Evaluating Self-Help Organizations' Claims Three people who attended a sweat lodge ceremony in Ariz. have died. Self-help guru James Arthur Ray, who ran the ceremony, is under investigation. Dr. James Gordon, founder and director for the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, explains how some retreats are regulated.

Evaluating Self-Help Organizations' Claims

Evaluating Self-Help Organizations' Claims

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Three people who attended a sweat lodge ceremony in Ariz. have died. Self-help guru James Arthur Ray, who ran the ceremony, is under investigation. Dr. James Gordon, founder and director for the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, explains how some retreats are regulated.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Yesterday, a survivor of a spiritual ceremony gone wrong became the first participant to speak publicly about what happened near Sedona, Arizona earlier this month. Three people died after a two-hour sweat lodge ceremony, part of a five-day spiritual warrior retreat led by a popular self-help guru named James Arthur Ray.

Beverly Bunn's account describes people falling ill soon after they crowded into a hot, dark, cramped tent covered with blankets and plastic, which was reheated with steaming rocks every 15 minutes. Police are investigating the deaths as homicide but have not filed any charges.

James Arthur Ray has been a guest on "Oprah" and "Larry King Live." He calls himself a leader of practical mysticism, which is just part of an $11 billion industry that includes spiritual quests, stress management retreats, holistic institutes and much more, an industry that is almost entirely unregulated.

If you've participated in self-help or a spiritual retreat, why did you go, what did you learn? Tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Dr. James Gordon, who joins us here in Studio 3A. He chaired the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy during the Clinton administration, served as the first chair of the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. And thanks very much for being with us today.

Dr. JAMES GORDON (Center for Mind-Body Medicine): It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And why do you think this is an $11 billion industry? A lot of people go. Why do you think they go?

Dr. GORDON: Well, they go - we go, I should say, because I'm part of that, I'm part of the group of people who are looking for ways to feel better physically, emotionally, spiritually, and we are, millions and millions, tens of millions of us, perhaps hundreds of millions in the United States, we're people who want to find out who we are, why we're here on the planet, what the meaning is in our life, and we want to feel as good as we can while we're on this search.

We want to discover what we need to discover to make us whole and healthy and to help us feel like we're healing ourselves.

CONAN: And as you describe it, and I think as Mr. Ray would describe it, this is sort of somewhere in between or combining both religious, spiritual qualities and medicine.

Dr. GORDON: Exactly, it's - and I think this goes - really goes right back to the roots of all medicine, whether it's our modern, Western scientific medicine and Hippocratic medicine or Chinese medicine or Ayurveda or Aboriginal systems of healing - there is an understanding that the psychological, the physiological, the spiritual and the social are all interconnected and that healing can come from any of those levels and that all of them can be useful to us.

CONAN: There are plenty of critics of psychiatry or psychotherapy, but these are disciplines that are also regulated: ethics codes, medical boards, that kind of thing. When it comes to these alternative approaches, is it just buyer beware?

Dr. GORDON: Well, it depends on what we mean by alternative approaches, and I think that there are some that are regulated that we consider alternative, for example Chinese medicine, which is considered - is the mainstream medicine or one of the mainstream medicines in China, is still considered somewhat alternative here, and it's primarily regulated. It's primarily a medical discipline treating people with medical conditions.

Much of self-help is not focusing on specific, diagnosable conditions. It's really giving people the tools they need to help themselves. So it doesn't easily, and probably shouldn't be, you know, sort of put pell-mell under regulation.

CONAN: If it's a spiritual quest, it comes close to religion.

Dr. GORDON: Exactly, and many - there are a certain number of these groups that are - actually receive recognition as religious groups.

CONAN: And there may be - maybe the majority, maybe nearly all of these self-help disciplines are earnest and well-meaning. Some are not.

Dr. GORDON: Some are not. I think, you know, when people talk about regulation, what interests me is education, not regulation. I think that people have to become more self-aware. People are going to these groups to become more self-aware, but the brutal fact is you have to really exercise your intuition, your understanding, your intelligence, to decide whether you're being hustled or whether something that genuinely is going to make you whole is happening, and you have to use your BS detector to evaluate the people who are making promises or offerings or telling you what they have available.

