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

June 29, 2011

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?