The recent sweat lodge deaths at a spiritual warrior retreat led by James Arthur Ray really raise an excellent question. A question that deserves a thoughtful conversation among leaders in the self-development and spiritual leader community. A conversation that doesn’t seem to be happening. That question and its inherent paradox/conundrum as I see it is:
In work designed to push people past their perceived limitations, how does individual participant responsibility get honored without diminishing the value of the leader or defeating the core purpose of the work?
Here’s the thing, people are naturally inclined to live life by their perceived limitations. That is why we need people who can help us bust through them. These perceived limitations are why people stay stuck and chase their tail in circles never really improving much beyond their current circumstances. When we are willing to do things differently, step outside those limitations and go beyond them, new possibilities open up. Sometimes we must go well beyond what we think is comfortable for us in order to experience that next level of growth in our lives. In retreat settings this often takes the form of going beyond physical and emotional limitations and experiencing sensations that are new, intense, or scary. Part of the magic is that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Students place their trust in the teacher to lead them through a process or an experience. Yet, at all times each of us are individually responsible to ensure our own well-being. Meaning, we need to know when it is right for us to dis-engage, step away, or take the intensity down a notch to ensure our own health and well-being. After all, “no pain/no gain” is not the motto of the self-improvement industry.
So, here’s the catch — if our perceived beliefs and limitation is what has us stuck, how do we know when our desire to step away in the heat of the moment of a retreat is
a) those self-limiting beliefs, fears, excuses, and comfort-zones rearing their heads again
b) true guidance of what we most need to heed at the time?
Therein lies the conundrum and the gray area.
Now I can’t speak to the James Ray sweat lodge deaths specifically because I don’t have direct experience with James, his retreats, or this incident and I’m sure investigators will do what is necessary to get to the root cause (one can hope!). What I can speak is about my own personal experiences as a participant in transformational retreats.
Several events in my life have been pivotal to making the shifts I needed to lead me to where I am today. I suspect there will be other life-changing experiences that will take me to even further growth in the future; things I cannot even yet envision. Each time I put my trust in the leaders. Each time the leaders made it damn clear that each of us as participants were personally responsible to ensure our own well-being and that they and their staff were there to support that. That said, we were encouraged to go well beyond our comfort zones. I can say that on these occasions I definitely went well beyond my limits, but that I always felt I had a choice. I could choose to dis-engage. I could choose that now was not the right time for me to go further or that what I had already experienced was already just perfect and enough for me for this point in time. I also felt safe because I could see the amount of care and attention the leaders’ brought to their preparations and precautions including having other ‘staff’ there who could act as a sort of dispassionate observer and step in to assist participants who needed support or to step away without having them feel lost or alone. Sure there is a level of peer-pressure or psychological pressure that happens in a group setting (there are plenty of stories of gurus gone bad, and the word cult comes to mind), but at the end of the day if everyone was jumping off a cliff, would you?
I think this level of leadership, care, and personal responsibility needs to be there for anyone who chooses to be a leader in personal development and growth work. Not every leader will walk their talk, act with integrity, or show up to take full responsibility for their actions. The good ones will. As a participant you need to be a conscious and informed consumer.
I find it somewhat disappointing that the self-development community has been so quiet about this elephant in the room. I’m not talking about blaming, playing CSI investigator, instigating flame wars, or grandstanding. If you want to find threads upon threads of people projecting their own righteous positions and shadows out there, you can Google and find that. Those conversations have more to do with the people spewing their stuff than the bigger picture.
What I’m talking about is a real honest conversation among masters — looking deep within one’s own practices — asking and communing with others about how we can ensure we’re in integrity with our own responsibilities as leaders, rid or expose the industry of dangerous shams and charlatans, and educate the public about their roles and responsibilities when they choose to do personal growth work. Where are the leaders of The Secret in this conversation? Where are coaches who run retreats in this conversation? Where are our spiritual leaders? While it would be impossible to search every corner of the web, what I can say is web and blog searching has turned up nada. Last week on Larry King live I was so thankful to see John Assaraf take the high road and make an appearance on the show and comment on the sweat lodge deaths. While he couldn’t comment personally either, he spoke very eloquently. He was emotionally charge-neutral. His statements aimed to inform and educate. It was a joy to see someone walk their talk and come out of hiding in a delicate situation to do so.
Those of us who make our living out of helping others transform their lives and move beyond their limiting beliefs have an obligation to speak the truth. Wouldn’t it be a shame if this tragic incident deterred people from taking that next step toward their own brilliance? While this is definitely an exceptional and tragic situation, there are bound to be ripple effects with public perception of the self-growth industry many unwarranted and uninformed.
Hiding doesn’t work. True leaders show up and take an appropriate stand even in difficult times. While I know there are many legalities and sensitive areas, to me it would certainly have been nice to see James Ray release some sort of public statement in video or in the media now that it is almost two weeks later. I see conscious creation, law of attraction, and personal responsibility lining up a little differently than it is being played out here. I say that not to blame or judge as I can never be in another person’s shoes, but more out of pure inquisitiveness.
Ironically while researching this post, I saw this quote in the middle of a flame war on a discussion forum around these events and thought it quite appropriate:
“It is with flexibility and ease that I see all sides of an issue. There are endless ways of doing things and seeing things. I am safe.”
~ Louise L. Hay
For those seeking or involved with personal growth work I’d say, don’t let this circumstance put fear in your heart. With anything some due diligence can go a long way:
Know Your Guru
Do a little due diligence here. What credentials, experiences, support staff, etc. does someone have to do what he or she does? Do they walk their talk? Is the process or environment set up to ensure safety and well-being at all times? What have been other participant’s experience in the past?
Know the rules of the road, expectations, risks of anything you do. Ensure that you are in the proper physical and emotional health to undergo the work you plan to do/experience you plan to have. Just like you wouldn’t run a marathon without medical clearance (I hope!), don’t take the intensity of some retreats too lightly. Know your requirements for well-being and honor them.
Always Trust Yourself
At the end of the day you have to trust your gut. Go all out, lean into it, explore your edges, and exceed your limits. There’s a difference between leaning into that next level of growth for you and throwing yourself off of a cliff. Heed your inner wisdom at all times and know that transformational work should never injure or cause harm.
And the ever popular caveat — At the end of the day, nothing is 100% safe. The #1 cause of death is living. Nothing is fully controllable and drawing breath is inherently risky. So the idea that anything you do can be 100% controllable, is unrealistic. That being said, the aim of personal and spiritual growth work is to evolve and create a more whole and full YOU. There is a whole host of trained and qualified leaders in this vast field that only have the best for you at heart and do all they can to ensure you grow in a way that supports your highest good, utmost well-being.
Leaders and participants alike – how do you wrap your head around the inherent paradox of pushing beyond your limits while also honoring personal responsibility? I’d love to hear your thoughtful comments and start a much overdue conversation…
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