Sweat lodge deaths a new test for self-help guru

The story that self-help guru James Arthur Ray loves to tell his new audiences is a modern-day parable, a tale of overcoming adversity. The key character: James Arthur Ray.

In 2000, he was living in a house on Mount Soledad in La Jolla (“higher than Deepak Chopra’s,” he says) with ocean views from seven rooms. “I was carried away with myself,” he told 300 listeners on a chilly night in Denver this week. Then, a stock market plunge wiped out half his assets. His live-in girlfriend moved out and demanded half of what was left. “I went from the king of Soledad Hill to the bottom of the heap,” he said.

The moral, of course, is that the secret to personal success is overcoming hardship. Just last month, Ray’s motivational business was ranked one of America’s fastest-growing private companies.

Two weeks ago, Ray found himself with a new, troublesome chapter for that personal story of adversity. Three people collapsed in a sweat lodge during one of his $9,695-a-person “Spiritual Warrior” retreats outside Sedona, Ariz., and later died. The sheriff considers it a homicide investigation; no one has been charged.


Ray was interrupted in Denver by a man who stood and shouted: “Tell people the truth, James. You are being investigated for murder.” A man next to him added, “Tell them what really happened in that sweat lodge.” The hecklers were shouted down by others in the audience, who told them to “go home,” while Ray repeated, “This is not a press conference.” After about two minutes, the men left the hotel conference room, trailed by two security officers.

The sheriff says his investigation includes a look at Ray’s role, but he has drawn no conclusions. Authorities also have searched his headquarters for medical information on the participants as well as risk waivers they may have signed.

Ray uses the sweat lodge, a spiritual feature of some Native American traditions, to show participants that they can gain strength and confidence by mastering physical discomfort. Some Sedona survivors have said Ray discouraged them from leaving the sauna-like lodge. One said Ray seemed unmoved that some participants were vomiting and appeared desperately ill during the two-hour ceremony.

After the hecklers were removed, Ray asked the audience to observe a moment of silence for the victims, whom he described as friends. As he launched into his 90-minute talk, his first bit of advice seemed directed at himself. “Let go of the illusion that you’re going to have a life without challenges,” he said.


Back on the road

Though shaken by the deaths, Ray has quickly returned to the road, teaching his secrets of success even as he uses them to cling to his own.

“I’ve taught that we’re all going to have adversity and we can’t run from it,” a somber, teary-eyed Ray said Tuesday night at the beginning of his free recruitment session in Denver. “I’ve certainly learned a lot in the past 10 days.”


Some weren’t aware of the Sedona deaths until Ray addressed it. But Lyle Guthmiller, 44, a heating and air conditioning technician, said it didn’t dissuade him from considering signing up for one of the retreats. “When you’re pushing the limits, unfortunately, things can happen,” he said. “I’d rather live that life than be a couch potato.”

Like other motivational speakers, Ray travels much of the year giving free lectures, after which people are encouraged to sign up for paid events. Of the nearly 11,000 who heard his pitch this year, more than 1,000 enrolled in a two-day, $1,297 “Harmonic Wealth Weekend,” his most popular seminar, where he teaches that conquering the mental, emotional and spiritual challenges of life is the key to success at home and work.

Many of his students then move on to one of a half a dozen other retreats, such as “Practical Mysticism,” where Ray explores spirituality (for $5,295), and the “Spiritual Warrior,” where he uses techniques he says he “searched out in the mountains of Peru [and] the jungles of the Amazon.”

The deaths, though, have led critics of the self-help industry to step up their attacks.


John Curtis of Asheville, N.C., a former marriage therapist and founder of the website Americans Against Self-Help Fraud, argues that the unregulated industry preys on troubled people to make money.

“I’m hoping and praying that this will put a chilling effect on the self-help industry,” he said.

But Hermia Nelson, 45, from New York, says the two “Spiritual Warrior” retreats she attended were intense and cathartic. “You go into super-turbo-therapy mode, and he makes you get into all those things you have hidden,” she said.

The sweat lodge sessions didn’t seem particularly dangerous, Nelson added. “Everyone was very encouraging, and it was a very loving environment in there.”


Dave Orton, 33, who works for a technology company in Boise, Idaho, recalled walking on coals during a “Practical Mysticism” session. “We do things in these retreats that definitely stretch your limits,” he said. “But it’s like a high-adventure camp. It takes you outside your comfort zone.”

Orton has spent $9,000, not including travel costs, to attend Ray retreats, and he wants to sign up for the next five-day “Spiritual Warrior” session near Sedona. “It definitely has changed my life,” he said.


Growing industry


Americans spent $11.3 billion last year on self-help products and services, according to Marketdata, a market research firm. The industry has grown by 5.5% annually over the last few years, though Marketdata says the economic slowdown will cut that growth rate in half this year.

The self-improvement industry is dominated by household names like Chopra and Tony Robbins. But James Ray International, based in an office park in Carlsbad, Calif., features prominently in the next tier, with $10 million in revenue and 547.4% growth over the last three years, according to the business publication Inc. Magazine.

A fit 51-year-old with an accomplished stage presence, Ray tells audiences that he was a bookworm as a child and devoured texts on everything from science to religion, creating a base of knowledge that he would later use to build his self-help practice.

He was born in Hawaii and grew up in Tulsa, Okla., the son of a Protestant preacher. His father, A. Gordon Ray, and his mother now live in Oceanside, where they have their own self-help business, Horizons Unlimited, which peddles CDs with titles such as “Principles To Make You Rich” and “How You Can Have it All.”


James Ray went to junior college in Oklahoma but dropped out to work in telemarketing at AT&T.; He later moved into a job training AT&T; salespeople, and it was there that he realized that his life mission was to teach.

He launched his company in 1992, but it wasn’t until 2006 that his career really took off, when he appeared in “The Secret,” a film in which Ray and others made the case for a “law of attraction” -- positive thinking makes good things happen and negative thinking can make bad things happen.

Among Ray’s early mentors was Bob Proctor, a veteran of the self-help circuit and author of “The Science of Getting Rich.”

“James is a good person who has helped a lot of people and is dedicated to helping people,” said Proctor, 75, who has been in the business for 41 years.


The cloud over Ray’s work caused by the Sedona deaths is “a terrible thing,” Proctor added. “It will definitely change his life and, hopefully, it’ll be a learning experience.”

Ray has declined interview requests since the incident. But in blog postings, and in public appearances, he has said he’s been in contact with families of the victims, one of whom has publicly criticized him.

“To their families I say, ‘I feel your pain. I accept and I understand your anger, and I just pray every single day that you’ll find peace,’ ” he told the audience in Denver. Ray said he was cooperating with the authorities and had asked his own investigators to look into the deaths.

Greg Hartle, Ray’s 31-year-old director of business development, says the company’s 20 staff members have been knocked off balance by the deaths. “At some point,” Hartle said, “I hope we’ll be able to get back to some sense of normality.”


Ray has many passionate followers among the 14,500 who have paid to attend seminars and retreats since 2001, and some credit him with making them calmer, more centered, more willing to take risks -- and richer.

“James is a very no-nonsense guy,” said Nelson, the “Spiritual Warrior” veteran. “He’ll tell you exactly what he thinks. And that teaching style appealed to me.”

She regarded Ray’s retreats, though expensive, as an important educational experience, similar to her economics degree from Columbia University and her MBA from Fordham University.

“How much is a peaceful, contented, fulfilling life worth?” she said.



DeeDee Correll in Denver contributed to this report.