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Hot House Deaths, The Secret and the Importance of Limits

This is a different kind of post. It’s not really about marketing directly. But I suppose it’s all connected.

When we lead a workshop on personal growth – we are making certain promises. And this piece lifts up some of the problems that can come with this. Because it’s not just what we promise – it’s what we’re capable of delivering.

And part of marketing is looking at how our industry operates – and being willing to notice what’s wrong with it. It’s important to take an honest look at what’s working and what’s not working. And to do something different.

Every industry and community has its shadow side – and the personal growth scene is no different.

Almost one year ago, two people two people died in what the media referred to as a “sweatlodge” in Sedona Arizona.

What follows is a piece I wrote on October 29th, 2009. It’s been almost a year since this tragedy happened.


In fact, in my understanding, it wasn’t a sweatlodge. As information has unfolded it has become more clear that this was not a traditionally run sweat. More of a hot house. this article used to be entitled “Sweat Lodge Deaths” but as information has come to light I have been encouraged not to even title this article using that term. And I have to agree.

I don’t know if there were any traditional elders present to lead it. I suspect there weren’t. We know there were 60 people in it – a traditional sweat might hold 12 people. We do know that Ray declined to be interviewed by the sheriff’s office on the night of the incident and returned to California the morning after the deaths.

According to www.abc15.com at the time –

“At one point, someone lifted up the back of the tent, allowing light into the otherwise pitch-black tent. Ray demanded to know where the light was coming from and who committed the “sacrilegious act,” Bunn said. A man, yelling “I can’t take it, I can’t breathe, I can’t do this” had crawled out, Bunn said.

As it neared the end, Bunn said some participants found themselves physically and mentally unable to tend to those around them. After the eighth round, Ray instructed them to exit the sweat lodge just has they had entered — going clockwise, a movement meant to symbolize being inside a mother’s womb.

What followed was a triage situation with people laid out on tarps and water being thrown on them to bring down body temperatures. Some people weren’t breathing and had bloodshot eyes. One woman unknowingly walked toward the fire before someone grabbed her, Bunn said.

Shouts of “we need water, we need water,” rang out. “They couldn’t fill up the buckets fast enough,” Bunn said.

Off to the side, a medical doctor participating in the retreat performed CPR on Shore and Brown with the aid of others. When Bunn asked if she could help because she knew CPR, she was told to stay back.

Ray was standing about 10 feet away, watching, Bunn said. “He didn’t do anything, he didn’t participate in helping. He did nothing. He just stood there.””

I can’t say much more about the differences at this point.

The Hot House was being led by James Ray (featured in the New Age hit movie – The Secret). It was, according to Dr. Christine B. Whelan, “the culmination of a five-day nearly $10,000 “Spiritual Warrior Event” advertised as a retreat to “accelerate the releasing of your limitations and push yourself past your self-imposed and conditioned borders.”

MSNBC reports that,

“In all, 21 of the 64 people crowded inside the hot house Thursday evening received medical care at hospitals and a fire station. Four remained hospitalized Friday evening — one in critical condition and the others in fair condition.”

First of all, my heart is with the families and friends of those who died or are in critical care. Such a terrible, shocking tragedy. And to all those involved. I am sure James Ray is broken right now. Such terrible news. My heart is with this man who, I am sure, has helped many, many people and given much beauty to the world.

I have no idea what was involved in these events. There’s often more than meets the eye. And accidents can happen to even the most skillful of people. It can be all too easy to jump on the bandwagon and make assumptions about what did and didn’t happen or why. I really don’t know.

And it lifted up many questions and concerns for me about the new age scene and our relationship to our limits.


The world is on fire. To put it mildly – shit is going down. We face, as my friend and mentor John Robbins puts it two critical crises – the end of civilization as we know it – and the continuation of civilization as we know it.

And these times of what Caroline Casey calls, ‘dire beauty’ are calling many of us forward to do the work that is needed for the stopping of the violence, creation of alternatives and deep healing work that is needed.

