Sweat Lodge deaths and James Arthur Ray
Self Inflation and Contagious Narcissism
December, 2016 Joseph Szimhart
After watching CNN’s two-hour, December 4, 2016 documentary on the rise and fall motivational speaker James Arthur Ray, I came away from it with a sense of appreciation for good film making as well as a sullen gut reaction to the horror of three people dying in one of Ray’s over-crowded, very expensive, “spiritual warrior,” sweat lodge challenges. The sweat lodge scam was one of his best personal income ventures.
I will explain below why modern sweats, like fire-walks, in my view are scams.
The filmmakers managed to convey fairly and in depth an aspect of American culture that emerged in spades by the late 19th century. Rugged individualism and the positive programming of the American Dream—Be All You Can Be—has been co-opted by a billion-dollar self-help industry of large group awareness workshops. I include many mega-churches lately run by Robert Schuler and currently Joel Osteen in this heady mix with est/Landmark, Lifespring, Psi-World, Amway, and the long list of mass training gurus including Tony Robbins, Werner Erhard, Covey, Eckhart Tolle, James Arthur Ray, and Byron Katie. There are dozens more. If you read and believed Norman Vincent Peale, Og Mandino, and Dale Carnegie, you are in this ballpark. You dwell in this social institution called Self-Inflation University.
Maybe you, the modern seeker, read some Nietzsche and Ayn Rand to reinforce this selfism. Maybe you took yoga classes or seek that special diet. Maybe you absorb the cosmic infusions from ambient music. Maybe you speak to the universe and believe that the universe will respond to your positive thought—you know, the law of attraction since someone let that “secret” out of the bag. Self-improvement, self-development, self-realization, enlightened self-interest, the selfish gene, the higher self, self-awareness, and mindfulness.
Maybe you tried affirmations from a New Thought book or religion—over one hundred years ago, the most famous one was Every Day and in Every Way, I Am Getting Better and Better. Millions of Americans were doing it. You came to believe that religion can be a more precise science than neurobiology. Forgive me—I meant “spirituality” as you are by no means merely religious like those calcified old ladies in the pews of common churches.
Be all you can be? What on earth can that mean? And how much BETTER can you get anyway? We get the incentive. Any healthy human being gets that much: We all want to improve. But at what and how? This is where the self-help gurus come in. Nearly everyone that pays out hundreds or thousands of dollars up front for one of the life and prosperity workshops or intensives is already lost. They do not know and they want to know what will work for them and what is blocking their potential. That is why they are there. To make a breakthrough! Somewhere in life their egos have been damaged, wounded, or traumatized, or in the least somehow limited. Common regulated therapy is too slow or is not working. Maybe they have not gone deep enough and you need a deeper experience.
Narcissistic traits that we all have and need are not bad—we need them to get by, to put our best selves forward to get a job or a spouse. Traits are not disorders. We must believe in ourselves to some degree or we might not get up in the morning. Our best self can be compromised by anxiety. Anxiety is the most commonly diagnosed psych disorder. We all feel it to some degree nearly every day, but most people cope with it well enough. Those who do not cope feel wounded. Forces around them and within them reflect a poor self-image or at least one not good enough.
Wounded narcissists are not bad people, but they are particularly vulnerable to mass therapies that promise to tap that special self within that is pure and wonderful once the layers of social conditioning and trauma are “broken through.” If only those god-damned, self-imposed limitations and environmentally fierce blocks could be somehow removed, they say to themselves. Well, the run-of-the-mill self-help guru or life coach is there for you to help engineer a break through. Just sign the waiver and prepare for several days or more of a psychological roller coaster.
Break throughs are those a-ha moments when the client feels a profound release or insight that has a potentially life-changing effect. These engineered breakthroughs may be authentic—some people do change bad habits after a mass therapy workshop—but at what price? For most, the positive take away is short term or vague at best, especially when we read testimonials from the “94%” (claimed by Landmark) satisfied customers. They sound like testimonials from rare Amway success stories. The cost is more than money.
Most of the mass trainings promise to change you or “shift” your perspective. Let me get to the point. Anyone who is placed in an extraordinary situation or experiences an ecstasy will absorb the influences and language in that environment. The influences include the admonition to spread the good news of your transformation at the Bobby Ray or Whoever Tony workshop, and maybe to ask for forgiveness of anyone you may have harmed to somehow end past karma. Of course, when you so energetically ask for forgiveness or exude over your “experience,” you are also recruiting. And that is the point. The owners of these businesses want to funnel as many people as they can into their self-experience machines that will spit out recruiters at the other end. The model is understandable if one is selling cars, herbal products, or cosmetics, but it gets very strange when the product is your Self.
The question to ask is what self emerges from a J A Ray sweat lodge ceremony? Can that sacred self, the “spiritual warrior” be forced into manifestation during an engineered experience in group trainings or spiritual retreats? The answer is no. That is the scam. The good feeling of having made a breakthrough in front of a crowd after a public confession will always subside. All highs from ecstasy subside when the endorphins stop dancing in your brain. However, the leader tells you not to let this insight go, to reinforce it in how you communicate with others and choose your path going forward. So, you adopt the language of the group or life coach, and you start sounding like one of “them” to your friends and family. The change is that you sound like one of them and not that you have suddenly become a better person. The point is that you could have become a better person with a little effort all on your own and still sounded like yourself.
One definition of a brainwashed or radically influenced person resides in language: If he talks like us, he is one of us. This is true for any culture, be it Austria or a gang in Chicago. However, you have a better shot at being your authentic self as an Austrian than you will as a gang member. It is a matter of constriction. Smaller groups with enthusiastic members will tend to self-seal or create an us-them culture.
J R Ray’s sweat lodge experiencers were in shock when people died. They all had to question why they put up with so much pain and why they lost their common sense. Those who broke away finally did make a real breakthrough. They no longer trusted the narcissist who absorbed them into his theater, his culture, his personality cult world. They shed the language and re-learned how to talk authentically. They no longer believed that men should aspire to be gods who are the true spiritual warriors.
Just ask Zeus.