On the Recent Sweat Lodge Deaths

This has been bothering me all day, but I couldn’t really figure out how to articulate it until I was sitting working on some artwork tonight.

In case you haven’t heard, two people are dead and others ill after a sweat lodge held by James A. Ray, a proponent of The Secret, went awry. This is far from the first death caused by improperly constructed lodges; heart problems seem to be a common factor, as is wrapping the lodge in a layer of plastic (which is a bad idea all around, no pun intended). I first read about it at the Wild Hunt, and others have weighed in on angles such as pseudo-psychology and (not) cultural appropriation.

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 think this is something that neoshamans/shamanists/shamanic practitioners in general should be thinking about. Most of us don’t have access to indigenous cultures and their spiritual teachings (nor should we presume we have a right to such things). There’s no shamanism inherent to the culture I am a part of. But there are attempts to try to construct such a thing. The problem is that we’re starting from scratch, whether that means working with core shamanism, gleaning what we can from indigenous contacts, or trying to piece things together on our own.

How can we really gauge competency when there are so many people going in so many directions? There’s not a single non-indigenous shamanic path that doesn’t come under some scrutiny, whether from indigenous practitioners, or from neoshamans themselves. We aren’t going to get everyone to agree to some universal way of doing things. this survey from the Society of Shamanic Practitioners shows a bias toward a very specific, core-based manner of practice that I couldn’t finish because a lot of the questions simply didn’t apply to how I currently do things; same thing goes for others I know.

Some would argue that we have to do more in conjunction with indigenous cultures who have well-established shamanic systems (using the term shamanic loosely). While this certainly would give a person firm grounding in that culture’s shamanism, it A) supposes that a culture would be willing to share such a thing, and B) doesn’t take into account that many, if not most, of the practices and cosmologies found in indigenous shamanism aren’t going to do as well outside of their original cultural context. Nor will many Americans view things like journeying and ceremonies as anything other than “crazy stuff” or “devil worship”–which pretty much eliminates them as potential recipients of shamanic work. (On a side note, I’ve had people tell me I should just look to the religions of my ancestors. Beyond the fact that it’s Catholics way back, I fail to see how 1,000+ year old cultures from a continent away are going to be any more helpful in working with this culture than indigenous ones would be. I am not a circa 700 A.D. Slavic peasant.)

We could also try to come up with some standards and best practices for neoshamans, but who gets to decide what’s what? If we’re going by sheer numbers, core shamans are the most numerous, but most non-core neoshamans have some misgivings with core shamanism. And we’re talking about a bunch of people who are scattered across the country, not all of whom spend as much time on the internet as I do, and are not always particularly accessible or willing to network. It’s a much different context from a more localized, relatively homogenized culture. (I do think that talking more about this stuff, though, is highly recommended, even if nothing truly universal comes out of it. Peer review is a good thing.)

My own personal preference in gaining competency is to interweave aspects of my culture that are most analogous to what I understand shamanism to be, hence my working on a Master’s in counseling psych, since psychology figures heavily in my practice and general worldview. However, I also have the privilege of being able to get loans and go to school in the first place, as well as having enough of an interest and ability with psychology to make it worth my time. And people may disagree with various assessments of what a shaman would be in this culture.

Then, of course, there are those who would be thrilled if all us not-indigenous folks put aside these games of “shamanism” since we don’t have the level of competency indigenous cultures have. Both from a spiritual and psychological perspective, I can see great value in creating structures of meaning, rites of passage, and other things missing from large portions of this culture, and if the means and trappings in which some practitioners try to create these structures is misguided and appropriative, at least the general effort is of value and should be fine-tuned rather than scrapped entirely.

There are times, honestly, when all I want to do is throw my hands up and decide that we’re all arguing over completely subjective psychological meaning-making systems, and that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, but how you use it and for what purposes. Maybe we’d quit arguing over who believes the right things, and get rid of the red herrings of subjective authenticity, and instead get down to the business of dealing with what’s more objective. Whether I believe animal totems talk with me when I drum is a subjective issue, and again something that I sometimes think is wholly a structure of personal mythology. If I claim that what I’m doing is according to some indigenous culture I’ve never had any contact with, then it veers over into objective territory in that I’m making a verifiably false claim about the beliefs that could potentially affect the people whose legitimacy I’m trying to leech. And if I further use this to justify telling people to, say, drink bleach because Bear said that it’s good for what ails you, then we’re really into the objective, insofar as the actions I am taking extrapolated from my beliefs.

And that’s where I really think competency comes in. You can’t measure the legitimacy of whether the totems talk to me or not; there’s no such thing as spiritual competency in that regard, unless someone has some form of omniscience that I’m not privy to. (Gods know there are lots of neopagans and others who try their damnedest to measure the spiritual competency of others, especially others they dislike.) But you can measure one’s competency in psychological and physical terms. If I integrate shamanism into my counseling practice, no one can say whether, say, a soul retrieval was spiritually successful–but we can look at the client’s progress after that ritual and see whether it helped improve their psychological health. And if I decided to incorporate wilderness therapy in my practice and take clients hiking, my competency could be measured in terms of things like whether I have up-to-date Wilderness First Responder training.

As far as how much competency Ray had? There’s not yet enough information available, unless I’ve missed something. I looked on the bio on his website, and couldn’t really find anything to suggest he has any psychological training, or what sort of spiritual training he may have had (including that which may have shown him how to safely run a sweat). Hopefully more will come out in the wash. In the meantime, I think we need to focus less on things like cultural appropriation and the exact tools (physical and psychological) used in this case, and instead look at the people involved and how they were using these tools. Being a non-indigenous person running a sweat lodge does not automatically make you a potential killer. Being someone who doesn’t possess physical and psychological competency involved with the rite, regardless of the exact cultural trappings, is an entirely different story.