CONAN: And when there's a commercial enterprise connected to it, as there almost always is, you can get the details in this book, and if you really want to find out, then come on this five-day quest, or if there's even more, the two-week - you know, these all cost a lot of money.

Dr. GORDON: Exactly, and you know, you always have to be aware, and probably the more money, the more you have to beware, although actually to be fair, the greatest disaster with one of these groups that happened was with Jonestown.

CONAN: Sure.

Dr. GORDON: And nobody was taking money from 98 percent of the people at Jonestown. They were people who came with no money at all, but they found purpose and meaning, and they also found a leader who was very destructive as well as self-destructive.

CONAN: Well, which comes up to the point. When you have somebody who apparently - that charismatic, this can get dangerous.

Dr. GORDON: It is, but any charismatic leader is dangerous. I mean, this doesn't have to be in a spiritual or religious movement. We've seen charismatic political leaders who wouldn't be called spiritual by any stretch of the imagination who were extremely dangerous, who killed millions of people.

Pol Pot was not exactly a spiritual leader, but he was charismatic, and he was able to kind of speak to a certain common denominator in the population and unfortunately mobilize their more destructive sides rather than speaking to their better angels.

CONAN: Well, if government regulation is inappropriate - I mean certainly if you're talking about anything to do with religion it would be a violation of the First Amendment, among other things.

Dr. GORDON: Exactly.

CONAN: But is there any, you know, peer review, any self-regulation that might be possible?

Dr. GORDON: Well, there's regulation - many of us, for example, I'm the founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine. We train people. We see, I see, that self-awareness, self-care and mutual help are central and need to be central to preventing and treating chronic illness.

I mean, just - we can't keep going simply giving people pills and procedures. It doesn't work for chronic illness. So we train professionals in a variety of mind-body approaches, relaxation, meditation, guided imagery. We teach them about nutrition and exercise. We teach them the science, and they also have an experience.

Now, is it regulated? Well, in a sense it's regulated because we get continuing-education credits for it. So we have to evaluate it. We have to give feedback. That's a process that works. It works so that people know what they're getting in for, the information's available. We study our program. We do research on it. We see its effectiveness, but there may be other groups that are not - I mean, your neighborhood church. I mean I don't know that it makes sense to ask them to regulate themselves. For us...

CONAN: Or that there's any meaningful way to say: Do you feel better after this service?

Dr. GORDON: Exactly. I really think that people have to get smart and get tough. This is - there is a tendency that we have to believe in people who promise us everything, and we as a nation have to wise up. I mean, we really have to say: If somebody is promising us everything, watch out for your pocket and watch out for your soul. They're trying to - you know, they're trying to make you theirs, and if they claim any level of infallibility, watch out for - I mean, nobody's infallible.

So I think that this is the kind of thing that we have to really look at and teach to ourselves and to our children, how to discriminate.

CONAN: We're talking with Dr. James Gordon, founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, also the author of "Manifesto for a New Medicine: Your Guide to Healing Partnerships and the Wise Use of Alternative Therapies." We want to hear about your experiences.

If you've been on one of these spiritual quests or retreats, tell us why you went and what you learned. 800...

Dr. GORDON: Oh, you didn't tell me you were going to ask me about this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: No, no, no, that's for listeners. 800...

Dr. GORDON: But it's perfectly - but it's absolutely relevant. I was just doing grand rounds at Howard Medical School today, and the point about self-care is that you cannot possibly teach it to other people unless you are engaging in your best efforts to care for yourself.

So I became interested in it already when I was in medical school. I began to wonder for myself: What else is there, aside from psychotherapy? How can I get in touch with this, the meaning and the purpose in my life? And how can I be healthier than I was at the present time?

So I began to look at different forms of meditation. I began to look at different spiritual groups. I began to eat differently. I began to grow my own food. I began to just, you know, begin to see if there were ways that I could do things to help myself, and as I did more and more of that, I began to share what I was learning with my patients, with my colleagues, with the nation. When I was a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health, I studied these approaches. I published research on them, and I'm still on a healing journey.

My most recent book is called "Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression." All of our lives are - can be seen as journeys, and we're moving ahead.

