James Arthur Ray, “spiritual” speaker and “Self-help guru” was charged with manslaughter in the recent deaths of participants in the sweatlodge he facilitated on October 8, 2009. “About halfway through the two-hour ceremony – a sauna-type purification ritual – some began feeling ill, vomiting and collapsing inside the 38.55sq m structure. Mr Ray urged participants to push past their physical weaknesses and chided those who wanted to leave, authorities and participants said. Two people passed out in the sweat lodge and died that night in hospital. Another slipped into a coma and died a week later. Eighteen others were treated in hospital.” (Associated Press Feb 6, 2010)
This story reminds us of the dangerous temptations of the ego for those who find themselves in positions of perceived power, especially when they are in a position of spiritual leadership. As facilitator of the Contemplative Community and other spiritual programs, I am reminded of the need to be particularly diligent in checking my own ego at the door. I even hesitate to use the words leader or teacher in connection with the spiritual work that I do and I only pray that through the support of the Spiritual Director, husband, children and close spiritual friends, that I can be strengthened against this temptation.
While I work with my own support system in trying to remain alert to potential infractions of my own ego in regards to this work, I am ever grateful for the examples I have witnessed in my own journey of teachers who have gone astray. This it is an amazing gift to be able to be a vehicle through which others can experience spiritual healing, it is also a path wrought with many potential dangers. If we are not attentive to our own ego attachments, inner wounds and compulsions, the temptation is there to indulge them within our own ministry. I have seen powerful healers give themselves over to using fear as a tool through which they manipulate clients to become dependent upon the healer as their only source of hope. This insures financial success for the healer, and creates a relationship with clients based on dependency. The end result is a dependent client, rather than an empowered one. I have seen ministers give into their own unchecked vulnerabilities, only to find themselves in compromising relationships with the people to whom they are supposed to be ministering. I have seen this destroy reputations, marriages and congregations. In the James Ray situation, we see an example of a spiritual leader who has used their power and influence to subjugate their client’s own reason and intuitive faculties, and it appears that this was done through methods of power and control.
What these examples also illuminate is the temptation of the ego on the part of students, clients, parishioners to cling to those in positions of perceived authority. We all want a teacher, a leader, a person to act as a source of inspiration for us. At the same time, where is our own empowerment in the context of that relationship? Have we created in our own mind a relationship of imbalanced power. Have we made the teacher our “god?” In the situation with Ray’s “disciples”, it seems this may have at least somewhat been the case. At what point do we lose our own self in our quest to be fed?
These are the questions I ponder as I look at the dynamics between a perceived leader and their students. The true measure of a teacher, I believe, is not the number of students that they have, but the number of teachers they empower. As a “spiritual teacher” (again, I hesitate to use these words), my job is to empower those to seek out my support to find healing for their woundedness, discover and cultivate their higher truth and find ways to live that out freely in the world. In the end, my hope is that they will become a teacher in their own right, being a vessel through which God’s healing love can continue to be revealed in the world. And….in that desire, I humbly invite my friends, clients and program participants to call me on the carpet if my ego ever gets in the way of this intention! We are all teachers on this journey, learning from one another as we grow to more fully embrace our most authentic self!