In October, 2019, I flew to LA for an interview with the History Channel for the show “The UnXplained,” narrated by William Shatner. Producers said this would be a show about what had happened in Sedona, AZ, in 2009. Always anxious to tell our story in a national media arena, I was looking forward to drawing the distinction between the Spiritual Warrior retreat and traditional cults.
The cults episode of “The UnXplained” did show a brief clip of me talking about the fact that James Ray had been “vetted” by national media and was a frequent visitor on Oprah. However, the information about James Ray was sandwiched in between exposés on the Jim Jones and Heaven’s Gate suicides, then followed by a story of an individual suicide influenced by a powerfully charismatic teacher and the bizarre story of people being manipulated into murderous behavior by another leader.
We are very disappointed by this characterization of the Sedona sweat lodge deaths as a cult situation. What happened in Sedona was not suicide. When people in that sweat lodge observed that others were struggling, the leader, James Ray, ignored them. He did not answer their pleas for help. Being exhausted and physically depleted left some of those individuals unable to help themselves, but they were not willingly there to die!
Was Spiritual Warrior a Cult?
What happened at that retreat was not the result of a traditional cult. People had not given their dying allegiance to Ray. They had not been living with or following him for years, disavowing any other philosophy of life. They did not trust him over all other sources of information or guidance. In fact, many of them trusted Ray because of his many media appearances, including on Oprah.
Their greatest mistake was believing his deceptions about his extensive experience, his training, and credentials to teach and conduct Native American rituals. Joining a cult may not always be a conscious choice, but the people in this situation are quite different from those in the cults presented in this episode of “The unXplained.”
The point that is relevant beyond any fascination with cults, is that Ray is an influential, charismatic speaker who knowingly uses “cult-like” tactics to create suggestibility and exercise power over strong, intelligent, independent people. The power of sensory deprivation is not widely understood. But science has shown that techniques like:
- limits on sleep
- poor diet and/or dehydration
- deliberate brain wave altering techniques
- sound bombardment
- extreme heat
- neuro-linguistic programming
- techniques to create “group think”
- shaming of individuals and then deliberate isolation of those individuals
cause disorientation, affecting a person’s rational decision making processes. The participants in James Ray’s retreat had been subjected to some powerful “mind control” techniques that are rarely understood. His constant reference to the money and time people had invested as a reason to play “full on” is yet another psychological technique of manipulation.
If anything, linking this story to other deadly cults reveals that James Ray acted, in many ways, like a cult leader–but one who really only wanted power and money, not followers. (And SEEK exists, in part, because we’ve discovered this is a pattern in the wider self-help industry.) Since James Ray still defines the events in Sedona as an “accident” that caused him to lose his business and his liberty, he is clearly delusional or a sociopath. Either belief make him dangerous. He claims that Sedona had to happen, so he could teach others to overcome adversity. But no, three deaths and the trauma of those connected to the tragedy did not have to happen. No one was there to lose their life as they were trying to expand it. Those who died did not take their own lives or let themselves be led to death by a leader they believed above all else; their lives were taken by an unscrupulous, immoral charlatan.
Mischaracterizations are Dangerous
Characterizing this situation as a cult runs the risk of people dismissing it as a remote, impossible scenario they are not likely to encounter in their own lives. The reality, however, is relevant for all of us. Self-help is a huge, multi-billion dollar per year industry that is completely mainstream, reaching us through TV, social media, books, and pop culture. The potential exists for so many of us to be used or harmed by unscrupulous teachers.
We are always eager to share Kirby’s story as a warning to others who actively seek their self-improvement. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this story being misrepresented before. We will continue to put it into its proper context, so people see it as the relevant warning it is. If you do watch History’s episode of “The unXplained,” please keep all this in mind!