Friday, March 12, 2010

Dangerous mind(game)s: James Ray in black and white.

"Only he and she who is willing to potentially go too far will ever know how far one can go." -T.S. Elliot [sic]
James Ray on Twitter, 3:19 p.m., September 30, 2009

To b the greatest pitcher in the world you have to play w/the greatest hitters. The greatest hitters have to hit the fastest & hardest pitch
James Ray on Twitter, 7:06 p.m., March 6, 2010

I've been reading through some of the papers filed in connection with the James Ray case, and a number of things jump out at me. First of all, I'm reminded of just how profitable this line of work can be. As per the contracts Ray signed with Angel Valley, it appears that his company, JRI, paid the Retreat Center $107,200 for the use of the facilities, and provisions for all Spiritual Warrior participants. The contract covers 60 spiritual warriors and eight Dream Team members (paying quasi-facilitators), each of whom presumably ponied up the usual $9695, or something close. Simple multiplication gives a sense of the margin here. By my math, JRI collected upwards of $650,000 and discharged its debt to Angel Valley for just $107,000, meaning a gross profit (before salaries and such) of well over a half-million bucks. There may be some other expenses involved here that aren't accounted for in the documents I've seen, but that's a damn sweet take nonetheless. And this was just a single event, of course.

The other thing that leaps off the page(s) is the never-say-die mentality that Ray was determined to stoke in his disciples, and how that may figure in his ultimate responsibility for what took place in Sedona. Again and again we have indications of Ray's intention to push his captive audience, to get them to stretch, even perhaps when their gut instincts were telling them otherwise.

All of the following are from the introductory, "Welcome to Spiritual Warrior" letter that Ray sent to prospective attendees:

"The personal battles you've fought, challenges you've overcome, and the difficulties you've faced place you among the elite few who are willing to do what most never will."
"Springing forward to capture new heights always means letting go. For something new to live something first must die."
"As you may imagine, Spiritual Warrior will push you beyond your perceived limits."
"If you can't dance with the Devil you will never walk in the Light."
"Prepare yourself to dance like never before, my Warrior Friend. I warn you in advance that your small ego/identity may not want to participate and complete the tasks ahead of you. Many talk, but time for talk is over..."
"Be courageous."
"Prepare to plug in to 220 watts..."*
Ray's lawyers doubtless will argue that such language collectively forms a disclaimer. But in this setting, with this type of "spiritual warrior" audience, does all of that really sound like a disclaimer? Or is it more of a gauntlet being thrown down. A dare. An exhortation to check your brains at the door, throw caution to the wind and let one James Ray usher you into a new dimension of personal growth.

In a letter to Yuvapai County District Attorney Bill Hughes, Ray's lawyers, apparently trying to downplay the woo-hoo factor, note that "participants compare the sweat lodge to a marathon, with people encouraging one another and checking on one another. One participant recalls that Mr. Ray acted like a coach, telling people 'come on you can do it, you are better than this.' "

I would counter: In a mass-psychology setting (which is precisely what makes these group affairs so dangerous), who's going to be the first to admit he's not "better than this"? Who's going to be the one to stand up and say, "Nah, tell ya what, I think I'll just go back to the main building and eat Skittles"?

Even more remarkable is an eye-opening 2005 incident that Ray's attorneys describe as part of emphasizing the evolution of Ray's program, and the safeguards that JRI had built into its sweat lodge experience since its earliest iterations:
...[A]fter the sweat lodge ceremony ended, one man became combative. Thirty people had participated in that sweat lodge. It was held at night and ran for 12 rounds. Mr. Ray told participants that they had only one more round to go, then at the last minute, held one more round. Some participants complained and, when the ceremony was over, people left in disarray. A man named Daniel Pfankuch came out swinging his arms and cursing. Paramedics responded and administered oxygen. He was hospitalized that night and returned to the Spiritual Warrior Retreat the next day.
This is instructive on two levels. First, again, it shows Ray's tendency to push people to and beyond their limits. But it also shows the degree of mindless obedience found in his followers, even in situations where they consider his commands onerous and unreasonable. This man, Pfankuch, was so enraged and/or dissipated by the end of the ceremony that he grew violent. And yet he had stayed the course. He waited till the event was over before erupting. Then he got some treatment and came back for more!

