The deaths of two people at a sweat lodge outside of Sedona have raised many questions. Led by self-help guru James Arthur Ray who achieved fame after appearing in the film “The Secret” and on Oprah’s television show, between 55 and 65 people gathered in a sweat lodge at Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat. The sweat lodge itself was a temporary structure about 415 square feet and about 4-1/2 feet tall, made of poles and tarps and blankets. The participants had been in the sweat for more than two hours according to a New York Times article.
The sweat was part of a program called “Spiritual Warrior.” According to Ray’s website, this program is designed to push the boundaries and the self-imposed borders of the practitioners. A colleague of Ray’s, John Assaraf, says that these retreats are meant to push the limits of participants’ endurance and “transcend pain.”
I’ve been studying what I call “performance technology” for over 20 years and have used it in my own life and with my clients. The work I call “Visioncrafting” is derived from these philosophies. It’s extremely unfortunate that the tragedy of these deaths is being used to mock the “self-help movement” and undermine the whole idea of personal transformation.
On the other hand, this idea of pushing people beyond their limits is one that I have never found beneficial. My earliest experience with these ideas was with the program EST in the early 1970s. I never attended an EST program (with three planets in Libra and Venus opposite Jupiter, I have no need to challenge myself in this way), but friends who did told the tale of being humiliated in front of a roomful of people and not allowed to leave the room to take care of nature’s needs. To me, this was not an attractive way of achieving spiritual growth and I don’t know anyone involved in either EST or its offshoot the Landmark Forum, who achieved real and lasting personal evolution. In fact for some, the intensity of the experience forced them to confront issues for which they were not prepared, resulting in personal breakdowns.
Humans have always sought spiritual release through mortification of the flesh. Whether through guilt and shame or through a desire to transcend the boundaries of the physical form, the act of self-mutilation can bring about experiences that break through boundaries. There is a Neptunian quality here as Neptune seeks to go beyond the experience of ordinary life into something more magnificent and divine. There is also the potential of illusion with any Neptunian experience, and the line between spirituality and delusion is very narrow.
Still, it is sad that this event will cast a pall on the entire movement of personal growth.
In my own work I have found that personal transformation cannot be forced. Before we can make real change in our lives we must have enough love for ourselves to face the demons that hold us back, and enough strength and courage to release them.