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Posted by on Oct 28, 2009 in Education, Health, Media, Religion, Society | 8 comments

James Arthur Ray, Cult or No? How Cults Operate

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It’s now nearing three weeks since three people died and 21 were injured and hospitalized in a “sweatlodge” “wealth-making” five-day event at a ranch near Sedona, Arizona. The joint was run by James Ray who teaches people how to become wealthy. It appears that a huge ‘lodge’ was constructed at the event, many times the capacity of a real sweat lodge. By some reports from those who say they were participants at the event, it appears that people were told to fast from food and water 36 hours before the sweat. The latter defies credulity, as a sauna-like heat in a fatally sealed tent leaches precious water from the body, causing in the least, unconsciousness, and at the worst, asthma attack, heat stroke, deadly low blood glucose, fibrillation, and fatal heart attack.

That there are now widely reported to have been 50 people at the retreat, each of whom paid $9000 minimum for the five-day wealth-getting experience, the total comes to $450,000.00), nearly half a million dollars. This too defies all reason about why there was not a crack medical staffing inside the sweat tent, monitoring all persons, just in case.

A warrant to search Mr. James Ray’s offices in California was issued immediately, apparently seeking to confiscate his computers, registrations records, and medical records of retreat participants. According to some participants of the deadly retreat, Mr. Ray recently apologized by phone to some of them, for not having been there the next morning after the deaths and hospitalizations “to provide closure” for the participants… as he had left the premises in Arizona the evening of the tragedies and without notice to the participants, flew home to California instead.

Reading across the blogosphere, one sees in bloggers and readers who are following this story: anger, outrage, bewilderment, condemnation, protectionism, defending and dont’ know-don’t care attitudes toward Mr. Ray’s mega-wealth building empire, his seeming lack of even basic physiological knowledge regarding putting humans safely through fasting and sweating rituals, his ‘business as usual’ response re his going on tour immediately after the deaths during which he garnered more people/ payers into his business.

Many have wondered if mega-businesses similar to this one, regardless of what any mega-business is selling, are in actuality, cults.

That I can give some detail to, having in the early 70s studied how cults are formed as part of my work with endangered adults and children.

You decide.

These are some of the core characteristics of cults that wind up destructively depersonalizing human beings… the process of the development of a destructive cult often occurs in stages, rather than rising up full blown… As more malignant power is centered in one or two persons, the drive to power and more power feeds on itself, eventually choices and ideas and conduct of life being touted… fall far below what most would consider rational. The features below are all aimed toward bringing about dependency on the leader, as well as unearned adulation of the leader… and an infantilized sense of security thereby, in the follower.

1. A mother or father figure is often at its head.

2. An empty promise of love and acceptance that is ‘unconditional’ is given

3. A promise to understand in each member what no one else can understand

4. a doctrine that may or may not be benign, but which all are encouraged, expected/and finally forced to believe… or else they cannot attend, have shelter, belong, and will be expunged, turned out into the cold, shunned.

5. Exercises that are of a physical endurance nature, such as sitting late into the night without being allowed to rest, forced fasts, having odd or no truly nourishing food available for long periods of time, having to listen to long boring readings or speeches, not being allowed to use the bathroom when needed, not being allowed to wash, or having sleep interrupted at someone else’s will, having one’s feelings of becoming faint or sick ignored, being ‘confronted’ persistently or aggressively about perceived wrong thinking or wrong action… all ‘for the good of’ the acolyte.

6. Subtly or aggressively ordering members to cut off ties to family and friends, for ‘they’ cannot be ‘the real deal’ if the family and friends protest the cult-master’s ideas, or if ‘they’ have realistic fears for the self-sovereignty of their children or adult loved ones… which proves how weak the family and friends are… so family and friends must be cut off. “We are your family, your friends, and we are the only ones who understand you and give you what you need/ want.”

6a. Also included are steep fees, tithings, ‘donations’ that literally deplete the resources of the members so all resources are now centered in the bank account or tax dodge of the leader only.

