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INSIDE STORY: Sweat Lodge Guru Wrote of 'Impending Death'

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In the days and hours before he led 60 people into a sweltering sweat lodge ceremony that left three people dead and two dozen hospitalized, self-help guru James Arthur Ray had death on the mind.

“The Toltecs practice an ‘awareness of impending death,’ ” Ray wrote on his Twitter page Friday, Oct. 2, as he prepared for the five-day Spiritual Warrior retreat in Sedona, which started later that weekend. “Makes every moment precious when you know it could be your last.”

It was one of five postings by Ray that day, and four of them discussed death. Another said, “The Spiritual Warrior has conquered death, and therefore has no enemies in this life or the next.”

RELATED: Sweat Lodge Guru: Remorse, But No Apology
Over the next couple of days, Ray addressed other topics as people did various exercises, including a 36-hour “vision quest” into the desert without food or water.

But on Oct. 8, as participants ate breakfast and were told, according to one of them, to prepare to enter the hottest sweat lodge ever made (for a ceremony in which they would give up seven behaviors that held them back in life), Ray again discussed death on Twitter.

‘Something Must Die’

Ray repeated his earlier posting about how Spiritual Warrior had conquered death – he had already done six previous sweat lodge ceremonies without anyone dying – and wrote, “For anything new to live, something first must die. What needs to die in you so that new life can emerge?

Someone later deleted the postings, but not before others retrieved and saved them before providing them to PEOPLE. Several sources close to the matter confirmed the postings were Ray’s.

Tom McFeeley, whose cousin, Kirby Brown, was one of the three people who died in the tragedy, says Ray talked about death throughout the retreat. Although no one knows for sure why the ceremony went so wrong, several participants suggest the sweat lodge got too hot and too many people were kept inside for too long as Ray stood by the only entrance, alternately speaking in tongues and encouraging participants to persevere as some of them vomited and fainted.

“A man proves himself in his actions, and he has fallen way short of the omnipotence he believed he possessed,” McFeeley tells PEOPLE.

No Comment

Neither Ray nor a representative was available for comment. But Ray announced on his Web site Thursday that he he is canceling upcoming seminars and needs to dedicate all his “physical and emotional energies” to bringing closure to the matter.

A source close to Ray says the self-help guru used the word death a lot in the context of killing off what holds you back – and not actual dying.

If you review Ray’s writing and lectures, you will find many references such as: “If you’re not growing, you’re dying” and “for anything new to live, something first must die,” says the source. “He speaks a great deal about dying to limitations, dying to the old self, (dying to old) ways of thinking,” and breaking free.”