But we’d do wisely to remember what Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said about the relationship of power and responsibility.

But before we explore leadership – we need to step back a bit and look at . . .


My dear friend and mentor Vicki Robin has, for years, been lifting up the question in my mind about limits. Certainly, there are limits based in old fears. There are self imposed restrictions that don’t serve us. And then – there are real limits.

We are a culture obsessed with freedom. And we have learned to see freedom as the absence of any limits. Therefore – limits become the enemy of freedom.

In this culture: Freedom = No Limitations.

In fact, as George Bush often implied, those people who want to stop us from getting whatever it is we want to get – ‘hate us for our freedom’.

And this is the problem. We feel entitled to live without restriction to our actions. We feel entitled to live as if our actions were without consequence. We’ve come to see anything that might limit our total freedom as an obstacle to be overcome at best – or an enemy to be destroyed at worst.

I want a woman. Her boundaries around touch? Something to overcome.

I want to sell this vacuum cleaner to this family so I can win the trip to Hawai’i. Their objections? Something to be overcome.

I want this land for my oil company. The indigenous people object? Something to be dealt with.

As one participant of the Hot House – Beverly Bunn related, “People were not physically forced to stay inside [the hot house] but highly encouraged. It was all about mind over matter, you’re stronger than your body,”

This is, at best, a profoundly immature way to live and, at worst, pathologically sociopathic and lacking any empathy or curiousity to the boundaries we come across (in ourselves or others).

As Thomas Berry put it so well, “the universe is not a collection of objects, it’s a communion of subjects.” This world is not full of resources (to be exploited or stewarded or whatever) – it’s full of relatives. With their own boundaries. Their own needs and desires.

A river is alive. It wants to go somewhere.

The mountain is alive. It wants to stand there.

Your fears are alive. They want to be listened to.

The older I get – the more I understand and resonate with the indigenous wisdom of ‘all my relations’. Accord everything respect.

Limits are not the enemy of life – they’re the expression of life. Everything is limited. That’s the nature of this world. Hearts full of desires encased in bodies that will never fulfill them all. And there’s a beauty to pushing those limits. To testing ourselves. Our capacities are often far greater than we imagine.

But – when limits are not respected (by ourselves or others) everyone has a breaking point.

Tooker GombergMy friend Tooker Gomberg was one of the most inspiring and creative activists I have ever known. And one of my dearest friends. In 2004, after suffering from years of depression, he took his life by jumping of a bridge. He couldn’t take the pain anymore. He reached his limits.

A few weeks after his death I found myself walking with an old schoolmate and her friend who’d recently returned from a music school in Europe. After weeks of being pushed to new levels of excellence on the piano – he awoke one day to find himself in a straight jacket in a mental institution; with no idea of how he’d gotten there. His mind had, temporarily, broken. He’d reached his limit.

Our muscles are like that. They can lift more than we think. You hear of mother’s lifting cars to free their children. But, there is a limit. There’s a point where they start to give. They have limits. And, as new research in muscle growth tells us – the more brief and intense the exertion is – the longer the period of time is needed for the muscle to grow.

Muscles do not grow during exertion – they grow during rest.

And yet – there is an entire industry of personal growth that challenges people to surpass their limits – without the balance of the need to accept our limits as we find them. And so sometimes people might push themselves further than is appropriate. Perhaps they are told that the natural ‘stop’ signals they’re receiving are just ‘fear’ and that they should push past it.

In this case, there is the possibility that many people became very ill and two died because they pushed themselves too hard. Possibly because there was a culture and world view encouraged them to not be able to notice or heed their own needs for self care.

Like many things in life – it is not simple. When do we push our limits? And when do we rest and not only accept them but . . . enjoy them.

I return to the words, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can – and the wisdom to know the difference.”

And it’s the wisdom piece that I think needs the most attention.

