James Arthur Ray, the “guru” once promoted by Oprah alongside The Secret, just got two years in prison for hosting a sweat lodge vision quest in 2009 that caused the death of three people and hospitalization of dozens more. He was technically given three two-year sentences for reckless endangerment, but they’ll be served concurrently, which when you recount the details of what happened at his “Sun Warrior Retreat” in Sedona, Arizona, seems like a ridiculously light punishment.
If you’re not familiar with Ray or his deadly Warrior Weekend, here’s a brief outline of what went down:
- He charged disciples about $10,000 apiece to come spend 36 hours in the Arizona desert without food or water.
- He crammed about 50 people into a 415-square-foot lodge for a two-hour sweat lodge “vision quest” ceremony. He discouraged anyone from leaving the room, and brought in more steaming rocks even as participants reported pain and displayed adverse reactions to the heat (like vomiting).
- According to police reports, there was no safety plan for the ceremony, despite serious medical problems occurring during previous sweat lodge rituals.
- The wife of a man who was heating rocks for the ceremony pulled one of the victims out of the lodge, but when she attempted to relieve the other two, Ray told her it would be “sacrilegious” to remove the tarps and blankets covering the wood frame structure.
- Ray was heard saying “it’s a good day to die” as one of the participants, who believed he was experiencing a heart attack, repeated “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.”
In all, 20 people were hospitalized and three died, but this wasn’t the only time that people died during his retreats or experienced serious medical problems under his guidance.
For most of us, it’s hard to imagine ever letting yourself be sauna’d to death by a New Age guru. Ray sounds crazy, by all accounts, and there are a number of photos of him that make him look just plain creepy. But in reality, I bet a lot of us have tried crazy, stupid things in the name of health, and the truth is, there’s no clear line between “conventional,” “alternative,” “forward-thinking” and just plain “crazy” when it comes to spiritual, mental and physical health treatments.
Which is why it seems like there should be some pretty heavy legal ramifications for someone like James Arthur Ray. Because if he’s not accountable for taking safety precautions and guiding people with unqualified expertise, then anyone could publish a book, run a retreat, and chalk up the death of a few people to the casualties of cutting edge therapy.