I recently watched the CNN documentary “Enlighten Us” on Netflix. It is the story of the rise and fall of James Arthur Ray, popular star from the movie The Secret. This well-done documentary moves back and forth in time using clips from seminars and presentations at the height of his fame and fortune as well as TV and other interviews mixed with present day conversations where he and others reflect on his life then and now.
In 2009 Mr. Ray was at the peak of his career. A popular motivational speaker and success coach, he was on the fast train to phenomenal wealth and fame. He held popular workshops, seminars, and spiritual retreats all over the world. His books were bestsellers, he had been a guest on the Oprah show more than once, and was one of the more famous cast members from the movie The Secret. He appeared to have it all; the living, breathing example of the very success principles he was teaching.
And then came the sweat lodge.
In Sedona Arizona at one of his Spiritual Warrior retreats, James Ray had set up a sweat lodge activity as a way for participants to really push themselves beyond their limiting beliefs, but things went very wrong. Whether it was poorly constructed, an ill-conceived idea, or a badly managed event remains unknown. What is known is that three people died after spending time in the sweat lodge.
Participants who survived the ordeal were interviewed for the documentary and while some were charitable about Mr. Ray’s intentions and ability to inspire, others were clear that he had let them down, reporting that as ambulances arrived to tend to those who had collapsed, he was nowhere to be found. Even as police arrived to investigate and lined everyone up in a conference room for questioning, he was noticeably absent. This man; this guru of self-professed spirituality that talked about his followers as though they were close friends and dear clients disappeared when they needed him most.
James Arthur Ray was convicted of negligent homicide and sent to prison. He could have served nine years, but received 3 concurrent 2-year sentences, of which he served less than the full sentence.
Most of his former devotees have moved on from their attachment to success gurus. The pain and disappointment that this experience caused for them is still palpable. In hindsight it’s hard to believe that something meant to be so positive and uplifting could have gotten so out of hand that it resulted in the death of three people. It’s not clear from this documentary what failures, other than an abandonment of common sense, contributed to this senseless tragedy. What is clear however, is that for James Arthur Ray it’s still all about him.
While it’s easy to judge across space and time, the hubris and the ego that opened the door to that tragedy appears to be right below the surface yet again. I do believe he feels terrible about the loss of life that occurred in the sweat lodge. I also believe that at his core, he only wanted to help people; he wanted to teach them how to be better versions of themselves. And I get it. There are so many people who have layers and layers of problems and for many of them, a good number of the problems could be solved if they spent time looking inward (self-reflection), getting real about what they want, and taking one step at a time in the direction of their better selves. James Arthur Ray was not anointed, or special. He learned what any of us with insight, intelligence, and a little wisdom know about the world: there are a lot of hurting people out there and many of them are willing to spend a lot of money to feel better.
His message was valid, his original intent, I believe, was honorable. His weakness was that he began to believe the roar of the crowd, and to read his own press releases. He began to believe that he was special, above the fray and invincible. And from this perspective on high he was unable to see the vulnerabilities in himself and in the people around him that made this tragedy not only possible but inevitable.
The lesson in James Arthur Ray’s rise to fame, short-lived stardom, and drastic decline should not be missed. For spiritual teachers: the people who follow you may be willing to do whatever you say, even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. They trust you, implicitly, and many of them have seen their lives start to turn around after they met you.
This means that you now hold a sacred trust. Their very lives are in your hands. If you say “stay positive and pray a little harder and you’ll get well” they just might interpret that as “you don’t need to see a doctor“. If you say “it’s supposed to be unpleasant – you don’t want to come out of the sweat lodge and stop your spiritual progress, do you?“, they may die before they defy your wishes. This is a power that must be recognized, understood and handled with extreme care and caution. You literally have the power of life and death in your words and actions: tread with great humility and a willingness to question your motives and actions every day.
The lesson for spiritual seekers is equally strong. It’s okay to be enchanted by someone’s message, personality, and ability to inspire you. It’s not okay to give up your common sense. And this is not limited to spiritual gurus at retreats in the middle of the desert: listen to your gut whether it’s your minister, a speaker at a workshop, or a charming friend. The same wisdom that speaks to the guru speaks to you. Quiet your mind and listen for the answers – you truly don’t have to spend $10,000 to learn the secrets of success. They’re ancient wisdom and widely accessible.
In addition, Spiritual growth is not Seal Team warrior training. Spiritual evolution is not a competition. And sitting in the desert is no more likely to speed you to enlightenment then sitting in a quiet corner of your own home. The work that needs to be done is available to you wherever you are. Buy a book, or better yet – visit your local library. Rent a DVD (or check out Netflix!). If solitary learning is not your best style, visit a local metaphysical church or center, find a meet-up group, or start a group of like-minded people in your community. But whatever you do, don’t – in any circumstances – give up your right to ask questions, trust your instincts, and look out for your own best interests.
I have compassion for James Ray, because I truly think his fame outpaced his good sense. I believe his heart was initially in the right place and I do not think that he had malicious intent. I also believe he got a little cocky and this led to carelessness which led to the death of 3 people and the implosion of his career. While he speaks openly about taking responsibility, I still hear hints of “this wasn’t fair” between the lines of his politically-correct mea culpas.
The lesson for all of us in this tragic event is that we are never free of the responsibility of being human, and humans make mistakes. When we remember this, we remember to check our egos at the door; to encourage feedback – both positive and negative, and to always act with the highest and best good of everyone as our goal. It also helps to have some healthy and ornery skeptics around you to keep things real. I wish James Arthur Ray the very best and look forward to seeing his better angels emerge and engage with the world.
And so it is