by Linda-Ann Stewart
I’ve been watching the unfolding of the James Arthur Ray Sweat Lodge (near Sedona) tragedy with horror. It was totally preventable. According to an article I read on the Internet, in a previous Warrior sweat lodge of his, an unconscious participant was taken to the hospital. That should have been a clue that it was too extreme.
I believe James Arthur Ray needs to walk his talk about personal responsibility. The people in that lodge had a responsibility to leave the lodge when they realized they were feeling bad. However, James Ray also needs to take responsibility for keeping them in there too long. If he doesn’t step forward and cooperate with the investigation, I believe he’s lost all credibility.
I’ve experienced a sweat lodge, and know many people who have done so. You’re not kept in there for two hours (as James Ray did) without taking a break outside of the lodge. The body can only take so much heat before it begins to shut down. It takes years, not days and weeks, to train the body to overcome physical stresses. Monks spend years (not days) training their bodies to increase their core temperature and melt snow around them while meditating.
I know there are other retreats and trainings that are as physically rigorous as James Ray’s, with promises of overnight transformation if you attend. And I know that people get injured at them. And unfortunately, many times they’re shamed because they were hurt. This is where the shame that came from more orthodox religions has been translated into the New Age consciousness.
If you fall ill, aren’t wealthy, get injured, or your life isn’t perfect in every way, then you hear, “What’s in your consciousness?” You’re judged for not being perfect. Your life is a work in progress. You wouldn’t be on this physical plane if you had already transcended all your issues. When you have problems, it just means that’s someplace you need to fill with light.
These physically demanding trainings are an attempt to break you down in order to build you up. Just like in the military. But the military takes several weeks in boot camp to do it. And you’re monitored better there than in these trainings. The military have very few deaths as a result, whereas several of these abbreviated trainings have had deaths.
There was one such tragedy with a local group a few years ago. Several people were taken hiking up a mountain, carrying 40 pounds of rocks in a backpack, with very little water. One member died of dehydration and heat exhaustion.
I’ve been to retreats and had amazing experiences, but the high tends to fade in the day-to-day demands of life. That’s normal. You’re able to retain some of the transformation, but what you do with it, such as discipline in meditating, practicing compassion and awareness of your thoughts (not as exciting as “an experience”) is what moves you along.
You may have an experience in a weeklong training, and be able to remember that experience to propel you further, but it takes spiritual practice and discipline to sustain any spiritual progress. A spiritual experience can advance you a ways up your path, but you need tools to continue your evolution.
Part of society’s attraction to these experiential retreats is the desire for “instant enlightenment.” We all want the flash and show of a vision, the bliss of meditation, or the contact high of being with many people of like mind who are going through the same experience.
But you don’t become a concert pianist after a week of intensive training, even if you already knew how to play. If you go to a weeklong yoga retreat, you’re not going to be able to twist your body into a pretzel as a result. It takes time and practice.
That’s not to say the short retreats don’t have their place. They give you something to aim for, a taste of what it can feel like to be aligned with Spirit, and tools that can help you stay motivated and keep going. But I don’t see the value in the extreme, physically demanding, endurance type trainings that can leave people broken at the end of them.
It would be much better to have a series of gentler retreats that lead a person to a higher awareness. Instead of a pickax to break the attendees into chunks, and then glue them back together and send them on their way, a more permanent way would be to sculpt them a bit at a time.
I think this has been a warning to us all. Be careful of what you attend. Don’t mindlessly follow a leader when your instincts are screaming at you. Listen to your intuition and body signals.
And, for the leaders of these types of trainings, take responsibility for your attendees, monitor them better, and don’t shame or judge them when they don’t live up to some unrealistic perfect standard. Leaders lead by example, and I believe that James Arthur Ray needs to fulfill his leadership role by helping the authorities find out what happened and take responsibility.