Disowning James Ray #1

January 12, 2010

The Huffington Post continues its fine tradition of new age gutter journalism, with an article from one Jonathon Ellerby. He is the next in the long line of spiritual teachers queueing up to distance themselves from James Arthur Ray.

As always, they find this tricky, because they have to imply that Ray “made mistakes” in the numerous incidents which left people dead, severely injured and/or financially incapacitated, but they want to say as little as possible about what these “mistakes” might have been.

This omission is important because as we’ll see, Ray for the most part followed new age philosophy in the standard manner. The only thing he did outside the norm for his profession was getting caught.

No doubt there are spiritual teachers and other similar professionals who are outraged and deeply saddened by the fate suffered by Ray’s victims, but Jonathon Ellerby isn’t one of them.

His main concern is to distance himself from Ray, while promoting himself as one of the good guys. His insincerity shows through in the way he fails to name a single specific criticism of Ray. Instead, after a bit of hand waving, he promptly changes the subject – to smear the medical profession and evidence based reasoning. He claims that skepticism about his profession has already gone too far and washes his hands of further comment on the deaths and injuries inflicted by Ray on those who trusted him.

In the process Ellerby reveals his ignorance of the subjects he criticises. But more on that later. He also chooses to completely ignore the death of Colleen Conaway during the previous Ray seminar. Ray and his team abandoned Ms Conaway’s body and blatantly covered up their involvement in her death.

Why does Jonathon Ellerby fail to acknowledge this incident? He lists the Death Ray death count as three instead of four. James Ray covered it up. Jonathon Ellerby helps further. Not a good start if you’re looking for credibility on this subject, Mr Ellerby.

Seeing as Jonathon Ellerby never gets around to saying what he thinks Ray actually did wrong, I will kindly offer a few brief suggestions about which mistakes Ray made, and what spiritual teachers can do towards improvement.

First and foremost, Ray’s deadliest and most stupid mistake was that he acted entirely according to standard New Age spiritual philosophy.

He believed he has magical powers, that “We create our own reality” and believed that he has mastered methods for manipulating such a universal law. This led him directly to taking absurd risks, secure in the belief that everything would happen according to divine plan, according to the Law of Attraction.

After the deaths he sincerely followed through on that belief, telling some followers in a conference call that the deceased had “left their bodies and were having so much fun they decided to stay out”.

This is all perfectly in line with modern esoteric principles, isn’t it Mr Ellerby. Or do you think otherwise? You don’t say.

Then Ray mysteriously changed his entire philosophical system – rejecting years of carefully refined LoA “blame the victim” mentality and called it a “tragic accident”. So what does Jonathon Ellerby think – was the death lodge part of the Great Cosmic Plan, or is the LoA wrong? Obviously the self-help movement needs to choose.

So Step 1 for Jonathon Ellerby: disown, criticise and denounce the LoA as dangerous nonsense and stop teaching it in any form. That is, stop claiming that a universe force mirrors back to us what we put out through mystical, non-physical spiritual processes. Moreover, don’t tell people you know how to manipulate these forces, and stop using it to shirk responsibility for your errors.

Second, stop using spiritual philosophy to disable and deflect criticism and critical thinking.

Anyone who breathes a word of criticism of a spiritual teacher or idea is immediately attacked and labelled “negative”. Then the person’s motives, moral character and personal failings are called into question:

Why are you so full of rage?
Why do you have a PROBLEM with that?
Why do you find these ideas so threatening?
It’s true for those who believe it….
.and so on.

One thing they won’t do is thoughtfully consider the criticism and formulate a rational answer to it. When pushed, they are in fact mentaly incapable of doing that. The Secret exemplifies the way spiritual teachers keep their followers and fans in a state of unholy fear of criticism. For them it’s “negative energy” or “negative emotion” which, if they allow to flourish around them, or, heaven forbid start indulging in themselves, will attract an appalling horrid fate to come crashing down on them via the LoA.

This mix of faith and fear led straight to the death lodge and the reactions of many suppoesedly spiritual people to it.

Step 2 for Jonathon Ellerby: stop this silliness. Allow people express their ideas and criticism openly. Of course, you would have to lift your own standards, too, and worse, you might even have to change your ideas if you realise you are wrong. Believe it or not, that process is identified in some circles as “growth”. It is considered positive and creative.

Third, spiritual teachers have started working as a cartel who vouch for each others validity and promote each others complementary products.

