Motivational speaker James Arthur Ray led a five-day “Spiritual Warrior Retreat” outside Sedona, Arizona last week, and for some of the participants it would be their last. Two people died and 19 others were injured after being overcome with exhaustion during a ceremony led by Ray. One person remains hospitalized in critical condition.
The ceremony took place in a ‘sweat lodge’ (per Wikipedia, a “ceremonial suana and an important ritual used by some Native American cultures”). Reportedly 55 to 65 people were crowded in the 415 square-foot, makeshift sweat lodge over a two-hour period, according to the AP.
And then, Ray took off. The next day he contacted the remaining attendees via conference call to impart this new age cliche’:
“Remember all that we’ve learned and experienced and knowing by law of the universe that out of every apparent chaos comes a greater state of order, an order that never existed prior to the chaos.” via AP, 10/15/09
You may be familiar with Ray from his appearance in the film version of The Secret, but he’s also made rounds on Oprah, Larry King and the rest of the obligatory guru circuit. A self proclaimed teacher of the “law of attraction,” Ray is fashioning himself to be the next Tony Robbins or Deepak Chopra — no mere millionaire guru, but billoniare uberguru.
The people who attended Ray’s ceremony paid $10,000 a head for the courtesy of being severely dehydrated. Ray, as might be predicted, refused to talk to authorities after the event. He’s since hired his own investigators, he says, to find out what happened.
My interest in this story focuses on why people are so readily sucked into these cults of personality. What makes seemingly reasonable people devote themselves to another human being claiming to possess special knowledge? Almost always, the nature of the gnosis is the same: financial, spiritual, psychological and interpersonal success! Yes, you can have it all, you just don’t know how yet — pay me, I’ll teach you.
Ray’s gospel is unabashedly about the cash. According to an article profiling him in Fortune last year, he likes to start his quasi-spiritual ceremonies by yelling, “Who is ready to make more money!?” The people he’s hollering this question to have paid in the neighborhood of $1300 a head to listen to him. Perhaps the best way to start making money is to not pay a princely sum to see the guru de jour.
Back to the main point — what sucks people in? Probably too much to discuss at any length in this post, but I’ll throw out one thought: it has little or nothing to do with rationality, and everything to do with a need for emotional affirmation from a stronger personality.
People like Ray are larger than life from a personality standpoint — exceptionally charismatic and hugely successful. There’s an energy in that combination that people want to be a part of because it replaces so much of what they suspect they lack. And, of course, the guru’s chief sales pitch focuses precisely on that perceived lack. In Ray’s words: “You have no idea what you’re capable of!” cha ching
If anything illustrates the inherently irrational human condition, it’s personal devotion to these glorified salesmen in cleric’s garb. Too bad in this case devotion was fatal.