James Arthur Ray, Redux

So in case you haven’t heard, James Arthur Ray was convicted in the deaths of three participants in a sweat lodge he held back in 2009. The short version is that Ray strongly urged people, who were suffering more than is usual in this physically strenuous ritual in an improperly constructed structure, to stay in spite of vomiting and other symptoms of dehydration and heat exhaustion/stroke. Three people died as a result of overheating and smoke. Ray, who was running the ceremony (such as it was) was convicted on charges of negligent homicide.

While I feel terrible for those who died and those who loved them, and those who suffered and still suffer as a result of this monumental mishandling of people’s vulnerability, I’m not going to speak on that. Instead, I want to revisit my commentary from shortly after the initial tragedy. Amid other things, I spoke of the primary issue of competency:

I think the issue that stands out to me the most is that of competency. In counseling, competency means having at least an adequate, if not superior, set of knowledge and skills about a given topic to be able to effectively help a client with a minimum of risk to their psychological health. One thing I’m learning in my classes on practical skills is that no matter who you are, you will always screw up. Therapists are human, and as much as one would like to be the most awesome, helpful, effective therapist ever, there will always be those clients who just don’t work out–and the ones that you really regret because you know you could have acted differently in hindsight.

Competency is an ethical issue designed to make sure that the chances of causing harm are minimized. For example, I’m on the adult track in my program. My classes are tailored toward working with adults, and my internship will be the same. Before I could ostensibly work with children, I would have to take steps to increase my competency through education and reading, at the very least. The same thing goes if I end up having a client referred to me who is of a special population whose unique situation I don’t have experience or knowledge of.

Running a proper sweat requires competency on a couple of levels. I’m not going to get into the debate as to whether indigenous spiritual ceremonies associated with sweats are inherently spiritually better than New Age or otherwise not indigenous ones, and whether these people died because the spirits were displeased. On a physical level, though, there is a definite need for competency–how to safely construct the lodge, how to prepare the correct sort of stone, how to monitor participants for health concerns, and so forth. Psychologically, too, there needs to be competency with any sort of rite of passage or other ritual that has the potential to shake a person out of their usual headspace. I have heard entirely too many horror stories in the neopagan community of ritual leaders who led people through a particularly moving ritual–and then didn’t stick around to pick up the pieces when a participant ended up with some trauma being dredged up by the experience.

What seems to have happened here is a lack of competency on a physical, and potentially psychological, level. Did Ray know about the risks of running a sweat with that many people and that sort of construction, and how to know when something was going wrong? Did he make it clear to people that, no matter how moving an experience they were having, if they felt ill they needed to get out, and they wouldn’t have failed for admitting their limits? Did he receive any sort of training that might have included how to address these and other concerns?

And I still maintain that this is the cause of the deaths and suffering in that incident. During the trial, it came out that Ray was woefully incompetent and lacking training in a number of practices he used. This includes a lack of training in how to properly construct the physical lodge, and how to respond to a participant who is in physical distress. Additional testimony suggests that he even willfully ignored these factors, which affected his decision not to act.

I also continue to maintain that this does not prove that being non-Native, or that charging any sum of money, no matter how exorbitant, made people die. You can have a dozen white people charging $50,000 a head enter into a sweat lodge, and if they are properly trained in the construction and use of the lodge and ceremony and implement it to the greatest degree possible, then there is no greater chance of them killing anyone in there than any native person who has also received the same training and displays the same level of implementation. If Ray had happened to be Native in descent–and, hell, even if he had received the proper training but still chose to act unethically and dangerously–his being Native wouldn’t have done a single thing to protect anyone. Nor did the exact amount of money he received make him kill people. His attitude toward how to get the money was more to blame than that. You can point to any number of people who allowed the receiving of money to tarnish their judgment, but that doesn’t mean that there is direct causation between forking over cash and walking into a deathtrap, and the risk doesn’t automatically get higher with rising numbers.

Why am I saying all this? Because I am tired of seeing people who are right to be angry, infuriated, livid about what happened to a bunch of innocent people, turn their rage at a specific incident (or incidents, as this is not the first sweat lodge injury or death) into broad criticisms of A) non-Native people having anything to do with sweat lodges, B) anyone receiving money for Native or other spiritual/cultural practices, and/or C) the very existence of neoshamanism/non-indigenous nature religions/etc. Not only is it an inaccurate conflation of a number of factors that are not all causally related (and remember, correlation does NOT equal causation), but it is also ignoring the fact that there are plenty of non-indigenous practitioners of various related practices who, whether they receive money or not, are competent in whatever it is they do. You may not agree with the values associated with what they’re doing, but if they’re enacting things competently on physical and psychological levels, then you can’t accurately say they’re more likely to fuck things up, and trying to beat people with the red herrings (in this case) of racial background and filthy lucre is just going to distract from the actual problem at hand: this guy didn’t know what he was doing, and didn’t care to know what he was doing, to all appearances.

Let’s instead focus on increasing and maintaining competency. Not “What does this person believe?”, but “What is this person doing, and is it safe?” What reduces competency? Is it the proliferation of inaccurate information on how to enact certain rites when the correct information is often restricted in access? Is it people having unhealthy relationships with the money that represents resources for everyday survival? Is it mental disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Is it cultural appropriation? Is it any/all of these and more? What can we do about these things that doesn’t just involve repeating “Don’t Pay to Pray!” and “You’re Doing It Wrong!”? How do we answer both the concerns of marginalized indigenous peoples in the Americas and elsewhere, and those of non-indigenous people who do find New Age and neoshamanic practices spiritually, psychologically, and personally fulfilling? This, I feel, is a lot more productive start to dialogue than the assumption that James Arthur Ray is the rule, not the exception.

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5 thoughts on “James Arthur Ray, Redux

    • Reading those particular posts inspired by knee-jerk reactions and misdirected anger always brought a bit of an acrid taste to my mouth, but I’d never have been able to articulate it as well as you have. Great post.

  1. I think you are overlooking the factor of willful and conscious fraud. I think it’s very naive to pretend that this doesn’t happen, and that most of it isn’t perpetrated by cultural outsiders.

  2. More to the point: how sincere can this man have been if he couldn’t even be bothered to learn how this tradition is practiced? Doesn’t that speak volumes?

    • Well, there’s how it’s practiced in a physical, pragmatic manner, and then there are all the cultural trappings surrounding it. When I speak of competency, I am primarily speaking of pragmatic competency. Just about anyone can learn the actions involved in building a lodge, putting people in it, and keeping them from dying. Cultural competency is a separate thing, though IMO also important–but not having cultural competency doesn’t have nearly as much an effect on pragmatic competency as some would make out.

      Yes, it says a lot that Ray wasn’t properly trained in either form of competency. However, my point still stands that it was his lack of pragmatic competency at stake here, regardless of how much or little he knew of the cultural trappings associated with it.

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