Dr. Whelan: Enlightenment and Self-help

Christine Whelan

What would you do for spiritual enlightenment and personal success? Would you agree to spend 36 hours alone in the desert without food or water to help clear your mind and find your true potential? Would you follow a trusted leader into a dark, hot tent to experience a version of a centuries-old Native American sweat lodge ritual? History shows that in the name of self-help, many people will do just that — and more.

Three people died and more than a dozen others were injured as a result of a 2009 retreat in Sedona, Ariz., led by James Arthur Ray, a nationally known self-help guru. Ray was convicted on three counts of manslaughter and spent 20 months in prison. He is now petitioning to have this conviction set aside. This petition comes as CNN debuts its documentary on his rise, time in jail and return to the $11 billion self-help industry following his conviction for negligent homicide.

Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray will debut on CNN Thursday, December 1 at 9 PM and 11 PM ET with limited interruption.

University of Wisconsin-Madison clinical professor Christine B. Whelan taped an extensive interview with CNN, which will air as part of this debut.

Dr. Whelan sat down with us to tell us more about this story, and how we can pursue self-improvement safely.

Who is James Ray and what happened in Sedona?

James Ray was one of the hottest new self-help gurus – featured on Oprah, Larry King Live, and The Secret. Since 2001, some 15,000 people have paid to attend his seminars and retreats and his company, James Ray International, made has made millions from these ventures.

Within hours of returning from a desert “vision quest,” and dehydrated from lack of food and water in the previous day and a half, more than 50 people followed Ray into a 20-by-20-foot makeshift sweat lodge of wood, plastic tarps and blankets—all part of a multi-day event for which participants had paid as much as $9,695 per person.

He physically blocked the exits to the sweat lodge and warned people that if the failed in this earthly test they would be doomed to fail in the afterlife as well.

He understood – and abused – the one-two punch of the power of religion and modern psychology, taking the lives of educated, well-meaning people who only wanted to improve themselves.

Why the proliferation of self-help gurus such as James Ray — are they regulated?

The self-help industry is a more-than $11 billion business. There are more than 50,000 self-help books in print and by most estimates, half of all adult Americans have read a self-help book at some point in their lives.

At self-help seminars and retreats, the idea it to create an intense and seemingly life-altering experience, to allow you to understand the world, and your own challenges, in a new way. And to do this, there’s some showmanship involved. Talk is great, but doing things – firewalking, sweat lodges, desert retreats – are the experiences that many seek.

The advice industry is not regulated: Career coaches, personal trainers, self-help books etc – none of them are regulated, nor should they be. Rather, we want to empower consumers to make smart choices to separate the hype from the research.

What should people know before going on this path?

What happened in Sedona is not an unfortunate coda to a crazy, fringe event. We have a long history of self-help in America and to properly understand the horror of these deaths, we must first understand the inspiration and guidance that James Ray offered. Ray, and many other gurus like him, inspire thousands of smart, accomplished adults by borrowing from two very powerful thought traditions – modern psychology and esoteric spirituality – creating a one-two punch that’s nearly impossible to resist. If you had been there, you might be dead, too.

Self-help CAN be transformative and can help you change your life for the better but it can also harm you. We need to educate consumers.

What do you recommend we do? How do we start?

Find out where the so-called expert is getting their knowledge. Is it research based? Are they affiliated with a reputable organization? It’s important to do your homework.

Talk to your friends and community. One of the insidious things that some self-help folks do is tell you not to talk to anyone else about what is happening in the workshops because it’s too life-transforming. Don’t tell your therapist. That isolates you and makes you dependent on the leader.

Make sure you are safe – physically safe, emotionally safe and psychologically safe. Is there medical backup? Are you OK to share what you want to share with the group? Is there a licensed therapist on call if other issues come up? And can you leave at any time?

What does behavioral research tell us about what happened in Sedona, and why people seek self-improvement?

Ray, and many gurus like him, motivate thousands of smart, accomplished adults by borrowing from two very powerful thought traditions — modern psychology and esoteric spirituality. It’s a one-two punch that’s nearly impossible to resist.

We’d like to write off Ray as a fringe cult leader, but he’s not alone in promoting unsafe practices: Tony Robbins, an even more popular motivational speaker and author, came under criticism a few years ago when more than 20 participants at one of his workshops sustained serious burns while walking on hot coals.

By sampling from cognitive behavioral therapies and incorporating increasingly exotic spiritual practices, motivational gurus build their brand and hold the attention of their audience by claiming skills well beyond their field of expertise.

Beyond the jargon, though, it’s the spiritual element that has the most persuasive effect. Religious authority figures claim to have knowledge not just about our fate in this life – why we’re in a dead-end job and what to do about it – but our eternal well-being as well. Just hours before the deaths, Ray posted a darkly prescient message on Twitter: ‘”Still in Spiritual Warrior . . . for anything new to live something first must die. What needs to die in you so that new life can emerge?”

The self-help tradition blends the certainty we respect in medical science with the gut-level search for truth we seek through our faith lives. There was no locked door trapping the men and women inside – it was just a tent with a flap, after all – but Ray used something equally powerful: He tapped into persuasive psychological and spiritual traditions, and in doing so with apparent recklessness, he reaped a deadly result.

Is all self-help bad?

No! There’s plenty of good advice out there promoting incremental behavioral change if you can sift through the snake-oil. Indeed, notions of self-help are part of the fabric of our independent, self-reliant culture, and inspirational leaders from Norman Vincent Peale and Deepak Chopra have used a mix of scientific research and mystical ceremonies to capture the American imagination for centuries.

Preventing future mental and physical injuries requires a two-pronged approach: First, self-improvement consumers must understand that from supplements to seminars, if something has the power to transform for the better, it is also powerful enough to do harm. We’d all like to believe that we’re “too smart” to end up in a death trap of a sweat lodge, but group psychology, misplaced trust and overpowering heat would mean that if you were on that retreat, you might be dead, too.

Second, it’s important to ask questions and look out for warning signs in any retreat, workshop or seminar environment. SEEK Safely, a non-profit founded by the family of Kirby Brown, posts basic guidelines on its website. For example, a tightly packed schedule of events that limits sleep, food and water, the constant repetition of certain words and phrases or admonishments that most of the world is wrong are classic set-ups for mind-control. A high-pressure sales-pitch and no-refund policy on future seminars shouldn’t be part of the deal either.

Credible self-help leaders practice what they preach, encourage a customized approach and provide documentation for their claims. True behavioral change takes time and effort beyond reading a book or attending a retreat, and deeper psychological issues may come to the surface requiring professional one-on-one therapy. Worthwhile advice-givers are open to these external support systems and provide resources for further growth.

James Ray and others like him will attempt to capitalize on our psychological vulnerabilities for their own financial gain. But there are other options out there: Self-Help That Works, in its fourth edition, reports psychologists’ evaluations of popular books and programs to help you choose one that works. And this week, SEEK has begun to encourage prominent self-help practitioners to sign a pledge to disseminate advice in a safe and constructive way, publicly listing the names of those who have—and have not—signed on their website. Personal improvement is a laudable goal—just do your homework going in.


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