“He told us we were so scared of dying, we forgot how to live.”
It’s a line and sentiment you could imagine being used as inspiration on influencers’ Instagram posts. But it’s actually much more sinister than that, coming in the middle of an hours-long ‘game’ of Samurai at the Spiritual Warrior retreat/sweat lodge in Arizona in 2009.
It’s preceded by James Arthur Ray, the self-help guru leading the retreat, declaring: “I am god!” The game is a common team-building exercise used at corporate events - an argument utilised by the defence in a murder trial a couple years later. At Spiritual Warrior, it’s an endurance test that addles the mind.
The event is described in the opening episode of the six-part series Guru: The Dark Side of Enlightenment from Wondery, the makers of Dirty John. Just like the deceit running through that phenomenally successful show, James Ray wants you to believe everything he says, from a declarative gambit in the series opener - “I firmly believe that you live in the most exciting time in our world history, a time where science and spirituality are realising that they’re sister studies” - to his god complex.
He’s an Oprah-endorsed self-help teacher who in 2009 organises the Spiritual Warrior retreat in Arizona, at which three people died in the ‘sweat lodge’ that looked more like a circus tent rather than its Native American forbear.
There is a perplexity to the ‘enlightenment’ and self-help industries that seems baffling to many, but Guru lets some of the believers explain what they were looking for, which is usually just some direction.
“I just don’t want to be called a cult member,” pleads Laura Tucker on the fourth episode - she had been peer-pressured into shaving her head at the retreat. The series does not seek to build James Ray up - he does not need the attention; he’s currently got over 112,000 followers on his still very active Twitter account.
Written and narrated by journalist Matt Stroud, the soundscape and sound design Jeff Schmidt really adds to the unsettling atmosphere as the podcast confidently rolls on. The murder trial of Ray in episode four could become bogged down in detail but lets victim Kirby Brown’s mother Ginny tell of the “emotional numbing” of the trial and Laura Tucker describe her experience at the retreat.
There are two more episodes of Guru to come - it’s probably the best show of the summer.