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5 thoughts on “On the Recent Sweat Lodge Deaths

  1. I roughly reached the same conclusion when I went to a Neo-Pagan/New Age gathering, and I found myself, despite “but…it’s Cultural Appropriation!” screaming in the back of my head, that I found myself content that they prepared for potential problems and had at least one trained Counselor on hand. I think that, to a certain extent, I have this kind of guilt associated with potentially ‘stealing’ practices from indigenous peoples, due in no small part to putting myself in their shoes, and reading their messages on and offline.

    I am not going to judge other peoples’ spiritual efficacy of these kinds of rituals; I didn’t partake of the sweat offered at the gathering, for instance, but I didn’t mind setting up the markers that led to it so they had a safe walk to and from it. I think that, despite my personal misgivings/guilt, that at your core you are right.

    It really is no different, regardless of the content of the rite itself: you need to know what you’re doing, prepare for problems, have people on hand (including yourself) able to deal with people who are having problems with the rite and anything it may bring up, and a conclusion that gives actual closure to the ritual. Having a plan for an “Oh, shit” scenario is part of the deal to me.

    I think what a lot of people tend to forget, is that every ritual you enter into is potentially damaging, if for no other reason than it engages the psyche. A person who continuously does rituals that honor beauty could be covering up or confirming a destructive bias against themselves just as easily as they could be repairing it. It may take longer than a sweat lodge ritual to actually physically kill you, if it even does, but doing things of this kind does not lessen the damage it does to your psyche and long-term wellbeing. I can only imagine the damage this tragedy has done to the 60-or so survivors.

  2. Thanks for the link.

    It seems we contemporary Americans have two choices. One was outlined by the psychologist of religion Daniel Noel in his (admittedly difficult) book The Soul of Shamanism, which seems to say that writing and Jungian analysis are our shamanism.

    The other is to re-pioneer that Old Stuff, while knowing what we know, and see what happens.

    As I have tried to argue provocatively in a couple of recent blog posts, I do think that the “cultural appropriation” argument is more political than magico-religious and should not deter people taking the second approach.

  3. My favorite reply to people with good intentions, “intention is only intention”,.. you can intend to drive a car but until you have the skills and knowledge can you truly drive”. I have heard from so many over the years that even while performing a ritual, “if you have good intentions, it isn’t bad”,.. I disagree totally,.. I believe that responsibility is a key factor in dealing with others on any journey. This is what I have learned. I have learned that there are people who are going around representing themselves as “life coaches” who promise to change your life, offer you counseling, as long as you pay mega bucks, “because money isn’t a bad thing”. They are practicing their own brand of psychology without a licence or adequate skills. I can truly say the same for the practitioners of the sweat ceremony. I worry about the spiritual seekers on whom these people prey. I appreciate these articles,.. what a treasure to read.

  4. I am a long time reader of your blog. Just wanted to say this is a very good post, and well said! Thank you.

    My time spent in a sweat lodge was very sacred, run by a wisdom keeper and tribal leader who knew what she was doing. I am so grateful for her presence.

    I grieve for the loss of life and the insanity of people who give away their power over to another without asking “is this right for me, do you know what you are doing?” It’s a teaching moment.

  5. Okay, I’m going to try to make this as coherent as my cold will let me.

    Sarenth–*nods* This is going to be really difficult for the survivors to get past, or at least a good number of them. I can’t imagine participating in a ritual that had an accidental death, never mind one that came about not due to something like natural causes, but negligence. And, while I think Ray should be charged with whatever they can make stick, I’m betting he’s in a really bad place right now, and not just for his own sake. I know a lot of people want to paint him as a money-grubbing huckster, but I’d like to hope there’s a human being in there, too.

    Chas Clifton–You’ve made some good points to that effect, and generally I agree. I think there are some tangibles at stake–for example, imagine what would happen if the money that goes to people pretending to be of a certain tribe, actually went to that community instead. But there are also a lot of discussions of ideals as well, and as with anything political there’s bound to be no end of debate and disagreement. I’m really appreciative of the posts you’ve added, because while appropriation is one of my concerns, I hadn’t quite thought of it that way before.

    With regards to trying to create a shamanism for this culture, there are a lot of avenues one could potentially take, just in trying to pinpoint roles that are at least somewhat analogous. My choice is the psychology route, but I could just as easily see various other medical professionals, certain clergy, and teachers, among others, as laying claim to at least some of the role. But then, it’s also a function that was created in very different circumstances, culturally, environmentally, and otherwise. Obviously I have my own ideas and practices, but I’m no expert, and if nothing else it’s endlessly fascinating to see how others interpret the overall situation.

    Pam–A good bit of it is how the tools are used. My husband, for example, is trained as a life coach, though his practice is mainly tailored to businesses and social media. But he and I have had long conversations about where coaching ends and therapy begins, and he was trained in knowing when his competency ended and when he should refer to a therapist. I agree that some coaches bill themselves as the best thing since sliced bread–some of that is just part of the territory of coaching. But there are ways to do it in which you still honestly present what you have to offer, and then there are people too blinded by the money to really think about the fact that they are supposed to be serving their clients. I’d say the same thing about those offering spiritual services. Money isn’t bad, and neither is offering help. The attitude with which these things are approached, though, may be suspect.

    Michele–You’re welcome, and thank you! I am glad that your experience was much better; this is the kind of thing that I like to see balancing out the tragic occurrences. There’s definitely something that people are after when they go to anyone for guidance, be that someone like James Ray, or an indigenous elder, or a therapist, or a clergy person. And while to an extent the person looking has a responsibility to do their research, the ones who are sought out have an additional responsibility to know not only what they’re doing, but why.

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