Change We Can (Almost) Believe In

On the eve of a famous guru's manslaughter trial, one flawed man explores the self-help spectrum for the secret to personal growth

  • Photograph by Juliana Sohn for TIME

    Yoga teacher and Sanskrit scholar John Campbell taught the author a style that promises to "boil the blood"

    It's blistering hot, and I'm walking a stone labyrinth, wending toward a central clearing lined with crystals and chanting to angels. This is the Angel Valley Retreat outside Sedona, Ariz., and the New Age minister who runs it has instructed me to walk this maze while repeating the words "my higher self is guiding me." Only then will I feel the power of the land beneath me, the red-walled mountain behind me and the angels above me.

    I am a few hundred yards from the spot where three people died in October 2009. They were on a "spiritual warrior retreat" led by James Arthur Ray, a man with improbably white teeth who claimed he had been initiated into 12 shamanic orders. He had been a guest on Oprah and was featured in the best-selling DVD The Secret , and the nearly $10,000 weeklong course was his platinum self-help offering. On the last day of the retreat — the final chance to "play full on" — he harangued his pupils into staying in an overcrowded, overheated sweat lodge even after some of them had passed out and one had fallen into the glowing rocks in the center. The 55 participants, already weakened from a 36-hour "vision quest" with neither food nor water, suffered terribly in the sweat lodge, but the vast majority stayed. "You're not going to die," Ray told them. "You might think you are, but you're not going to die." He was only partly right. In the end, 18 were hospitalized, and three died from heatstroke or organ failure. Ray's manslaughter trial is due to begin March 1.

    It is easy to judge — not only Ray's hubris but also the strange submission of those who elected to stay in the sweat lodge. Why would people want change so badly that they would overrule the violent protests of their bodies and wait for death? They seem like the most extreme disciples of a very mainstream American faith: an unofficial religion of personal transformation. The inner voyages of its adherents fuel a $10.53 billion self-improvement business spanning books, DVDs, courses, life coaching and retreats. They've turned an ancient meditative practice — yoga — into a $6 billion growth industry. They are swelling the ranks of the Landmark Forum, one of the country's largest personal-development workshops, which collects about $75 million a year training up to 200,000 students around the world.

    These seekers are, to put it mildly, not my tribe. I'm not just a journalist — the lowest order of skeptic — but I have also lived my personal life under a somewhat darkening cloud of cigarette smoke, cynicism and unbelief. Yet there's a reason I'm in a labyrinth chanting to angels I don't believe in. I just turned 35 and have been hounded by enough "is this all there is" thoughts in the past year to constitute a sort of pre-midlife crisis. I love my wife, love my kids. But I'm less thrilled about myself and my default noir outlook on life. Like a lot of guys my age, I feel stalled a long way from happiness. I went to Sedona to report on the Ray tragedy; I came away no less unnerved by it but increasingly curious about the vast number of people in the midrange of the self-help spectrum: the enthusiastic brigades of the transformists and yogis and New Agers who embrace change as a call to action.

    So I joined them. It's not just chanting to angels in Sedona. I took part in the mentally exhausting Landmark Forum. I traded in my notions of masculinity for a foam mat and began a martial style of yoga. I stopped asking, What's wrong with these people? and started asking, Can they help what's wrong with me?

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