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James Arthur Ray in Denver PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Reed Esau   

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.

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Good field research.
written by Metatron, October 24, 2009
Nice article, Reed. It would be fun to take your advice and attend one of these shows.
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I missed a chance then...
written by TF, October 24, 2009
...because a few weeks ago, Erich Von Däniken http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erich_Von_Däniken was in my hometown, but it was way too expensive for me to attend. I would have loved sitting there and getting first-hand nonsense.
Anyway, each skeptic in the audience takes a place usually reserved for someone to make profit from, by selling books or something else. So if there is no admission charge, the audience should be flooded by skeptics.
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written by MadScientist, October 25, 2009
I wonder why the believers were so hostile - did they just want to hear their guru and were annoyed by the guy asking questions which the guru would have been advised not to answer because of an ongoing criminal investigation, or were they annoyed because someone dare say such things to their idol? If it's the latter, the guy certainly has the type of audience he'd need to set up yet another suicide cult.
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Easily seduced?
written by Michieux, October 25, 2009
Good article, Reed. Very much enjoyed it.

It has often occurred to me that one of the reasons these hucksters are successful is their ability to speak well and confidently before large crowds, so that whatever they say is going to sound convincing to uncritical audiences. Ray's advice for teachers to "consider being more entertaining to increase their financial compensation," makes it sound as though life were an infinite reality TV show. Really, really sad that people buy such baloney.

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written by Willy K, October 25, 2009
Reed, even with your very restrained reporting of that event, I felt a little sick to my stomach. smilies/sad.gif
(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.)
Would you really want to have a relationship with a person who is a devotee to a psychopathic cult leader? smilies/cry.gif
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written by bigdoggy, October 25, 2009
One of the best written articles I've read on here. Well done.
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written by Reed, October 25, 2009
Thanks all.

Willy: a relationship wouldn't be the goal -- it'd be simply to make those awkward exercises a bit more fun.
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Nice article
written by larsonlynette, October 25, 2009
Nice article Reed. So you did or did not sign up for the next "spiritual warrior" seminar training? If you did, sit next to the door. I can't believe he said we have to become more entertaining. I guess a trained monkey is in order. Did he also try to sell you the Sham Wow or that chopper/dicer thingy?
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written by Snixtor, October 25, 2009
By MadScientist:
I wonder why the believers were so hostile

A concept I've been trying to come to terms with a bit myself lately. Hostility towards questions seems to go hand in hand with less reasoned beliefs. If they've made the non (or poorly) reasoned conclusion that his credibility is sound, then they don't want to see that questioned. Perhaps questioning his credibility, seems to them as akin to questioning their own conclusion? They're not interested in those sorts of questions. It's a troubling psychology.
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written by Otara, October 25, 2009
The goal of people who attend these kinds of events is generally to have a powerful emotional experience, not to learn factual information. Thats why discussions focussed on facts and thier veracity will generally be unwelcome.

Ive only been to one seminar vaguely like this, and I dont think I need reminding Im a skeptic that badly I want to go to another any time soon.
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written by Reed, October 25, 2009
Otara: As I said above, this was not a full-fledged LGAT event. It was basically a sales pitch for Ray's paid events and his books. The emotional level wasn't that high, as demonstrated by the sit-down final applause.
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written by Otara, October 26, 2009
I understand that, my point is thats what they're really 'shopping' for. Any facts that are seen as stopping that wont be particularly welcome.



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written by CasaRojo, October 26, 2009
Yes, every skeptic should attend a large, live psychic/paranormal/spiritual *believer* show like this at least once. It makes one wonder why anyone would give these people money.