In his book “Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art”, author Stephen Nachmanovitch explores how art and creativity thrive in limits – with edges to push up against and use. Give an artist only three colours of paint, one canvass and a theme – and you’ll often see inspiration. Tell an artist, “okay . . . so do some stuff . . .” and watch them shrink. Limits can be freeing.

We believe that the lack of limits makes us happy – but it’s not true. Less limits do not mean more happiness. More choices does not mean more fulfillment.

In one study, participants went through a photo shoot and were presented with two photos of themselves. They were invited to take one home. In the first group they were told they could come back and switch it for the other one at any time. The second was told this was their only time to choose – they’d be stuck with that picture forever. Guess which group was happier with their choice? Group two. Less options = more contentment?


There’s another way that limits are brought up for me in hearing about this incident.


The sweat lodge needs to be respected,” Joseph Bruchac, (author of “The Native American Sweat Lodge: History and Legends”) said. “When you imitate someone’s tradition and you don’t know what you are doing, there’s a danger of doing something very wrong.”

He also called the number of participants in the lodge “appalling.”

If you put people in a restrictive, airtight structure, you are going to use up all oxygen,” he said by phone Saturday from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “And if you’re doing a sweat, you’re going to use it up that much faster.” American Indian sweat lodges typically hold about 12 people and are covered with blankets made of natural materials, such as cotton or wool, and the air flow isn’t restricted, he said. “I don’t see how the person running that lodge could have been aware of the health and well-being of that many people,” he said.

This is not direct commentary on James Ray. For all I know he is a fully trained sweatshop leader and this was a freak accident with circumstances we can’t know about. (But what we do know is that Ray has refused to speak with authorities and has since left the state).

A sweat lodge is not something you play with. It’s big medicine.


Tad Hargrave in Grade 12

When I was 19 years old I was leading workshops for high school students all around Alberta with a company I started. At 21 I was leading personal growth workshops for people two and three times my own age. At 25 I was running the youth program of the State of the World Forum (founded by Gorberchev). In my early twenties I was leading camps on activism to acitivists with far more experience than me.

And in every case – I really felt entitled to do so. I saw myself as a leader. And I got a lot of amazement from older people and praise. They saw me as a big deal and I enjoyed that.

But here’s what I learned most from those experiences – I wasn’t as ready as I thought I was. I was young. I was arrogant. I was full of self importance. I wanted to be seen as powerful and courted that.

And I got my ass handed to me many, many times. I got yelled at a lot. I had my ignorance of important issues lifted up again and again. Sometimes graciously and other times not. I had my limitations shoved in my face repeatedly. It turns out I could be dominating as a co-facilitator. Turned out I didn’t know shit about issues of race and class.

I used to lead board breaking as an empowerment exercise for high school and juniour high school students. They’d each get an inch thick piece of pine. On one side they’d write a fear they had, on the other side they would write what it would mean to literally ‘break through’ the fear. It was profoundly powerful in its impact precisely because it was so scary for them.

And then, one day, one of my volunteers, going totally against my instructions in his technique deliberately, broke his wrist.

And I stopped. The real risk of what I was doing came home to me. This was no joke. And I’m not just talking the potential (very real) for my uninsured ass to get sued. People could get hurt. I was no karate master. I was teaching them to break wood in a few hours.

I’m not saying it was a bad thing to do or that I might never do it again but I woke up to the real risks in it. The impact of what might happen if it went wrong.

There’s an old Gaelic Proverb: “Be aware that everything has a price. Be prepared to pay that price. But be aware that some prices are not worth paying.”

It turns out that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. It’s enough to make you think you know something, but not enough to do it right. Not enough to handle contingencies. Turns out you can sound really good and say the right things and impress people – but that words and aphorisms and platitudes or empowerment don’t protect you from the world.

A friend of mine who became Chief of his tribe in Arctic Village at age 25 described to me having a year of being yelled at by grandmothers.

And maybe that’s a part of being young – being arrogant.

And maybe that’s why we have elders. As Michael Meade puts it, ‘the role of the elder is to hold the ground steady while the youth go wild.’

