The Self-Help Guru That Drove His Followers to Death

Ryan Fan Arthur Ray in 2017, From Reporter999 on Wikipedia Commons — Public Domain

“He’s part of a growing number of entrepreneurs giving workshops and seminars all over the US in the 2000s. His unorthodox methods and blend of self-improvement philosophies and economic advice have won praise from Oprah and others. His career seems to be taking off, but his ever more extreme methods push his pupils to their limits. What are they seeking? What does he offer? And what happens when it all goes too far, and people die?” — The Introduction of Guru: The Dark Side to Enlightenment

Self-help these days seems to be the crux of the Internet. Everyone is looking for ways to be more confident, attractive, and make more money. We aren’t satisfied with the current state of our lives, and self-help fills the void of inadequacy we feel in our hearts.

It’s also very profitable to be in self-help these days — in 2013, Kathryn Schulz of New York Magazine, estimated the self-help industry to be an $11 billion industry. Self-help is built on a genuine and common-sense business model — everyone wants to improve themselves, so here’s direct and actionable steps you can take to improve yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But what happens when self-help goes too far? What if the worship of a charismatic self-help guru or speaker manifests itself in a cult? And what if that worship goes so far that it leads to death?

These questions were confronted in a new podcast, Guru: The Dark Side to Enlightenment which was hosted by journalist Matt Stound. It was originally released on Wondery on June 22 and has been available on Apple podcasts for the past week, and I stumbled upon it during my lunch break working at Amazon.

Guru centers its focus around James Arthur Ray, a self-help businessman and speaker who was convicted of three counts of negligent homicide in 2010 after three of his followers died in his sweat lodge in 2009.

Who was James Arthur Ray?

James Arthur Ray was the son of an Oklahoma preacher in Tulsa, who he recalled was so poor that “they had to live in a church office.” According to Ray, his parents couldn’t even buy him a baseball bat or a haircut despite all the time his father put into the ministry, and he doubted his faith with a lot of the following question:

“How could a loving God keep me from Cub Scouts on account of not being able to afford a uniform?”

However, many of Ray’s claims and self-proclaimed accolades would be put into question. A high school classmate, Tim Conner, told The Arizona Republic that he was always pretty well-dressed and knew how to make something of himself.

According to Ray, he dropped out of Tulsa Junior College in 1978, worked several jobs, and then joined the AT&T sales team. According to a retired AT&T district manager, he worked his way into managerial training and then found an epiphany once he was exposed to the techniques of Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Ray would say that he worked for Covey’s company, FranklinCovey for four years. However, the company would tell Forbes in 2008 that it had no record of Ray ever working there.

How did James Arthur Ray rise to fame?

James Arthur Ray claimed to have interviewed shamans on Peruvian mountaintops, witch doctors in the Amazon, and a kahuna in Hawaii. He claimed to have wandered through the Catacombs and have found spiritual enlightenment, as well as having visited Egyptian pyramids, museums in Paris, and a castle in Portugal.

All of these experiences influenced how Ray preached self-help. He taught his followers that positive thinking could help physical health and that they could use their minds, spirits, and bodies to fulfill the harmonious prosperity of wealth and emotional stability.

“His ideas are a cobbling of religions, ancient mysticism, modern science, and far-flung philosophies,” said Craig Harris and Dennis Wagner in The Arizona Republic.

While Ray wouldn’t attain instant success, his revenue from his books, conferences, and seminars in 2005 would reach $1.5 million. He appeared in The Secret, a documentary where he promoted positive thinking as a way to make good things happen. He appeared on “Oprah” and “Larry King Live”. In 2008, his company said that its revenue hit $9.4 million.

According to Grant Cardone, author, and CEO of Cardone Capital, Ray had approached Cardone in the early 2000s at Cardone’s home in San Diego. Ray was trying to break into the seminar business and Cardone had a successful one, and Cardone said that he told Ray to only teach sound business practices instead of overly spiritual demonstrations of illusions of power.

Cardone would say the following:

“The next time I heard about him he had supposedly returned from South America after doing a vision quest which included sleep deprivation, fasting and sweat lodges and was now intent on making this part of his seminar.”

Some of his earlier events would include the cruel treatment of followers that preceded the sweat lodge tragedy of 2009. In 2005, at an event at Disney World, a New Jersey woman named Diane Konopka shattered her hand in a ritualistic board-breaking exercise. Konopka would sue Ray that year for negligence and felt like she had no choice to do what Ray said because she felt “humiliated” and “extremely exhausted,” according to the lawsuit. Konopka would sustain multiple fractures. Ray and Konopka would settle in 2007 for an undisclosed amount of money.

In mid-October of 2005, a 42-year-old man fell unconscious after spending time in a sweat lodge. He was taken to the hospital and then returned to the sweat lodge the next day. In 2009, a woman named Colleen Marian Conaway jumped from a third-floor balcony in Horton Plaza in San Diego, to her death. She had no identification on her when she died. Ray and his staffers only knew that Conaway was missing from the group — and her death would be ruled a suicide.