7. Increasingly harsh or negligent vigilance by the leader(s) of the members, including various forms of punishment for not complying (not being allowed to “advance to the next level,” having to pay extra money, do extra menial labor to ‘pay their way, etc.’

7.a. Aggressive and unwarranted trigger ‘therapy,’ meant to destabilize but offered/compelled under the benign guise of ‘getting rid of your hangups’… which can lead vulnerable people as well as well-put-together people into the unconscious where all manner of psychic land mines might be hiding. Some of these exercises are meant to break the person into tears and deep grief, and often afterward, leaves souls deeply hurt and depressed. This ‘coming undone’ is usually praised, and it is said that now the member has ‘passed a test,’ and can now be enfolded in the next venture/ step. For the price of more money.

8. Sexual intrusion by/with various members, sometimes including men as well as women. Arrangements about who will be celibate, who will have sex and when and with whom, all decided by the father/ mother of the group who often arrange incestuous relationships with their members… and it is considered an honor to sleep with the leader.

9. Changing of names from given names to ‘new names’ to continue to break ties with the past. Calling the leader by a special name that is usually ordered by the leader.

10. A pervasive, “daddy/ mommy knows best’ atmosphere in which members are infantilized, and become increasingly dependent on both supporting the ‘leader’s’ ill vision, preening the ‘leader’s’ massive ego, ministering to the ‘leader’s’ every whim, providing the ‘leader’ with servants, and/or giving over to the ‘leader’ all or most of one’s financial assets.

11. Often the leader of a depersonalizing cult grows increasingly filled with hubris and hedonism, both… while followers become docile, with lost ability to measure and weigh matters in their own self interest, most everything decided by what the ‘leader’ says must be done, where and how, instead of what one’s own instincts and soul calls one to.

12. A cult that is destructive is meant to break down its members’ “think for yourself” boundaries to make them dependent on returning person and resources again and again to the leader… while the leader holds out a special language and often fatuous belief system…. all under the guise of ‘family love,’ ‘understanding at long last,’ ‘belonging.’ To persons who are still in a fugue state of adoration of a malignant cult leader, defending that leader can be paramount for some followers, for they have been made dependent and cannot be without their cult parent.

Three other characteristics I’ve noticed about depersonalizing cults that in slick and shiny ways promote and promise what only amounts to a cheap depersonalized care to adults…. are these:

The cults never seem to have merciful outreach to the poor, or the ill, the homeless, or the needy. Despite the cult’s huge wealth centered in the leader, the cult is turned in on itself instead.

Secondly, a destructive cult philosophy attempts to explain away irresponsibility, intrusiveness, criminal neglect by the leader or others in charge of the often naive members, by insisting that deprivation is exactly what “god” or “higher power” ordered, and that this irresponsible behavior on the part of leaders is exactly what is needed for members to be ‘cured’ and ‘strengthened’… when in fact, for any leader with heart and soul in the first position, they’d likely discern that persons afflicted are often in need of ‘careful care’ of a completely different kind.

Lastly, a depersonalizing cult often goes to extreme means to harass, hound, trick, punish any member who wakes up and leaves the cult, preferring to be free and under their own power, rather than remain nailed into a belief system that revolves around the often character-disordered psyche of the ‘leader.’

Those who are most vulnerable to being ‘sold’ into a depersonalizing cult, sadly, are those who often have broken hearts, who are estranged from family, abused by someone, weakened momentarily in a significant way. People of known wealth are sometimes purposely targeted for membership, also. In all cases, I have seen, such souls deserved far more than a self-centered, inflated ‘leader’ acting as dictator.

Charisma can be a cheap commodity… and it is not the same as a charism, which is a gift from God that is to be lived out to serve others. Charisma in the undeveloped, only asks to be admired. Following a charism takes stones… a person consciously carrying a true charism, first and foremost, admires others.

Correction: An earlier post wrongly stated the estimated amount taken in from participants attending the recent James Ray event in Sedona. The correct estimate is $450,000.00 not $4,500,000.00. I apologize for the error and it is now corrected in the text. Thanks Christopher.
Dr. E., Deputy Managing Editor, TMV