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My Reflections on The Sweat Lodge Tragedy

by Mark Ament on 28/01/2010

in Healing Words

Today a friend asked me what I thought about “Sweat Lodges.”  After my lengthy reply, he said that more people should hear about this and that I should put it on my site.   So here I am, finally writing a post that’s been on my mind for months.

Over the years I’ve participated in several “sweat lodge” ceremonies,  mostly led  by a Native American man named Carl Big Heart Jr.   The first thing that stood out to me about Carl was  indeed his big heart and humility.  He always shared the ceremony  with reverence, confidence and compassion. Safety was a priority and if ever someone needed to leave the lodge, Carl encouraged them to go immediately.  Tradition was also important to Carl.  He encouraged all of us  to participate in the construction of the fire, the building of the lodge and other preparations like drinking extra water.   What made Carl’s lodge’s even more special  for me was  that he never asked  for any money in exchange.  He did offer other courses in wilderness survival skills that we could pay for, but for the lodge he never asked money.

My experiences in these lodges were 100% positive.  There was of course the physical detox that came from the actual sweating.   Also there was a real sense of community among the participants, after having gone together through such a process.  And on a deeper level, I always felt privileged to be included in a true Native American ceremony that comes from their life ways and traditions stretching way back.  I guess as an American, in a relatively tradition-less country, it gave me a sense of ‘roots.’

Because of my experiences with Carl, I was shocked and saddened to learn of the events that happened in a similar ceremony last October in Sedona Arizona.  On October 8th, 2009 about 60 people crowded into a 415 square foot sweat lodge as part of James Arthur Ray’s “Spritual Warrior Retreat.”    Mr. Ray apparently led them in a sweat ceremony that lasted for hours and ended with 19 people hospitalized for burns, dehydration, breathing problems, kidney failure and elevated body temperature.  Of those 19,  3 people – Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn. ended up dying of massive organ failure.

sweat lodge tragedy newsThe fact that so many people were hospitalized and that some actually died raised a huge red flag in my mind.  I couldn’t imagine how anyone could die in a sweat lodge.  Then I learned the facts.   Mr. Ray had asked his guests to fast from food AND water for 36 hours before the lodge.  Many of them did and I suspect that this is what caused most of the problems.   Can you imagine not drinking or eating for a day and half and then entering a baking hot tent with 60 other people for hours on end – all in the middle of Arizona?  That’s a recipe for major stress to the body at the least and kidney failure at the worst.

It’s hard to believe that as a retreat leader Mr. Ray suggested such a dangerous thing. I guess we could put it down to an honest mistake, but something similar had already happened on one of his retreats. The staff of Angel Valley Retreat Center, admitted that paramedics were called in 2005 to address similar issues.  It really makes me wonder what Mr. Ray was thinking.

I don’t know Mr. Ray but,  from an outsider’s perspective it does seems like caring and compassion were absent.

Consider the statement written by Mr. Arvol Looking Horse 5 days after the sweat lodge tragedy.   The first lines read:

“As Keeper of our Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle, I am concerned for the two deaths and illnesses of the many people who participated in a sweat lodge in Sedona, Ariz. that brought our sacred rite under fire in the news. I would like to clarify that this lodge, and many others, are not our ceremonial way of life because of the way they are being conducted. My prayers go out to the families and loved ones for their loss.

Our ceremonies are about life and healing. From the time this ancient ceremonial rite was given to our people, never has death been a part of our inikaga (life within) when conducted properly. Today, the rite is interpreted as a sweat lodge. It is much more than that. The term does not fit our real meaning of purification.”

Do you think someone who writes like this would ever recommend entering a sweat lodge without drinking? Or course not.

Mr. Looking Horse goes on to write:

“The values of conduct are very strict in any of these ceremonies, because we work with spirit. The Creator, Wakan Tanka, told us that if we stay humble and sincere, we will keep that connection with the inyan oyate (the stone people), who we call the Grandfathers, to be able to heal ourselves and loved ones.”


“What has happened in the news with the makeshift sauna called the “sweat lodge” is not our ceremonial way of life.

