False Beliefs Can Sometimes Even Kill You

Some months back, ABC News Online reported: ‘The deaths of three people following a sweat lodge ceremony in northern Arizona were a tragic accident—not the result of criminal negligence,  said attorneys for the self-help guru who led the ceremony. Lawyers for therapist/ceremony leader James Arthur Ray outlined their defense in letters to prosecutors that were released [to the media]. The attorneys said holding a sweat lodge ceremony is not inherently criminal or unsafe, and that Ray had no reason to believe anyone would be seriously injured or die.”

‘Mr. Ray did not force anyone to participate, prevent anyone from leaving or brainwash participants before the sweat lodge event,’ stated a Dec. 1 [2009] letter signed by Ray attorney Luis Li. Yavapai County [AZ] Attorney Sheila Polk confirmed she received the letters but declined comment. Attorneys representing one woman who died and another who survived said the letters are well written but lack substance, and try to place the blame on others. He (Ray) put people in an enclosed area without water, without ventilation and put them in harm’s way,’ said Lou Diesel, who represents one of the deceased. ‘There’s nothing they provided to suggest otherwise.’

Ray had become a self-help superstar by persuading people that his words will lead them to spiritual and financial wealth. He used free seminars to recruit people to expensive seminars like the $9,000-plus ‘Spiritual Warrior’ event aimed at conquering a person’s old self and being reborn as a new person.

The sweat lodge is the culminating event that symbolizes being in a mother’s womb. Nearly halfway through the two-hour ceremony, people began to show signs of weakness and three died. Eighteen others were hospitalized with illnesses “ranging from dehydration to kidney failure.’

Steve Salerno, author of ‘SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless’ (a book in which Dr. Hurd is quoted extensively), asked Dr. Hurd to comment on the Arizona ‘sweat lodge tragedy.’ Dr. Hurd’s comments to Mr. Salerno are as follows:

The notion of ‘self-help’ implies a definition of ‘help’—including whether or not the self is actually being helped, and if so, in what way. Much of self-help is based on following a ‘guru,’ as in the sweat lodge tragedy. You go to the guru to somehow be led.

That’s not help!

A true helper gives you tools for using your own mind, rationally, to ascertain what’s best for you and what’s true in reality (by your own reasoning and judgment). A true helper does not say, ‘Follow me,’ but rather: ‘Follow your own thinking, reasoning mind.’ And then he or she gives you some ideas on how to best do that.

Remember the old saying, ‘If you see someone coming to rescue you, run for your life’? It’s really true, because aside from situations of physical emergency, none of us need rescuing. My number one goal as a therapist and life coach is to convince people to see how they don’t need rescuing, and that their power lies in their own abilities and minds. The false belief that we need any sort of ‘rescuing’ is our only ‘illness.’ A real leader inspires you to believe in yourself, not in him (or her).

If you seek out the ‘help’ of someone who invites you to an expensive resort to—do what exactly, sweat therapy?!—then you have already displayed your emotional vulnerability. Sadly, the emotionally vulnerable do not see the weakness in the ‘guru’ who needs them. Too often, what passes for ‘spirituality’ and ‘self-help’ are the exact opposite of what a rational and thinking human being requires in order to survive. Instead of gaining control of their minds and senses, many therapists and self-help gurus encourage these poor souls to quite literally take leave of their senses, as if departing from reason will somehow ‘liberate’ them from the burden of existing, coping and thriving in a fulfilled, self-responsible life.

It’s little wonder that in a fringe case it could lead, quite literally, to tragedy and death. In many more cases, it leads to the quieter tragedy of an individual being a little less sane than he or she otherwise might have been. And paying good money for it!

Dr. Hurd was quoted briefly in Steve Salerno’s ultimately published ‘Wall Street Journal’ online article:

A bad outcome in a field with proven benefits is unfortunate. A bad outcome in a field with little basis for existing in the first place is unforgivable. As noted psychologist Michael Hurd told me, ‘Gurus encourage these poor, already troubled souls to literally take leave of their senses, as if departing reason will somehow liberate you.’