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The recent and tragic events
that involved three deaths and
more than 19 injured and emo-
tionally traumatized at an Arizo-
na retreat deserves to be treated
with some gentleness for this is
more than a news item, but a
horrific experience of loss and
suffering that is impacting far
more people than only those
who were there.
It is also a criminal investiga-
tion and a man's career under
scrutiny. This "event" brings up
some critical issues in our so-
ciety, and this is one of those
important times where we can
either learn something that will
serve everyone, or fall into the
kind of blame and stereotyping
that helps no one.
To be clear, ceremonial steam
baths are a part of many tradi-
tions across the world and have
been around for thousands of
years. They are health promot-
ing, safe environments for per-
sonal growth, spiritual reflection
and physical detoxification -- if
done properly and according to
There is an important place
for this powerful tradition in the
modern age. Each type of Sweat
Lodge, however, has its own
unique history, procedures, and
protocol essential to their im-
pact and safety. Not just anyone
should run a Lodge or make one
Interfaith, non-Native Lodges,
must be treated with as much re-
spect, reverence and care as tra-
ditional Native Lodges.
The act of "borrowing"
or "copying" Native tra-
ditions by non-Native
people, without per-
mission, guidance or
extensive forms of su-
pervision is just steal-
ing and selling someone
else's culture.
Native American peo-
ple have endured this
kind of abuse for more
than 500 years now and
it needs to stop. A self-
respecting therapist, healer, or
spiritual teacher must find their
own innovative and culturally
appropriate ways to conduct
ceremony -- they don't have
to fake it or steal it. That can be
Recently, I asked a friend
of mine who had lived and stud-
ied in a Tibetan Buddhist temple
for five years if she would come
to my place of work and teach
a session on a specific form of
Buddhist meditation she had
learned. Her reply was worth
noting: "There are certain things
I can and will share based on my
experience, and something that I
am able to teach, but don't.
Just because I know how to
do something doesn't mean it is
my place to teach it to others. In
the Tibetan tradition there are
certain rules that determine who
can teach what and when. I have
to honor those because I honor
the tradition, and myself. Being
a spiritual teacher
should not serve the
The media was quick to call
the leader of the retreat a "guru,"
which is precisely why most
people today are afraid of that
word. It is often used in con-
nection with "negative" media
stories. I have published a few
things on the complexity of cre-
dentials and spiritual leaders,
and in Return to the Sacred,
I included an entire chapter on
the pros and cons of working
with a guru because it is such a
delicate matter.
Just the mere mention of the
word causes many people to
recoil, but "Guru" simply means
a "teacher" to whom students
are devoted in an equal relation-
ship of power. The teacher is
also devoted to the students and
stands by them no matter what.
It is a selfless role -- ideally. It
is great to find a teacher or a
mentor. The difficult part lies in
sorting out who claims to be
a guru from who truly deserves
the title.
In my research for a chapter
on extreme spirituality in Return
to the Sacred, I found a complex
history of misuse and abuse. Yet,
things like fasting, deprivation of
one kind or another, staying up
without sleep, and other physi-
cal types of austerities can lead
to very real and meaningful ex-
periences and personal healing.
They have been at the heart of
our religious traditions as long
as we have record.
Think of Jesus in the desert,
Moses up the mountain, Bud-
dha beneath the tree, and even
Muhammed in the cave -- all
practiced austerities that would
make the average American
cringe. Most of the great spiri-
tual teachers who have made a
positive impact on the world,
Gandhi and Martin Luther King
included, undertook training
and retreats that might make
the local police chief and medi-
cal authority suspicious.
People do these things be-
cause they work. I support that.
A TrAgIc cAll To ATTenTIon
Sweat Lodge Deaths and Self-help Gurus
A Question of Accountability
By Jonathan Ellerby PhD, author of "Return to the Sacred: Ancient Pathways to Spiritual Awakening"
A typical well-constructed sweatlodge.
Photo by Jonathan Ellerby
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