Monday, October 26, 2009

The Sedona Sweat Lodge Deaths

This was originally inspired by a discussion on R.J. Stewart's mailing list. If you aren't familiar with R.J., you definitely need to pick up his books. His work on the Faery tradition is invaluable for anyone who wants to work with the Good Folk, or anyone who wants to sink their teeth into some serious and scholarly Pagan material. We were discussing the Sedona sweat lodge deaths. A lot of people seemed quite upset with the high cost of James Arthur Ray's retreat. Since I come from a tradition where it's considered acceptable to charge money for services, I thought I'd chime in with a slightly different viewpoint.

Spiritual services, like anything else, are worth what the market will bear. If James Arthur Ray was able to sell his "Spiritual Warrior" conferences for $9,000, then that is what they were worth. Presumably some people felt they were getting a good value for their money, since they signed up for this conference after attending other Ray events. You may disagree with their financial decisions, much as you might think it silly to pay $9,000 for a designer handbag (or $16.95 for a book by Kenaz Filan ;) ). But, in the end, it's their money to do with as they see fit. Ultimately we all get the initiations we deserve ... and who's to say that a spiritual breakthrough or a life-changing experience isn't worth $9,000? I paid several thousand dollars for my initiation into Vodou and don't regret a dime of it. Presumably at least some of Ray's students felt their money was well spent.

Many Pagans don't like the idea of charging money for spiritual services. Gardner wanted to avoid running afoul of the then-current Witchcraft Laws when he forbade charging for services. The cunning-folk and hedge-witches who made their living by their trade never followed his lead. I've had people chide me for taking money for readings -- and I'm betting that R.J. has heard some snide comments about the (very reasonable) fees he charges for his workshops. Apparently we're supposed to be full-time unpaid servants of the Goddess and whoever demands our time and attention. And I've seen firsthand what this attitude does to the Pagan community: we wind up with a revolving door of starry-eyed newcomers who quickly burn out in the face of incessant demands from their congregation. When idealism meets entitlement, wanna guess which one typically winds up splattered on the pavement?

There is no sin in charging money for your work. But when you accept money for your services, you also accept responsibility for giving your customer their money's worth. When someone pays me for a reading, they are trusting me to give an honest account of what I see in the cards. In taking their money, I agree to do so. And I've found the readings I charge money for -- even when I've only charged a few dollars -- are taken FAR more seriously than the ones I have done for free. When I do it for free it's a parlor game and a lark: when I get paid I'm suddenly a counselor whose word means something. There is more to the old Rom tradition of "crossing the palm with silver" than one may think. That which you have purchased is cherished more than that which you receive for free.

My complaint with James Arthur Ray has nothing to do with the cost of his retreat. It has to do with how he structured the retreat. If you're going to take money for spiritual work, you need to ensure that they are done correctly. I can assure you that most Houngans and Mambos are lucky to break even once they have finished paying for drummers, workers and the various accoutrements required for the kanzo (initiation ceremony). The reports suggest there were over 50 people in Ray's "sweat lodge:" at $9k each, that's at least $450,000. Ray could certainly have hired medical professionals to make sure that people were challenging themselves without putting themselves at undue risk. At the very least, he could have hired someone who knew how to put the damned thing on properly. Ray's $9,000 sweat was a shoddier affair than sweats I've seen held at Free Spirit Gathering. (Total cost of attending around $300 plus meals and whatever you spend on Merchant's Row -- and that price includes drum circles, classes and a swimming pool). I don't fault him for getting paid for his services. I don't even fault him for getting paid a lot for his services. I fault him for not living up to his end of the bargain.