The elders formed a container in which the youth could explore their limits with relative safety. Because the elders know something about humility. And limits.
My friend Randall Benson commented on this note saying,

“I grew up in this realm being my mother is Cree and my father is metis and participating in sweats, ceremonies and pow wows held by the elders of our community. I have never heard of this [kind of accident] until now. I am saddened that this has happened under the guise of a sweat. Simply put, there are but two individuals that I trust in all of Canada to lead me in a sweat and one is an elder (Cree)from where I am from and the other is another very respected elder (ojibway) from Manitoba. This is huge medicine and it MUST be lead by huge medicine (in service of others). PERIOD. This is what we (children) were imprinted with from day one. This stuff is not a business or a really cool way to get your “groovy card punched” it is as real as day and night and can be very dangerous if lead by the wrong individual and not just from a physiological sense but also for a spiritual sense.”

And my friend Frank MacEowen – author of The Mist Filled Path and other books on Celtic and Highland Scottish spirituality – commented:

“I am still interested to learn what exactly happened with this. Having participated in over a hundred sweats “behind the buckskin curtain” of Native America, having trained for over a decade in how to lead a proper sweat, and having facilitated hundreds of personal and group purification ceremonies using the lodge myself, I have never heard of or seen *one person* have the reaction these people had.

Initiatory experiences of various kinds can and do stretch a person’s concept and understanding of who they are but, the way I was taught, the sweat lodge is not the place where this happens. If anything, the purification lodge itself is simply a preparation for other such experiences.

Was there a toxin on the stones he used? That’s what it sounds like to me. Was he not allowing people to leave the lodge if they wanted to? That’s a form of violence.

Did he not start off slow, gradually build the heat so that a person can gently focus their mind, pray, and remove impurities through their sweat? If he used too many stones, put them all in at one time, then the sweat lodge (which is meant to be a womb-like experience) was hellish.

Whatever happened is clearly disturbing. Undoubtedly he wasn’t attuned to the energies of each person within the group–which is a requirement of a purification lodge facilitator. Each person. This becomes an impossibility running a sweat for 60+ people. It is meant to be an intimate experience. I would never facilitate a lodge with more than 12 people. Period.

My fear is that part of the fallout from this will be an attempt to prevent First Nations people from the practice — a practice for which there is a long tutelage so as to gain insight into the subtleties of the process.”

Jacqueline Fayant, an indigenous person living in Edmonton shared with me her concern,

“I think when we decide to engage in writing on a article where the general public reads “Sweatlodge Deaths,” that moment immediately diminshes what had been a long standing spiritual practice by our Elders for centuries – It should have read “Hot House Deaths” as what this person was practicing was… New Age and not Aboriginal traditional practices by a respected Elder.

The issue became political and it immediately implicated Aboriginal Spiritual practice by it’s title, which has been a long standing defamation practice of media toward Aboriginal people for decades.”

My friend and colleague Marilyn Daniels is a brilliant life coach and mentor for those not only wanting succeed with the system but who want to tranform it. After she read this, she wrote to me,

“As a coach, most of my clients come to me because they want to grow and move outside of their current limits. Most of the time this is a good thing – we need to outgrow outmoded cultural and personal patterns, we need to break out of culturally imposed definitions of who we are and what we can achieve.

Doing this, in fact, may be critical for our collective survival. We need to grow up as a species…. But there’s a point at which this can all tip over into addiction to growth, the incapacity to accept oneself, the inability to respect inherent limits – our own and the planet’s. Being able to hold each part of this complex equation with awareness is critical.”

But we live in a day and age where you can become a ‘reiki master’ in a weekend versus a medicine person over a decade. You can become a successful motivational speaker in a few years vs. a traditional story teller in a minimum of seven. You can become a holistic practitioner in two years vs. a Druid in 12-20.

