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.

Under the leadership of someone like Ray, this conformist tendency can segue imperceptibly into unquestioning submission to authoritarian control. Specific techniques encourage it. It’s not just the Tea Party folks who feel tempted by the Kool-Aid. It comes in different flavors. Instead of cotton candy, it’s coconut. While those who describe themselves as spiritual are certainly not the only Americans vulnerable to giving it up for charismatics toting a microphone, we are not exempt from the tendency either.

Some warning signs:

  • If everything has to be perfect, and positive, and anything less is banished, watch out. Life has many colors and they aren’t all pretty.
  • Where someone else’s ground rules supercede yours, be alert.
  • If people spend a lot of time rationalizing, reframing or denying the leader’s inconsistent or unkind behavior, pay attention. For example, he wasn’t acting punitively towards his ex, he was “helping her to know God.”
  • If you don’t feel free to speak up, that should tell you something.
  • If the crowd is going along, don’t assume that that means a teacher “must” be OK.
  • If you have patterns or a family history of disempowerment, punishment or abuse and are unsure whether or not a new group is safe to participate in, check with friends or counselors to assure that you will be safe.

It also helps those seeking to evaluate a teacher, when spiritual teachers of integrity and established repute are selective in their appearances and programming. Participation in joint seminars with a questionable teacher, for example, will be interpreted as validation. There will always be some who criticize anyone they categorize as “new age.” But teaching some form of Buddhist or yogic wisdom is not a common risk factor for authoritarian leadership. But certain things are, such as having a substantial following bifurcated into two hostile camps: the “true believers,” and those requiring therapy, chat rooms and years to recover from their traumatic experience as the Great Hoo-Ha’s student.

If you see that a friend is investing money, damaging his reputation, leaving a relationship, neglecting her children, endangering his health, incurring substantial debt or doing other high risk behavior because of a divine call from someone high on a podium, consider how to considerately and calmly issue a caution.

But the fundamental flaw often lies in the core philosophy. As Julian Walker points out in an excellent current article in The Elephant Journal, it’s no surprise that spiritually materialist beliefs, like “The Secret,” promote the

inaccurate, psychologically damaging and spiritually un-compassionate perception that victims of oppression, violent crime, poverty, incest, catastrophic illness etc are entirely to blame for their own plight, because they have at some level “created this reality” through the “power of their intention” and the “Law of Attraction. … (This is) an ironic distortion of what real spirituality should do — namely make us more humble, more honest and more compassionate toward the reality of suffering in our own and other’s lives.

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