Grifts, Spiritual Grifts, and Widespread BS

Recently I discovered the delightful videocaster Tom Nicholas. A charming man who covers economics, politics, and culture, he has a witty but laid-back style that helps him cover some pretty serious subjects. My introduction to his work was a YouTube episode on why everything is so grifty these days, which I recommend seeing. Well, after you finish reading this.

It’s hard to sum up, but the short form is work and the economy aren’t so hot, business gurus sold advice on how to make money (while their business was guruhood), and eventually you end up with grifts everywhere. I’m not doing it justice, but, you get the idea – looking to have grifts is sort of normalized now.

While rewatching this episode because I’m some kind of masochist, I began wondering what this meant for the spiritual grifts that I often analyze. Which is where this column comes from, so here’s my thoughts.

Spiritual grifts have always been with humanity as long as there have been humans. It doesn’t take much historical reading to find such things, from failed cults to faked miracles. But there’s something about today’s spiritual grifts where they seem to be varied, ominpresent, and a lot of people are in on them.

Which seems sort of weird. Are there this many chosen ones, like can someone choose among the chosen ones to narrow it down? Why can’t all the messages from the Space Brothers, you know, line up? How come the Ascended Masters only now care about vaccination? I mean, how did we get here?

When I stepped back thanks to Mr. Nicholas, the answer seemed depressingly obvious.

First, grifts always take advantage of existing technology. The printing press changed every country that created it or adopted it – and also meant people could more easily print and spread bullshit. History is replete with opportunity pamphleteers and scam artists and people who lied fast and wrote just as fast on spiritual “issues.” The internet just makes it faster than we were used to a few decades ago – and easier to start a spiritual grift.

Secondly, many of us exist in a culture that contains what I might call “Capitalist Idolatry.” We are told to make money all the time, to turn everything to a profit, to look for the next thing. We’ve had years of business gurus pitching side hustles and passive income. We’ve internalized this, and for many people this seems to be instinctual.

Third, the economy hasn’t gone great for a lot of people. How many layoffs, restructurings, firings, our recessions have you been through? How many people lost their economic progress, or never even got a chance to start any progress? People have been let down by the economy, and they’re looking to make money, and that culture of hustle is there waiting to tell us we can do it – and beat the system!

Fourth, American culture has normalized the spiritual grift. We have the so-called mainstream Christian grift, a historical lineage of tent revivalists, pass-the-plate evangelists, megachurches, and of course the televangelists and their empires. If people aren’t interested in that – or are rebelling against it – you can provide “alternative” spirituality and get your own grift going by doing something different while keeping the same old moneymaking routines.

Fifth, spiritual grift doesn’t require you to make anything unusual. Sure you can sell crystals and whatever, but it’s really easy to sell content which you can just make up and spew into the format of your choice. If you do want to sell merch you can get things manufactured or slap your brand name on some pre-made herbal medication or whatever. But for the most part, spiritual grift is no different than the various life coach and business guru scams.

Toss all that together and of course we’re awash in Spiritual grifts. They’be been around for awhile, we exist in a grifty culture, and the internet turned it up to eleven. When someone is flooded with TikTok, YouTube, and Podcast gurus, they might get ideas. They might even have some authentic spiritual insights, but that’s a seed for something neither spiritual or insightful.

What we face today in the world of spiritual grift is something more widespread and faster-moving than grifts of say a century ago. But nothing is actually unusual – we’ve all seen it before, throughout history and throughout our lives.


Building The Ecosystem

When I returned to my spiritual practices after a too-long break, I found it was hard to put things in their proper “place.” I’d be interrupted in my practice, distracted, and interrupted by things that were irrelevant. Nothing like deciding to get back to really deep spiritual activity then getting incredibly pissed about things like getting your chore schedule in order.

Reflecting on past experiences and interests, I came to the realization that a lot of spiritual practices (theistic, non-theistic, humorous, etc.) involve a mental ecosystem. Meditations, magic, correspondences, and so on align with your job, ethics, and perhaps even furniture placement (hello feng shui?). Your spiritual work of whatever kind really makes progress when your life ties together.

In my own work, which is informed by a mix of Taoism and syncretic practices, I took the following activities:

  • I read a few passages from one of my copies of the Tao Te Ching each night. The TTC is a philosophical document, and it led me to think about my life and my activities.
  • I read about one of the Hexagrams of the I Ching each night from some of the books in my library. The I Ching is deeply tied to many Chinese philosophies, and many commentaries and interpretations add even more thought. It’s mix of the cosmic and the human help me think bigger.
  • I continue my usual devotional/religious work around chosen gods, but think about how I embody them and why they matter to me. Where do I fit into the big picture and all these organic processes?
  • I ask questions about my media consumption and relaxation. Ironically it seems the answer is “I probably need more.”

In about a month I’ve found my viewpoints changing. My spiritual activities aren’t alien to my life or vice versa, but the two are more connected. I’m getting a “bigger picture” sense of what I’m doing. It’s also nothing self-aggrandizing, it’s more everyday things like how I lead at work or what I eat (chocolate,pizza, burritos – the signs I’m stressed).

And it’s all some reading, contemplation, and regular activities that help tie my life together into the bigger picture. It’s honestly nothing special, it’s probably something most anyone does to one extent or another. It’s just conscious on my part, with my fascination of using myself as a kind of laboratory.

I’ll doubtlessly write more on this. But if you’re finding your spiritual work and life don’t line up, consider how you can align yourself a little more. Some reading, regular thought about issues, some schedules, might help you connect the dots.

Nothing major here. Just a few observations from someone else on the path.


I Trust The Clowns

In the realm of mystics and philosophy I often hear talk about outrageous behavior by (supposedly) wise and enlightened people. You’ve probably heard stories about figures that ignore and act against social norms, at times outrageously, despite their supposed spiritual nature. In many cases, such strange or even abusive behavior is supposedly a lesson from someone more enlightened than the person their being strange or abusive to.

I usually hear this called “Crazy Wisdom,” that I think entered the American spiritual lexicon via Buddhist practitioner Chögyam Trungpa. Trungpa also has a documented history of rape, abuse, and other allegations so I rightfully figure I have no reason to listen to the bastard.

And why should I trust someone claiming they are “enlightened” and thus “beyond it all” so “they can teach me?” If they’re going to be cruel and abusive, it’s far easier to just assume they’re an asshole and save yourself the trouble. If you’ve got great cosmic wisdom to share and then give me every reason to call the authorities, then you don’t have anything to teach me.

“Crazy Wisdom” certainly sounds like an excuse to abuse people.

So nope, I don’t trust Crazy Wisdom I’m-So-Enlightened types. Know who I do trust spiritually? Clowns.

Give me people who can make fun of themselves and the human condition. Give me people who wittily point out the problems in the world, the obvious solutions, and the sadly hilarious gaps between them. Give me someone who makes me laugh at them and myself, often for the same reasons. Let me laugh at you and with you.

Best of all, we can all be Clowns – we can be stupid, silly, wacky, and poke fun at everything including ourselves. When a person of spiritual wisdom is a clown, they’re right there with me, being foolish alongside me. I can relate to them – sometimes by accident.

I don’t trust Crazy Wisdom. I trust someone who I can laugh with. They can teach me something with a trustworthy foolishness.