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"

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    The Valley of Angels
    One of the hardest things to understand about the people on Ray's retreat — the ones who stayed in the sweat lodge even though it felt, as one survivor put it, "like breathing fire" — is that they had similar motivations as the rest of us. Beverly Bunn, a Texas orthodontist, was typical: she was at Angel Valley not because she was desperate but because she was ambitious. She didn't have lots of spare time to workshop her life, so she saw the retreat as an effective, efficient way to push herself. And yet for all her intelligence, Bunn was, at a critical juncture, fully in Ray's thrall. She tried to leave the sweat lodge just over halfway through the ritual but says Ray told her that it was just her body complaining, that her mind could control it. "It was unbelievably hot," she told me over the phone, but she "persevered," thinking maybe Ray did know more about her limitations than she did. "That's what gurus do," she said. "They pull from you, attack your weaknesses and try to turn it around into a strength. They coach you and manipulate you."

    Regardless of his trial's outcome, Ray's heyday appears to be over. His website is still running ("James Arthur Ray: Create Harmonic Wealth® in All Areas of Your Life"), but his lawyers do most of his public speaking for him, and he has stopped doing the live events that were the lifeblood of his company.

    But even tragedy won't keep the seekers from Sedona. The American West has been the stronghold of New Age spirituality ever since the 1963 publication of The Book of the Hopi "made the River Ganges flow into the Rio Grande," as writer Philip Jenkins put it. And Sedona, with its purported energy vortexes, is the first real New Age destination resort. Janelle Sparkman, head of the Sedona Spiritual and Metaphysical Association, which acts as a sort of chamber of commerce for psychics and Reiki practitioners, estimates that 40% of visitors to the town come for spiritual reasons.

    And the metaphysical is mainstream far beyond Sedona. A 2007 Gallup poll found that around 75% of Americans believe in angels and that 50% think they have their own guardian angels. A Pew report on religion said a quarter of Americans held some New Age or Eastern beliefs like animism. According to Publishers Weekly , an upcoming set of books in the popular angels category will be "full of practical, detailed information on how one can attract angels into their lives."

    Angel Valley itself has been slow to recover from the deaths at the sweat lodge, according to Amayra Hamilton, the Dutch naturopath who founded the retreat with her husband Michael (the New Age minister who gave me my mantra). The retreat is in Chapter 11, and the couple face civil lawsuits, even though they didn't run the sweat lodge that day. As Amayra put it, the "chaotic energy" of death is still keeping people away. The only guests at a lunch when I was there were the IT repairman who had arrived from town to fix the wireless Internet service (lunch conversation: how he attaches electrodes to his temples to help achieve biofeedback-brain-wave balance) and an extremely fit couple — she from Germany, he from Hong Kong — who introduced themselves as Rama and Lalita. ("Our spiritual names," they clarified.)

    I never did feel any sign of angels. I walked the labyrinth and hiked the red hills with no message from the universe other than that I should have worn more sunblock. Afterward I asked Michael and Amayra what I should make of the spiritual silence, but they resisted feeding me any interpretations. The lesson of the sweat lodge and the "charismatic illusion" that is James Arthur Ray, said Michael, is that you don't need to follow someone else's path. "Everyone thinks self-help means finding your own guru," said Amayra. "This will change that."

    This article originally appeared in the March 7, 2011, issue of TIME.

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