Would You Have Left the James Ray ‘Sweat Lodge?’

by Dan on October 27, 2009

Well, would you?

It’s a question I keep asking myself since the news came out about the James Arthur Ray “Sweat Lodge” event.  See this post for details on what happened.

It’s easy for us to say, “Those people who died were idiots, I would have left once people started getting sick and throwing up.”

As we understand the situation, these 64 people had paid almost $10,000 for this weeklong event called the “Spiritual Warrior Retreat”.  They were being directed by someone they believed was an expert.  They were told vomiting and passing out was “normal,” and that they needed to be strong and cleanse themselves.  This was a necessary “purging.”

Beyond that, those who asked to leave were told by James Ray to sit down, and that no one could leave until the session was over.

One thing I do know is that once I decided the sweat lodge was a bad idea, nothing could have kept me inside.  James Arthur Ray could tell me to sit down, and I’d move past him, even if it required a kick in the stomach.

However, the question is not if I’d be too intimidated by the guru to leave.  The question is if I’d admit to myself to that I’d paid $10,000 to someone irresponsible, realize that something terribly wrong was going on, and go against the “expert advice” enough to make the decision to get out of the tent.

There are a couple things at work here.  I recommend everyone here read the book “Influence” by Robert Cialdini.  It outlines the key psychological principles of influence, and how we fall into harmful automatic behavior.

First issue we have here is cognitive dissonance.

Any time you spend a large amount of non-refundable money on something, you’re probably going to say it was a great purchase, at least for a while.  Neil Strauss, author of “The Game,” created a dvd course for men, called “The Annihilation Method” on how to meet women in bars and clubs.  It wasn’t very different from other dvd courses out there charging $300 – $500.  What differed was that he only made 375 copies of the course, and sold it at an outrageous price point of $3800.  Yes, you read that right.  Almost four thousand dollars for a dvd course on how to meet women.

I’ve met a few people who bought that course, and in the beginning, they were rabid evangelists for the wisdom of Neil Strauss.  They were passionately proud of the hidden secrets they were learning.

This lasted a number of months until they decided they’d been duped.  Some burned their courses; others just put them in a dark part of their closet somewhere.  By the time the cognitive dissonance had run out, their money was long gone.

Now if you up that number to $10,000, you’re going to have an even bigger issue of cognitive dissonance to deal with.

Even worse, this was combined with, as Cialdini puts it, the “commitment and consistency principle.”

Not only had the Spiritual Warrior attendees paid a large sum of money, but they had gone through a lot of discomfort in the retreat already.  There was a 36 hour fast in the desert without food or water.  This was another “cleansing” ritual James Ray gave his students.  After going through that long period of time without food or water, you’d feel like a complete idiot to go through all this hell for an inadequate guru.

So their confidence in him increased.

Shortly after breaking their fast, they were put in the sweat lodge, where they were to experience even more discomfort.  This time, instead of hunger, it would be nausea, fatigue, disorientation, and more.  What’s more, they’d be told this was all normal.

With all this momentum, it would be very difficult to stand up and say, “Wait, this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing!”

I know from some “cleansing” diets I’ve been on, as well as some meditative practices, that weird things can happen, and you can sometimes even feel sick or unstable.  During these times, I read or was told that these were “normal” occurrences as well.  I persisted and came out better.

Now I’m left wondering how you know when to persist, and when to throw in the towel and say this is a bad idea.

After all, pain isn’t always a sign of something bad.  You get sore after a good workout.  Your experience some emotional anxiety when you cut out sugar.  In fact, when I first started martial arts as an 8 year old, I first thought stretching your hamstrings was a risk, because I’d never experienced stretching exercises before.  Those stretches, of course, were actually injury preventing, and extremely valid.

So how do you tell?

I’d like to say common sense, but that seems to vary too much from person to person.  I guess the question I’d ask myself is, “Has anyone died or gotten injured from this before?”  Even then, it’s a bit ambiguous.

Your thoughts are welcome.  If I come up with something better, I’ll definitely put in an update.

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