Brendan Myers (northwestpass) wrote,
Brendan Myers

Death at a pop psychology training event

The more I think about it, the more troubled I am by the news that two people died and many others were severely injured while attending a "Spiritual Warrior" event hosted by self-help motivational trainer James Ray.

It appears that the attendees were inside a sweatlodge-like structure, a low dome covered in blankets and tarpaulins. According to the event promoter's website, the attendees were promised "magnificent results, wealth, adventure, and fulfillment", and they paid $9695 to be there.

Now, I have once before attended a big motivational training event which billed itself rather similarly to James Ray's event. It took place in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, and was attended by about 2,200 people. I won't say what it was called in case the company that hosted the event sues me. (They've sued other people into bankruptcy for criticising them before, even when excellent evidence was presented of psychological harms done.) I will say that it made heavy use of a psychological behaviour-modification device called Neuro-Linguistic Programming, as well as the repetition of self-help mantras, intense peer pressure, fear-mongering, scapegoating, suppression of rational criticism, and demands for obedience and submission to the leader. Indeed we were all told that we had to "switch off the left-side of the brain" in order to benefit from the training, and that this switching-off of the critical faculties constituted a form of "thinking outside the box of social conformity".

The vocabulary being employed in the training was the usual pop-psychology language of "light", "energy", "empowerment", "freedom", "colouring outside the lines", "I create my world", "the laws of the universe", "positive attitude", "unlimited potential", "growth", "change", "awareness", "purging negativity", and the like. This language is appealing because it appears to have an internal consistency, and helps some people feel good about themselves. And the end goal of the training, of course, was material gain -- attendees were promised that if they could learn to think they way the trainer wanted them to think, using this vocabulary, they would get rich. But this is a false promise. No one can get rich just by thinking about it, or wishing for it. And I have doubts about whether this language actually corresponds to real phenomena in the world. Indeed I suspect it may be an elaborate psychological projection, a fantasy world that enables people to think well of themselves and thus is preferable to the reality of being unemployed, disempowered, and perhaps physically unhealthy too, which is the reality for so many people who find this kind of talk appealing.

Also, it should be added, as a therapy device it doesn't work.

After the three days of intense psychological pressure to conform, for 14 hours each day, I felt as if my mind had been invaded. My body was shaking with symptoms of post-traumatic stress (which mostly disappeared after I let go of the relationship that brought me there). Every once in a while it still bothers me, even three years later.

All the evidence I've seen so far tells me that the "Spiritual Warrior Event", where the two people died, is broadly similar. Of course I would not have imagined that anyone would die at such an event. But even excepting these deaths and hospitalizations as accidental, I still think such events are severely morally harmful to the attendees. In my judgment, it is always morally wrong to usurp someone's autonomous reason by psychological manipulation, even if you think you are benefitting that person or promoting that person's interests. To be clear, it is never in anyone's interest to hijack their free minds, for any purpose, and no amount of Utilitarian ends-justify-the-means discussion will convince me otherwise. Your free mind is your heart and soul, your very self, and if you give that away, even freely, you will be lost.

Those of you who have criticised me in the past for being "too intellectual", or for criticizing the role of intuition in the spiritual life, need to understand how dangerous it is to suspend your capacity for reason. Your intelligent mind is your ability to systematically explore and understand reality, and it is your last and best line of defense against fear, conformity, and domination and other attacks on your freedom, from the small scale of office bullying, to the large scale of political oppression and totalitarianism. So, friends, please, avoid all "training" or "empowering" events which employ anti-rational psychological devices like NLP, whether at a pop psychology training weekend, or a religious ritual, or a political rally, or the like, whether the gathering is large or small. And please discourage people you know from attending them. You might think you are being given a healthy empowering spiritual gift, but in fact you are being given a drug, the psychological equivalent of heroine. It's just as pleasurable in the short term, but just as psychotropically addictive, and just as destructive in the long term to your life and the lives of others around you.

And let me add, as a final note, that you don't need to attend any of these quasi-new-age, pop psychology training weekends, and you don't need to pay anyone thousands of dollars, to learn about the warrior way. Why not buy my book instead, for 0.25% of the cost of attending his seminar? You'll learn the ethos of ancient warrior societies like the Celts, Vikings, Homeric Greeks, and others. You won't be subjected to NLP brainwashing. And you won't die as a result of reading it.

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