This circle of thieves formalised by Jack Canfield in the TLC. Financially this works great, because it removes the chance of any unwelcome ideas or criticism, and sets the standard for interactions in the entire new age community: positive, no criticism, just constantly talking each other up. The end effect is that success is measured in charisma and sales figures. Ethics and product quality (ie actual usefulness) are excluded entirely.

Step 3 for Jonathon Ellerby: examine the financial structures of Ray’s company and all the other similar ones. Expose this business of teachers manipulating people to book a package of workshops, and allow a fair timeframe for refunds. Just look at the waivers people have to sign. That will indicate very quickly which guys are the hucksters.

Fourth, admit fallibility and that the LoA is no substitute for screening participants’ medical health and having plans for dealing with emergencies, including trained medical staff.

That means knowing which emergencies might arise (eg., psychosis in psychologically demanding processes; dehydration, burns, organ failure if you’re doing sweat lodge in 150 degree heat), and know how to contact emergency workers swiftly.

Step 4 for Jonathon Ellerby: criticise (gasp!) Ray for his reluctance to call in emergency medical help – he was furious when staff did that in previous years – and criticise him again for being under-prepared. Criticise the “existence takes care” philosophy that led to this appalling situation, and criticise Ray even more heavily for seeming to actually believe that he had special powers.

Fifth, when someone dies during a group or even following a group, report it and investigate it. Don’t just abandon the corpse.

Sure doctors kill people by mistake or negligence, and sometimes cover it up, but in order to do that they have to break the rules. Ray got away with Colleen Conaway’s death. Ellerby is also holding rank on the cover up.

Step 5 for Jonathon Ellerby: Wonder, just for a minute or two, how many other Colleen Conaways there are. You have no way of knowing, do you. Maybe some protocols about following standard procedures required by law might be a good start for your poor, unfairly criticised spiritual industry?

Sixth…..Ok you get the idea yet, Mr Ellerby? I could go on to mention stamping out the use of fake qualifications – “Dr” John Gray, “Dr” Joe Vitale, etc. (Actually Ray is unusual in not having one, but seeing as he’s a “philosopher”, I guess he doesn’t need one.)

In short Jonathon, your profession is rotten to the core. Your have failed to address the problems, and instead have used it as an opportunity for self promotion and sniping at “the enemy”, ie science and medicine. Your article is merely an attempt to sweep it under the carpet, deflect criticism and promote yourself. Exactly the kind of short-sighted narcissism that your profession is shot through with.

Next up, a quick look at Ellerby’s “criticism” of the medical profession and evidence based reasoning.



  1. Hey Yakaru!

    I agree it’s totally pathetic how other people in the self-help industry are “distancing” themselves from Ray by saying and doing NOTHING that will help prevent future harms of the same kind.

    I’d summarize what they are all saying like this: “It’s too bad that dead people have ended up on the news.”

    Ray does seem to have completely lost control of himself in the last 6 or so months :: but his basic crimes are the standard M.O. of the entire “industry.”

    The thing about forming a “circle of thieves” is that it allows you to be sloppy :: and stupid.

    People are still dying needlessly :: and unless something big happens :: they will continue to for the foreseeable future.

  2. Jeez, thanks Droid!

    I didn’t realise comment moderation was switched on. It’s off now.

    Yeh. It’s a completely disgraceful way to respond to this incident. Ellerby treats it as another chance to take a swipe at the medical profession and those evil skeptics, for god’s sake, and moan about people doubting his integrity.

    It’s pathetic watching these guys scramble for position in the new post-Ray hierarchy.

    Interesting that you think Ray especially lost it during the last six months. Steroids building up in the system, maybe? He should do a cleanse do get rid of all those toxins. Actually maybe he should invite all his professional colleagues around for a sweat.

  3. Nice analysis.

    To expand on your point of deflection, these guys seem to be experts at it, which is a red flag in any case. The thing that has attracted my attention (must be the LOA in action) is that they always attack any detractors with logical questions, and belittle followers who dare to question.

    That is unacceptable behavior, and I will support (in every way possible) anybody who has the chops to expose these bullies for what they are.

    Happy hunting.

  4. Thanks Dave.

    Yes, they attack their detractors with logical questions, but if anyone uses logic on them they insist you can’t judge spirituality with cold hard left brain logic.

