Are We Vulnerable to Conspirituality?

What is conspirituality?

Charlotte Ward and David Voas first coined the term “conspirituality” in 2011, to describe the merger of conspiracy theories and New Age spirituality. I like to put a hyphen between the con and spirituality because it is a con. Spirituality is conscripted into the service of gurus and influencers concerned only with their success in terms of numbers of followers, who can then be turned into paying customers. When these gurus start espousing conspiracy theories, their followers – if they’re not critical thinkers and misinformation resilient – tend to believe them, and so the theories proliferate. Fact or fiction, the more people share them, the more people believe them. It’s easy to share that meme or opinion because it seems okay on the surface, but not checking it carefully before sharing is dangerous, for us and for society.

Just look at Trump’s conspiracy theory about the 2020 election. The result is the destabilisation of American society and an assault on the Capitol building.

Conspirituality is ‘a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fuelled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews. It has international celebrities, bestsellers, radio and TV stations. It offers a broad politico-spiritual philosophy based on two core convictions, the first traditional to conspiracy theory, the second rooted in the New Age: 1) a secret group covertly controls, or is trying to control, the political and social order, and 2) humanity is undergoing a ‘paradigm shift’ in consciousness. Proponents believe that the best strategy for dealing with the threat of a totalitarian ‘new world order’ is to act in accordance with an awakened ‘new paradigm’ worldview.

 A 2011 article by Ward and Voas from the Journal of Contemporary Religion

The spiritual, new age, yoga and wellness industry is full of charlatans who will say almost anything if it will increase their social media following regardless of whether or not its true. If it gets lots of ‘Likes’, ‘Shares’, and comments, they’ll keep saying it. If we’ve come away from Buddhism holding the vague kinds of beliefs commonly professed by many of these gurus or influencers, we can easily be led into the rabbit hole of their sphere of influence.  We may adopt a con-spirituality mentality and become part of groups that are every bit as much a cult, if not more so, than the Buddhist cults we left behind.

The problem with con-spirituality

Our devotion to Sogyal would have kept most of us away from the New Age and wellness movement’s lightweight spirituality, but I wonder how many of those who have left Rigpa might be turning to it now. Why is that a problem? Because listening to some people in that community might lead you to think that conspiracy theories are true, and if you embrace them as truth, you end up living in a world of your beliefs that bear little relationship to reality.

A viral outbreak of con-spirituality has arisen in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s based on a critique of modern technology, medicine, and governance. They claim such things as that the COVID-19 pandemic is a construct of the deep-state and a sign of end-times, often aligned with ideas emanating from the far-right, apocalyptic QAnon movement which frequently draws on Christian millenarianism.

Where spiritual people and groups’ questioning of modernity is critical, informed, non-violent, and employ ideas and practices whose validity is bolstered by genuine and fully understood science, that isn’t con-spirituality. People with conspiritual views ignore, denigrate or twist science and evidence and hold opinion and feelings to be the final arbiter of ‘truth’. (Do you recognise this kind of thinking from those in Rigpa who defended Sogyal’s abuse?) This kind of perspective and a lack of media literacy in regards to ascertaining what is true or false is what makes people easy prey for conspiracy theories.

Just as in any cult, adherents feel they are privy to the ‘real truth’ and thus more enlightened than mainstream society. Their form of spirituality is individualised, based on personal choice—often stating that truth can only be known by looking inside themselves—and commodified, which is why conspiritualists see coronavirus restrictions as a threat to their personal freedom. In actual fact they are not only a threat to the health of society, but also completely deluded; they’re fighting an enemy that simply doesn’t exist.

Though lip service may be given to the importance of love, genuine compassion seems to be lacking. Conspirituality movements are full of privileged white people whose philosophy doesn’t work well for those without the means to pay for and take time off their job for the latest sweat lodge or tantric sex weekend, not to mention having the means to purchase the expensive supplements peddled by the wellness influencers. Love is professed only in so far as it makes followers feel good and because talk of it boosts the influencers’ social media followers. As with Sogyal and Rigpa, when it comes down to it, money is their real motivator.

