Survivors’ tales: Was James Arthur Ray creating some sort of cult? Is that why his followers died?

It’s a fair question to ask–was James Arthur Ray becoming a cult leader? Was he using tried and true cult techniques to control and fleece his followers? Was the control over his followers so great that they wouldn’t leave an intensely hot and crowded sweat lodge even as their organs were failing and they were dying?

You can read these excerpts and decide for yourself. Survivors have begun to speak out about what they experienced at Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior” retreat, and the details are shocking: heads are shaved, sleep is shunned, games are played where Ray is ‘God’, participants are stranded in the desert without food and water. And when the brutal, packed sweat lodge gets so bad that people are vomiting or passing out, or trying to leave, the guru Ray tells people to stay, to push beyond the discomfort. 3 people died, and many more were hospitalized. People want to know what happened.

Cassandra Yorgey spoke with “firsthand witnesses and participants”, and her post in is excerpted here. Also at Yorgey’s link is a recorded interview with witness Shawna Bowen.

Breaking news: Inside accounts of James Ray sweat lodge tragedy and retreat

People are flailing in seizures; others are vomiting violently, or foaming at the mouth. Bodies are lined up unconscious, some are blue from lack of oxygen, but for some it is too late, they are already dead. Survivors that are barely able to stand struggle to help the others, they have had almost no food or water for nearly three days, even longer without sleep. It looks like a war zone, but for the incongruent figure of James Arthur Ray (a contributing author to The Secret) who exits the sweat lodge and stands tall with a big smile, the only one able to stand on his own volition. He is not concerned with the medical emergency going on full swing around him. He is not worried about the health and well-being of his followers who have paid $10,000.00 (tack on an additional 5,000.00 or so if you include flights, room and board, and camping supplies) to attend his retreat. In fact, he and his team urge people to stop taking care of others and focus on their own journey, assuring them they are fine and only “purging”. Someone finally realizes James Ray is not in control of the situation and calls 911…

The first day or so of the retreat was mostly unremarkable as far as self-help retreats go – a lot of time spent in the “classroom” doing meditation and listening to other CD’s as well as lectures. I say “mostly” because James Ray urged participants to forego sleep, insisting that working on their assignments all night would be more beneficial…

Some people might find it more alarming that immediately upon starting the retreat participants shaved their heads – before the sleep deprivation. Yes, even the women…

Day Two the sleep deprivation has begun – but that by itself is not enough of a warning to foresee this tragedy. The real warning signs begin with the James Ray Games. One of the brave and recovering victims described a game they all had to play in which James Ray played God. Yep, you read that right; James Ray cast himself in the role of God and would then command participants to die. He would point at someone and they would have to fall down and play dead. They would be covered with a blanket and if they moved another person would “die”.

Kirby Brown exemplified the dangerous psychological twisting behind these games. After the game she was seen standing in line for the outhouse, clutching herself and crying. After another participant ushered her to the front of the line they asked her “Why didn’t you just get up and go?” She looked up sincerely and said she didn’t want to ruin the game for others…

“What was the motivation behind such games?” you are probably demanding of your computer screen right now. James Ray reasoned something along the lines of “it demonstrated the transcendental nature of death” and explained how it would allow participants to leave behind their fears of death. He spoke of honor, integrity, and strength. He spoke of being reborn (These are not direct quotes, they are adlibbed from the memories of participants)…

At the end of the second day the James Ray Vision Quest began. I personally have done several vision quests in the desert so I do have an inkling of an idea of what I’m talking about here. I find the biggest red flags of dangerous indoctrination to be restriction of water, food, or bathroom breaks – So when I heard James Ray dropped everyone off in the desert with no food, no water, and nothing but a sleeping bag, the clothes on their back, and a notebook I start to sputter obscenities. No water, in the desert, for 36+ hours is dangerous. I’ve always been told to drink at least a gallon of water a day when hiking in the desert…

Sleep was still hard to come by because most participants were not prepared for the devastating cold that comes over the desert at night. Participants were coerced into buying thickly woven Peruvian ponchos for additional charges of $250.00. While that price may seem exorbitant, one victim I interviewed was happy to have paid it, repeatedly stating that it was literally life-saving. The tightly woven material also kept out the intermittent rain, helping to keep participants dry. Still, sleep was hard to come by in those temperatures, being fitful at best and it hardly alleviated the impaired thinking that has become prevalent…

When James Ray’s team finally returned to pick them up from their isolation…the participants were all so happy to be warm, with food and water, and thrilled to be surrounded by all their new friends who were all equally excited about their amazing transformative experiences, that the measly hour or so they had to eat and rehydrate themselves flew by. Food was hardly touched, most people opting to drink water first which quickly filled their newly shrunken stomachs. Before anyone had a chance to really recover the participants were whisked off to a group meditation (led by James Ray) and then to the final piece of the James Ray Spiritual Warrior Retreat. The sweat lodge.

