Tuesday evening in Denver I attended a free seminar featuring a self-help guru who is currently the focus of a triple-homicide investigation.
That guru's name is James Arthur Ray. I had never heard of Mr. Ray until a couple weeks ago when reading news of deaths in a sweat lodge incident at a New Age spiritual retreat in Sedona, Arizona. That incident had resulted in 18 injuries requiring hospitalization and the deaths of two people. One of the injured lay in a coma at a hospital in Flagstaff due to multiple organ damage and would later succumb to those injuries for a total of three deaths.
James Ray is notably one of the principle teachers behind "The Secret", a 2007 film and bestselling book by Rhonda Byrne which asserts that the key to personal success is in harnessing a set of mysterious universal laws, including the infamous "Law of Attraction." Ray leads his own organization, "James Ray International", which sells books and hosts events centered around his teachings.
One of those events is the annual 5-day "Spiritual Warrior" retreat which costs many of its participants over $9,000 to attend. That may seem like a steep price for a retreat, but because Ray preaches that one "gets what they give" the $9,000 is likely seen by its participants as a bargain towards meeting one's personal goals.
Given the high-stakes of the now-criminal investigation of the sweat lodge incident, I had expected Ray would have canceled his future appearances, particularly a series of free seminars which are largely sales pitches for his books and paid events. But the events were to proceed as originally scheduled, including two in Colorado where I live. I jumped at the opportunity and signed up in order to see and hear James Ray first-hand.
Entering the ballroom to find a seat, I estimated about 20 staff and volunteers to run the event with an attendance of about 300. The demographics of the audience were mixed with a slight majority of women. As I found out later, 80% were seeing Ray for the first time.
I noticed the arrival of my recent Twitter acquaintance and sharp critic of James Ray, Duff McDuffee of Boulder, taking a seat across the room with a friend. I recognized him from his Twitter picture which shows his long hair.
After a short introduction, Ray took the stage. He was as I expected: tanned, polished and well-spoken. On either side of the stage stood a beefy and sharply-dressed security guard. Ray opened by addressing the incident in Sedona, closely echoing a press release posted to his website that same day. Speaking for those involved in his organization, both as staff and as key members, he said that "it was most difficult 10 days of their lives."
Consistent with accounts from other recent appearances he fell short of taking responsibility for his role in the incident and offered a "non-apology apology": He addressed friends of his organization as well as those injured and the the families of the deceased saying that he "felt [their] pain" "accepted [their] anger" and "[hoped they'll] find comfort" as time goes on.
At this point, the drama began, which even the New York Times noted in a front page below-the-fold article.
McDuffee and his friend had arrived with an agenda that differed from my own, intending to confront Ray and press him with a series of questions.
As McDuffee stood to ask questions, several staffers immediately approached him but didn't intervene. Notably McDuffee asked "did you block people from leaving the sweat lodge?" Ray listened from his chair on the stage but didn't respond directly to any of the questions.
Whether Ray was disturbed by the situation I couldn't tell, but the audience was clearly agitated. Many had probably read or heard of the sweat lodge incident but didn't fault Ray. Murmors of "get them out of here" with shouts of "this is not a press conference" erupting from the audience.
Eventually Ray directed his staff to escort McDuffee and friend out with a "Could you ask them to leave?" Ten or so members of the audience gave Ray a standing ovation. McDuffee offered a parting shot while being escorted towards the door asking Ray to "tell the truth of what happened in the tent." An audience member near me yelled "cut off their hair!" which garnered a laugh even from myself.
To defuse the awkwardness of the moment, Ray called for a moment of silence for those who died. Possibly for me alone in the audience this was a moment of great irony where the man whose alleged criminal recklessness caused such damage was leading the moment of silence.
The mood then changed with Ray getting down to business.
As is undoubtedly a staple of these events, Ray asked that we in the audience introduce ourselves to those seated near us. The exercise continued with rounds of greetings of increased familiarity but probably didn't approach the level of creepiness of a Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT) seminar.
There was a second exercise later on that evening where we were asked to share our unmet life goals with a nearby stranger, but that was as awkward as the evening became. (My efforts were admittedly half-hearted in these exercises, but next time I venture to one of these events, I will have the foresight to sit near an attractive group of the opposite sex.)
Aside from the exercises, the bulk of the event was James Ray relating his life struggles and imparting his self-styled wisdom.
While I am no expert in the field of self-help and personal development, the basic ideas struck me as familiar once you stripped-away the mumbo jumbo about the universal laws and pseudoscience. The ideas were so familiar that I suspect that Ray's teachings are largely recycled from the work of other self-help authors.
Ray is unabashedly an advocate of the pursuit of wealth, to the extent that most of what he said centered around the idea. To his credit, he spoke more than lip service to the measure of 'wealth' being more than financial, where merely having money is no guarantee of happiness.
He promoted his new book which centers on five 'pillars' around which one can achieve this broader definition of wealth. Financial security is one of those pillars. The other pillars include one's mental and physical health, one's relationships, and one's spiritual commitment. He said that to neglect one of these pillars is to sacrifice the harmony that all of them offer in concert.
The nonsense was thick in the air. Many arguments from analogy. Cherry-picked studies and fake science. He made a point of telling us that he was drinking water infused with chlorophyll, saying it 'reduces acid' which contributes to cancer, obesity and aging. No one motioned to challenge him on any of these assertions.
The nonsense gave way to offense. Two such instances:
Ray asked a few members of the audience to relate their life challenges. One fellow got up to state that despite being a 'renaissance man' who has quite a few interests, he hasn't succeeded in ways that he hoped. You might suspect at this point that Ray would say that perhaps he had succeeded in ways others only dream of and that he should reconsider his expectations. Instead Ray told this man to pick "one pony and ride it" and that he only "liked" these many other interests and hadn't found one he truly loved.
I'd heard that gurus as Ray believe in a one-size-fits-all solutions to complex problems but had never witnessed it first-hand. To see him tell this man what he loved was presumptuous and reeked of arrogance. But that must be part of being a guru -- any pronouncement no matter how oversimplified and ill-fitting was to rule the day especially when backed by a smug combination of confidence and authority.
In the second case, Ray said that to achieve financial wealth you must provide a service of great value. Sports and entertainment stars provide that value, he cited as an example, and are compensated accordingly. But what of teachers and others providing a different sort of value? Is there any wealth for them, he asked of himself? You might expect him to speak to the nobility of teaching and the benefits that it accrues to all of us. Instead he suggested that teachers might consider being more entertaining to increase their financial compensation.
As Ray wrapped-up his talk and exited the stage, there was a final unexpected anticlimatic moment. Given his command of the room and the emotional investment of the audience in his teachings, I'd expected that he'd receive a standing ovation. Instead he received applause from an audience who remained in their seats.
I found the experience valuable on a couple of levels. First, it was spectacular to see first-hand the unquestioned authority of a slick 'guru' in action. It gave insight into understanding what a man like this provides to his followers. More importantly as a skeptic, I found the experience valuable in stepping from the armchair to breach my comfort level.
Next time the opportunity of attending an event as this presents itself, consider giving it a try. You might find (as I did) that you'll feel like more of a skeptic and critical thinker than in any other situation.