Overnight, James Arthur Ray went from being a star of the self-help movement to homicide suspect.
He was admired by Oprah and Larry King; a peer of Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins; a teacher whose followers paid as much as $60,000 a year to attend his seminars, where his best-selling book, Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want, was cited as if it were scripture. Last September, James Ray International, the organization he founded in 1992, was named one of America’s 500 fastest-growing companies by Inc. Magazine, with revenues close to $10 million. Then, on October 8, the last night of his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat in Sedona, Arizona, Ray led a sweat-lodge ritual that ended in tragedy.
Three died, and about twenty others were hospitalized, as a result of injuries sustained in the ritual’s extreme heat. The local sheriff’s office launched an investigation of the deaths as negligent homicides, and Ray’s trial in the court of public opinion began. Former followers and employees made allegations of irresponsible behavior, and Ray canceled all public appearances and retreated into silence (but for some blog posts) so that he could “dedicate all of my physical and emotional energies to helping bring some sort of closure to this matter.”
Ray hired a team of lawyers and private investigators who built a preemptive defense case, outlined in a pair of “White Papers,” that maintains Ray’s innocence. Police reports from Arizona, where the investigation is ongoing, paint a different picture: One survivor of the sweat lodge quoted Ray telling the group, “You are not going to die. You might think you are, but you are not going to die.”
Friday, in his first interview since the Sedona tragedy (and with his lawyers on the line), Ray spoke exclusively to New York’s Michael Joseph Gross about what exactly happened in the sweat lodge, his struggles in the months since then, and his unwavering denial that he has done anything wrong, whether legally, morally, or ethically.
How did the events in Sedona and their aftermath affect your sense of yourself as a spiritual teacher?
Well, I wouldn’t define myself as a spiritual teacher, in the strictest traditional sense. I really see myself as a catalyst for personal transformation. I believe, through my own life experience and through my experience with tens if not hundreds of thousands of other people, that we have this seed of potential, of greatness, inside of us.
Did the events in Sedona change your sense that you can help people remember what they’re capable of accomplishing?
The events in Sedona have been devastating to me and to all the families, and I feel horrible about what happened there and for the families and for anyone and everyone who’s been affected by it.
How has it changed your personal beliefs?
I don’t know how to answer that. That right now is not the important issue. The important issue for me is to find the answers to why it occurred and to really bring some closure to this terrible accident.
What first made you realize that this sweat-lodge experience in Sedona was different from the sweat lodges that you’d been in before?
I did not know anything was different until it became apparent that there had been a terrible accident when it was completed. I don’t know what happened.
When did you become aware that there had been an accident?
Someone came up to me and said that there were some individuals that were having problems on the back side of the lodge. I did not know anything before that time. I made sure that 911 was called and we went into action to respond as best we could until the paramedics arrived.
At what point in the sweat-lodge ritual did that happen?
It was after it was completed.
So after you had walked out?
Correct, and after the lodge had been emptied.
Were you aware that some participants were vomiting or passing out or screaming for help during the sweat lodge?
You know, I think I’ll just refer you to the “White Paper” on that one. [The White Paper asserts, “Had Mr. Ray, JRI personnel or volunteers heard or understood there to be an urgent call for help, they immediately would have stopped the ceremony.”]
Did you raise your arms in victory at the end of the sweat lodge?
When I came out of the sweat lodge, I raised my arms up and they hosed me down.
Did you tell sweat-lodge participants that vomiting was good for them, that the body was purging what it doesn’t want?
I may have mentioned that I had been told by many shamans that the body purges and there’s only certain ways that it can purge. Obviously, you know the bodily functions, so there’s only certain ways that things exit the body.