For Some Seeking Rebirth, Sweat Lodge Was End
For Some Seeking Rebirth, Sweat Lodge Was End
By JOHN DOUGHERTY
October 22, 2009
Midway through a two-hour sweat lodge ceremony intended to be a rebirthing experience, participants say, some people began to fall desperately ill from the heat, even as their leader, James Arthur Ray, a nationally known New Age guru, urged them to press on.
“There were people throwing up everywhere,” said Dr. Beverley Bunn, 43, an orthodontist from Texas, who said she struggled to remain conscious in the sweat lodge, a makeshift structure covered with blankets and plastic and heated with fiery rocks.
Dr. Bunn said Mr. Ray told the more than 50 people jammed into the small structure — people who had just completed a 36-hour “vision quest” in which they fasted alone in the desert — that vomiting “was good for you, that you are purging what your body doesn’t want, what it doesn’t need.” But by the end of the ordeal on Oct. 8, emergency crews had taken 21 people to hospitals. Three have since died.
Mr. Ray, who calls himself a teacher of “practical mysticism” and has gained widespread exposure through writings and an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” has come under intense scrutiny in the New Age movement that is a cottage industry here. The Yavapai County sheriff, Steve Waugh, has opened a homicide investigation, but Mr. Ray has not been charged.
Dr. Bunn, who had signed up for the $9,695 “spiritual warrior” experience, offered the first eyewitness account of the sweat lodge. Details were confirmed by relatives and lawyers for other participants. Dr. Bunn, who has not retained a lawyer and has not decided whether to sue, recounted that Mr. Ray told the group that he had extensive experience in sweat lodges — he holds the “spiritual warrior” event annually — and that his sweats were very intense.
Mr. Ray sat by the tent-flap door, Dr. Bunn said, which remained sealed except for pauses when fresh air briefly circulated as additional rocks heated in an outdoor fire were brought in.
But the heat grew overwhelming. About 90 minutes into the ceremony, Dr. Bunn said, someone yelled in the darkness that a woman had passed out just after Mr. Ray closed the tent door between rounds. Dr. Bunn said Mr. Ray replied, “We will deal with that after the next round.”
By the end of the ceremony, two people, James Shore, 40, who Dr. Bunn said had dragged an ill woman out of the lodge and then returned, and Kirby Brown, 38, were near death; they died that evening. A third participant, Liz Neuman, 49, fell into a coma and died on Oct. 17. Autopsies have been completed on Mr. Shore and Ms. Brown, but the results have not been released.
Mr. Ray, who is based in Carlsbad, Calif., did not respond to requests for comment. At a public seminar in Denver on Tuesday, he was interrupted by two men who shouted, “Tell them the truth!” and: “You control people! You stood in front of the door and refused to let people leave.”
The men were escorted from the meeting, and people burst into applause for Mr. Ray. “I, too, want answers and am cooperating with authorities,” he said. He asked for a moment of silent prayer for those who had died.
Mr. Ray’s company, James Ray International, made $9.4 million in 2008 from events including weekend seminars with titles like “World Wealth Summit,” videos and books, including the 2008 best-seller “Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want.” He gained wide attention in New Age circles with his 2006 appearance in “The Secret,” a film about reaching personal and financial goals.
The sweat lodge deaths have focused scrutiny on the New Age community in Sedona, which over three decades has become a magnet for spiritual seekers thanks to spectacular scenery and links to Native American rituals. The Angel Valley retreat center, which hosted the five-day Spiritual Warrior event, offers a menu of services like soul retrieval, vortex healing and dolphin energy healing.
A psychic in Waynesville, N.C., Page Bryant, who was among the first to claim in the 1980s that Sedona had several “vortexes” of high energy — the initial lure for the legions of seekers — said that she became fed up and left nearly two decades ago “because of the craziness I saw going on in the New Age community.”
The deaths have not shaken all of Mr. Ray’s supporters. “He sets up the stage for people to change their lives — he gives you the tools,” said Meredith Ann Murray, a real estate agent in Bellingham, Wash. She attended a 2007 Spiritual Warrior retreat, where she spent three hours in a sweat lodge. Mr. Ray let people come and go as they pleased, she said. Ms. Murray said she had had a “huge breakthrough” in the sweat lodge that helped her overcome claustrophobia.
She also described a game — enacted again at the retreat this month — in which Mr. Ray wears white robes and plays God, ordering some participants to commit mock suicide.
For the “vision quest,” the exercise that required spending 36 hours in the desert without food or water, participants had sleeping bags, but Mr. Ray also offered to sell Peruvian ponchos for $250, Dr. Bunn said.
After the vision quest and a light breakfast, Mr. Ray announced one more challenge to help break mental and spiritual blocks: a sweat lodge. “He told us that it was going to be an intense situation and it was to resemble a rebirthing,” Dr. Bunn said.
Dr. Bunn’s description of the sweat lodge dovetailed with accounts gathered by Thomas J. McFeeley, a cousin of one of the dead, Ms. Brown, a painter from Westtown, N.Y. Mr. McFeeley said that he and his relatives had spoken to about 10 people who were in the lodge, lightly clothed, and that by all accounts, Mr. Ray had discouraged them from leaving except during brief breaks.
“James Ray stood by the door of the tent and he controlled when those rounds began and ended,” Mr. McFeeley said. “He called for more and hotter rocks that were brought into the tent between the rounds. He instructed people inside that you could not leave during the rounds. If you had to leave, you had to wait until the end of the round.”
Ted Schmidt, a lawyer for Sidney Spencer, 49, who was airlifted to Flagstaff Medical Center after she passed out in the sweat lodge, said Ms. Spencer had intended to leave but fainted before she could reach the door.
“Other people wanted to leave and some did leave,” Mr. Schmidt said. Mr. Ray “was very intimidating” and discouraged people from leaving, he added. “His catchphrase was, ‘Play full on, you have to go through this barrier,’ ” Mr. Schmidt said.
He added that his client had suffered liver and kidney damage and “scorched lungs.” He said he planned to file a lawsuit.
On Wednesday, a publicist representing Mr. Ray, Howard Bragman, said his client would not comment on the accounts of participants. “There were a lot of people at the retreat who had amazing and empowering experiences,” Mr. Bragman said. “Before we rush to judgment, let’s do a little more research and not try this case in the media.”
At least seven other people have died in ceremonial sweat lodges since 1993 in the United States, England and Australia, according to news accounts compiled by Alton Carroll, an adjunct professor of history at San Antonio College who also moderates the Web site Newagefraud.org.
Dr. Bunn and others said that by the end of the final round in the sweat lodge, at least three people were unconscious. Mr. Ray’s employees, called the Dream Team, threw water on people as they emerged from the structure, which was about 24 feet wide and 4 1/2 feet tall.
The events have left Dr. Bunn distraught and angry. Dr. Bunn said that as she was crawling out of the tent, weak from exhaustion, she found Ms. Brown, her roommate at Angel Valley, not moving. “I think Kirby was barely gasping her last breaths, and that’s what I was hearing as I got out of the tent.”
On a conference call Mr. Ray held last week for sweat lodge participants, Dr. Bunn was shocked to hear one recount the comments of a self-described “channeler” who visited Angel Valley after the retreat. Claiming to have communicated with the dead, the channeler said they had left their bodies in the sweat lodge and chosen not to come back because “they were having so much fun.”
Dr. Bunn had a less charitable view: “They couldn’t re-enter their bodies because they were dead.”
Mindy Sink contributed reporting from Denver.