Kudos to Duff McDuffee. I wonder if anyone there gave his questions a second thought?
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written by Reed, October 27, 2009
Welcome to those visiting from Edward Tenner's web column in the Atlantic Online.

http://correspondents.theatlantic.com/edward_tenner/2009/10/help_yourself_new_age_vs_old_school.php
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written by Walk, October 28, 2009
I think it's kind of curious that Duff McDuffee's article, which Reed linked to, ended with this:

"When I begin to think about the deaths of Ray’s seminar participants in this way [through the eyes of magick], I find myself having a change of heart towards the man, far less cynical about his words and basic message while still holding him accountable for what transpired. Perhaps you will have a similar change of heart."

Huh??
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written by larsonlynette, October 28, 2009
Was there Koolade at the gathering? Did Duff McDuffee have any?
I was sure nice of James Arthur Ray to refund 50% of the cost of the seminar to the surviving family members. smilies/tongue.gif I'll bet this guy has huge financial problems that we don't know about yet.
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written by Reed, October 28, 2009
Walk: to clarify, I provided a link to McDuffee's blog, not specifically to an article of his. I'm not familiar with (nor do I necessarily endorse) any of his work or the 'magick' to which he refers.
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@Walk
written by CasaRojo, October 29, 2009
"I think it's kind of curious that Duff McDuffee's article, which Reed linked to, ended with this:"

That wasn't the entire blog article. Click the "read more" button on the page after "Perhaps you will have a similar change of heart" for the rest of it.

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written by Walk, October 29, 2009
Reed: Yes, it seems as though Duff is willing to expose certain kinds of woo, while endorsing others. Thanks for clarifying that you weren't giving him a blanket endorsement. Although I think we can all admire his effort to put Ray's feet to the fire. (Pun intended).

From a quick gloss-over (I can't bring myself to give an in-depth reading), it appears Duff believes the "law of attraction". Of course, if one follows that (ill) logic, a big part of the blame would go to the victims for "attracting" their own deaths. Amazing.

CasaRojo: Thanks for pointing out that the article didn't end there. I overlooked the "read more" prompt. After briefly trying (an unpleasant chore) to read more, I found it a bit difficult to figure out where Duff is coming from, but it appears to me that he promotes all kinds of New Age bull. Am I misreading him?
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Clarification
written by duffmcduffee, October 29, 2009
I think it's kind of curious that Duff McDuffee's article, which Reed linked to, ended with this:

"When I begin to think about the deaths of Ray’s seminar participants in this way [through the eyes of magick], I find myself having a change of heart towards the man, far less cynical about his words and basic message while still holding him accountable for what transpired. Perhaps you will have a similar change of heart."

Huh??


I wrote that article 1 day after the initial news. I was attempting to preempt the attempt to blame Ray's victims as having "attracted" their deaths by showing that even from within Ray's own perspective, he is morally culpable and should take responsibility.

This article was not a defense of the magickal view, nor of the Law of Attraction or the movie The Secret, just seeing the events from within Ray's own view.

Given Ray's actions since, he has clearly not shown any integrity with his own views whatsoever.
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@Duff
written by CasaRojo, October 30, 2009
Kudos for taking a proactive stand and I understand what you mean from the "magik" perspective, anything can be made to make sense I'm afraid. If you're interested in proactive company, please take a looksee here---> http://skepticblog.org/2009/08/22/force-one/
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written by Walk, October 30, 2009
Duff: I apologize for misunderstanding the point of your article. And as I said, my hat is off to you for confronting Ray at the seminar. Kudos!

(I've tried logging on to your website this morning, but so far am unable to).

I'm still a bit confused, however. Could you clarify your position on the supernatural in general? For instance, do you believe that you can affect the physical world outside of your body, directly, with only your thoughts, as Ray does? Thank you.



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written by Walk, October 30, 2009
Duff: I guess my other question would be - why are you looking at this event "through the eyes of magick", when, in reality, there is no such thing? If you believe magic is real, Randi has a million dollars for you.
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written by Eosine, October 30, 2009
Well, he said it. It is all about ENTERTAIMENT. Be entertaining or commanding and you can sell your crap to anyone. Teachers won't get paid more if they are entertainers, they have fixed salaries. The guy is ignorant about facts, but also insulting to people who don't sell entertainment for a living.
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written by duffmcduffee, October 30, 2009
I'm still a bit confused, however. Could you clarify your position on the supernatural in general? For instance, do you believe that you can affect the physical world outside of your body, directly, with only your thoughts, as Ray does? Thank you.


