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Sweat Lodge Deaths: Self-Help Gurus & Spiritual Extremes

by Jonathan Ellerby


By Jonathan Ellerby PhD, author of Return to the Sacred: Ancient Pathways to Spiritual Awakening

Dr. Ellerby has studied sweat lodges and numerous other spiritual practices around the world for over 20 years. Blending extensive periods of mentoring with academic, research, and professional experience Jonathan brings a rare perspective and credibility to the world of self-help and spirituality. He is the author of Return to the Sacred; Your Spiritual Personality and works as the Spiritual Program Director for the highly acclaimed Canyon Ranch Health Resorts. www.returntothesacred.com

A Tragic Call To Attention

The recent and tragic events that involved two deaths and more than 19 injured and emotionally traumatized at a James Ray “Spiritual Warrior Retreat” deserves to be treated with some gentleness for this is more than a news item, but a true experience of loss and suffering that is impacting far more people than those who were there. It is also a criminal investigation and a man’s career under scrutiny. This “event” brings up some critical issues and this is one of those important times where we can either learn something that will serve everyone, or fall into the kind of blame and stereotyping that helps no one.

Sweat Lodges: Good. Cultural Appropriation: Bad

Ceremonial steam baths are a part of many traditions across the world and have been around for thousands of years. They are health promoting, safe environments for personal growth, spiritual reflection and physical detoxification – if done properly and according to strict protocol. As a an academic, a healer, Interfaith minister and a person with more than twenty years experience in attending (and running) Lodges around the world, there is an important place for this powerful tradition in the modern age. Each type of Sweat Lodge, however, has its own unique history, protocol and procedures that are essential to their impact and safety.

Interfaith, non-Native Lodges, must be treated with as much respect, reverence and care as traditional Native Lodges. The act of “borrowing” or “copying” Native traditions by non-Native people, without permission, guidance or extensive forms of supervision is just stealing and selling someone else’s culture. Native American people have endured this kind of abuse for more than 500 years now and it needs to stop. A self-respecting therapist, healer, or spiritual teacher must find their own innovative and culturally appropriate ways to conduct ceremony – they don’t have to fake it or steal it. This is not to claim that this is what James Ray has done. It only appears that way; we don’t yet know the whole story.

Recently, I asked a friend of mine who had lived and studied in a Tibetan Buddhist temple for five years if she’d come to my place of work and teach a session on a specific form of Buddhist mediation she had learned. “There are certain things I can and do share based on my experience, and something that I am able to teach, but don’t” she wisely said. “Just because I know how to do something doesn’t mean it’s my place to teach others. In the Tibetan tradition there are certain rules that determine who can teach what and when. I have to honor those because I honor the tradition and what I have learned.” My sentiments exactly! I feel the same way about what I have learned at the hands of my Lakota Native American and Venda African mentors who have taken me deeply into their traditions. Most of it is not for me to share or sell – ever.

Becoming a Self-Help Guru

The media is quick to call James Ray a “guru,” which is precisely why most people today are afraid of that word. It is often used in connection with “negative” media stories. I have published a few things on the complexity of credentials and spiritual leaders, and in my new book I include an entire chapter on the pros and cons of working with a guru. When I speak in public on this topic the mere mention of the word causes many people to recoil. “Guru” simply means a teacher to whom students are devoted in an equal relationship of power.

It is great to have a teacher or a mentor. The difficult part lies in who claims to be a guru and who is given that title. To be fair to James Ray, I look at his website and see a brilliant business man who has learned about human potential, and has made it his new career to share that. I don’t see a man claiming to be a guru, nor does he look or act like any guru I have known. What he says and does on his retreats is something I cannot comment on.

Extreme Spiritual Practices

In Return to the Sacred I also dedicate a chapter to extreme spiritual practices precisely because they are often misunderstood or abused. Things like fasting, deprivation of one kind or another, staying up without sleep, and other physical types of austerities not only can lead to very real and meaningful spiritual experiences and personal healing, but have been at the heart of our religious traditions forever. Jesus in the desert, Moses up the mountain, Buddha beneath the tree, and even Muhammed in the cave all practiced austerities that would make the average American cringe. Most of the great spiritual teachers who have made a positive impact on the world, Gandhi and Martin Luther King included, undertook training and retreats that would make the local police chief and medical authority suspicious.

People do these things because they work. I support that. The problem lies in how we do them, who guides us and why. We need to expect more from our leaders: accountability and credibility – not just great marketing. We also need to expect more from ourselves.

You Have To Remember!

Each teacher and each student must take as much responsibility as possible to live, act and choose with integrity. There is a line between trusting another and ignoring your intuition and safety. This sad event calls us all to see that the world is out of balance and people need retreats and self-help leaders more than ever. But we also need more discernment, more caution and more credibility in such things than ever before. Spiritual practices are more powerful than most people will ever know. But anything with power, even medicine, has the ability to hurt as much as it has the ability to heal if used without integrity.


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