I want to start this post with complete transparency by saying five things:
1. I don't have all the details about what happened in Sedona at the James Arthur Ray Spiritual Warrior event where two people died and 19 were seriously injured in a "sweat lodge ceremony." This is the first public, first hand account of what happened to my knowledge. I provide this link only as a first hand account, I do not agree with most of the additional information that either woman shares, they are still espousing new age psychobabble. UPDATE 10/15/09 - Sweat lodge deaths now being investigated as a homicide. UPDATE: 10/19/09 - Third death from the sweat lodge incident.
2. I'm an outspoken advocate of pushing your personal limits physically, psychologically, and emotionally in order to grow and experience the full possibility of the human condition . . . with some obvious limits and controls and a complete understanding of the risk involved.
3. I'm an outspoken critic of "The Law of Attraction," "The Secret" and any other versions of those beliefs, I hosted a two hour discussion with Psychological professionals, television producers and persuasion experts at www.thetruthisthesecret.com
4. I have participated in sweat lodges and events that included them in the past.
5. I have and still do teach personal development workshops and do transformative travel that causes people to push their limits. And, when doing anything that might have risk associated with it, have properly trained and equipped emergency staff and only highly skilled, qualified and certified instructors on hand to supervise and train, no exceptions.
The real purpose of this article is to explore how people get persuaded to a point where they will follow anyone and do anything regardless of how illogical or dangerous it seems. There are also going to be some business lessons here as well. I hope you'll find the article interesting, if you do, please share the link with others and leave your comments below.
By now you've probably read about the sweat lodge deaths at a James Arthur Ray "Spiritual Warrior" training in Sedona, AZ.
The question most often asked is "what convinces or how do you convince people to take actions that on closer inspection are so obviously illogical?"
The answers are unfortunately easy . . . and complicated. I've bolded the important thinking errors, conditioned responses, psychological principles, and persuasion principles throughout the article so you can easily do more research if you choose.
What I'm about to say is a little bit of a generalization but it is an important thinking error that is easily exploited. We all tend to think that we are smarter, better, stronger, more capable, and that limitations that apply to others don't apply to us. That thinking may be a result of previous experience, training, or and this is especially dangerous, beliefs that come from authority figures or their books of knowledge. For example, when I was a child, we went to a Pentecostal church where snake handling was a part of the worship based on the scripture from the bible: "And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." (Mark 16:17-18) "Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you." (Luke 10:19). Unfortunately, those beliefs don't always prove true and turn deadly.
As a species many of us want to believe that we have a connection to a higher power that gives us special abilities or that that power exists and that if we do a certain set of exercises. For example, fasting, prayer, sensory deprivation, or any number of other measures are designed to demonstrate our commitment or dominion over our physical bodies, our psychology or our physiology. When positive the results are used to demonstrate enlightenment, when negative, they results are often used to demonstrate a lack of understanding or commitment.
As humans we also tend to be intensely philosophically and intellectually curious about our origins as a species. We wrestle with big questions, is there a literal God, from where or what is meaning derived, can that source if it exists be touched or connected with, what happens when we die? All of those questions cause people to speculate, test and explore. Some choose hallucinogens, some study, some choose extreme religious faith, others choose cults like the one in which I was raised. Still others are seemingly not bothered by any of it.
One of the other thinking errors that exists around this kind of thinking and many other kinds of deletions and distortions that allow manipulation to occur is metaphorical subterfuge. For example, when studied carefully, the whole New Age system of belief is a metaphorical description of traditional religious beliefs. For example, The Universe is no different than God, it is ascribed supernatural power or possesses laws that impact everyone. The Law Of Attraction says you get what you think about and religious holdings give that you get what you deserve, cause and effect, if you pray well, God answers prayer. Now, I'm not passing judgment on any religion, simply showing how when different labels are used, something old looks new again.
Additionally, the current overload of information and lack of thorough, logical thinking, and rampant belief of what is written on the internet as factual. Many people fail to get enough correct information to make a proper decision about something they are going to attempt. Their lack of thorough investigation often causes faulty conclusions and further dissemination of ideas that are not based in fact.
As a society we've become accustomed to looking for the "magic pill," that one simple solution that will guarantee our success at anything. How many times have you seen ads for diets, sexual aids, dating, life extension, fitness, health and on and on? The reality is that there are three things everyone wants, they want to know how to get laid, how to get paid and how to live forever. If you promise a magic bullet that will offer them wealth, health, and sex, a large majority of the population will try it, especially if it is inexpensive enough that the risk seems low even if it doesn't work.