CONAN: Let's hear about some journeys our listeners have taken, 800-989-8255. Richard joins us on the line from Godfrey, Illinois.

RICHARD (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Richard, you're on the air.

RICHARD: Yeah, I'd just like to say that I did - three years ago I did five days of fasting and dancing at an earth dance in northern Arizona, and yeah, I came out fairly spiritually clean. I like to say my third eye was squeegeed nice and clean after that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Why did you go in the first place, Richard?

RICHARD: Well, I had tumultuous problems in my personal life, and I hadn't really done anything like this in a couple of years, and I knew it was something I needed to get back to who I think I am or who I want to be, and sometimes the challenge to do that takes you up some really hard roads, but if you're going to fast and dance for five days, you really have to prepare yourself to do that. You can't just go in there with a full belly, thinking, oh, I'm going to lose 20 or 30 pounds, I'm going to feel great at the other end. You really have to purge yourself, prepare yourself to do something like this. It's not something you can do on a whim, in my opinion.

CONAN: And you have to do it with people who you trust will take care of you because things can go wrong.

RICHARD: Right. I had a pretty hard experience on the second day. I was shaking and I felt like my body was on fire, and luckily there are two or three nurses there to help me, and there was actually a place they called the healing tent, where I went, and they put fluids back in me. They made sure my nutrients were up. I mean, yeah, they took care of me.

CONAN: And might I ask how much this cost, Richard?

RICHARD: It cost my gold ring from high school.

CONAN: That's one way to put it, and that's a pretty stiff price.

RICHARD: It was, but it was something I needed to let go of. It was probably worth about $300, but I did it with natives. So they don't necessarily want a price.

CONAN: Profit is not...

RICHARD: They want you to give something that's meaningful, and if, you know, $500 is meaningful, fine. For me it was a gold ring.

CONAN: And we just have a few seconds, Richard, but has it stayed with you?

RICHARD: Yes, it has. It's really helped me. I couldn't - I'd need a book to go into it, but it was a good experience. I must say that. It taught me a lot about myself.

CONAN: Richard, thanks very much for the call, continued good luck.

RICHARD: No problem, thank you very much.

CONAN: After tragedy struck at a spiritual retreat in Arizona, we're taking a closer look at the self-help industry. We want to hear about your experience. Have you gone on a self-help quest or retreat? Why? What did you learn? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Later this hour, CJR spoofs the media on Balloon Boy headlines like Slate Explainer: What's up with balloons? A charmingly counterintuitive take. Email us the headline you might expect to see on your favorite media outlet. The address is talk@npr.org.

But now we continue our conversation with Dr. James Gordon about self-help, a booming business that helps some people examine their lives; exposes others, though, to snake oil salesmen.

If you've participated in self-help or a spiritual retreat, why did you go? Why did you learn? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. There's also a conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go next to Paul, Paul with us from St. Louis.

PAUL (Caller): Hi. I've got a question for Dr. Gordon. I've been a member of a global 12-step program that's well-known but I'd rather not name out of respect for the anonymity that is the foundation of its principles. And how would you differentiate between 12-step programs and - that are centered on spirituality and the other types of programs that you're dealing with. Or would you?

Dr. GORDON: You know, I don't know that it's a question of differentiating. I think 12-step programs, spirituality and fellowship and sharing one's experience, are vitally important, and I think that that's a very old model.

I've worked a lot with different societies around the world, and in fact we use some of the techniques or approaches that are very familiar in 12-step programs, and people recognize these are universal. This is really a universal language of healing that we have in 12-step programs and in programs like the ones the Center for Mind-Body Medicine has.

I don't know that the issue is - I think that if you look at them, part of the difference is you're not trying to be controlled. There's nobody who's controlling you. There's nobody who's making a lot of money off you. There's a sense of freedom in the programs. You can come and go, and you can, you know, discriminate among what you want to do and what you don't want to do.

I think there's a feeling that's different. I think the danger is in programs - and I've seen this. I spent a lot of years looking at religious and spiritual groups and seeing how they took the kernel of this quest, this journey for healing and journey for wholeness, and how it became perverted by a desire to achieve a particular end, by a desire to control people, by a desire to have power, by a desire to make money.

