By now, most people know that in his so-called "sweat lodge," James Arthur Ray disrespectfully borrowed traditional Native American sacred practices for use in his endurance boot camp, in order to produce "abundance" in the gullible participants. Two of those participants died. Like many, I feel sad for the families of the victims, and agree that it's appropriate for the legal system to hold Ray accountable. But it's a mistake to dismiss Ray as just one "bad apple." Why? because he exemplifies a bona-fide risk for spiritual seekers. Until people can learn to distinguish between spiritual authority and authoritarianism, and between spirituality and spiritual materialism, some will fall prey to charismatic individuals, like James Arthur Ray.
There were warning signs aplenty. From the outset, the co-option of the Native American sweat lodge for the goal of achieving personal "success" was disrespectful, colonial and "spiritually materialist." "Spiritual materialism" is a term coined back in the 1970s to denote teachings that conflate and confuse spiritual evolution with material attainment. With so much marketing of spiritual philosophy and practice nowadays, it would be helpful for people to recognize this corruption of spirituality.
In spiritual materialism, people enlist spirituality to reach material goals, such as success, money, fame, relationships, confidence or a book deal. In dedication to their goal, they rely upon the teacher, the "answer," the secret, the manna, or the universal recipe for eternal wellbeing and protection, not to humbly better themselves for the sake of all, but to get what they want. As a compensation for the stresses of a success-oriented, but immature and often inhumane society, this "have it your way" spirituality may feel good. Temporarily, like any addiction. Yet the danger is that the inhumanity we flee can manifest in our chosen haven.
This is not to "blame the victim" but to reveal that the "real law of attraction," is the law of unconscious attraction to repeat the same harmful patterns by selecting people (or groups) who will constellate them for us. Any authority (including spiritual ones) wields power, and all groups exert pressure to conform. Fortunately, in most cases, investing trust in teachers will not entail undue health risks. But in all relationships, it's appropriate to acknowledge our needs, use critical thinking, see the other party's clay feet, and avoid getting lost in fantasy and idealization. And we can still receive the gifts of the relationships, presuming that there are any.
Paradoxically, Sam Sommers, Ph.D., in his new book, "Situations Matter" (Riverhead, 2011) contends that much behavior is context dependent. People are also prompted to act more by group pressure than is commonly believed. This may account for those at the Ray event who went along with the miserable and deadly scenario in which fellow participants became ill, fell unconscious and died. Studies done by Stanley Milgram at Yale in the 1960s demonstrated that even so-called "independent-minded" Americans are all too ready to follow authority even to the point of seriously harming others. In the study, because they were told to do so, test subjects administered what they believed to be lethal shocks to someone with cardiac problems who was screaming in an adjacent room.
Please see HERE for the entire article. Even though in this case, it was not a "traditional" institutionalized church that drew these unfortunate people in, the fact of a "teacher" standing up and demanding as price of admission such a dangerous undertaking cost these people their very lives. The same thing can happen in the case of our spiritual lives. Jesus came to introduce "a new religion—a religion which is not a religion in the present-day meaning of that word, a religion that makes its chief appeal to the divine spirit of my Father which resides in the mind of man; a religion which shall derive its authority from the fruits of its acceptance that will so certainly appear in the personal experience of all who really and truly become believers in the truths of this higher spiritual communion."
And from The Urantia Book:
155:6.5 "While the religion of authority may impart a present feeling of settled security, you pay for such a transient satisfaction the price of the loss of your spiritual freedom and religious liberty. My Father does not require of you as the price of entering the kingdom of heaven that you should force yourself to subscribe to a belief in things which are spiritually repugnant, unholy, and untruthful. It is not required of you that your own sense of mercy, justice, and truth should be outraged by submission to an outworn system of religious forms and ceremonies. The religion of the spirit leaves you forever free to follow the truth wherever the leadings of the spirit may take you. And who can judge—perhaps this spirit may have something to impart to this generation which other generations have refused to hear?" (Jesus)
155:5.9 "The acceptance of the traditional religions of authority presents the easy way out for man's urge to seek satisfaction for the longings of his spiritual nature. The settled, crystallized, and established religions of authority afford a ready refuge to which the distracted and distraught soul of man may flee when harassed by fear and tormented by uncertainty. Such a religion requires of its devotees, as the price to be paid for its satisfactions and assurances, only a passive and purely intellectual assent.
"And for a long time there will live on earth those timid, fearful, and hesitant individuals who will prefer thus to secure their religious consolations, even though, in so casting their lot with the religions of authority, they compromise the sovereignty of personality, debase the dignity of self-respect, and utterly surrender the right to participate in that most thrilling and inspiring of all possible human experiences: the personal quest for truth, the exhilaration of facing the perils of intellectual discovery, the determination to explore the realities of personal religious experience, the supreme satisfaction of experiencing the personal triumph of the actual realization of the victory of spiritual faith over intellectual doubt as it is honestly won in the supreme adventure of all human existence—man seeking God, for himself and as himself, and finding him."