Contemporary spirituality places an emphasis on positive thinking for personal wellbeing and economic gains, and yet individuals cannot simply think themselves out of this COVID-19 crisis. This has resulted in mass spiritual bypassing, with more privileged individuals and groups — who are far less likely to be affected by the coronavirus — denying the reality of the suffering that the virus is inflicting on the less privileged and more vulnerable.

People drawn to conspiracy theories often share the same qualities we find in people drawn to spirituality. You may recognise some of the qualities that make one vulnerable to conspiracy theories in yourself, such as:

  1. An openness to unusual beliefs and experiences. If you’re very creative, with a capacity for original, innovative thinking, that openness could be harmless, but you may also be prone to beliefs that are unfounded in reality—especially if you misunderstand the indivisibility of form and emptiness and how that relates to every part of ourselves and our lives.
  2. Prone to very independent thinking, suspicious of authority, suspicious of official narratives, suspicious of mainstream medicine, big pharma, and much more drawn to alternative medicine and alternative healing practices. 
    These qualities are not problematic if measured with common sense and critical thinking, our decisions are evidence based rather than intuition based, and we have a nuanced—rather than black and white—view of the world. If we paint all pharma, all mainstream medicine, all government as bad and all alternative medicine and healing as good, then we’ll be easy prey for the con-spirituality gurus and their cults.
  3. Have a tendency for the narcissism seen in new age spirituality and conspiracy thinking. Both can be a form of Gnosticism, which is based on the idea that you are part of the special elite that has seen through the illusion of ordinary reality and accessed secret truths. (Recognise Rigpa culture here?)

The wellness and alternative spiritual crew have united over the past decade to expose the vested interests of the food, pharmaceutical and oil industries – for valid and worthy reasons. Drug companies have abused our health. The Gates Foundation should be more transparent and accountable, considering the massive influence it has over global public health. And the fight to expose truth has united this community.

Meanwhile, political trust is at an all-time low globally. Media and other moral structures that once held the status quo accountable have desiccated. It’s understandable that we be suspicious and questioning. I am on a number of issues. But as the world gets more complex and noisy, truth can easily become confused with “truthiness”.

Could your desire to expose the truth, the same desire that lead you to help expose Sogyal’s abuse and support his victims, lead you into the delusion of conspiracy theories?

‘Spiritual’ beliefs that make you vulnerable to conspiracy theories”1.

  1. Everything is connected;
  2. Nothing happens by accident;
  3. Nothing is as it seems.

Do any of these ring true to you? Aren’t they things we believed in Rigpa? Aren’t these the kinds of beliefs that became slogans used to explain away abuse? These are the core beliefs that have been misunderstood and misappropriated by conspiritualists. If you understand the dharma basis of these beliefs well—including what they don’t mean—are social-media literate, and use your critical-thinking faculties when engaging with con-spiritualists—meaning that you insist on actual proof from recognised trustworthy sources (like properly interpreted genuine science)—you won’t be at risk of falling for the con. However, if your understanding of their spiritual basis is vague, and you are too willing to ‘go with the flow’ and believe whatever someone says when they ‘sound’ reasonable—those skilled in cult induction techniques tell you what you want to hear—you’re at risk of falling into delusion in a big way.

How do we avoid being conned by con-spirituality movements?

People fall for conspiracy theories because they want certainty in an uncertain world. So accepting the limits of your certainty and becoming comfortable with the inevitable uncertainty of human existence will help inoculate you against falling for conspiracy theories. If we long for certainty and security, we’ll hold onto beliefs or hopes or ideologies that give us this certainty, even if they’re a false narrative.

In Buddhist terms, excessive attachment to views is a form of ego clinging, so knowing those teachings will help make you less inclined to become attached to a conspiracy, or any other, theory. Some solid Buddhist study—with genuinely qualified teachers—will help you realise that these beliefs, as they’re stated above, are gross oversimplifications. Apart from being a useful spiritual education, this will help you to avoid being conned by those with no clue to their real meaning. Alternatively, or simultaneously, dropping all ‘spiritual’ beliefs would also work as an inoculation against conspirituality. At the very least, you could develop a questioning attitude to such beliefs and to people who profess them.

