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.

Pagan Values Blogging Month: Judgment vs. Compassion

Note: I actually wrote the bulk of this weeks ago, but life has gotten incredibly crazy as of late thanks to school, my internship site, and a whole host of other things. Still, I wanted to get at least one post published for this theme. Enjoy!

Compassion: to feel with. In terms of human interactions, compassion is to allow yourself to not only feel for other people (sympathy) but to feel with other people (empathy). It is becoming an active participant in another person’s suffering. Or, if you want to take this beyond anthropocentrism, it is active participation in another being’s suffering. (It can also be applied to emotions other than those associated with suffering.)

Compassion, comparatively speaking, doesn’t get a lot of time in pagan discussion because it’s a “nice” emotion. Sometimes I feel that many neopagans are so afraid of being perceived as fluffy, frou-frou New Agers, prone to talking about “love and light”, that we create a front of cynicism and worldliness. We separate ourselves from those other people by seeming more serious, and denigrate the sensitivity that may be expressed by others. We think that because we aren’t just talking about The Secret and wrapping the entire planet in soft pink energy that we somehow have a more mature, developed way of approaching the world we live in. True, sometimes complex emotions are unnecessarily compressed down into 140-character sound bites on Twitter, and I could write a ton about how “the law of attraction” is stuffed full to overflowing with primarily white, middle-class privilege.

But what too often I see as being touted as an improvement over this sort of “fluffiness” is people extolling snark as a legitimate response to anything they disagree with and a way to bolster their in-group membership by rallying others in a dogpile over the target of their disdain. I see the people who spend the most time telling others just how wrong they are being lifted up as paragons of their traditions, while those trying to help people do things “right”, whatever that might be, are often struggling just to be heard. I see some pagans who are in a veritable emotional arms race to latch onto ever more aggressive and “not fluffy” deities, spirits, practices, etc., often insulting the practices of anyone less competitively hardcore as being less real or true.

All these things center on moralistic judgment as a value. It’s just one of the many violent forms of communication that so many of us have been socialized with and which we are told is the correct, tough, powerful way to communicate, no matter the expense levied to ourselves and others. I first became acquainted with the concept of a violent form of communication when I took a course on nonviolent communication (based on the works of Marshall Rosenberg) during my graduate counseling psych program. Rosenberg defines moralistic judgment, one of his “life-alienating communications”, as a judgment that:

…that imply wrongness or badness on the part of people who don’t act in harmony with our values. Such judgments are reflected in language: “The problem with you is that you’re too selfish.” “She’s lazy.” “They’re prejudiced.” “It’s inappropriate.” Blame, insults, put-downs, labels, criticism, comparisons, and diagnoses are all forms of judgment. (Rosenberg, 2003, p. 15)

A clarification: Moralistic judgment is contrasted with value judgment, which is used to judge which values are right for us, as opposed to applying our values to other people in a moralistic judgment. We can say what we value without determining whether someone’s agreement or disagreement with our values makes them good or bad people, right or wrong. When I refer to judgment in the rest of this post, to include as contrasted with compassion as a value, I will be specifically talking about moralistic judgment, not value judgment.

Many pagans value those who make moralistic judgments on others, whether it’s judging someone as less competent, less appropriate, or just “doing it wrong”. We may not want to admit this as a collective value, but it’s there nonetheless.

The thing about judgment in this vein is that it is often exceptionally self-centered. The person making the judgment is focusing on their feelings on the matter and expressing those feelings in aggressive, negative, hurtful manners, without ever taking the feelings of the other person(s) into account. Yet at the same time, it’s also a way for the person to relieve themselves of having to examine those feelings, because they’re focusing their response on someone else instead of looking at what prompted the whole mess in the first place. So a lot of the time this can be summed up with the thought process “Here is something that makes me feel in a way I dislike. I’m going to respond to my feelings by attacking what I perceive to be the cause, which is external to me”. While, for example, someone interpreting the goddess Morrigan as a loving mother isn’t nearly as dangerous to my health as someone pulling a knife on me, you would think that the insult was just as grave given the viciousness of the personal attacks I’ve seen that have come up as a response to “You’re doing spirituality wrong!” discussions. And never have I seen anyone doing the “correcting” take a look at why they feel so insulted about the idea of a cuddly carrion crow that they must make ad hominem attacks in addition to their history lessons.

Is it any wonder, then, that we adopt cynicism to protect ourselves?

Yet when we justify our cynicism and our snark and our aggression toward others, we are perpetuating the very cycles of violent communication that have contributed to us walling ourselves away from the world. In fact, I feel it is a tragedy how much we are allowing ourselves to miss out on when we approach the world through so many layers of defense. How much more intimacy and genuine emotion and honesty could we experience in ourselves and others if those defenses were no longer there? What if “feeling with” was the default, where we all mutually respected the vulnerability of everyone involved?