And I think that's something - with every group you've got to keep your wits about you, and you've always got to ask the hard questions, and if those questions aren't answered to your satisfaction, to your deep satisfaction, you've got to get out or at least consider getting out.

CONAN: You think of groups like Synanon, back in the late '50s and early '60s, where it did turn into, well, power trip, to put it mildly.

Dr. GORDON: Exactly. And even with 12-step programs, there may come a time - 12-step programs I love. They're beautiful. I know lots of people who have gotten a tremendous amount out of them, but there may come a time when you want to stop that particular approach and do something else or combine it with something else. That's okay.

PAUL: Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Paul. Does that conform with what your experience was?

PAUL: Oh, absolutely. I think the money factor was key, and I do like the idea of a lack of control. They are rather chaotic but beautiful.

CONAN: All right, Paul. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

PAUL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Stephen(ph), Stephen with us from Fremont in California.

STEPHEN (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

STEPHEN: Yeah, I just wanted to talk about when I was a teenager, you know, I got into this Scientology. I'm about 30 years old now, and I can look back and say that I was pretty disillusioned, but there were things I took from it, and I learned a lot of things in regards to human nature in that any endeavor that's trying to break through to that realm that truly probably does exist, of self-awareness, any endeavor that falls prey to human nature, and as long as revenue is involved, will inevitably be corrupted. And, uh...

CONAN: Well, Scientology considered a religion in this country, a cult in some European countries, but Dr. Gordon?

Dr. GORDON: No, I think the important thing, you're bringing up an interesting point about entering a group early. I think it's very important for children in our schools to learn self-awareness and self-care, to develop a true kind of intellectual, intuitive and moral compass early on, and they won't be so easily fooled later on. And this is something we really have not done nearly enough of in our schools.

So I think that the more we bring, you know, reasonable, careful, thoughtful, respectful self-care into the schools, the fewer people will feel so lost and will be so easily taken advantage of later on.

CONAN: Yet spiritual guidance in school is a very touchy subject.

Dr. GORDON: It's not a question of spiritual guidance. It's a question of helping kids understand what's actually going on moment to moment in their lives. How do you really feel right now? This doesn't necessarily involve talk of a higher power or anything spiritual, just really down to earth, nuts and bolts. How do you feel? What's going on? How can you reduce the stress in your life? How can you exercise? How can you experience and enjoy your body?

One of the deep problems in schools is everything about health is don't do this, don't do that. Don't drink, drugs, sex, smoke, etcetera, etcetera. All the kids hear is drink, drugs, sex, smoking. They don't - but what we need to bring is a positive message which will allow them to develop their own capacity for judgment and intuition.

CONAN: Stephen, thanks.

STEPHEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from James in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, I think, or Tahlequah, perhaps, Oklahoma. I hope I'm not mispronouncing that too badly. I am an American Indian from Oklahoma. Most of these self-help spiritual quests and so-called sweat lodge experiences are scams that exploit hundreds and thousands of years of legitimate Native American spiritual beliefs.

No true Native would ever exploit our traditions for profit, and these sorts of business ventures have turned precious beliefs and traditions into cheap thrills for non-Natives who want to experience something they think is exotic.

Dr. GORDON: Well, you know, I deeply respect the Native traditions, and they've given us this opportunity, and I think for, you know, for my - my experience in working with sweats has been either with Native peoples or with people who have spent years training with Native people.

You want, just as when you go to see a surgeon, you want that surgeon to have the training so it's appropriate for him or her to cut into your body. The same thing with a sweat lodge. If you go to a sweat lodge, you want somebody who's steeped in that tradition.

I would, and from my perspective, it doesn't necessarily have to be somebody who was born a Native person, if that person has been trained and educated by Native people. But I think that that pedigree, that education, that training, that understanding is really crucial. So I appreciate what he has to say.

CONAN: Nevertheless, there are an awful lot of religions that borrow from other religions.

Dr. GORDON: Of course. Religions are almost by definition syncretistic. I mean, they come together. They bring different strains. So we are creating, perhaps we're creating a variety of different approaches in this time that are drawing from many different traditions, just the way Buddhism is different here than the way it is in Tibet or South Asia.

But I think the issue is the depth of understanding of the people who are practicing and teaching and creating these experiences.