And this concerns me about the personal growth scene. The easy way that spiritual insights are tossed around. But, to quote my friend David Korten, “we can’t talk these things to death. We need to live them into being.”

And, when we try that, we discover it’s not so easy to do. We come up against our limits. And those limits aren’t the enemy – but they are there. And, if we ignore them we get hurt. If we step into leadership and ignore them – other people can get hurt.

In my youth and exuberant arrogance – other people got hurt (or could have). I led events that totally collapsed. At a summer camp in Montana I let the youth go climb around – only to see some of them thousands of meters away climbing up very steep mountain sides with no gear. And no nearby help. No one was hurt. I was fortunate.

These things happen to people in leadership.

But these days everyone wants to be a leader. Stated differently, many people want to be seen as leaders.

Stated another way still: many people feel entitled to be seen and treated as a leader. Entitled to self appoint themselves into that role. After all, what are two of the most common words used in ads today (especially promo materials for personal growth workshops)?


Want to be a best selling author? You deserve that.

Want to be a revered seminar leader? You deserve that.

Want to be financially rich? You deserve that.

But . . . are you really ready for it? Have you authentically earned it?

(And have you really considered the impact of that? If you want to be a billionaire – how will you do that in a way that doesn’t exploit the planet or make slaves of people? I have asked this question many times and never received an answer worth listening to.)

Here’s a whole other perspective: when you are ready for it – people will ask you for it. When you are really a healer – people will start calling you on. When you’ve earned people’s trust – they will naturally see you as a leader.

We live in a culture that doesn’t think too highly of paying its dues.

I lead all the workshops I do on a Pay What You Want basis. People attend the whole thing and pay whatever they want at the very end. And when i do a crap job – I get paid less. When I experiment with a new format that doesn’t work – I get paid less. And I think that’s fair.

I led free three hour intro workshops for years and years until I finally settled on the content and got clear in my own mind how I was seeing marketing. As that relationship and point of view clarified – I had people insisting on paying me for the workshop.

“No, no. This is a free workshop.”

And they’d look at me and say, “No. This was really good. I need to pay you something.”

So then I started asking for money – sliding scale of $1-40.

But I didn’t start charging until people started paying.

Are you ready for what you’re asking for? Have you really earned it?

Being Chief of a community in traditional cultures wasn’t primarily about power over others – it was about a deep responsibility for the clan. You were the one to make sure the elders and children were fed first. To make sure the tribe was safe. It wasn’t the kind of job one hungered for. It was a vote of deep confidence from your community, it was a sign of trust. And it was a privilege – and a burden.

In traditional communities, being a shaman didn’t mean you just led groovy workshops whenever you wanted. It meant you lived in a community and you got up at 3am when you were needed to tend to the ill and bring healing.


The personal growth scene extols us to push past our limits, that we have no limits. There are books with titles like “Unlimited Power” or “Unlimited Wealth”. As if limits, of any kind, were the enemy.

But we do have limits.

Rampant capitalism seems to think there is no limit to growth. But the Earth has limits.

In the movie ‘The Secret’ (in which James Ray is featured) this philosophy is extolled. There’s this sense that we can do, have and achieve anything we want. And that we should. That if we can conceive and believe, we can achieve.

I wrote a whole blog critiquing this film and it’s more than we can get into here.

And I’m not arguing against testing ourselves and growing. But I am concerned with the ways we go about it.

If you push too hard, and too fast doing yoga – you can hurt yourself. Very badly.

If you irrigate a field too quickly, the water bounces off the surface of the soil (it can only absorb so much so fast).

Yes, sometimes we need to move fast – and sometimes we need to slow down. This culture needs to slow many things down.

As Thomas Merton put it,

“There is a form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent means most easily succumbs — activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of activists neutralizes their work for peace. It destroys their own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of their work because it kills the inner wisdom which makes their work fruitful.”


Nothing in nature lives forever. Or grows forever. Death is there too.

We live in the days skyrocketing growth. Straight up in straight lines. Bigger is better. What do we want? More.