There are payoffs for compassion for yourself and for others. When you allow yourself to be open to both your actual feelings as well as those of the other person(s), you’re able to get a much more complete picture of what’s going on, and you can make a more informed decision as to how to respond (instead of instantly reacting defensively). This makes it more likely that everyone gets their needs met, because instead of communicating with more and more defenses, everyone is able to clearly state what it is they need, and is more likely to understand what’s preventing those needs from being met.

Compassion teaches better connection and general communication skills. There are pagans who claim to be nature-based, and yet it’s a surface-level connection based mostly on imagery and abstract concepts, without really feeling with other living beings, human and otherwise. Or they’ll talk about connecting with a tree in a meditation, but then they seem completely incapable of understanding why someone whose supposedly improper practices they just insulted is so unhappy about that judgment (when they really, truly deserved it for doing it wrong, right?). There are few more powerful ways to really connect with any other being than through compassion—to really open yourself up to what that other being is experiencing in that moment, not just through imagination and assumption, but through direct interaction. While you don’t have to divorce yourself from what you feel when, say, you’re in an argument, the quality of connection you can have together is much better when you’re able to really listen to what all parties are saying instead of only focusing on trying to get what you want. And that practice can help to strengthen not only that relationship, but improve all your relationships across the board, whether with another person, a deity, etc. And communication works much better when people are listening completely, not just harvesting choice phrases that they can then use to defend their own points without considering others’ thoughts in total.

And compassion takes bravery. Anyone can snap and snarl at someone else, and keep putting those walls up higher and higher, and feel safe and protected against the world (even if there’s no actual safety to be had). But it takes a lot of guts to face the risk of vulnerability that compassion requires. Sometimes that may end up being a situation where you’re the one feeling the sadness and hurt of someone targeted by a group of snarkers, and putting yourself at risk of drawing their fire by defending their target. Other times it’s more intimate and personal, really and deeply listening to a significant other you’re arguing with at the risk of “being proven wrong” by deciding their point is valid and thereby possibly sacrificing whatever you thought you were originally fighting for. To be compassionate takes a lot more work and courage than to simply continue being negative and defensive as a matter of course, and that effort builds character and emotional skills in a way judgment never could dream of accomplishing.

In the United States, the gender dichotomy is highly pronounced. While there have been some inroads in gender diversification, the overwhelming pattern is still that men are supposed to be masculine (stoic, not emotionally expressive, strong) and women are supposed to be feminine (emotionally expressive, weak, passive). Compassion is generally relegated to the latter artificial category, a sort of emotional ghettofication. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.

Terrence Real, in his book How Can I Get Through To You (which was an assigned text for my Masters-level couples counseling course), related a trip he made to Tanzania. He asked some of the local Masai what makes a great morani, or warrior. One very old man in the community answered thusly:

I refuse to tell you what makes a good morani…But I will tell you what makes a great morani. When the moment calls for fierceness a good morani is very ferocious. And when the moment calls for kindness, a good morani is utterly tender. Now, what makes a great morani is knowing which moment is which! (Real, 2002, p. 76)

So much for the (largely male-and-masculinity-dominated) pagan warrior ethic that focuses mainly on being strong and protective. While there are certainly times and places for ferocity and aggression, like so many other people in the United States, American pagans in particular tend more toward judgment than compassion. The continuation of witch wars and snark communities, the divisiveness of “Well, we don’t do things like THEY do because WE’RE better”—these all have judgment at their cores.

I feel strongly that compassion is a worthy value for pagans to consider adopting more frequently. It takes work–I still slip up a good deal myself despite my words here–but it’s a good goal to work toward, I feel. If we want to reduce the prevalence of moralistic judgment and other violent forms of communication in our community, then compassion is a particularly effective medicine. When we feel what another is feeling, we cannot attack them without attacking ourselves (and if we have so little compassion for ourselves that we feel this self-sabotage isn’t a problem, so much more the reason to examine why this is). Through compassion we are disarming ourselves, but we are opening ourselves up to the possibility of finally breaking through a vicious cycle, and spending our energy on more constructive efforts than simply building more and higher defenses against others.


Real, T. (2002). How Can I Get Through To You? Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women. New York: Scribner. [admittedly very heterocentric, but a good book nonetheless]

Rosenberg, M. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Encinitas, CA: Puddledancer Press. [a bit outdated compared to Rosenberg’s more recent emphases, but still a worthy read]