Such, one might argue, is the near-religious dominion over participants that Ray establishes from the first. On a Spiritual Warrior instruction sheet included with the lawyers' letter to the DA, labeled "Exhibit E," the following phrase appears three times:
Remember that you're in silence until the code of silence is lifted.
In the end, Ray's lawyers may have put it best: "The evidence would show that Mr. Ray did not physically prevent anyone from leaving." No, not physically he didn't. But there are other ways of controlling behavior.


And in a postscript that I find chilling: The first tweet at the top of this page, posted
just a few days before everything went sour, shows the mentality that James Arthur Ray took into his Spiritual Warrior weekend in Sedona last October. The second tweet, a few days after Ray made bail late last month, shows us that not much has changed.

* or maybe, to par-broil at 220 degrees?


Ron Purvis said...

I would say that nothing has changed with James Ray based on the two tweets you mentioned. He is probably thinking that he will "Secret" his way out of this and walk back into his business and is trying to preserve that "asset" if you will.

Anonymous said...

Daniel Pfankuch was hospitalised with heatstroke according to the witness statements released by YCSO. The out of control behaviour was a result of that, a common manifestation of heatstroke.
His then wife, Michelle, reports in her witness statement that James Ray was intrigued at Daniels altered state due to the heat stroke.
JRI was aware in 2005 that heatstroke was an issue in the way the lodge was conducted but no improvements were made. The possibility of inducing altered states in the participants seems to have overridden any consideration of the lethal effects of inducing heatstroke.

Cosmic Connie said...

Another very good post, Steve. You've summarized some of the most important points about the "dangerous mind games" that James Ray (and other New-Wage/LGAT leaders) often play.

I know you've had your issues with the Rick Ross forum, but there's a very informative discussion going on there now. Frequent contributor "The Anticult" made a good comment today on the devious art and science of "engineering 'voluntary' consent."

While it may sometimes seem that RR forum participants err on the side of seeing a conspiracy around every corner, I do think it's worth considering that many New-Wage gurus such as James Ray have made it a point to study persuasion and manipulation techniques -- mostly in the service of getting people to hand over their money, but also to get adulation, sex, and undying loyalty.

Of course not every 'guru' or cult leader spends thousands of dollars to study NLP techniques and the like; some are just naturally charismatic (and sociopathic) manipulators. But many of the New-Wage gurus like JAR study the same techniques on their way to building their business, and they use these techniques in various ways in their events.

And although they boast about the awesome power of their teachings, they'll also do anything they can to avoid liability -- most notably, those infamous "waiver" forms. As Anticult puts it: "In all of their seminar waivers, they all FORCE people who are attending to sign a paper saying their consent is 'Voluntary'. Why do they all do that?

"Because they get sued by people coming after them later, saying they were put into an altered state of mind and then ripped-off for 20K-50K."

In a litigious society such as ours, I see a need for any business person who has public events to try to protect against liability. However, given the nature of JAR events (and not just the fatal ones), the waiver forms seem outrageous.

Naturally, James Ray's defense team is trying to play down Ray's influence and power over his participants/followers, even though by all appearances, Ray worked very hard to establish that power and influence.

Now JAR is insanely tweeting as if he's above it all. I still can't decide if this is calculated or just plain crazy, but I'm leaning towards calculated.

Steve Salerno said...

