After Sweat Lodge Deaths, Fewer Tourists With Spiritual Needs
Uh gee, wonder why?
After Sweat Lodge Deaths, Fewer Tourists With Spiritual Needs
SEDONA, Ariz. — There is negative energy in the air here, which the channelers, mystics, healers, psychics and other New Age practitioners of Sedona are grappling to identify and snuff out. It has to do with the recent dearth of visitors to this spiritual oasis in search of enlightenment.
Nobody is sure exactly what is keeping people away from Sedona's four vortexes, swirling energy sources emanating from the earth, but the effects are clear: far fewer crystals are being bought, spiritual tours taken and treatments ordered, from aura cleansings to chakra balancings.
That an earthly power — the economy — is a culprit is not in doubt. But some do not discount the effects of an awful incident from a year ago that put Sedona's New Age community in a bad light and that, to some degree, still lingers, despite efforts by metaphysical people to cast it away.
Last October, a celebrated New Age practitioner held a sweat lodge ceremony that ran dangerously amok, shattering the tranquillity of a spiritual center hidden in a forested valley here.
Packed into a circular hut on the grounds of Angel Valley were red-hot rocks, seething steam and scores of followers of James A. Ray, a California self-help guru. He encouraged them to finish the final test in his "Spiritual Warrior" retreat, participants told law enforcement officials, even though they might feel as though they were going to die.
Three of them did. Numerous others were rushed to hospitals.
The Angel Valley spiritual center, a place designed to bring harmony into the lives of visitors, was soon visited by homicide detectives not interested in the retreat's vortex circle, angel connections or Chartres labyrinth. Their questions were about who did what to whom.
"It was a very unfortunate and sad situation that could have happened anywhere," said Janelle Sparkman, president of the Sedona Metaphysical Spiritual Association, who attributes the woes that New Age practitioners are experiencing to a lack of disposable income for spiritual needs and not what happened that awful afternoon. "It was not indicative of Sedona or Sedona's practitioners at all."
But sweat lodges are now far less common, with the authorities shutting some down to avoid further trouble. And the spiritual association is pushing the importance of ethics among spiritualists.
Still, the tragedy of what occurred, along with the barrage of lawsuits, has caused some outsiders to look elsewhere for fulfillment.
"Initially, I didn't think it was going to affect business and, a year later, I know I was wrong," said Deidre Madsen, who runs a New Age travel company in Sedona and a Web site devoted to inner growth. "I'm shocked at the impact. My business is down 20 percent."
She is optimistic though, as New Age people tend to be. "It will come back, in its own time," Ms. Madsen said. Sedona's Chamber of Commerce said that tourism over all was bouncing back, but that spiritual business still lagged.
Some, though, are leaving nothing to chance. Two weeks ago, after months of spiritual cleansings, prayer and channeling sessions, the retreat where the sweat lodge victims died held a memorial intended to turn the page.
About 50 people joined hands at the site of the lodge, which was torn down soon after the deaths. Rocks were laid out in the shape of a heart, and three large crystals representing the victims were placed in the center.
"We do not want an energy that we're sitting on a graveyard," said Amayra Hamilton, co-founder of Angel Valley. "This is about learning and appreciating life. That means expanding our understanding of life and death."
One of those who participated in the memorial was in the lodge that day as a volunteer for Mr. Ray, and he shared why returning to the scene was such a challenge.
"It's been a long process of coming back here," said the volunteer, Mark Rock, who has since broken ties with Mr. Ray. "It was a step-by-step thing. I didn't want to come back at first. This is a powerful place for me. Having three good people transition from here is a lot to take in."
Despite the memorial, local practitioners say there is still much wrangling that is keeping the incident from fading away.
Mr. Ray faces three manslaughter charges for the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn. He pleaded not guilty and faces trial in February.
Meanwhile, civil lawsuits abound. A Native American group has accused Mr. Ray and Angel Valley of damaging the sacred Indian tradition of sweat lodges.
Some of Mr. Ray's followers filed suit, saying he canceled his inner growth sessions without refunding their money.
Ten people who were either in the sweat lodge or were relatives of those who died sued Mr. Ray and eventually settled. Angel Valley, however, remains a defendant, with its owners rejecting any monetary settlement.
Mrs. Hamilton and her husband, Michael, also sued Mr. Ray, accusing him of damaging their struggling retreat's business of helping people find inner peace. After the sweat lodge deaths, the suit says, many spiritualists began keeping a distance from Angel Valley, and it began losing as much as $35,000 a month.
Several months back, the Hamiltons made a spiritual appeal to end the lawsuits, e-mailing those who were suing them and asking them to consider the implications of what they were doing. "Let's come together," the e-mail said. "Let's find a new way to do this."
Their effort drew no takers, although it did rile the plaintiffs' lawyers.
The Hamiltons also came up with the idea of holding a large grieving ceremony this month for sweat lodge participants and survivors at the one-year anniversary of the deaths, and planned to use their insurance money to pay for it. They insisted, however, that all attendees agree to drop their suits. Nobody agreed, so the smaller ceremony was held.
"We were waiting for a miracle to happen," Mrs. Hamilton said, "but it didn't happen."
She and her husband speak of how everything happens for a reason. And of how this awful event might serve as a lesson to other spiritualists that following gurus should be done with caution. They said they expected to be called to the witness stand in Mr. Ray's case and, if asked, would lay out their belief in communicating with angels and other nonphysical beings.
"That event happened," said Mr. Hamilton, who added that he was speaking to a reporter only after consulting the archangel Michael, his spiritual muse. "The real question is what have we learned from it."