CONAN: Let's go next to Tasmine(ph), Tasmine from Cincinnati.

TASMINE (Caller): Hi. I was just telling your screener about a trek that I did through the back woods of eastern Ohio towards Appalachia, and it was, you know, a nature journey and also a spiritual journey, and then we did have injuries along the way. You know, people got physically ill. They got emotionally ill. There were sprained ankles.

And I don't think that the - I think that the overwhelming majority of people that want to do these spiritual quests or self-help quests for the most part understand the risk that they're going to take, and it's not - I don't think it's fair to criticize an entire industry over a handful of deaths and injuries because for the most part a lot of people do receive benefits from it. It would be like, you know, having a death with an open-heart surgery patient, to my mind, and then banning open-heart surgeries outright. It's something that people do because they need or they want to feel fulfilled in a way that they're not getting from their ordinary lives, and I think that they...

CONAN: We're not - nobody's talking about banning it, Tasmine, and you're right about open-heart surgery, but open-heart surgery is regulated by medical boards, and they're assured that the surgeon has the skills necessary to do that before he steps - or he or she - steps into the operating theater.

TASMINE: And I agree with that, but I do think that as, you know, you were saying previously, or Mr. Gordon was saying previously, that it is more objective than something like open-heart surgery. So it's a little bit harder to judge.

I'm, of course, just speaking from my personal experience.

CONAN: Sure, yeah, I understand.

TASMINE: But I just don't think that it's fair to criticize an entire industry because of, you know, a handful of bad happenings.

Dr. GORDON: No, you know, I would agree that self-care is not only honorable, it's absolutely necessary if we're going to deal with the chronic physical and emotional problems that beset us as a society. Unlike - this health care reform unfortunately doesn't bring self-care enough into the center, and that would truly change our health system.

But on the other hand, I think it's really important to look - and for everyone to look at the groups they enter, to question and not to - and to be aware if you're sort of going along with wish - with your own wishful thinking, with your hope that everything is just going to be fine. I mean, that's not realistic. That's not, so far as I'm concerned, a true part of any spiritual path. Spiritual path...

TASMINE: Oh, and I agree a hundred percent.

Dr. GORDON: ...involves looking at the dark side as well as at the light.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And there have been some - I'm not making any suggestions that the one you're involved with, Tasmine, was in any way this way. But there have been some suggestions that some of these physical challenges, wilderness experiences, that sort of thing that have some spiritual aspect to them - have some physical aspect too - but they have been abusive.

Dr. GORDON: Some have - I'm sure some have been abusive. Some are beautifully done. I think the question is discriminating and reporting on the ones where there is something that's exploitative, or something that's inattentive, or something that's careless or destructive. We have to know about it. And that's the way things will shift.

CONAN: Tasmine, thanks very much.

TASMINE: Thank you for your time.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Edith(ph). Edith with us from Granby in Connecticut.

EDITH (Caller): Oh, hi. Thank you for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

EDITH: I'm a nurse and I'm also a massage therapist. And I, 100 percent, believe that there needs to be more self-help for people who offer help. So the idea of complementary alternative medicine is certainly needed. There's certainly a need for the caregiver to heal themselves.



CONAN: Both of your disciplines, as I understand it, nursing requires a degree and - a couple of years in school. And massage therapy also requires some certification too.

EDITH: That's correct. In the state I live in, it does require a license. I am licensed by the state for both of my professions.

Dr. GORDON: One thing I want to say is that major - the major elements of self-care are not alternative or complementary. These are fundamental: eating right, exercising, learning how to deal with stress and having other human beings, some kind of group that will support you. This is not alternative medicine or conventional medicine. It's absolutely fundamental to all medicine and all healing.

Second of all, you're quite right. In order for this to happen, we have to bring this kind of responsible, effective, scientifically validated self-care into the training of all health professionals. That is crucial.

CONAN: Edith…


CONAN: Go ahead.

EDITH: Yes. I agree with the doctor. And I also want to make - mention that there are oftentimes in hospitals the need for this but not the actual people to do it. And I think it has to start with education with the health care providers. They're the ones who need to be educated first…

Dr. GORDON: Yeah.