    After years of politely pointing this stuff out to them, I’ve had enough. This death lodge incident and even more so, the events surrounding Colleen Conaway’s death show how ruthless and deceitful these cranks are. I don’t know Ellerby at all, but I know his kind of weird taunting hit and run disjointed spiritual rhetoric.

    Maybe he’s a nice guy who’s easily distracted and lacks an editor. And maybe not. Whatever the case may be, if he can get self promotional material like this published in the guise of journalism, the Puff Post needs some editorial advice.

  5. […] made a few polite suggestions here, about how his profession could react if it wanted to avoid further abuses and deaths. This part […]

  6. Greetings! Its a pleasure to be able to reply to the blunt attacks on my character and work for simply defending an industry and NOT an individual. You all missed one simple and important obvious point – my post was NOT about the James Ray event. It was about reactionary journalism…

    The article was not about the deaths or the Sweat Lodge but about the downside of making large generalizations and about problems with knee-jerk reactions and blanket statements. Maybe you all missed that in your efforts to make assumptions about me and my work.

    I respect your opinions, and I see its hard for you to respect mine because it feels good to generalize and attack (to quote a comment: “happy hunting”). IF you are interested in what I think about James Ray and the deaths at the Lodge – you would have read my blogs about that topic. You’d likely find that we actually share many views in common. I did and do stand behind the need for the spirituality and self-help industry to be accountable. I have written about the disturbing lack of credentials in my feild. I did and have continued to help provide education about what healthy and safe lodges are and I have worked to educate people to learn how to navigate the traps in the self-help world. I absolutely did and do express deep sadness and support for the families involved. So I am not sure which Jonathan Ellerby you are refering to, but its hard to imagine its me.

    I suppose we all focus on what serves our agendas? Or is it that only the self-helpers do wrong? According to you, the entire self-help/spirituality community (which includes psychologists, psychiatrists, preists, rabbis, chaplains, medical doctors, and other well trained professionals) is rotten to the core. Wow. Every single person dealing with mental, emotional, and spiritual health is rotten…? That is quite a statement.

    The sad part of your comment is that I think you and I actually see many of the same problems and have many of the same concerns. I do think there are a lot of serious issues that have surfaced from this horrid event and I think that skeptics, critics and people in the spirituality and self-help industry need to work together to prevent terrors like this from happening again.

    I am very interested in addressing in the problem and am happy to dialogue with people who share the same intent. That is why I have made myself available to the police in the investigation. If asked, I would be happy to help the families as well. Can you help make that happen? (not said with sarcasim)

    The mere suggesting in your comment after my post, that I think there are “no lessons” from the event shows that not only did you not read my entire blog, but that you didn’t understand what it was about, nor were you interested in reading my very specific comments in earlier posts and formats which have helped to identify exactly what did go wrong. I responded to the event immediately after the event…

    In the future I hope we both can be a part of solutions. I am really not sure what you hoped to accomplish with your post – but if it was to attack my character and completely disregarding my history of work, service, training and current work (which I do in association with major universities and along side medical doctors), well, then you did a great job.

  7. Hey Ellerby :: who cares about you, or your work, or your experience?

    Only you Narcissus … only you.

    Your comment is the sort of thing you tell your therapist … not the Internet. Forward it to him/her :: maybe they’ll come over and give you the reassuring hug you seem to need.

    The whole “double standard” argument was played out two decades ago. It just sounds ridiculous now. There is ZERO reason to compare the self-help and medical industries at moments like this. Some things about western medicine suck and should be fixed. Full stop. Some things about self-help {like LGAT, conmen, coercion, manipulation, false marketing, price fixing} should be fixed. Full stop.

    The banks all suck :: should decline to call for, and prevent, their abuses because the re-insurance industry also sucks?

  8. Hi Jonathon, thanks for commenting.

    I was actually aware that your article was not intended to be about Ray and the sweat lodge, and actually, that was the whole point of what I wrote. Maybe you have dealt with it elsewhere, but you didn’t say so in the article itself. If you had’ve linked to it I would have chased it up, but you didn’t, so I’m hardly going to go and look for something I can’t know exists.

    Also, you didn’t even give away whether or not you thought any of the media criticism was fair. You just said “digested it and searched for merit”, but in classical new age speak, you make it sound like you have taken criticism on board, when really you have said nothing of the sort.

    Why play your cards so close to your chest in such a blatant case? I can only guess, and that is what I did, listing plenty of reasons for my conclusions.

