Today, I watched a rerun of an ABC 20/20 episode from 2010, called Deadly Devotion, about self-help guru / cult leader, James Arthur Ray. He is a proponent of the so-called "Law of Attraction" from the oh-so-deceitful book, The Secret, which says that, if you want whatever it is you want hard enough, and visualize it, you'll get it. And if bad things happen to you, it's because you didn't visualize a good life hard enough. He was featured on Oprah's talk show - she's also an advocate for this way of thinking.
Colleen Conaway, James Shore, Kirby Brown, and Liz Neuman are all dead because of their devotion to Ray's philosophy. Conaway jumped off a roof during an exercise where she was supposed to pretend to be homeless - she'd been directed to pretend this by Ray, as part of a seminar she was attending, and paid a substantial sum to attend. The other three were killed during a sweat lodge exercise lead by Ray. This article from The Verge chronicles these deaths and the activities and methods of this dangerous man.
When you read articles and see clips of Ray talking, you will read about and see methods you've heard before, by Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite, Joseph Di Mambro, and the Church of Scientology: intense physical experiences, extreme fasting, isolation, and other exercises that can alter a person's mental state and make them more pliable by a charismatic leader. You will see delivery in the style of Tony Robbins and Joel Osteen, and it's really easy to draw parallels between the philosophy promoted by The Secret and the Christian prosperity theology. Just want something badly enough, just visualize it, and follow the rules set out for you by Mr. Successful, and you, too, can achieve all you desire.
When you hear people that follow, or followed, Ray, you hear from people who are, or were, vulnerable in some way psychologically or emotionally - and with a lot of money. They are looking for something - they often aren't even sure what - and they think they can find it in a seminar or video or magic book. They paid, or are still paying, hundreds, even thousands of dollars to Ray - he's not doing anything charitable. These people are intelligent, often with university degrees, but they are also emotionally-hungry, even damaged, people who get caught up in this scam, this cult, and some, even after the deaths of Conaway, Shore, Brown and Neuman, still follow him. Arthur Deikman, a San Francisco psychiatrist, wrote The Wrong Way Home, and in it, he says, as quoted on this page: “I began to see that cults form and thrive not because people are crazy, but because people have two kinds of wishes. They want a meaningful life, to serve God or humanity, and they want to be taken care of, to feel protected and secure, to find a home.”
I guess the reason this piece on Ray is really bothering me in particular is because I've recently been coaching a dear friend who regularly attends spiritual retreats lead by various folks, and who became involved with a group in Costa Rica I'm convinced is scam at best and a cult in the making at worst. He lost a few thousand dollars to the two leaders of this "retreat," and I fear he could have lost much more had he stayed - and fear it's only a matter of time that more people do. These two retreat leaders frame their oh-so-remote location as a place to volunteer, to interact with local people, to work and live simply, in nature, to get back in touch with simplicity, and blah blah blah blah blah. In truth, they are just like Ray: they take some ceremonial practices by Native Americans and twist them into activities that may leave participants feeling fulfilled or weakened and even more vulnerable - either way, perfect prey for exploitation. They isolate. They push people to engage in hard physical labor and then berate them for not doing the activity "correctly." They probe deeply into a person's past, asking lots of incredibly intimate questions. They lash out at those who question, and if a person leaves the retreat in anger, they paint that person as negative, as someone that needed to leave before he or she brought the others down.
My friend is a warm, giving, talented, intelligent person, but he's also fragile in some ways and is looking to come to terms with some horrific events in his past, to heal emotionally. I have to be careful how I coach him through this - I can't shake him and say "Stop this nonsense!" I can't make him feel stupid. I have to be gentle in my encouragement of him - I encourage him to ask questions, to never assume someone's goodness just because they have a fancy web page or a book, to look to medical professionals to address the dark spots in his soul, to look for all of the many happy people around him who don't follow any gurus, and to believe that honest inspiration doesn't come with an expensive retreat or subscription to something. There are healthy ways to cultivate friendships, to create your own identity, to feel secure, and to be a part of something larger than yourself that don't require you to humiliate yourself, to learn a special language or to adhere to some creed filled with lots of psycho babble. It's a tough assignment - he'd be offended that I just called what he believed in psycho babble.
There was one bright spot in all this: this episode of 20/20, renamed "Deadly Devotion", was shown on Oprah's network, OWN. So, there's that, at least.
I look around me and I see dozens of ways to cultivate friendships, create an identity or definition for myself, to feel secure, and to feel a part of something large than myself: nonprofits with events I can attend and with volunteering opportunities in which I can participate, a community theatre company with productions I could audition for or just work behind the scenes or in the front of hour on event night, a citizens academy run twice yearly by the local police, all sorts of civic groups (Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, etc.), a farmer's market that would welcome me in any way I wanted to help each week, events at the library, a jazzercise class, a karaoke night, and on and on. I invite my neighbors over for a cookout and corn hole. I walk my dog through the neighborhood and say howdy to anyone I pass. It feels good, real, authentic. It brings beautiful people into my life. And I never have to use my credit card for any of it.
If someone you know is reading books or watching videos by James Arthur Ray - yes, after being let out of prison, he's back in business - show them this blog. Show them this article from The Verge. Such people are reckless at best and deviant at worst.