People also tend to believe that others have access to secret or hidden information that is the key to their success and the reason for the seekers lack of success. Many are willing to invest large sums of money in order to have access to exclusive knowledge, to find the hidden keys they've been missing to achieve enlightenment. Exclusivity is a very powerful persuasion tool.
Closely linked to exclusivity is Social proof (monkey see, monkey do). Social proof is also a very powerfully persuasive motivator for many people. when an individual sees another person do something with apparent safety and with apparently positive results they are much more inclined to do it. When in a group and everyone else is doing it, it is much easier to go along. And when told to do something by an authority figure obedience and compliance is much more likely as evidenced by The Milgram Experiment. The following video is an essential study in obedience.
So those are just a few of the thinking errors and conditioned behaviors that exist that allow seminar leaders (and marketers and salespeople and ministers) to cause people to take actions that they might not otherwise take or that they might strongly question. With that in mind let's look at the James Arthur Ray situation based on what we know from what has been published and from what is published on his website. Let's start with this from his spiritual warrior event description from his website:"In Spiritual Warrior, you'll build upon what you started in Practical Mysticism. You'll become privy to techniques (many kept secret for dozens of generations) that I searched out in the mountains of Peru, the jungles of the Amazon (and a few other places I don't care to recall).
Mastering these (quite esoteric) practices required me to think and act more differently than I've ever had to before. At first it was quite grueling, but the results...well...all I can say is, "Wow!"
It wasn't until I had completely mastered these concepts and techniques that I was able to combine them with state of the art scientific technology and, as always, create practical real-life applications (you should know my style by now)."
These three paragraphs (and a couple leading into it talking about how we've been taught to be conformists and must break free of conformity to succeed like Bill Gates) demonstrate exactly how preconditioning starts. You are told that you'll become privy to techniques "kept secrets for generations" that he "searched out in the Mountains of Peru, the jungles of The Amazon, and a few places he doesn't care to recall." With those sentences he further ascribes himself special powers which further builds on his status as a spiritual teach from the movie "The Secret." Only he was able to seek out these mysterious secrets in these exotic locales (plus others which by implication must have been grueling and dangerous, lucky we don't have to do all that work or go to the obvious expense of traveling there and investigating). And, in the Christian religious tradition, lucky that Jesus died on the cross for your sins so that you wouldn't have to. The correlation to the Jesus story is barely veiled and it follows the arc of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. (For serious students, The Hero's Journey by Joseph Campbell is a must watch video).
His website goes on to state:
- You'll experience, at the spiritual level, the ancient methodologies of Samurai Warriors; and gain a true understanding of the authority and strength that come from a life of honor...
There is no sacrifice—only greater and more magnificent results, wealth, adventure and fulfillment.
Ok, the conditioning and layers of suggested authenticity and proof continue. "You'll experience at the spiritual level the ancient methodologies of the samurai (what does that even mean? Sounds impressive but the methods of the samurai were military in nature, spiritually, one of the beliefs of Samurai was that their souls resided in their swords and they also often practiced ritual suicide Seppuku, when faced with defeat or dishonor). By using vague language and pointing to rituals, societies and traditions that most don't really understand they imply (implication is another powerful persuasion tool that causes people to accurately or inaccurately draw conclusions based on context)
"Join me outside the lines in this quest for higher consciousness." This sentence is interesting because it encourages people to join together and participate as a group "outside the lines." The only problem is that group dynamics work best when there is a group.
"There is no sacrifice - only greater and more magnificent results, wealth, adventure and fulfillment." Again, the magic pill appears, offering wealth, adventure, fulfillment if you'll only invest $9695 per person to be a part of this group dynamic experience. That amount of money creates a great sense of exclusivity because only a very small number of people can afford to invest that amount in themselves. The other interesting thing about the sentence is that it sets up the very high fee (There is no sacrifice, only greater and more magnificent results, so no matter what it takes to get the money is not a sacrifice, it is only assurance of greater results, justifying whatever you need to do to attend).
So what happened in the lodge, well, I wasn't there so I can't say, but by first hand accounts, there were several pre-cursors that set the incident up. First, fasting for 36 hours. Fasting causes a dramatic shift in body physiology, according to one report published on the National Institutes of Health, Several hormonal changes occur during fasting, including a fall in insulin and T3 levels and a rise in glucagon and reverse T3 levels. Most studies of fasting have used obese persons and results may not always apply to lean persons. Medical complications seen in fasting include gout and urate nephrolithiasis, postural hypotension and cardiac arrhythmias.
