Sedona, Ariz. James Arthur Ray led a group of more than 50 followers into a cramped, sauna-like sweat lodge in Arizona last week by convincing them that his words would lead them to spiritual and financial wealth.
The mantra has made him a millionaire. People routinely pack Ray’s seminars and follow the motivational guru to weeklong retreats that can cost more than $9,000 per person.
But Ray’s self-help empire was thrown into turmoil when two of his followers died after collapsing in the makeshift sweat lodge near Sedona and 19 others were hospitalized. A homicide investigation that followed has cast a critical spotlight on Ray’s company.
Critics are citing the sweat lodge tragedy as evidence that Ray is a charlatan who is not to be trusted. A relative of one victim accused Ray of exhibiting a “godlike complex” during the event that he said recklessly abandoned the safety of participants. Dedicated followers say they fully trust Ray to lead them through exercises that greatly improve their lives.
Shawna Bowen, once a James Ray fanatic who was among those who tended to the ill, has had a change of heart since the deaths.
“I could not imagine people looking to him after he made such egregious errors with human life,” she said. “I don’t think he has the right to be leading others right now. I think he needs to take a good look at where his ego, where his power trip got in the way”
Ray wept openly during his first public appearance after the deaths. During a free recruiting seminar for his program Tuesday in Los Angeles, he broke down in tears, the confident pitchman momentarily gone.
“This is the most difficult time I’ve ever faced,” Ray told a crowd of about 200 at a hotel in Marina del Rey. “I don’t know how to deal with it really.”
Ray has become a self-help superstar by packaging his charismatic personality and selling wealth. Those who first attend his free seminars hear a motivational mantra that promises that they can achieve what he calls “Harmonic Wealth” — on a financial, mental, physical spiritual level.
But his technique is not just motivational speaking. It’s a combination of new age spiritualism, American Indian ritual, astrology and numerology. The sweat lodge experience was intended to be an almost religious awakening for the participants.