Connie: Your point about the Ross boards is taken. I read them often, though I no longer contribute (in part b/c I was asked not to). My only "issue" with Ross is that, as is true almost everywhere else in American society today, it's so irredeemably polarized/polarizing. The whole board seems to be devoted to piling on the self-help community (and cultists and the like) in an uncontained, almost gleeful manner. Now, it's one thing if the moderator is that way; you'd expect that, just as you'd expect me to be uniformly cynical about self-help gurus. But all the contributors as well? It's like listening to Sean Hannity, especially on radio, with the nonstop attacks on Obama and Everything Democratic, down to the smallest nuances. It gets to be a bit much after a while.

We very recently had an incident on SHAMblog where the same accusations were made against me, but those who've been with us a while know that I never censor opposing long as I can discern an actual viewpoint in there somewhere. I won't tolerate flamers and trolls--and I admit that I have no one else to turn to in making those judgments, so yes, I am limited by my own subjectivity--but that has nothing to do with my openness to "the other side."

Cassandra Yorgey said...

My thoughts, in order...

When James Ray says he "rented" it isn't the traditional sense of the word - venues had to pay HIM to be there, making the profit margins significantly higher because there is unaccounted money and virtually no cost to produce an event.

Actually, a lot of people wanted to leave the lodge but were stopped by James Ray.

Becoming extremely beligerent/nonsensical/drunklike is a symptom of extreme heat exposure, and even the Death Lodge participants had to return, if only to get their belongings (which had been gone through and were missing things like notes they had taken throughout the week, etc)

As for claims that James Ray didn't physically restrain people - he did during the resuscitation effort. People were stopped from helping, like physically stopped.

Cosmic Connie said...

Understood, Steve. Maybe I should have found another source to make my point. :-) I did think the comment I linked to had some interesting observations about the self-help gurus' use of "voluntary" consent.

I've contributed to the Ross forum on occasion myself, and I have been particularly interested in the thread containing the post I linked to because I think there's some valuable information there. However, even I got gently taken to task a while back because I was having a friendly exchange on Twitter with one of the people some of the RR contributors don't like. (Someone expressed concern that I might not know how diabolical this person really is. This actually led to an extended private exchange between the diabolical person and me. It was all very interesting, and I might blog about some of it at some point if I get the diabolical one's permission.)

On the other side of the coin, and relevant to the incident you (Steve) mentioned: you, Ron and I have been dealing with a recent commenter who has accused us of being part of a "group" that automatically dismisses opposing opinions. All three of us, in the name of fairness, have tried to give this person a voice on our blog, but it seemed this person wanted more than just a voice.

At any rate, I'm trying to look at it from everyone's point of view.

So... bringing it back to the subject of *your* post, it seems clear that Ray has been playing some mind games with his participants and followers. There's something else I've been considering, partly as a result of thinking about this stuff for months and reading and participating in numerous discussions on multiple forums. Like many charismatic workshop leaders, James Ray has devoted a lot of effort to creating an image that will attract people to his events. However, once they're actually at the events, instead of the onus being on *him* to deliver something of value, he turns it around so that the burden of performance, as it were, is on the participants. In the guise of challenging them to stretch beyond their self-imposed limits, he is continually urging, prodding, and almost harassing them to "do the work," even if the "work" seems silly or tedious, or is ultimately useless, humiliating, psychosis-inducing, or fatal. He orchestrates the exercises so that people are, in a sense, performing to please him and, to a lesser degree, the crowd. In my more cynical moments I think, "Hey, free entertainment for James!"

As you noted in your post, a "disclaimer" becomes a dare. And all too many people are willing to take the dare at some point, because they have been simultaneously pumped up and worn down, and because, above all, they want to be good performers.

Steve Salerno said...

CY: Thanks for stopping by, and for setting the record straight(er) on some points, at least to the best of your knowledge and belief, as the lawyers would say. I know you've done an enviable amount of first-hand spadework on this whole debacle, whereas I've done pretty much what everyone else has done: examine "the record" from a distance.

Steve Salerno said...

