The sweat lodge deaths have focused scrutiny on the New Age community in Sedona, which over three decades has become a magnet for spiritual seekers thanks to spectacular scenery and links to Native American rituals. The Angel Valley retreat center, which hosted the five-day Spiritual Warrior event, offers a menu of services like soul retrieval, vortex healing and dolphin energy healing.
(From the New York Times, reporting on an October 8 sweat lodge ceremony intended as a rebirthing experience that left three people dead from dehydration.)
I know that this is wildly unrealistic, but how about if people satisfy their “spiritual” longings with what we actually have: the human spirit. There’s plenty of evidence that it can survive death. Aeschylus’ Oresteia, for example, has lasted thousands of years through a transfer of custody as marvelous as any soul channeler could dream up. Every time an orchestra starts the terrifying opening chords and palpitating, yearning arpeggios of the overture to Don Giovanni, Mozart’s spirit is given living form.
Several years ago, the religious apologist David Hart wrote an essay celebrating America’s most zealous forms of religious enthusiasm. Speaking in tongues and snake-handling showed America’s still robust faith and “spiritual” fiber, so different from Europe’s religious apathy, he argued. My reaction is the exact opposite: I find such foaming-at-the-mouth frenzy repugnant. I know that I am merely revealing my own limitations here, but consciousness at its most normally functioning seems to me not just an adequate way of inhabiting the world but a superb one as well.
The desire to escape the self is obviously ubiquitous. But I wish it could be satisfied by singing in a chorus, say, rather than seeking some more extreme form of release from ordinary neurological operations. Even without the ever-present threat of the mob that lurks in efforts at collective transcendence, the search for a supra-human reality is susceptible to charlatanism and fraud:
On a conference call . . . held last week for sweat lodge participants, . . . a self-described “channeler” who visited Angel Valley after the retreat [claimed] to have communicated with the dead. [T]he channeler said they had left their bodies in the sweat lodge and chosen not to come back because “they were having so much fun.”
Dr. Bunn had a less charitable view: “They couldn’t re-enter their bodies because they were dead.”
All this New Age business is laughable, of course, but more mainstream claims regarding the afterlife are no more grounded in knowledge.
Almost none of us will create anything worthy of immortality (though the internet may provide it anyway), but merely by reading, observing, or listening to the creations of past geniuses, we participate in a great chain of being that requires no hucksters but only an inter-generational recognition of beauty.