three who surrendered did not survive; their names were James Shore, Liz Neuman and Kirby Brown. Later Ray himself was forced to
surrender to authorities; in November 2011 a jury found him guilty
of negligent homicide.
Less well known is that the Sedona casualties were not the first deaths associated with a James Ray event. In fact, during a “pretend-you're-homeless” exercise at a program just months before Sedona, a female attendee, Colleen Conaway, suffered a mental breakdown and jumped to her death from an upper level in a San Diego shopping mall. The program proceeded on schedule, as did the after-party, even though a member of Ray's core team had evidently witnessed and, uh, live-tweeted the death.
“A buddy of mine offers this fragile joke: Question: How do you avoid confusing James Earl Ray with James Arthur Ray? Simple, James Earl Ray killed only one person.”Before his comeuppance, Ray was embraced by self-help's (then) eminence grise, Oprah Winfrey, as the most charismatic of the Universe-is-your-friend set spawned by 2006's blockbuster book and video, The Secret. By 2008 Ray had his own best-seller, the derivatively titled Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want. As heir-apparent to Tony Robbins, James Ray played to SRO crowds in amphitheaters. He collected six-figure sums for one-on-one mentoring.
And now he's back. Recognizing that he can't simply rewind to where he left off—as if Sedona never happened—Ray has made lemonade out of the lemons of 2009. His patter, now, is more subdued and, he would have you believe, is informed by, enriched by, the deaths in the desert. He riffs on the lessons of his incarceration, packaging himself as the ideal person to lead his flock through life's adversity, at times seeming to cast Sedona as a misfortune that chiefly befell him. “In October 2009, my world changed dramatically," he told a recent audience. “I lost my business, I lost my home, I lost my relationships.” What he has not lost, clearly, is the messianic/Ray-o-centric world-view that had him referring to himself as “God” in prelude to the sweat lodge ceremony that would kill three people who'd placed their faith in him.
Despite such excesses—or because of them?—Ray is again finding a following. He may be starting small, in community centers rather than the likes of the Hollywood Bowl, and it may be for “just” $500 per person, but success-minded Americans are once again hanging on his words. They're even alibiing for him, maligning the “unfairness” of it all: that Ray was prosecuted for “an accident” involving clients who gave “adult consent.” (No matter that the Sedona victims were psychologically bullied every step of the way, or that they trusted their spiritual leader to know the limits.) And after all, doesn't everyone deserve a second chance?
But before discussions of second chances looms the larger question of why a guy like Ray was given a first chance. His regimen was always an inspirational trompe l’oeil—anchored in magical-thinking nonsense that seemed to posit a Carrie-like mastery of the physical universe via the mere projection of desires. He and his fellow Secret alumni preached a designer reality: You are what you believe yourself to be. The world is what you believe it is. The kinds of notions that, once upon a time, in a more serious-minded America, got people a prescription for Thorazine.
It would be one thing if it were just harmless silliness, but didn't Sedona prove otherwise? Pre-prison, Ray’s events, like others in the large-format genre, were emotionally claustrophobic affairs in which people's defenses are shredded and subcutaneous feelings are dredged up in the most confrontational of ways—all of these stressors amplified in the mass-psychology environment.
The resulting risk of untoward events, up to and including death, should not surprise anyone, given the haphazardly conceived nature of so many of these so-called transformational programs. Consider that in Sedona, in the days immediately prior to the sweat lodge disaster, each participant spent 36 hours alone in the desert sans food or water. Self-help has a long and inglorious tradition of serving up “pathways to change” that have never been vetted for safety or efficacy; and seldom if ever are there qualified medical or mental-health professionals on-board to deal with any unintended consequences.
“Too often, in self-help, the method is the madness.”Still, our culture finds story lines about personal redemption irresistible. We believe steadfastly in reinvention; we root for those who've been kicked in the teeth. But is Ray's comeback really redemption...or something more like recidivism? On his blog of March 1, he writes, “Please remember that passion is the Latin word for suffering. If you choose to become great, you must be willing to suffer for your mastery.” He then writes, "If you haven't found something to give your entire life for, you'll never truly live." Note how closely such sentiments echo his oft-quoted entreaties for his Sedona attendees to “play full on” and “surrender to death.”
James Arthur Ray is building a second career out of the literal ashes of the first. In essence he has turned Sedona into a marketing op, a fresh hook on which to hang his metaphysical hat, complete with a core message about Overcoming that he deems himself uniquely qualified to deliver. Reflecting on the wider lessons of Sedona, he asked his recent audience, “If you never had a bad day, what would a good day be?”
For at least four people who fell under the spell of James Arthur Ray, there will be no more days, good or bad or otherwise. Their only redemption lay in our repudiation of the Pied Piper they followed to their deaths.