CC: I hope you didn't interpret my remarks, above, as some sort of chastisement. Hell no! I was just explaining my own position and that's all. Lord knows I'm the last one to try to set myself up as an ultimate authority on anything (as is clear, e.g., in the amendments/clarifications added by Ms. Yorgey above). The only views I have authority over are my own--and I'm not even so sure about that, sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say I really like the new approach, the way you go after specific gurus as you call them. Now how about getting back to Byron Katie as you promised *years* ago!

One thing, you said the new posts would be "shorter". I wouldn't really call these shorter, Steve. But I'll let that slide. ;-)

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: When I introduced the "new" SHAMblog, I put it this way: "Above all, I'm going to be focusing my posts much more tightly around self-help themes, and exploring those issues at greater depth: more journalism, fewer rants." I'm not sure how you got "shorter" out of that, but I do intend to keep my more random thoughts to a minimum here, and to pare my posts down substantially if and when I elect to stray from SHAMblog's core themes. In fact, I've found that I can take care of much of that randomness on Twitter, where you're limited to 140 characters.

Roman said...

I actually signed up and paid for one of James Ray's upcoming Harmonic Wealth Weekend seminars last year before the Sedona incident. I've since left several voice mail messages with his company and sent emails inquiring whether the upcoming March 19-20th seminar in SF will be held or canceled as result of pending charges. I haven't received a single acknowledgement via email or phone. His entire company is on radio silence. I called his PR manager, Mark Fabiani and left voice mail messages for him as well No call call back either.

Having already paid a $1,500 fee last September, I'm not able to get any confirmation of whether this event on March 19-20 is actually taking place, where its taking place, or get my money back. The JRI phone number is now disconnected, the email link is broken and there is absolutely no information on the upcoming event or its venue.

I'm sure there are other people in my position who paid good money and are now being scammed. How can we get our money back???

Steve Salerno said...

Roman: Thanks for dropping by. Tell ya what: I'll make a few calls on Wednesday, when I have some free time, and find out. But if anyone else can be of more immediate help, by all means let's hear it.

Rational Thinking said...

Just wanted to post a link to a fascinating article in Psychology Today: Do you believe in magic? Eckhart Tolle, the Dalai Lama and the future of Psychotherapy.

Very much on point to recent discussions.

Rational Thinking said...

Sorry all - that link doesn't work.

Here it is again:

Cultin said...

James Ray is typical of the "New Wage" people coming out now. I appreciate your post. People like him take some common sense approaches to eastern philosophies and look to milk other people out of as much as they can. These so-called gurus get people in groups and then do what they can to get them in a hypnotic state so they can come under the control of the leader. It is a fairly standard script, yet people continue to fall for it. I do not speak badly against the people that fall for it, because I also fell for something similar to this.

The intro to spiritual warrior sets the stage for people to feel a change. After all, they spent a lot of money and heard a lot of things about this event. They want to walk away having experienced a change, whether it is real or not. James took advantage of these people and put them in a dangerous situation. No doubt this is not the first time he has done this. This is just the first time where he is being held accountable for the events. He kept pushing the limit on how much a person could handle, but this time he went too far.

Not all groups are exactly like this, but like I said they still have the same format. Get people intrigued by showing how their world can be changed by just a few common, basic principles, sign them up for a costly group event, put them in a situation where they are not allowed to openly speak out, then wear them down (physically, mentally, and/or spiritually) until you can indoctrinate in them whatever you want. It is unfortunate but true.

If you don't believe this happens elsewhere, please check out this blog called Missing Deerfield. It was created as an effort to expose a few people who have done similar things to people in NE Georgia, including myself. With your permission, please allow this website on the comment for you and the readers to go and review:

I feel for anybody who has gone through this type of experience, and encourage all of them to overcome their fears and speak out like the blog mentioned above. People like James want others to be silent about their negative experiences. Heck, he even stated that three times! Great article and good luck in the future.

Anonymous said...

Angel Valley created an unsafe sweat lodge and is doing their best to destroy all evidence that may implicate them. Destroying exhibit 'A' in a manslaughter trial before the trial begins is, in itself, grounds to throw the Angel Valley people in jail, is it not?