When you do ceremony, you can not have money on your mind. We deal with the pure sincere energy to create healing that comes from everyone in that circle of ceremony. The heart and mind must be connected. When you involve money, it changes the energy of healing. The person wants to get what they paid for. The Spirit Grandfathers will not be there. Our way of life is now being exploited. You do more damage than good. No mention of monetary energy should exist in healing, not even with a can of love donations.”

I wanted to quote Mr. Looking Horse at length so that you can see the heart centered belief system that radiates around a true sweat lodge ceremony.   I won’t go more into his article, but  Mr. Looking Horse does share more valuable information in it.  And anyone ever considering going to a sweat lodge should read it before they do Click here for the full text.

In wrapping this post up, I want to say that I”m aware that there are many people out in the world today searching for a deeper experience of who or what  they are.  That doesn’t surprise me given the superficiality of the dominant consumer culture that currently is engulfing the world.   In a fast paced world where we are force fed conflicting and utterly false beliefs from the T.V., Internet and media, it’s no wonder people turn toward spirituality.  If you are one of those people or know someone who is, I have a list to leave you with.  Perhaps it will save you some time – and maybe even your life.

  1. In your searching, do not abandon your authority to anyone. Blind following leads to amazingly stupid things like people committing mass suicide in hopes of getting free (think Jim Jones).    Deep down, you know what’s right for you in any situation.   Summon the courage  to believe it and act on it.
  2. When your looking toward anyone as a teacher, make sure they have mastered what you want to learn. A quippy way to put this is: “Don’t take weight loss advice from a fat doctor.”
  3. If you start dabbling in other spiritual traditions, Native American, Hindu or otherwise, understand that you are entering a foreign world.  Show respect and stay humble.  As Zen monks like to say, “keep a beginners mind.”
  4. Finally, and this, in my opinion, is the most important: When taking advice or asking for healing from anyone, stay on the lookout for Love. You’ll know it when you feel it.   If a person comes from love they are soft and kind.   If you think you may have some troubles with this, here are some words from the Christian Bible  that have always helped me in remembering:

“Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant,  does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth;  bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Be well!


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Ament February 4, 2010 at 10:33 am

NEWS FLASH James Ray Arrested

denise February 15, 2010 at 1:00 am

Just wanted to say that I, too, not being a Native American, appreciated being invited to participate in a sweat ceremony run by native americans. My experience was very positive. I participated to help celebrate and show gratitude for my son’s first year anniversary of sobriety after a few harrowing years of drug addiction. Being a very claustrophobic person, it certainly was a major event for me. I was so moved by the whole thing that I returned to my hotel room and wrote a detailed description of the experience. This happened 4 years ago, but became the title chapter of my first book, released just last month, called “SWEAT: A Practical Plan for Keeping Your Heart Intact While Loving an Addict.” I used some of the tools I talk about in my book to get me through the sweat and that experience made me realize that these tools really do work under stress and chaos. Anyway, I had the same experience you did with kindness, no judgement, no money, and gratitude and spirituality.

mike January 2, 2011 at 4:33 am

I have been sweating for 30 years and yes….you know when someone has love as the center of their intentions. I was trained by a naive american elder and worked very hard as his apprentice for 23 years before I poured water in a lodge. It is so important to keep a ceremony humble, lovng, open and rspectful for all participants. I also teach junior high students so “teaching” can be a really good thing when we as teacher coninually learn and stay open to what we should always be learning…..which in my soul means love within and share and listen to all that creator has in the world for us to experience. One of my medicine leaders says “open your spirit ears to listen and open your spirit heart to feel “. Yes it is a shame what happen to those people in Sedona….as soon as I say the plastic on the lodge it rang out loud to me “What are they doing? A lodge has to breathe”. You never use plastic tarps on a lodge as it traps all the CO2 in and does not allow O2 in. Spiritually also….pryers can’t go out and spirit can’t come in. Yes ego and any leaders……really good leaders are the most humble and comfortable with themselves….so find this and you may have found a good leader. Good prayers and blessings for all!

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