James Arthur Ray and the Dark Side of the Force

This morning’s New York Times weighs in on the sweat lodge scandal; click here to read the whole thing. I had read elsewhere that Ray plays a game during his retreats in which he dresses up in white robes, pretending to be God, and orders some of his customers to pretend to kill themselves. He stood by the door during the sweat lodge ceremony, discouraging his desperately sick clients from leaving.

“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.”

The playing God stuff is really disquieting–it suggests that had Ray come up, say, in a Disciples of Christ Church in Indiana, he might have ended up handing out Kool Aid to his disciples in Guyana instead of organizing Spiritual Warrior retreats in Sedona, Arizona for wealthy folks who want to get even richer (and of course spiritually empowered). It’s a slippery slope, this playing God.

It makes you think that the authors of Leviticus knew what they were doing when they banned sorcery and magic in Chapter 19, Verse 31: “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God.” It wasn’t because they were charlatans, because their magic didn’t work–the Old Testament provides evidence for its efficacy in dozens of stories. For just one example, look at 1 Samuel 28:3-25, when King Saul orders the Witch of Endor to call up the ghost of Samuel and she does. It was because witches and sorcerers and priests of other gods were bound to misuse their power; also because people would turn to them for base purposes–to get money and sex and influence. I don’t believe in magic myself, but I can see how the kinds of people who would be most likely to claim that they know how to channel such chthonic energies–sexually magnetic, charismatic, empowered by genuine faith but also by an overwhelming sense of their own destiny–would also be the likeliest to use them for their own selfish purposes. Magic brings out the worst in everybody.

When I wrote my book about Kabbalah, I was astounded by how many medieval Kabablists became convinced that they themselves were the Messiah. Not just crazies like Sabbatai Zevi or Jacob Frank, but saints like Abulafia and Cordovero. The same thing happens in every other “practical” mysticism–some gurus simply run amok, they get seduced, as it were, by the dark side of the force.

If you have followers who believe that you are powerful, the most ardent among them will give you a blank check. If a leader holds out the promise to his followers that they can enjoy unimaginable powers themselves–a promise that isn’t altogether outrageous on its face, as it’s one that traditional religions make too–it becomes that much easier to surrender one’s volition. Ray clearly has enormous power. He has been on Oprah; he was featured in The Secret, and he speaks at conferences with other New Age stars. Celebrity is as miraculously self-propagating as anything they study at the Institute of Noetic Science. Ray’s “practical mysticism” is a tool to amass “harmonic wealth”; one of the celebrities that attests to its efficacy on his website is Donald Trump’s ex-wife Marla Maples, who is probably better-known as a successful gold digger than as a spiritual warrior. Ray obviously does extremely well himself. Now that disaster has struck, the magic circle has been broken; people will see how selfish and unempathetic he really is; whether or not he goes to prison, his magic powers will almost certainly be dimmed.

Mostly what this is about is money–the guru’s desire for it, the follower’s willingness to invest what money he has in the hope of getting still more. The Times mentioned a website called New Age Frauds and Plastic Shamans which makes the point (as Alice did with the link she posted the other day to Indian Country Today) that real native American shamans don’t charge money for their services. I’m sure Ray has overhead, just like any other businessman, but the $9695 price tag he put on this ordeal is a real give-away. Anton commented on this in an earlier post:

An additional point that occurred to me while reading the news accounts was that the price tag on the event, in addition to conferring an aura of exclusivity as he perceptively notes, also creates an atmosphere of self-fulfilling expectation: I’m laying down ten grand for this experience, therefore it’s absolutely going to be life-transforming in a major way.

Now I’m wondering whether that kind of price tag tends to attract people who have a predilection for self-fulfilling expectations & exhibit that sort of magical thinking in other areas of their lives.

First Ray got people to pay him a fortune so he could send them out into the desert without food or water for 36 hours. Then he offered to sell them Peruvian ponchos for $250 to make their ordeals easier. As James McMurtry wrote in a different context (a song about a crystal meth maker) “he likes his money, he don’t mind the smell.”

For a couple of summers when I was going to college, I worked as a dishwasher/porter at a big restaurant on the Jersey Shore. The chef, a Yugoslavian immigrant named Slavko, was deeply involved in evangelical Christianity. When Son of Sam was terrorizing New York City, Slavko began to have visions about the murders. They troubled him terribly at first, but eventually he dismissed them as coming from Satan, not God. One afternoon, when we were lifting enormous sides of beef out of a cooler, he told me how, back in Yugoslavia, people went to healers when they needed help. You could always tell the difference between a real healer and an evil witch, he said, because the healer would take their fee in trade–maybe they’d ask for a chicken that they could eat for dinner. A witch, he said, would always ask for money.

2 thoughts on “James Arthur Ray and the Dark Side of the Force

  1. I saw all of this coming in the early 1980s after stumbling onto the New Age Movement. I wondered why nobody was commenting on its obvious features. Jim Jones was a New Ager and that was a sneak preview of what was to come. I received opposition from where I least expected it and support from my efforts to unveil this. I am very happy you are on the case now. I have been on this case since 1981. Keep up your good work!

    Constance E. Cumbey

  2. I wanted to offer some thoughts on your comments about Witchcraft. When you say that God didn’t forbid Witchcraft because it doesn’t work, but because “witches and sorcerers and priests of other gods were bound to misuse their power; also because people would turn to them for base purposes–to get money and sex and influence,” you have a somewhat valid point.

    Regrettably, there are a number of people who call themselves Witches who are using the outer trappings of Witchcraft in order to get rich or to get off on the ‘power trip’ they get from appearing superior to the people who seek them out for help. It should also be noted, however, that ALL religions – including Christianity – are vulnerable to such abusers. The names Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Mike Warnke, Ted Haggard, Paul Crouch, Tony Alamo and the problem of child abuse among Catholic priests all stand as a testament to that.

    But just as there are many, many more Christian ministers who are truly attempting to do their God’s work according to ethics and mores of their faith, there are also many, many more people who incorporate Witchcraft as a part of their religious practices and hold to the ethics and mores of *their* faith.

    In general, it is considered unethical for a Witch to charge a profit if they do a working for someone – though they may ask for a reasonable fee to cover the cost of consumable materials, or take their fee in trade (much as in the example you mentioned above.) It is also unethical for a Witch to do a working that will intentionally bring harm to someone or cause someone to do something against their will (such as “love spells” or curses.)

    Witchcraft isn’t really a religion unto itself, but is is a religious practice that is frequently incorporated into modern faiths that draw from pre-Christian European faiths. Magick (the “k” is to distinguish religious magick from stage magic) is essentially a form of prayer – in fact it’s sometimes referred to as “prayer with props.” Where a Christian may bow his/her head and quiet his/her heart to connect with his/her God, Witches use natural items like herbs, incense, crystals, and oils along with candles and other tools to bring about a certain frame of mind, focus on the goal of the working, connect to the God(s) and/or Goddess(es) they are calling on for aid as well as the natural elements (often represented by one or more of the consumable items) associated with the desired result.

    Personally, I take affront at anyone who tries to use the trappings of ANY faith as a way of justifying their own political views, hatreds or greed, as it makes it harder for others to have enough trust to reach out and explore the spiritual world if they feel the need to do so.

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