It's a crime, isn't it?

A crime worthy of jail time, right?

It sure would be if James Arthur Ray was caught doing it!

Anonymous said...

People died because they did not listen to their bodies and went back into an unsafely built sweat lodge!

They had previously signed a liability waiver agreeing to take full responsibility for their actions at the workshop

Case closed

Dimension Skipper said...

"People died because they did not listen to their bodies and went back into an unsafely built sweat lodge!

"They had previously signed a liability waiver agreeing to take full responsibility for their actions at the workshop"

Interesting... so the sweat lodge itself was unsafely built, you say? And the people had all signed liability waivers to accept responsibility for their own actions?

OK. But if the sweat lodge was unsafely built, doesn't that by definition fall OUTSIDE of "responsibility for their own actions?"

Is it one or the other or both?

If it's just the former, then I would think that as organizing guru, Mr. Ray (and/or "his people") should then share a significant portion of responsibility for seeing that the lodge should not BE unsafe in the first place since it was in fact his event/brainchild.

And if it's just the latter, then I would think that at the moment the victims become incapacitated and are no longer capable of ACTING at all, the liability waivers should be tossed out the window (or into the fire) and first aid provided. But eyewitnesses have testified that Mr. Ray specifically gave instructions to withhold that aid and not interfere with the clients' experiences.

To me any combination of the offered tandem of excuses is equally inexcusable. If you're gonna hold the clients responsible for THEIR actions, then you gotta be willing to examine Mr. Ray's actions at least as much and determine if he somehow played a serious or active role in what happened. Likewise I think you would have to admit that if the sweat lodge was faulty, then Mr. Ray should share some blame for that as well since it was his gig/idea in the first place.

So let me see... In summary, it's A) blame the victims who died, B) blame the hosting venue, but NOT C) blame the head organizer whose function and idea the whole thing was to begin with and who apparently actively instructed that first aid NOT be administered when it was obvious to many others that something was horribly wrong.

Interesting. But hey, that's just the way I see it. You're as entitled to your opinions as I am mine, though, so whatever...

For the record, I'm not an attender of self-help/motivational seminars or purchaser of such books (nor Steve's SHAM either btw), but honestly I have no great beef with such either. They're just not generally for me. And if you were patient enough to peruse this site for comments by me (not that you should waste your time doing so, but feel free), I think it's safe to say you would find I'm not too frequent a contributor of "anti-guru" material or even that frequent a site commenter in general.

It's just that when an event like this goes so obviously off the rails, it does tend to ATTRACT a lot of attention, doesn't it? Almost seems like poetic justice there. Now I wonder what sort of
legal justice might eventually come about... be it aimed more at Mr. Ray, the host venue and sweat lodge constructors, or the victims themselves. We'll see.

Hmmm, you know what... I'm actually kind of taking your word for it that the sweat lodge was constructed by the venue and not handled in any way by Mr. Ray or his people. But I really don't know that for a fact. I'll just continue to accept what you claim for now for the sake of discussion and due to personal lack of knowledge of contrary testimony.

Steve Salerno said...

I was going to address Anon 4:17's comment, but DimSkip has done a much more thorough job than I could/would have. I was also moved to wonder, What could be the motive of someone who so steadfastly defends a character like Ray? (It even crossed my mind: Could our Anon be James Ray?) But in fairness, I've never subscribed to the debating strategy that goes, "Discredit your opponent by discrediting his motives." I'd rather focus on the substance of what Anon says. And DimSkip has done a very nice job of getting that ball rolling. Curious to hear what others might have to say on this point (re "personal responsibility").

Janine said...

I attended a James Ray free event at a local hotel a few years back. He was of course trying to get people to buy into his seminars. I sat there thinking.." I WOULD NOT BUY A USED CAR FROM THIS GUY". There was something greasy about him.