    And why did you choose to follow Ray’s lead in ignoring the death of a participant during a Ray group a few months earlier? It’s no trouble to refer to four deaths instead of three is it? It looks like you think that because the earlier death (still) isn’t officially part of the homicide investigation you don’t need to count it — that it’s no problem when a participant dies during a group and the leader abandons the body and lies about it.

    I also don’t think you made an adequate case that media had been unfairly stereotyping your profession. The collective response of your profession to Ray has been pathetic. Maybe the articles you posted once were good, I don’t know, but your profession hasn’t done the hard self criticism and public acknowledgement of specific failures for you, as a representative, to start criticising other professions. Just imagine if the media hadn’t covered this for some reason. Your profession would’ve responded exactly like it it did to Colleen Conaway’s death.

    That’s partly what I mean when I say your profession is rotten to the core. The basic structures for maintaining profession standards in every department except sales and marketing are not there. No ethics, not the slightest interest in finding out whether or not your products work or are fairly marketed. And your top people use every trick in the book to avoid even the most minimal change.

    I don’t mean to be personal, and I genuinely appreciate your comment – and as I say, I’d be interested to see a link or two if you post them here, and now that you have shared a bit more about yourself I would probably be more dialogue-friendly. But again, it doesn’t look to me like you are really prepared to tackle this issue head on. If I sound impatient it’s because I think you should be embarrassed at having outsiders like me trying to convince you and your colleagues that you need to raise your standards to something like what is expected of everyone else. I know of know other profession with such terrible standards.

  9. Hello Yakaru. I have to say -much as I hate to sound New Agey – that I do appreciate this last post of yours and actually felt I learned something from your feedback. I do think I should have included links to my past comments so as not to let people think I didn’t feel total outrage at the James Ray events (note I use the plural). I think that would have been a good idea. Actually, you caused me to look back at my old posts which were all about the need for self-help step it up and about the shame in the lack of credibility and talent in many of my so-called associates, and comments about cultural appropriation by teachers. I think your impatience is well deserved and I think the anger and frustration of your readers is also well deserved. I am honestly not really sure how to change the field I am in. Believe it or not I do want to.

    The truth is the hold of money, greed and the desire for fame runs deep in the world of spirituality and self-help and those desires are feed by a system that is deeply connected to the media, marketing and all the people that make the real money behind the scenes. I can’t tell you how much it frustrates me that I have spent the time, money, and personal dedication to do 12 years of higher education, getting degrees, putting in clinical hours of supervision as a counselor/chaplain, researching, and being mentored, only to have wealthy motivational speakers mute the hard work of good people when they turn themselves into “gurus” overnight, based on nothing more than a fancy website, and vauge claims that play at people’s fears.

    Flashy products and media savvy too often (not always) go much farther than substance these days. I have also written and posted about how people can educate themselves so as not to get hurt by untrained self-help leaders. I do know many well qualified, good natured people in my feild – and yes, I absolutely see plenty of the opposite.

    Anyway, I won’t keep appearing on your site – its your show and thats cool. I will keep this exchange in mind and will be sure that the next time I write about something that is associated with a topic that I have other views on that I make the links and add the references… point well made. I can see how it looks like I avoided the issue. The thought of being “lumped” into a group that is like James Ray is beyond disturbing to say the least…

  10. Thanks, Jonathon. Unusually candid response for one of your profession!

    Your profession could do a lot of really easy things to improve the standards. Insisting on basic accountability for all public statements – eg., providing links and references for studies cited, checking up if the study really says what one claims, and if it was properly designed. And if not, then don’t use it.

    If using scientific terms, use them properly in the with the meaning exactly as it appears in the text books, not ones own “interpretation” of it. (And the mere fact of having a science degree, incidentally, doesn’t automatically make one’s interpretation of it right.)

    That kind of thing would clear the air a bit and make it harder for the James Rays and Deepak Chopras to use your profession as a platform for their quantum energised snake oil.

    Really, lies are so common in your profession that just saying simple facts can rock the boat unbearably for some people. Or asking simple questions: Did Louise Hay really have cancer? Can we see the records before you sell your cure to millions? That kind of thing. Not so tricky, but it would bring a few publishing houses to the ground.

    Anyway, thanks for commenting, Jonathon.

  11. […] brings us to the James Ray problem. I’ve dealt a couple of times here with the difficulty people have had protecting the LoA, while simultaneously […]

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