There are now three confirmed deaths from the recent sweat lodge tragedy in Sedona. Many more people were injured during this western styled lodge. When I first read the reports a number of thoughts occurred very quickly: ‘how did such a thing happen?’ and ‘how to prevent it happening again?’ were the obvious ones.
I have been part of a several sweat lodges conducted by westerners and they were all conducted with safety, grace, precision and respect. I have been very lucky and blessed. There are also other western sweat lodges where the physical conditions are essentially a hot sauna, which should pose minimal risks for the sensible. No doubt the ’causes’ for the deaths will be revealed shortly. One of the deceased was a vetran of the sweat lodge so naivety and inexperience cannot be blamed.
However, let us be clear – sticking a group of people (who have often fasted beforehand) in a small confined space in extreme heat and with little ventilation is dangerous. Unless the leaders know what their doing. And to a very large extent sweat lodge members place their safety in the hands of their leaders. For example, the sweats I have been part off where conducted in a traditional manner. Stones were heated until extremely hot and then brought into the lodge. Now certain stones under extreme heat will release toxic gases. Unless the leader is aware of these sorts of things, tragedies are bound to happen.
In Sedona, the sweat leader was James Arthur Ray, one of the most visible New Age leaders in America. The week long retreat which culminated in the deadly Sweat Lodge cost the dead and injured folk $9000 USD each. Mr Ray apparently had around 60 people in the Lodge, an amount well in excess of the traditional numbers involved which peak at 20. The overloading of the Lodge may be one of the contributing factors. We must wait and see what the police and coroner uncover. Another issue, which according to the news reports was present in the Sedona event – sometimes modern lodges are covered in plastic tarpaulins, which are certainly not traditional and would present additional difficulties for the leaders to ensure safety is maintained.
To be perfectly frank, I find Mr Ray’s ‘spiritual’ philosophies like much of the New Age objectionable, shallow and nauseating. But that does not make him automatically culpable in these deaths, though he may be. However, his response to the deaths was to leave ship sharply, refuse to speak to the police, meditate for a day or two and continue working (and charging) as his work is “too important” for it to stop. He has chosen to “embrace the adversity” this tragedy has brought him. Maybe it’s just me, but I found his comments on the issue cold and lacking compassion. Read them for yourself here. He must of course be suffering great emotional distress as well, something I am trying to remember.
There are also reports of a conference call Mr Ray made to the survivors of the lodge (and I think we can call them that as 18 others were injured). During this call one of Mr Ray’s assistants made a typical unthinking, cold, New Age remark. The deceased she said, “left their bodies during the ceremony and had so much fun they chose not to come back, and that was their choice that they made”. I don’t think I can comment on this and stay calm, so I will leave it as it stands.
Many people are blaming this awful situation on the fact that it was lodge organised by a New Age westerner rather than as part of a traditional Native American spiritual undertaking. However, since the skills required to work the sweat lodge are not genetic, simply being a Native American does not guarantee a person knows how to run a sweat lodge safely and correctly. I was once at a Creation Spirituality dance ritual with a Caribbean gentleman. We were assigned the drums and he turned out to be even more jerky in his movements than I was. During a break he smiled, leaned over to me and ruefully exclaimed, “Man, I’m telling ya, it AIN’T in the blood.” Being in a culture where the sweat lodge is common would provide more opportunities to learn and be trained correctly, that is all. I am sure there are some lousy Native American sweat leaders, just as there are some wonderful western leaders.
The appropriation of the Sweat Lodge and other aspects of Native American tradition for New Age commercial gain is something else. Back in the early 90s I was editor of a Pagan newsletter, Green Spirit and was very happy to reproduce a statement deploring this trend by the American Indian Movement. Despite AIM’s campaign nothing seems to have changed. In fact, Western styled Sweats and other ‘Native American’ spiritualities are even more common, even more abused and used.
Whatever the ’causes’ of the deaths in Sedona, they would not have occured if western culture and western religion offered what these people were looking for. Very few people will pay $9000 and swallow unworkable New Age ideology on a whim. I am sure many of the participants have a deep, authentic need to experience the sacred and the eternal. A few may have been after the instant riches that Mr Ray implicitly promises in his work, but even that desire comes from spiritual misunderstanding and immaturity. Ultimately then, no matter what the coroner concludes, the fault for these deaths lies with our spiritually impoverished culture and religious institutions that force people to find sacred truth and beauty in dangerous places.