Sweat Lodge Tragedy
Three people died and twenty-one were hospitalized following an October 8 sweat lodge cremony outside Sedona Arizona. On October 18, the New York Times reported that police are treating the deaths as homicides and awaiting autopsy reports.
I have been putting off writing about the Sweat Lodge tragedy at a spiritual retreat center near Sedona, Arizona, that has left three people dead. I didn't want to write until I heard the man in charge explain what happened. But James Arthur Ray, a best-selling self-help entrepreneur and promoter of financial abundance, is not talking.
Ray hasn't said anything about what happened inside that sweat lodge. On his website he says only that he is being tested, shocked, and saddened by the tragedy, and because there are so many more questions than answers at this time, he believes it inappropriate to comment further until we know more. Indeed we do need to know more; we need to know more from Ray, because otherwise we have to draw our own conclusions from what we do know about him.
I met James Ray at a professional speakers' meeting. Handsome and charming, he wanted to show me how he could help me market myself and increase my revenue stream exponentially. I didn't buy -- his huckster smoothness left me squirming. Ray is a self-help financial guru preaching the gospel of abundance and has appeared on Oprah, Larry King, and The Secret. He is the CEO of JRI, a multi-million-dollar business that was recently named on Inc. magazine's list of America's fastest-growing private companies.
James Arthur Ray got over 60 people to pay $9000 apiece to participate in a five-day "Spiritual Warrior" retreat he teaches and that culminated in a sacred Native American ceremony. Ray's ceremony, however, bears little resemblance to the holy ritual that I know and practice. Ray's sweat lodge was 415 square feet! This is a structure large enough that the county requires a building permit. The traditional sweat lodges of the Plains tribes are small structures, maybe 10 feet in diameter and 4 feet high (90 square feet), whose frames are made out of willow saplings and then covered with blankets and canvas. The Navajo dig them into the ground and then cover forked sticks with earth. Whatever the style, they all are built to accommodate a small group, 10- 15 people (maybe a few more if really squeezed).
The Native community recognizes the ceremonial leaders conducting the ceremony as "keepers of a lodge," which means a traditional fireplace that has been handed down to them by a recognized spiritual leader. There are authentic, non-Native lodge keepers, in the Americas and Europe whom I know, but all of them can trace their fireplaces to a recognized Native spiritual leader.
The ritual takes between 1-2 hours, but there are four rounds or "doors." Between each round, the flap is opened, more stones are brought in, and people can choose to go out for a short time and return. I have been participating with Native American people in sweat lodge ceremonies for over 40 years, and I am the keeper of a lodge at my home; that honor was bestowed after a long apprenticeship.
I came to Native rituals and ceremonies during the 14 years I was the Chief of Psychiatry at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center. Early on, I recognized that if I was ever going to have success with my patients, I would have to learn to tell my healing story in a language they understood. So I sought out traditional healers and asked about healing symbols and cultural myths. That process transformed a Western-trained doctor to healer.
I started attending tribal healing ceremonies, Native American Church meetings, sun dances, and sweat lodges, and listening and learning. At the sweat lodge, I first got the wood, then helped cover the lodge, and later got to gather the willows and the lava rocks, and then to build the lodge. And, after a few years my mentor said to me at the beginning of a Lodge one day, "You run this one."
Because I use his fireplace, I do it the way he taught me and follow the rules. There are tribal variations but the essential elements are the same. For instance, women on their moon cycle do not participate in the ceremony. We enter the lodge in a certain way, talk to the stone people as they are brought in, and pass water around in every round. I sprinkle water on the red-hot stones using a brush wand made of desert chaparral. There are always four rounds (doors), during which new stones always come in, and people can always go out.
I use the lodge regularly, and people from all faiths and ethnicities participate; there is no charge, and we generally have a potluck afterwards. I have participated in sweat lodge ceremonies with thousands of people in North and Central America, and Europe as well, through the nonprofit Turtle Island Project. No one has ever died; not old people or children, not the sick or the wounded. Most people have found the ceremony as profoundly enlightening as it was intended to be.
How can you tell if the Sweat Lodge ceremony is sacred? Here are some clues; find out if Indian people are involved, and if the ceremonial leader is trained in the tradition. If the sweat lodge can fit 60 people and costs $9,000 to participate, you're probably just feeding the bottom line of one of the fast-growing private companies in America.
For James Arthur Ray, who has cultivated a following of people who crave instantaneous enlightenment, what is the teaching? Native people say if you come to work in the sacred realms without paying careful attention to the profundity of its teachings, then you reduce the sacramental to just another colorful, self-help seminar experience; then those holy people will get your attention and shake you down.
My heart reaches out to the families of those who died and are ill. This retreat and sacred ceremony were sold as an opportunity to illumine the spirit. What it delivered, however, was the result of perverting what is holy into something profane.
Carl Hammerschlag is a physician and Yale-trained psychiatrist who has spent more than 20 years working exclusively with Native Americans. His healing journey has been chronicled in three critically acclaimed books, The Dancing Healers, The Theft of the Spirit, and Healing Ceremonies. He is a member of the faculty at the University of Arizona Medical School, a recipient of a National Caring Award, and a friend of many Reality Sandwich contributors.
Photo by andrew i w, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet