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The Devil IS in the Details

This post was written by Donald Michael Kraig
on July 22, 2013 | Comments (4)

Do you know James Arthur Ray? If the name is unfamiliar, events surrounding him may bring to mind why his name has been in the news.

Ray was a “New Age Guru” preaching the gospel of The Secret with its revelation of the Law of Attraction to his well-heeled followers. Energetic and charismatic, he made lots of money, and perhaps developed a bad case of hubris.

He apparently thought he knew how to run a traditional, Native American sweat lodge. He didn’t. Of the fifty-five people who entered the lodge (two to four times what is usually practiced) after a day-and-a-half of fasting, nineteen had to be hospitalized with symptoms that included vomiting, trouble breathing, hallucinations, and physical collapse. Three of his followers weren’t that lucky. They died.

Ray was convicted of negligent homicide and spent 20 months in prison. During that time, the parents of one of the people who died founded SEEKsafely, a non-profit organization whose stated goal is “ to educate the public about the self-help industry, empower seekers and promote professional standards and practices to ensure safety for participants in self-help events.”

I think this is a great idea. They claim not to be debunkers and denouncers, but rather simply a group dedicated to educating people about the safety of various practices as well as encouraging promoters to act ethically and responsibly. That’s a great thing. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

Participant Responsibility

If you are going to participate in an event of a spiritual nature, it’s important that you take your health and safety into account. You need to make sure you’re hydrated, nourished, protected from excess sun, heat, or cold. This makes sense. But in their document, which they call their “Event Empowerment Guide,” they claim, with no documentation or justification, that any form of sensory deprivation and “constant repetition of certain words, or breathing techniques that create confusion and disorientation are tactics that cause lack of mental control, NOT better mental focus.” While in some extreme situations this might be true, the implication is that this is always true. And that is completely false. The repetition of words or phrases can help focus you. Certain breathing techniques can help center you and give you more energy. They teach breathing techniques to martial artists and opera singers. There is no brainwashing goal there.

Indeed, they seem to be taking their cues from supposed anti-brainwashing beliefs.

They claim that being embarrassed or merely being made uncomfortable is necessarily bad. “Being publically shamed or ridiculed inhibits safe psychological growth.” Indeed, sometimes this is true. But once again, this claim is made with no supporting evidence and the implication that this is always so. Psychotherapy frequently uses techniques that make a person uncomfortable in order to help that person break through personal limitations.

Then they go on to attack leaders. They state that, “A credible leader will live the values being taught.” This is a particularly Western approach that denies the very humanity of the leader. I would suggest that the values being taught in a group are goals to strive for. That doesn’t mean any one individual will completely live by them. There’s a big difference between striving for goals and having achieved the goals. This policy also denies the possibility of finding wisdom in unusual places. It demands perfection of leaders rather than directions. If someone can point out a way to a better life, why should you care how he or she lives? Shouldn’t you be more interested in your own development? The leader is only a finger pointing at the moon. Do you pay attention to the glories of the moon or do you focus on the finger?

The group states: “A responsible leader will distinguish between theory, opinion, speculation and scientific research and will not deride professional credentials or rely solely on testimonials.” They have thus denied the validity of every major religion.

They do have some good ideas which come down to a simple concept: in any situation you need to be responsible for yourself and your well being. But they have also attacked with such a broad brush that most religions and spiritual paths, as well as their human leaders, would be considered dangerous.

Publicity for a Promise

As with many organizations, they need publicity to get their message out. Upon his release from prison they confronted Ray and tried to get him to sign the Seek Safely Promise. They also sent copies to 175 leaders involved in the “self-help industry.” As of this writing, only seven have agreed to it. I was not sent a copy to sign.

