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Sweat lodge tragedy highlights lack of self-help industry regulations

Few, if any, standards safeguard the self-help industry. And that led to tragedy for three people who died in an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony in 2009. The leader was sent to prison in November. Now the victims’ families want regulations to protect those seeking enlightenment. From the Changing America Desk in Flagstaff, Laurel Morales reports.

LAUREL MORALES: James Arthur Ray will spend two years in prison for the deaths of three people, including Kirby Brown. Her mother Virginia told the court about that day, when Ray crammed dozens of people into a small sweat lodge and chided them for wanting to leave.

VIRGINIA BROWN: He was told repeatedly that people were in trouble, not breathing, unconscious. He saw unconscious people being dragged passed him and he did nothing.

LAUREL MORALES: After the sentencing the Browns formed an organization called SEEK -- Self-help Empowerment through Education and Knowledge.

VIRGINIA BROWN: Kirby’s voice is forever silenced and now we need to be her voice. I think this is what my daughter would’ve done.

LAUREL MORALES: The Browns set up a Web site called seeksafely.org to expose scam artists and frauds and to help develop professional standards.

VIRGINIA BROWN: And it’s our mission to educate people about self help to see if we can’t do research about people’s claims for training and experience that may not be accurate.

LAUREL MORALES: Ray’s experience with sweat lodge ceremonies was limited to a few workshops in Hawaii. Traditional teachers typically train for at least a decade. Yet, he charged $10,000 for his spiritual warrior retreats, which promised the secret to a better life. Last year, the self-help industry brought in more than $10 billion.

PATRICK WANIS: We tend to believe that the more we pay for something the more value it has.

LAUREL MORALES: Patrick Wanis is a motivational speaker with a PhD in human behavior.

PATRICK WANIS: I’ve been called guru and stuff. And I say I’m not a guru. Please don’t place me on a pedestal. Just listen to my message follow your instinct if there’s something valuable here, use it.

LAUREL MORALES: Wanis says gurus manipulate and claim to know what’s best for you. They create a relationship where your unquestioned obedience is demanded.

PATRICK WANIS: Anytime we experience a major crisis, we are susceptible to seeking out spiritual healers, gurus and other people who claim they have the answer that will satisfy our sense of wanting to find an explanation for chronic suffering and mortality.

LAUREL MORALES: At Crystal Magic in Flagstaff, Mary Jane Arnett sells books, meditation CDs, aromatherapy, crystals, Buddha statues and all things self help.

MARY JANE ARNETT: We don’t even say self help here. We say “personal growth”

LAUREL MORALES: Because, she says, it’s about doing the work yourself.

MARY JANE ARNETT: Sometimes people will come in with almost a kind of a desperate feeling of like ‘show me what can fix this’ or ‘what crystal will make me happy?’ That’s a question that nobody can answer.

LAUREL MORALES: Arnett considers herself an ambassador to the industry. And says people so desperate for answers can be vulnerable to extreme metaphysical experiences.

MARY JANE ARNETT: You hear about sweat lodges or going to Peru and trying iowaska or peyote, which honestly for me is terrifying. I mean these things were meant for medicine people who trained their whole entire life to do it.

LAUREL MORALES: Arnett says she doesn’t know how the industry can be regulated but there should be some safeguards. The prosecutors in the James Arthur Ray case hope his sentence serves as a message, a deterrent for anyone who claims to have all the answers.

Listen to the story.