I’m listening to people’s responses to the testimony of witnesses in the James Arthur Ray’s trial, who say they wouldn’t have allowed themselves to be pressured into surrendering their lives into some slick salesman’s hands. To which I say, be careful about your certainties.
Most of us, if confronted by a crisis in which we have no expertise, would indeed defer to authorities that we think know more than us. Dr. Stanley Milgram, a distinguished Yale psychology professor, designed one of the most controversial experiments ever conducted. In 1961, Milgram measured the willingness of people to obey the orders of an authority figure, even if that authority instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. His book, Obedience To Authority, An Experimental View (1974), makes it clear that most people when faced with a situation in which they have no experience/knowledge, will leave the decision-making to someone with greater authority.
Why did these bright, competent, energetic people surrender their autonomy to this quack?
As a species we are programmed to seek answers to questions, and in our culture we have come to expect that we can find them fast. But some questions don’t lend themselves to easy answers, like the existential, meaning and purpose of life questions. In an age of quick fixes, anyone who says they have an answer to those soulful questions will find an audience ready to listen.
Human’s, by their nature are also wired to be social animals who need to connect with others, we need approval, and to trust in someone other than ourselves if we are to survive.
Along comes James Arthur Ray, a sales trainer by profession, who says I have the answer to your needs, and will make you a “spiritual warrior”. My secrets come with a high price; you have to be able to afford it, and you must trust me enough to place your life in my hands. The participants in that torturous sweat lodge were seekers who believed James Ray would lead them to a place they wanted to get to.
It’s of course true that James Ray did not physically restrain participants from leaving, but he surely did emotionally. Those people chose to stay because they believed they would have failed this test of their spiritual courage as Ray sold it to them.
The witnesses stayed in that sweat lodge even as their friends were dying next to them, and they will have to live with that memory forever. It’s a hard lesson that James Arthur Ray had to teach all of us; do not surrender your life into someone else’s hands until you know them by more than just their words.