James Ray – Self-Help Guru and the Power of Influence… The Sweat Lodge Deaths

An interesting article was recently written by Kent Greenfield.  The Title: The “Sweat Lodge Guru” Guilty Verdict: Recognizing the Deadly Influence of Authority.  Greenfield stated, “the jury understood that sometimes people are actually not responsible for their own decisions when they are under the powerful psychological influence of authority figures.”    A like to Kent’s article is here.

In the article Greenfield states:

Toward the end of the retreat, the “warriors” were to stay alone in the desert without water or food for thirty-six hours, followed by a return to camp for a two-hour “purge” in a sweat lodge, vaguely modeled after structures used in some Native American religious ceremonies. There was barely space for the fifty participants to squeeze in around a fire pit, kept hot by fresh coals brought in by Ray’s assistants. Ray sat outside the tent flap, keeping it sealed.

[Update: Some readers with knowledge of the event indicate that Ray was inside the tent rather than outside during the sweat-lodge ceremony. The police report after the event indicates that Ray was “sitting in a chair in the shade” outside the tent, but it is unclear in the report whether he was there for the entire event or only at the end. Other news reports are unclear as to his location.]

About halfway through the ceremony, some of the participants started to become ill. Ray urged them to press on. As the heat grew more oppressive, one man tried to lift up one of the walls of the lodge to allow fresh air to circulate, but Ray chastised him. When some people vomited, Ray explained that vomiting was good for them. Ray hovered by the door, intimidating people if they tried to leave. A few people struggled out, but most stayed. “Play full on,” Ray insisted. “You are not going to die. You might think you are, but you’re not going to die.”

At the end of the ordeal, several of the participants were indeed near death. Two died that evening; another fell into a coma and died a few days later. In all, almost half of the participants ended up in the hospital suffering from injuries as severe as scorched lungs and organ failure.

What happened? Why did people stay in the lodge, risking their lives? Any of them could have left at any time, but did not. Ray did not exert physical force.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Greenfield answers his question – WHY – by citing a 50+ year old study referred to as “the famous Milgram studies.”  And article in the New York Times defines the studies and raises interesting questions.  Here’s the link to the Times article:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/01/health/research/01mind.html

In the Times article, Dr. Thomas Blass stated, “The power of the Milgram work was it showed how people can act destructively without coercion,” he said. “In things like interrogations, we don’t know the complexities involved. People are under enormous pressure to produce results.”  Greenfield postulates that the “Sweat Lodge Participants” did things against their own safety in order to produce the results that were either expected by Ray or perhaps themselves since they paid large sums of money for the experience.

Greenfield goes on to state:

The “warriors” may have seen the sweat lodge purge as a test of courage. In hindsight, we understand that the purge was seen that way only because Ray had identified it as such. Staying in the lodge was in fact dangerous and harmful, with no real benefit. It was courageous only in the way that forcing yourself to break your own finger with a hammer is courageous. The genuine act of courage was to question Ray’s methods, ask about the risks, demand care for those in distress, and leave the lodge. But that demanded wherewithal to challenge the authority figure. It is a measure of the difficulty of such a challenge that most people in the lodge were more willing to risk death than push their way through the tent flap.

And it is a measure of the jury’s understanding of human nature that they held Ray responsible, rather than the victims themselves.


Is Greenfield right in his assumption – the sweat lodge participants did so out of blind trust of Ray?  Were the participants victims of the Milgram model?  Did Ray use an undue and unsafe power of influence over the folks who paid for the experience?


Jurors will consider their testimony in determining whether aggravating factors figure into James Arthur Ray’s sentence. Ray was convicted on three counts of negligent homicide.  A finding of aggravating factors could increase Ray’s sentence. Probation also is an option.


What do you think the sentence should be in this case?


3 Responses to James Ray – Self-Help Guru and the Power of Influence… The Sweat Lodge Deaths

  1. Russ Christensen says:

    I view this as a tragic accident. In the process of pushing the human limits – many people have died (military & construction accidents, marathon runners come quickly to mind for me). Yes – James probably pushed the participants to not quit (isn’t that what they were paying the big $ for? – I mean if people walked out willy/nilly @ the slightest discomfort – wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of the whole program?).

    Personal responsibility is an idea lost on many Americans today – the irony here is that there were participants immediatly fall into victim/blame mode right after this tradgety occured. Isn’t 1 of the 1st things a person learns in any personal development program is to take 100% responsibility for the outcome/results in your life?

    In my opinion – James isn’t guilty of anything criminal. Being that this wasn’t a beginner/entry level program – I’d say he’s also not guilty of any other wrongdoing that requires court actions.

    Litigation – 1 thing that still seems to work in America.

    Outcome – since he’s already convicted (I’m sure there’s an appeal process for James) – I’d go w/ some sort of time served & probation – he’s a great asset for community service – helping w/ misguided youth for example – if that were the case.

  2. Russ Christensen says:

    1 point I forgot to make – just because a “guru”, leader or expert says something doesn’t mean I have to believe/do it.

    There are things that have been said by some in the field of self help who talk about global warming (which I believe is BS), or political ideas (like Marianne Williamson – who has some great ideas & somehow those get lost in her political stance & I’ve had several fb discussions w/ her on it – how she came up w/ Our Deepest Fear (which is great) & still believe that gov’t should be used as a force for good (in liberal terms) somehow doesn’t mesh w/ being totally congruent). You want an example of kool-aide drinkers – so her fb posts – they have her way up onto a pedestal (another thing any teacher/guru worth their salt will teach never put anyone above or below you or “need” the teacher/guru). She comes across as knowing what’s best for everyone & her idea is best (she’s been very dismissive to other ideas). It almost looks as if she likes to stir the pot for awhile & then delete the thread – I’ve wondered if she did it to stroke her ego because of my before mentioned fans who say “we need you to run for pres” or seem to swallow everything she says hook, line & sinker. If I got that kind of feedback – I’d feel kind of weird – like who are these people? Unless of course it was Scarlet Johansen.

    For what it’s worth – I’m not conservative either & I’m just giving my experience I’ve had w/ a “guru” that I disagreed w/.

    Why go thru w/ what I just wrote – if I’m in a sweat lodge (never have) or sauna or steam room – when I’ve had enough – I get out – no 1 is going to make me stay longer when my body is telling me to get the hell out of there (yes- I do push myself @ times & leave early @ other times – key is it’s my choice & I could care less what others say &/or think).

  3. Having been at a weekend workshop of James Ray’s with my husband several years ago, we witnessed the most blatant kind of ego-indulgence from this man. At the end of the workshop, he sobbed and went on and on at length about his/our responsibility in saving the world. It truly seemed like a mental/emotional break to us (at the time we were therapists with over 50 years combined experience) and my husband and I walked out. My husband had lots of reservations about Ray even before the workshop experience which were borne out, unfortunately, That said, we did gain insight and learned some valuable things from Ray and his perspective. Sad that his ego won out in the end, but that is the peril of the pedestal. From accounts I have read of the sweat lodge, it does seem that he used intimidation and shaming to keep participants in the poorly constucted, unsafe sweat lodge. Very counter productive if one is truly aiming to EMPOWER people.Tragic on all levels.

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