EDITH: …who need to understand that when they take care of themselves, that they can then take care of their very sick patients.

Dr. GORDON: Absolutely. I was just over at Howard University Hospital giving a talk before I came down here. And they - everybody who was listening, just about - they said yes. That's exactly what we need. That's what we need here. That's what we need in every hospital.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Thanks very much for the call, Edith.

EDITH: (Unintelligible).

CONAN: We're talking with Dr. James Gordon, the founder/director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, about spiritual quests and other kinds of, well, we call them alternative approaches to self-healing.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on. This is Sandip(ph), I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, from San Francisco.

SANDIP (Caller): Yes. You're pronouncing it right. I just wanted to say my partner and I, we attended the James Ray seminar. It was like a two-day event. And right from the beginning it was all about, you're attending the two-day event, you have to pay more to go to another seven-day event. And then if you pay more, you'll go to a 15-day event, to get more out of it. (Unintelligible) we were pretty much turned off by that, that very first day. (Unintelligible) like watching a TV commercial.

CONAN: Yeah. We're losing your phone there, Sandip. I think we've got your -the gist of your…

SANDIP: Excuse me?

CONAN: We're losing your phone. It's breaking up. And I apologize for that. But I think we've got the gist of your comment. But I'm going to apologize. I'm going to have to hang up on you because the phone connection is just too poor. And that - and again, I don't know if you've been to one of Mr. Ray's seminars, but nevertheless, in general, when you're dealing with that sort of an approach, welcome to this first seminar and if you're really serious you're going to sign up for the next one. That might be a time to ask questions?

Dr. GORDON: Well, I think there should always be questions. You know, in Bob Dylan's words: don't follow leaders, watch your parking meters. I mean, at any time you enter into any enterprise, I would always ask questions. If people are already signing you up for the next one, well, you have to understand if you go to college, you sign up for - you know, you're getting ready for the second year...

CONAN: Exactly.

Dr. GORDON: …partway into the first year. So it's not that that in and of itself...

CONAN: And if you really want to make money, stay on to medical school.

Dr. GORDON: That's right. Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GORDON: So it's not necessarily illegitimate. But I think you have to see how are you treated. What does it feels like? How much money is involved? Does the money seem appropriate to what you're getting for it? And also, are your hopes being inflated? I think this is one of the things that we often see people are told, if you only think everything is going to be okay, it's going to be okay. And, you know, there is some truth to it. There's a kernel of truth. If you're optimistic, if you, you know, think things are going to go better, you - they are likely to go better. But that doesn't shape the entire universe around you. And I think that we have to bring in a sort of a modicum of common sense, which is hard when you're feeling desperate. And - but that's exactly the time.

One of the things I'd suggest to people who are getting involved with different approaches - and they don't really know much about it, and there's no scientific evidence - is to talk with people who have done it before. Find out from them what it's like. And then, also talk with your friends. See what your friends think, people you trust. These are important decisions that we're making if you're putting yourself in someone else's hands, and you need information before you do it.

CONAN: We'll quickly try to get to this email from Catherine(ph) in Tulsa. I participated in a small private sweat lodge ceremony several years ago. As the experience progressed, I began to feel overheated. I persisted for a time, not wanting to interrupt the experience of others, assuming we were about to reach the conclusion. Eventually I had to leave because I was feeling unwell. Question, why would participants override the unmistakable physical sensations and get so ill, they required hospitalization and even died? Where is the person's personal responsibility?

Dr. GORDON: Well, they had abdicated their - it's a very good question. And they - I mean, sadly, they had abdicated their personal responsibility. I spent years studying various new religions and spiritual groups, and I saw it over and over again, that people in the name of wanting to be part of the group, for the supposed or actual benefits that they were going to receive, abdicated not only their personal responsibility but even their, sort of, personal common sense and understanding.

So this is something that happens to human beings. And it's tragic that people lost their lives who did this. And it takes real courage and real strength in these group situations to say, no, enough.

CONAN: Dr. Gordon, thanks very much for your time.

Dr. GORDON: Thank you.

CONAN: James Gordon is founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, former chair of the White House Commission on Complementary Medicine - Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy. His latest book is "Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression." He was with us here in Studio 3A.

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