In simple terms try to find a balance between being open to alternative experiences and beliefs, but not believing any old nonsense or falling into magical thinking—the belief that unrelated events are causally connected despite the absence of any plausible causal link between them. 

And learn how to do genuine research:

We will indeed need to do our own research and demand more truth. But we will also need to defer to and respect science to do so. We need to understand that research done via YouTube is not “your own research”. It’s an algorithm at play that handcuffs us to our worst cognitive biases. We need to be sceptical – but for the sake of understanding, not to create more tribalism. I would argue that we also need, at a broader level, to instigate fake news resilience training, like Finland has. It works.

So along with our spiritual sensitivities, we need to value evidence from our shared physical reality. What seems to be true to us is not the same as what actually is true in reality. If we don’t look for external validation of our beliefs in the form of evidence, we risk becoming completely unhinged from reality, and there is no greater delusion than that.

For more on con-spirituality listen to the Conspirituality Podcast. This episode on why spiritual people are vulnerable to conspiracy theories is particularly relevant.


Could Your Desire to Wake up to Your ‘True’ Self Lead You Deeper into Delusion?

The Tibetan Buddhist teachings warn that where there is the greatest potential for enlightenment there is also the greatest chance of delusion. If you embark on the spiritual path without correct understanding of the subtle concepts involved, your desire to ‘wake up’ to your true self could lead you deeper into delusion. This is why they say that Vajrayana and Dzogchen should only be undertaken with a qualitied teacher who can make sure that the student doesn’t misunderstand the subtle teachings. But it also applies to any level of spiritual study and practice.

In Rigpa, we enthusiastically lapped up our Dzogchen teachings, never for a moment thinking that we might fall into the kinds of misunderstandings that increase our delusion, rather than freeing us from it. We were brainwashed into believing that we had a great master who was teaching authentic Dzogchen. Given our knowledge now of the man behind the teacher, however, of someone who, along with his most devoted students, thought his actions were not subject to the law of cause and effect of the material plane, it appears that he didn’t understand the teachings on the indivisibility of relative and absolute truth. No matter who you are, if you’re a physical being and you hit another physical being hard, it hurts them and results in blood and bruises. Apart from this being made clear in the teachings on dependent arising, it’s just common sense.

Genuine understanding or vague concepts?

Despite what you may believe or may have been told by those who haven’t really studied the teachings, there is no enlightened plane separate to the physical world, and no inner spiritual world that we can enter to find out what is happening in our external world. That knowledge comes from our outer senses and intelligence backed up by facts presented from reliable integrous sources. Inner examination might show the vastness of inner space and even the way the outer world exists, but it doesn’t show what’s happening ‘behind the scenes’ in the physical world, and it doesn’t change what is actually real to suit our beliefs. If we believe that what we ‘know’ about the outer world from our intuition or ‘inner guidance’ is the same as what is actually true in the external world, we’ve misunderstood the meaning of the word ‘truth’ in relation to what we find by looking at our own awareness.

The Buddha made the relationship between the outer and inner spheres of our experience and perception quite clear when he said, ‘Form is emptiness; emptiness is form; form is no other than emptiness; emptiness is no other than form.’ Sogyal said that often, as did we all, but how many of us truly understand its meaning or honestly admit that we don’t really get it and look into it further? How many of us studied beyond Rigpa’s curriculum—which was lightweight in terms of Madyamika—enough to understand dependent arising? Without those teachings we are unlikely to fully understand this statement on emptiness from the Buddha. If we didn’t see the full profundity of this, along with other often-repeated phrases, then they were little more than cult slogans.

Even with the Four Reliances there is opportunity for misunderstanding

Luckily for us, Nyushul Khenpo, who presumably saw the danger inherent in a teacher with many students and no formal training, undertook to give him that training, and Sogyal did follow his words—and those of other respected teachers—precisely. So if we followed the words of the dharma rather than the teacher, we did receive authentic Dzogchen teachings, especially if we fully followed what’s known as the Four Reliances.