Before the sweat lodge they were given about 4 hours to consume a large buffet style breakfast (cramming your body with food alters body chemistry and physiology). Electrolyte balances are also compromised in a sweat lodge and during fasting.
The real challenge is that people were charged to "play full out" meaning to push past limits, to stick it out if it was painful, to ignore their bodies early warning systems. They were also subjected to two hours of extreme heat in a sweat lodge in the Arizona desert. Even saunas give warnings to sip water and to not prolong exposure. One of James Ray's Quotes is that "Your life begins at the end of your comfort zone." While that quote by itself may seem reasonable, it also encourages people to look around them and see what others are doing and choosing to accept their boundaries rather than listen to themselves.
Now let me be clear, I don't think that James Ray is a sociopath in the clinical sense of the word. I also don't believe that he had any intention of causing physical death or harm. That also does not release him from responsibility for what happened. His behavior afterward has also bordered on Narcissistic, his statement at another event that he conducted only days after the deaths demonstrate that. His focus is on himself and how he'll cope much more than an outpouring of concern and support for the families and others injured at his event.
So, here is what the process looks like that causes people in large group formats, particularly those around spiritual self help, to make poor decisions.
- Point to people's shortcomings, their missed hopes and dreams. Where possible tie them to existing large belief sets around religion or philosophical constructs that appear to support the behavior they hope to learn as being the cause of the missed hopes and dreams.
- Suggest that there is knowledge that exists, that has always existed, that is available if you know how to access it.
- Position a charismatic talking head as the leader and dispenser of the secrets
- Demonstrate how the leader has persevered and learned these secrets and is now willing to reveal them to you.
- Tie the knowledge to mystical practices, to ancient civilizations or societies, to supposed "laws" or mystical places.
- Make very tenuous ties (social proof) back to science, particularly science that most people don't understand (quantum physics)
- Make the acceptance of the secrets exclusive (often based on price).
- Encourage people to act alike, dress alike, pray together, and to take progressively more aggressive behaviors together. Have them shave their heads, fast, engage in exhaustive prayer, deprive them of sleep, food, contact with others, use noise and light discipline. Practice sensory overload or deprivation. Discourage logical thinking and reward faith. Encourage them by telling them that pushing past their boundaries is part of their initiation into this new way of being. Have them value being misunderstood by their peers and use that lack of understanding by their peers as a validation that they are in fact moving in the right direction.
- Offer them progressively more esoteric opportunities (for more money) with no real quantifiable measurable results.
- Give the groups names, rites of passage, special ways of knowing or recognizing each other. Forbid them from sharing the secret knowledge or events that occurred during their initiation with others so that those people should they become enlightened enough are not deprived of the opportunity to fully experience what is happening.
- When things go wrong, bring it back to the leader's pain, rally the true believers around him, get them to talk about how terrible the leader feels and have them express what his internal condition is, make it about his suffering not that of the affected. Turn the attention to the teachings and the teacher not the failure.
There is a very big shift that happens for many people at these Large Group Awareness Movements and it is thoroughly explained in detail in a book called Snapping. The book is written by two well accomplished psychologists, I strongly recommend reading it.
Ok, all that said, I remain an advocate of properly challenging your body and your mind. I do believe that personal strength and mental toughness are qualities to be admired and achieved. I also believe that in order to properly do either you must have the right training and supervision. You'd never jump out of a plane with a parachute without instruction unless your life depended on it and not doing so meant certain death. So, always strive to be better, but understand that not everyone has your best interest at heart and that manipulators do exist. Watch for the signs and take appropriate action. Bottom line, if you are pushing yourself and you feel like you've reached a limit, stop the activity. There is a time to question authority and gurus, no matter who they are do not deserve to be revered at all costs.
So, that is an explanation of how people might get to a point where they would push themselves beyond their normal, logical limits based on the teachings of a guru. I look forward to your thoughts and feedback. Please link to this, tweet about it and put it up on your blog and facebook page if you enjoy it. If you have other comments or disagree, feel free to post those too, I'll leave all comments up as long as they are appropriate.
As I find additional posts that I find insightful, I'll add them to the bottom of this article.
Here is another interesting blog post about the incident.
From Beyond Growth.