The promise begins by asking leaders to be truthful about their training, experience, and background. I think everyone should do that. They want what is taught to be accurate. By that they mean teachings “will clearly delineate what is personal opinion, belief or speculation as opposed to information that is supported by third party scientific research.” That seems good, but there is often scientific research (they don’t describe what they mean by “third party”) from different sources that supports different theories and results. If 15 studies by independent sources support what the teacher is sharing and one doesn’t, and if you sign this promise, are you obligated to waste time by revealing the one study that doesn’t support what you’re teaching? It just doesn’t make sense.

Next, they ask leaders and groups to be respectful of participants’ opinions. I would agree, but how far does this go? Many times, when I’m giving a workshop and ask if there are any questions, instead of questions I’ll get personal stories that waste time and don’t move the training forward. If I cut such a person off, and I have had to do this at times, could that be considered not showing respect? I think it does show respect to the groups time and purpose. This clause in the promise is unclear by being too general.

They urge leaders and groups to protect participants and send those in need of mental, physical, emotional, etc. assistance to professionals. Unless such professional are in attendance and can help, I think this is a good idea and would do it anyway.

They demand, “The leader will provide personal witness by living the program being taught.” I’ve already discussed this above. I would only add here that the demand uses the phrase “personal witness.” This is an expression that is especially attributed to Christian groups (and ersatz-Christian groups). Thus, they have now moved from being independent to giving the appearance of being a front for an unknown Christian sect trying to gently denounce heresy.

The final part of this “promise” demands, “ If engaging participants in a physical activity, there will be appropriate medical support available in case of injury.” The problem here is that they don’t define “physical activity.” In longer workshops, I’ll have people stand up and stretch. That’s a physical activity. They’re insisting that I would need to have medical support available if someone hurts themselves by gently stretching their arms, neck, shoulder, and waist. Really? Do I need an EMT if we go for a short walk? That’s a physical activity.

Should You Sign?

I have no doubt concerning this organization’s altruism and desire to end dangerous practices when leaders and groups are not trained to deal with problems that can occur. However, this doesn’t just apply to self-help groups, it applies to any group or organization holding a training. I still remember watching teachers in public school insult and embarrass students. All groups and leaders should understand specific concepts for helping participants. When I was assisting as an instructor in computer training at USC I was required to sign a statement that I would do so.

But this “Seek Safely Promise” is simply too general in places for me to ethically sign with an intention of keeping all aspects of the promise. I cannot agree with the details of their principles. It also has hints of being derived from so-called “anti-cult” (actually anti-anything that doesn’t fit a tiny set of specific Christian beliefs) concepts, and presents demands that human beings, being imperfect, simply cannot consistently achieve.

As a result, no matter their intention, the current version of their promise is something I would not sign and cannot support. Respect and assure the safety of participants? Absolutely. But this, in my opinion, goes far beyond that simple and direct ethical concept.

If you’re a teacher or trainer,
would you sign the Seek Safely Promise?
Why or why not?

If you attend various trainings and events
do you agree with all aspects of their
Event Empowerment Guide?
Why or why not?

—Please enter your comments below—

*   *   *   *

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Reader Comments

avatar
#1 
Written By Phil Farber
on July 22nd, 2013 @ 10:46 am

As a workshop facilitator, I take the safety and well being of everyone there as my personal responsibility. I cite sources, explain potential dangers and how to avoid them. I probably do everything on their list… but I still wouldn’t sign. As you say, they paint with too broad a brush and set themselves up as arbiters of the work… which can vary greatly from person to person and teacher to teacher, so much so that I would not expect such a watchdog group to have in depth knowledge or understanding of more than one or two traditions.

avatar
#2 
Written By Phil Whiting
on July 31st, 2013 @ 11:20 pm

Many seekers will assume that anyone putting themselves out there as a teacher has really introspected and attained sufficient self-mastery, in not just the specific area they are teaching, but also in general terms of progress towards the Great Work. And thus they take it for granted they are putting themselves in safe hands. Unfortunately this is not always the case and there have always been charlatans willing to take the gullible for a ride. Some of these may even misguidedly believe in their own brilliance. The blind leading the blind is the most that can be expected outside of the genuine traditions – and in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

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