1. Rely on the message of the teacher, not on his personality;

2. Rely on the meaning, not just on the words;

3. Rely on the real meaning, not on the provisional one;

4. Rely on your wisdom mind, not on your ordinary, judgemental mind.

The Buddha, in the Sutra of the Teaching of Akshayamati and the Sutra of the Questions of the Naga King Anavatapta.

Even so, there is still much opportunity for misunderstanding. How, for instance, are we to know the real meaning, let alone the difference between our wisdom mind and our ordinary, judgemental mind? Did we seek other teachers and other texts to give us the real meaning? Did we examine the meaning in light of our meditation experience? And did we really use our wisdom mind—which is free of all concepts and has a direct experiential understanding of the meaning of emptiness and its relationship to the physical world—or some vague state still within the realm of concepts and assumptions? Did we mistake intuition for true wisdom? Whether we did or not, I think, would depend on the quality, amount, and consistency of our study and practice. Rigpa’s basic curriculum may have been light weight in some areas, but their lists of quality books to use as resources for each module of study were comprehensive. There was no reason why those with the time and inclination for study and practice could not have understood the true meaning.

Unfortunately, however, those closest to Sogyal, who worked incredibly hard, had the least amount of time for study and practice, even if they had the inclination. And Sogyal taught some very subtle teachings to casual students uninclined towards intensive study who lacked the grounding from which to fully understand them. These he taught in retreats where he’d created the atmosphere of a group trance state, and the danger was that people went away thinking they had understood because they confused a pleasant trance experience with genuine understanding or experience. Such assumptions solidify delusion.

Generosity or greed?

The potential for misunderstanding is the reason why these teachings were supposed to be taught to no more than three students at a time, and why those students were supposed to be only those who were ready for them, those who had done the pre-requisite study and practice. Sogyal, however, boasted at his generosity in making them available to everyone. I’m not complaining, since I benefited greatly from those teachings, but I see now that it was not generosity, but rather greed that led him to be so free with the teachings. Offer something special and the pundits come in droves with open wallets! In this he was no different to the new age gurus he so despised. He certainly had little ability to correct misunderstandings or to go into great depth. I’m fully aware that I learned the definitive details from books, not from Sogyal. He was good at inspiring people and essentialising the teachings—something I appreciated—but essentialisation does not impart the full meaning; it summarises. And if you haven’t studied what is summarised, you could easily come away from such a teaching with assumptions that are incorrect.

Why is this potential lack of understanding an issue? Because having only a vague understanding of key spiritual ideas opens us to falling deeper into delusion, not just on a personal spiritual level, but also on a worldly level.

How can wanting to ‘wake up to your true self’ lead you deeper into delusion?

Misunderstanding ‘spiritual’ ideas or ‘lightweight spirituality’–picking just the bits that appeal and not giving ideas any kind of rigorous investigation—can lead not only to deepening personal delusion but also to worldly delusion because conspiracy theorists share some of the same kinds of ‘sloganisable’ beliefs. By sloganisable beliefs I mean easily sharable stock phrases that sound right to ‘spiritual’ people but about which they may have erroneous assumptions or incomplete understanding. When reduced to slogans, the very beliefs you subscribe to because they are what you ‘feel’ to be true in light of your path to wake up to your true self are used to hook you into the delusion of conspiracy theories. In the cause of waking people up to the conspiracy theories in which they believe, they are spouted equally by narcissistic New Age and wellness gurus / influencers and the white supremacists, anarchists and far right Christians that spread conspiracy theories.

For instance, ‘Don’t let yourself be ruled by fear.’ Sounds fair enough. Sounds like something we heard often in Rigpa, too. Remember Sogyal’s oft repeated slogan ‘all fear arises from an untamed mind’? That suggests that we can, and should, get rid of fear by ‘working with our mind’ which in Rigpa essentially meant ignoring one’s thoughts and emotions—never giving any credence to the fact that acknowledging the validity of our fear could save our life.