We’ve painted a picture of the participants mental state leading up to the sweat lodge, and we know what happened when James Ray turned the relaxing Native American equivalent of a sauna into an endurance competition. He not only encouraged participants to stay and push past physical discomfort, he also actively dissuaded people that wanted to leave. The phrase “push through your threshold” was repeated often by James Ray. If participants didn’t make it to the door fast enough they had to wait for the next round. James Ray would slam the tarp shut shouting “Too late! Door’s shut!” and as he was sitting directly next to the door he was escalating it into a physical confrontation (not to mention he was the only one getting reprieve from the heat. Others could not feel a thing when the door was opened) – playing off something we are trained from birth to avoid. Throughout all this, James Ray is speaking words of encouragement. He speaks of how throwing up is good and actually purging (it isn’t. it’s actually a sign of dehydration and many other bad things), and explains that passing out is common (it isn’t). He encourages people who find it too hot to bury their faces in the dirt, because it was cooler. This is like telling people to stay in a sauna and if it’s too hot – hey, just stick your face by the bottom of the door!

These honorable participants tried time and time again to re-organize and keep everyone safe, but at every stage they were thwarted by James Ray and his staff. Participants who expressed concern over others were told time and time again to focus on their own journey, and not to interfere with another’s. Once outside the enclosure some people were physically restrained from helping the rescue effort by staff members. One unconscious victim was dropped on their head while staff carried them out of the sweat lodge.

After paramedics responded, James Ray was escorted away by police; however he chose his right to silence. Police are reported to have released James Ray that evening, at which point he immediately left the state (this is based on other reports in the media)…


7 thoughts Survivors’ tales: Was James Arthur Ray creating some sort of cult? Is that why his followers died?

  1. avatar Donna says:

    As a one-time participant in James Ray’s “warrior” games, I experienced firsthand being put into a dangerous situation in order to “get out of my comfort zone”. I seemed the only person there, out of about 175, who saw this event for what it was, and Mr. Ray for the charlatan that he is. His good looks and charismatic personality made me think of what the early days of Jim Jones (of Jonestown in Guyana) must have been like. I’d paid $6000.00 for two seminars (I am now embarrassed to admit) and left this first one, “Creating Absolute Wealth” (for Mr. Ray, a clear success) when the absolute nakedness of the self-styled “emperor” became clear to me, and apparently, me alone. Even though I’d been verbally assured, before paying for the two seminars, that Mr. Ray would “stand behind his product” in the highly unlikely event that one would request a refund (I was told it had never happened – too bad I didn’t check the BBB first…but it was “spiritual”, right?). I was unable to get my money back either for the seminar I left OR for the other I’d prepaid that was still 6 months in the future, having decided that I did not wish to take a Quantum (or any other kind of) Leap with Mr. Ray. I am sorry, but not surprised, that Mr. Ray’s utter ego-maniacal self-interest has now cost lives. I hope he has to pay for this, at least, and I hope it is with his time, and not his money.

  2. avatar toma says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your unfortunate experiences with Ray, but I am happy to know you were capable of doing the right thing, and that you’re okay. If I were you, I might consider myself graduated with honors out of the Ray school. Many more apparently find it difficult to get out.

    From the moment I started researching Ray, his schtick and his seminars, I was appalled. This guy is clearly a megalomaniac, plying his vulnerable followers with empty philosophies and dangerous techniques. Obsessed only with his grandiosity and his money-making, unaccountable to no one, this guy needs to be stopped right now. Otherwise, I am convinced he will kill again.

    Good for you, for getting out, Donna. When you look at all the good people that got physically hurt by the guy last week, you can be relieved that it only cost you your money.

  3. avatar redplanet says:

    The secret can now be known: Charlatans Rule.

    Est, scientology, 7th Day Adventists, Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, Christianity, Judiasm….there’s a cult for everyone. Some go to sweat lodges, some speak in tongues, some shun you for being gay, some embrace you for being stupid…the world is so full of a number of organized myths, people can be as delusional as they want in any number of ways.

  4. avatar Newton says:

    Thanks for highlighting this issue. Despite the tragic and appaling state of affairs the good thing that is coming out of this is that Ray now is exposed for the crook he is and hopefully having to account for his actions in a court of law. Two years ago I wrote a book titled The Scourge of Our Time: The Demise of Critical Thinking in the Age of “The Secret” URL – and I received mostly ridicule for taking on these positive and uplifting souls. In truth so many of these gurus are greedy sociopaths exploiting that which is most sacred, uor longing and striving for more from our oftentimes desperate lives, but in truth, what they are doing is literally selling their souls to the devil.

  5. He was trying to do a Lakota/Dakota/Nakota Inipi Ceremony to attract wealth by magic; relabeled as the law of attraction. It is a small step into occult practices that leads deeper into the occult.

  6. avatar toma says:

    Donna–thanks again for your comments. See here.

  7. avatar justme says:

    I’ve been to half of his seminar someone had an extra ticket and said it would be interesting. This guy James Ray is a good salesman of BS and rich people buy into anything he’s selling them. I was astonished by the amount of idiots that participated. By the end of the day(12 hour a day seminar over 2 consecutive days) he had everyone sitting in a circle holding hands and sing. That was ENOUGH for me to figure what what the heck that was: a cult of indoctrination, a very very very dangerous man and not go back the next day. This whole thing finished at 2 a.m. and we were supposed to come back for another round same day at 5 a.m. Is he nuts? I thought…How the heck can you get 3 hour sleep and be able to keep a clear mind the next day for another 12 hours of yupping? I told the friend who gave me the ticket i won’t go back, they’re all f***ing crazy and he got upset saying it was a $2000 ticket he gave me and didn’t know I would be s weak. That day was the last day he was my friend.

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