But a small business doesn’t only need to grow big and sell. It can also grow deeper into the community. We don’t just need to grow more powerful and wealthy – we can also deepen and wisen. Our economy doesn’t just need to grow in GDP – it needs to deepen in quality of life. As Gandhi is said to have stated, “there’s more to life than increasing its speed.”

Is what we need right now really more power or more wisdom about how to use that power?

I feel concerned about the obsession of power to conquer our limits over the wisdom to enjoy, test and explore our limits.

I fear that our culture misunderstands growth. That is is like the acorn trying to grow itself by lacquering on shells on top of its shells and becoming a bigger acorn, rather than immersing itself in the necessary time of darkness to slowly crack, die and burst itself into the oak; an authentic growth far more profound than an increase of the shells.

Stated another way: to explore our limits is to explore our truest nature. Our limits aren’t there to be dismissed as dreadful demonstrations of deep disempowerment but honoured as the containers we live in.


And so this is the question I put before the house – are we really as ready for leadership as we think we are?

This is what I’ve come to understand: it’s not for us to call ourselves healers or shamans. This is what the community calls us when we do our job well.

A dear friend of mine who authored many books on Celtic Spirituality and led a number of workshops for a decade stepped down from him role as he grew aware of the way his own ego was playing into it and the need for his own inner work and journey. A step backwares and out of the limelight? Yes. And one deeper into his own authentic path.

My dear friend Julia Butterfly spent two years in a redwood tree she named Luna – to protect it, the old growth surrounding it and to bring attention to the issue. She’s one of the most wonderful people I know. She asks people in her talks, “What’s your tree? What’s the thing you’d give your life for? Or to? Where’s the place you can take a stand? What’s your tree?

I’d like to add another question here.

“What’s your hot house?”

Where are we feigning greater expertise than we truly have. Where do we find ourselves posturing wisdom when we’re really feeling clueless? Where are we settling for grandiosity at the expense of something deeper and truly grand? Where are we presenting half baked goods as fully baked? Where are we charging the full fee for something that’s really only worth half?

Leadership (and perhaps simply these times) calls for deeper and deeper integrity.

It is supported by mentors and elders who can help us find our way. And if we’re not elders yet – then that can be our role – to call the elders out of hiding and into the role they’ve spent a lifetime ripening for.

The world is on fire right now – and we are called to be bold, but humble. To have a strong ego, but not a big one. To take risks – but not carelessly. To test boundaries while we honour them. To give up the need to status, focus on our growth and enjoy the natural rise is stature we get in our communities when as we deepen.

Limits aren’t the enemy – they’re friends we can trust and enjoy. They don’t confine us – they define us. Acting within our limits is not always laziness – it can be the height of responsible action. Sometimes saying ‘no’ to opportunities for leadership we aren’t ready for is the best gift we can give.

As my dear friend Alli Starr often says, “We don’t always need leaders. But we do always need leadership.”

True freedom is not found in the absence of limits but in our ever deepening, respectful and loving relationship (and intimacy) with ourselves, others and the forces of life.

We feel most powerful when we act within our integrity. Acting outside of our integrity feels terrible. We feel ungrounded, off rhythm and hesitant. Integrity breeds presence and relaxed awareness.

Derrick Jensen wrote a book called “The Culture of Make Believe”. Which is what our culture has become. Full of pretending. Full of pretense. Full of posturing.

In a culture of self promotion, we are encouraged to also engage in self reflection. We are invited to trust our own growing process, the wisdom and nature of our own boundaries. To trust the rate of our own growth. And encourage others to trust that too.

The irony is that when we let go of trying to be more, to be seen as so great – our natural greatness shows up. People aren’t drawn to people who are ‘confident’ – they’re drawn to people who are comfortable in their own skin. At peace with themselves. Centered.

“The best chief is not the one who persuades people to his point of view. It is instead the one in whose presence most people find it easiest to arrive at the truth”.

~Mohawk Wisdom


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