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Off in the New Age

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Money, spirituality and something else combined last October to set off a ghastly tragedy near Sedona, Ariz. Participants in a "Sweat Lodge" ceremony, run by New Age impresario James Arthur Ray, were overcome with heat. Three died, and 18 were hospitalized. Yavapai County investigators could charge Ray with homicide.

New Age is a spiritual movement that combines astrology, folk religion, Buddhism, Hinduism, paganism, physics, psychology and more. Though it can incorporate elements of mainstream Western religions (Christianity, Judaism), New Age rejects their dogma. Important to many followers is the Harmonic Convergence, a planet alignment tied to the Mayan calendar, last occurring in 1987.

The money part is easy to understand. New Age appeals largely to members of the upper-middle class, with the resources to buy healing rocks, books, DVDs, incense, custom-blended teas, bells, candles and "experiences."

A growing business in New Age travel serves a largely middle-age and female clientele. The itineraries include such "energy hot spots" as Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids and Sedona, famous for its gorgeous red rock formations.

Ray has done a magnificent job of capturing New Age dollars. His fortunes soared after he appeared in "The Secret," the New Age book/DVD phenomenon. He became a regular on "Oprah," and his 2008 book, "Harmonic Wealth," was a bestseller. At the time of the Sedona deaths, James Ray International was raking in over $9 million a year, and its chief executive guru lived in a Beverly Hills mansion.

The Sweat Lodge "rebirthing" experience was part of a five-day "Spiritual Warrior" program for which Ray charged nearly $10,000 a head. The Sweat Lodge ceremony -- in which consumers endured two hours of brutal heat provided by broiling rocks -- followed 36 hours of fasting in the desert.

Which brings us to the "something else." What lured these largely educated people into this expensive retreat for suffering? Partakers included doctors, real-estate agents and salespeople for major corporations. And why didn't they rush out of the Sweat Lodge the minute they started feeling faint? Ray actually marketed his Sweat Lodge as hotter than the competition's.

New Age obviously covers a lot of territory. Many just dabble in the pleasant aspects -- the nice smells, gentle people and quiet contemplation. But others go into the New Age to find a big answer to extreme inner turmoil.

Most of us must deal with anxiety from time to time. Some find consolation in traditional religion, some in philosophy. I just can't imagine finding it in the likes of James Arthur Ray.

The New Age gurus are mostly men, who attract mostly women with their sensitive veneer and exotic air. Some have long hair. Some wear flowing robes. Ray has X-ray eyes. These master marketers try to exude a mystical power and induce others to put their faith in them.

A lust to control on the guru's part seems to combine with the follower's desire to be controlled. (Where rigorous ritual ends and cult begins is not always a clear line.) In one exercise, Ray tells people to put an arrow against their necks and then lean on it. (Before starting a dangerous exercise, he has participants sign a waiver freeing him of all liability should they get hurt.)

Anyone could have left the Sweat Lodge early, but Ray had warned that anyone who did could not return. His devotees did not want to cross their leader.

History is full of intelligent and prosperous people doing very self-destructive things at the commands of self-made gods. These extraordinary events speak of a desperation to put order into a chaotic existence. Sad that such quests can end in absurd misfortune.

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