It’s 8 October 2009, and you are sitting in what James Arthur Ray calls a “sweat lodge”, as the podcast host Matt Stroud describes the steam that fills the tent, the sound of water sizzling and hot coals hissing.
Some people taunt it, others swear by it, but regardless, bookstores fill shelves of copies of various self-help techniques, regimes and beliefs. It’s the stuff American motivational speaker James Arthur Ray has built his career on, selling self-improvement through books like The Science of Success and coaching sessions called “21 Days to a New Life”. But the guru is also a convicted felon who has served two years in an Arizona state prison after being convicted of three counts of negligent homicide in 2010.
Back in October more than a decade ago, Ray hosted his retreat “Spiritual Warrior” in Yavapai County near Sedona, Arizona. In the sweat lodge, the ground is the coolest place to be, so bodies are pressed into the sand, says Brandy Amstel, recalling her experience. You can hear the whoosh of steam from the fire pit into the dome, as she describes how breathing the air into her throat burned the inside of her body. Ray was gloating, Amstel – almost bitterly – remembers, that this would be the most intense heat endurance test he had ever facilitated.
Before entering, attendees had fasted, shaved their heads and spent days isolated in the desert. This was just another one of Ray’s methods of enlightenment.
But then, before dawn, two participants had died and 18 were hospitalised for burns, dehydration, difficulty breathing, kidney failure and more. Another attendee died a week later after being in a coma.
This nine-episode podcast series explores the dark side of enlightenment, delving into the tragedy of Ray’s self-help.
In a carefully produced series, Stroud leaves no stone unturned, including audio from sessions with Ray, TV inserts and even interviews with Oprah, who had previously endorsed him. The podcast also explores the timeline of the retreat, the aftermath of the tragedy as well as the rise and fall, and rise again, of Ray’s career.
You follow the investigation with police officers as they dig into why exactly three people died on a retreat meant to be for their greater good. The show also interviews those who were there, previous followers of Ray, the families of the victims as well as other self-help teachers in the industry.
It is gripping true crime meets existentialism in the middle of the Arizona desert that hooks you from the first instalment to the last. DM/ML