Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cleansing, Ordeals and James Arthur Ray

Since my earlier post about the Sedona sweat lodge deaths, James Arthur Ray was found guilty on three counts of negligent homicide.  Cherokee elder, judge and associate professor Steve Russell offered some pointed thoughts on the subject:
For $9,695, Ray promised that Native American wisdom, imparted by him, would make you healthy, wealthy, and wise. People lined up to consume this swill in spite of the obvious fact that most real Indians are neither healthy nor wealthy. 
While Native Americans may have greater problems to worry about (like attacks by racist skinheads and local cops), they have been understandably unsympathetic to Mr. Ray's "Spiritual Warrior Sweat Lodge." Commentary within the magical blogosphere has been even more brutal: Jason Pitzl-Waters has done his usual excellent job of bringing together various opinions on the subject. But while there is near universal condemnation of Ray, there is less consensus on other, thornier issues.   That being said, here are my $.02 on the subject: given the state of the American economy, you may want to spend it quickly.

Sweat lodges - and banyas, saunas and similar ceremonial enclosed structures involving heat and steam  - are places of purification, not trial.    One goes there to be cleansed and renewed, not to test one's limits or prove one's worth. Imagine turning the Holy Eucharist into a bread-eating contest or conflating mivkes and waterboarding.  It's telling that Ray and his target audience missed that distinction.  It's even more telling that he has a long, lucrative history of transforming various modern and indigenous practices into hazardous dick-sizing

The people who piled into that plastic sweat lodge paid Ray large sums of money because they felt they could benefit from an arduous challenge. They wanted to endure physical discomfort for their spirituality, they wanted to prove something to themselves, they wanted to meet a challenge and come out on top of it.  This suggests there is a market  - and an urgent, deep-seated need for and misunderstanding of - Ordeals.

Here I am at a bit of a disadvantage, as many of my friends do far more work on the Ordeal Path than I do.  I am hoping some of them will chime in here.  But based on my limited experience, I would note that Ordeals (at least Ordeals you set up as clergy: the Gods have their own Ordeals) are not supposed to end with the participants dead or hospitalized. An Ordeal is a serious responsibility for both the supplicant and the ordeal master. As my friend and co-author Raven Kaldera puts it
The most important thing to remember with ordeal-work is that it is meant to take you beyond your ego, not simply fluff it up. While some ordeals can give you increased confidence in yourself and your power, if there wasn't a point somewhere in it that was completely humbling, you didn't do it right. Ideally, you should eventually get to the point where the part of you that is ego is irrelevant. That's one of the way that the Ordeal Path resembles the Ascetic Path (and indeed there are places where they combine). The Ascetic's Path works with small, gentle, inexorable steps, and its focus goes inward into stillness, while the Ordeal Path takes great painful ripping steps, and its focus goes outward into a scream...after which one passes out of one's collected muck and finds a place of stillness. In the end, the Wheel of these Eight Paths all lead to the central hub, that place that we may not be able to adequately describe in words, but we all know when we've been to it.