The sweat lodge deaths

In October of 2009, Ray ran his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat at the Angel Valley Retreat valley near Sedona, Arizona. Attendees paid up to 10,000 to participate in the retreat and fasted for 36 hours during the event as part of a vision quest exercise The participants fasted not only for that long, but in the desert, and Dr. Beverly Bunn, an orthodontist from Texas, would say that people were throwing up everywhere and that she herself struggled to remain conscious.

The Verde Valley Fire District released information that they responded to a scene where two people, James Shore and Kirby Brown, were dead and four were hospitalized. According to the firefighter reports, emergency workers found multiple people lying on the ground around a sweat lodge needing medical attention.

Two patients were in cardiac arrests, and some were on the ground, unconscious. Many were not feeling well while they were walking around. Authorities ruled out carbon monoxide poisoning but had trouble getting people who participated in the “Spiritual Warrior” exercise since it was intended to be a personal spiritual experience — and the ceremony was supposed to be a “rebirthing exercise”.

According to Bunn, Ray would tell the participants that vomiting “was good for you [and] that you are purging what your body doesn’t want, what it doesn’t need.” When someone passed out, Ray closes the tent door and said: “we will deal with that after the next round.”

Thomas J. McFeeley, the cousin of one of the participants that passed away, Kirby Brown, said that he spoke to many of the participants about their experiences in the sweat lodge, and learned the following:

“James Ray stood by the door of the tent and he controlled when those rounds began and ended. He called for more and hotter rocks that were brought into the tent between the rounds. He instructed people inside that you could not leave during the rounds. If you had to leave, you had to wait until the end of the round.”

Later on, a third participant, Liz Neuman, fell into a coma and died. The Yavapai County sheriff, Steve Waugh, opened a homicide investigation. On June 22, 2011, he would be convicted for three negligent homicide charges and face up to 11 years in prison.

During his trial, Ray also faced a lot of backlash from local Native American activists around appropriating sweat lodge ceremonies. Larry Lockwood, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and spokesman for the Native American Coalition of the Quad Cities, would say that coalition members prayed for the dead and ill members from the sweat lodge incident, and also that “gurus” like Ray should not be conducting sweat lodge ceremonies without expertise.

“Ultimately, our traditions are good,” Mr. Lockwood said. “Something’s wrong when people are participating in this and people die. It’s not our Indian way.”

The Lakota tribe of North and South Dakota would also file a lawsuit that Ray and the Angel Valley Retreat Center “violated the peace between the United States and the Lakota Nation.” However, in 2010, Judge Frederick Martone dropped the charges because the Indian Arts and Crafts Act did not apply to the claim — dictating that Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior” was a service rather than a good.


James Arthur Ray would only serve two years in prison and would be released on July 12, 2013. He was granted a supervised release and tried to make his way back into the self-help industry without success. Ray tried to make his way back into the self-help industry, even appearing on Piers Morgan Live, without success. In 2016, a CNN documentary titled Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray would also recount Ray’s rise and fall and the origins behind cult-like followership in the self-help industry.

Self-help is a powerful tool, and although most self-help gurus don’t go to the extremes that Ray did — the capacity for the personal growth industry in not only attracting followers but getting followers to take huge risks is something to be very, very cautious of.

In self-help, frauds like Ray exist, much like Prosperity Gospel preachers exist in Christianity. John Curtis, a professor of organizational development at Asheville, North Carolina, told the Arizona Republic that people turn to self-improvement gurus aren’t stupid — in fact, they’re actually quite intelligent, but seem to voluntarily abandon rationality when following their favorite gurus.

A former self-help guru, Michelle Goodman, would renounce the movement as a whole and give us this warning to move forward, as she struggled significantly in her personal life and couldn’t practice much of the advice that she preached:

“But with coachology comes great responsibility. Responsibility to offer advice you know works, preferably advice you’ve put to the test yourself. Responsibility to rise above bullshit artistry. Responsibility to not try to solve people’s problems you are in no way equipped to fix.”

Matt Stound, the creator of the recent podcast, Guru, about James Arthur Ray, would admit that he felt drawn to Ray when he saw him speak in suburban Phoenix. Ray was a charismatic speaker who made everyone in the room feel special and important. He knew how to connect with people on a personal level and make eye contact, and Stound would describe Ray as “charming”.

But he was also elevated to the status of a God. The tragic story of the lives lost behind the preaching of James Arthur Ray, on one hand, shows the dark side of self-improvement to the extreme, but also teaches us that no one man or movement can be the answer to all of our problems and insecurities.

The moment we put our lives at the hands of someone else to be our savior should be a sign, above all else, to turn back and run.

Originally published at CrimeBeat on July 10, 2020.

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