‘Don’t let yourself be ruled by fear’ is also, according to the Conspirituality website page on the language used by conspiritualists, ‘a stock phrase used [by conspiracy theorists] to denigrate anyone who, in the time of COVID, abides by public health directives. The term implies that the virus is not real, but rather a constructed social control effort. Meshes well with victim-blaming language that suggests fear itself is a degraded or immature state.’

Note that last sentence. Isn’t that exactly how it was used in Rigpa?

See the danger now?

See how easily someone could hook you with that slogan because we’re familiar with it from Rigpa where it was also used as a method of denigration for and dismissal of valid concerns?

Do you believe that your personal transformation/enlightenment is part of a coming fundamental transformation of society, after which ‘all things will be changed’? Millenarianism—defined as a religious, social, or political group or movement that believes this—is part of the con-spirituality mind set. Your desire to see a better world where everyone has woken up to their true nature can easily be the way you inadvertently share a slogan with links back to a bunch of conspiracy theorists for whom the great awakening means waking up to the truth of the Q-drops, and also to ‘the storm, or the wave of mass arrests that will finally awaken the nation to the reality of the Cabal.’  Once you’ve shared something that, even if it seems innocuous on the surface, was posted by a conspiracy theorist you’re a target for recruiters who know exactly how to hook you. Be careful or your desire to see society wake up might become the hook that draws you into another cult, because make no mistake about it, the groups that spread conspiracy theories are cults, dangerous ones too.

Look what happened in Washington on the 6th January 2021.

Where do you find truth?

New Age, wellness and other modern ‘spiritual’ communities where many have fallen prey to conspiracy theories put great stock in following one’s own intuition or inner wisdom, not only to guide you in life but also as a method for ascertaining ‘truth’. I agree that we need to follow our inner wisdom to find our essential nature, but my understanding of ‘inner wisdom’ or ‘finding the truth within’ doesn’t preclude me from using my critical thinking faculties. Nor do I confuse ‘finding the truth within’ with finding the truth of what has actually happened or not happened in the outer world – which is what those who have fallen into conspiracy theories have done. They think something is true because it ‘feels’ true or because they believe it is true.

Again, look at all those who believe Trump won the 2020 US election? It doesn’t matter what evidence you try to give them to prove that Biden won. They’ll just tell you that they ‘know’ Trump won.

If you don’t know how to differentiate between your ego mind and your wisdom mind (the mind that recognises emptiness), then following the idea that we should turn to our wisdom mind in order to find the ‘truth’ could be dangerous. Whether we’re following our ego—undoubtedly cloaked in its wise form on order to fool us—or our wisdom mind, we’d better have a healthy dose of common sense and respect for external truth as validated by actual evidence in the real world. Without it, we could easily fall prey to those who push conspiracy theories.

Non-rational forms of knowing, such as dreams, intuitions, inspiration and mystical experiences have their place, of course. They can be important sources of wisdom and healing. Many great scientific discoveries and cultural creations have come from ecstatic inspiration, from Newton’s discovery of gravity to Milton’s Paradise Lost. However, it’s crucial to balance our capacity for ecstatic / magical / mythical thinking with the capacity for critical thinking.

Too much left brain thinking without any ecstasy, and you end up with a rather dry and uninspiring worldview. Too much ecstasy without critical thinking, and you may be prone to unhealthy delusions, which you then spread, harming others. You may be so sure you’re right, so hyped in your heroic crusade, you may block things that are really helpful and spread things that are really harmful.

Most of us in this post-Buddhist cult community are good people. I’m sure that none of us want to ‘spread things that are really harmful’. So if we do it by accident—and that’s easy to do if we don’t take the time to check the source and critically evaluate what we read—then we can always simply admit our mistake. We’ll all learn by hearing your story.

What experience have you had with conspiracy theories? Do you know or have you been approached by anyone pedalling conspiracy theories? How did they try to hook you?

Image by Nicky • 👉 PLEASE STAY SAFE 👈 from Pixabay

My next post will look at other ways we might be vulnerable not only to conspiracy theorists but also to the narcissistic wellness gurus and influencers who will happily hook us into their brand of spiritual in order to sell you their wares.