I think Ray and the other speakers in the movie "The Secret" are the equivalent of Christian fundamentalists who believe that the Earth was created 5005 years ago. Thinking "I create reality with my thoughts" is a massive ego trip and clearly false!

However, there is perhaps a partial truth from which this distorted logic stems. Clearly my intent has some impact on my actions, and clarifying my intentions, values, and goals can sometimes lead to experiences that seem like magic, as when things come together all at once apparently beyond what would occur due to chance to support you in your life. I think these are valid spiritual or religious or poetic experiences, but I don't think they have any bearing on or derivation from quantum physics or any such nonsense.

Duff: I guess my other question would be - why are you looking at this event "through the eyes of magick", when, in reality, there is no such thing? If you believe magic is real, Randi has a million dollars for you.


Randi is offering a million bucks for breaking the laws of physics, not for seeing life as magical, or for having a weird experience. If I write a poem that moves your heart, I can't get Randi's million dollars. The only kind of magic that seems to be real to me is the poetic or religious experience of life, which does not in any way depend on negating or rejecting scientific observations or models, in my opinion. It is an entirely separate domain.
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written by Walk, October 30, 2009
Duff: Thanks for your in-depth answer.

I agree with you that life can provide many different emotional responses to various experiences. I'm a career musician, and therefore am keenly aware of the emotional impact that great music can provide. I'm sensing, however, that you believe there may be some kind of supernatural explanation to some life events that, in reality, are no more than coincidences.

When you talk about "valid spiritual or religious experiences" are you implying that we have a component of ourselves that lives on after we die, or that something like "God" actually exists? These claims would fly in the face of current scientific understanding.

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written by duffmcduffee, October 30, 2009
I agree with you that life can provide many different emotional responses to various experiences. I'm a career musician, and therefore am keenly aware of the emotional impact that great music can provide. I'm sensing, however, that you believe there may be some kind of supernatural explanation to some life events that, in reality, are no more than coincidences.

When you talk about "valid spiritual or religious experiences" are you implying that we have a component of ourselves that lives on after we die, or that something like "God" actually exists? These claims would fly in the face of current scientific understanding.


@Walk: I doubt we can answer such enormous and interesting questions of philosophy or theology here in these comments. If we had a few hundred hours in person, perhaps we could dive a bit deeper into the complexities of this subject matter.

For now, I'll just say that we seem to agree that James Ray and his fellow "secret" holders are full of it. smilies/smiley.gif
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written by Walk, October 30, 2009
Duff: Thanks for the discussion, and I wish you continued success with your website.

Walk

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Article
written by Lehmann108, November 02, 2009
Reed, an excellent article about the Ray lecture. Just a few comments to add. We'd all like to have "the answers" to the nature of existence, but reducing this profound mystery to a handful of simplistic universal "laws" that, prima facie, don't work consistently or not at all is what always happens. People then usually ignore the contradictory evidence to hold onto the belief system because of their psychological investment. Its cult dynamics and we will always see it. I don't know what's in the heart of JAR. I do know that he distorts the truth in telling "white lies" to make his points. It seems like he has succumbed to his own guru complex. Power is intoxicating. I used to be a TM teacher (Transcendental Meditation) and when I gave advanced residential courses it was amazing to see how people would listen to and hang onto my every word. People gave me this power and implicitly deferred to my opinion whether it was informed or not. It was seductive to say the least. Being an authentic, truly helpful spiritual teacher is a difficult task. No wonder we see so few of them!
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written by Reed, March 07, 2010
McDuffee has written his own account here: http://beyondgrowth.net/spirit...r-shaming/
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