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.


The Tenth Picture

A lot of spiritual experiences give you a high. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but too often the sign gets mistaken for the destination

I’m not only talking the high from drugs some people take for spiritual or faux-spiritual reasons. It’s obvious that appropriately used substances, employed by informed people under proper tutelage, can lead to deep spiritual insights. It’s also obvious you can have such deep experiences from breathing, visualization, energy work, etc. These are deep, strange, powerful and also can get you high as hell for that moment.

And that high is not necessarily a bad thing. That is a sign that you’ve gotten something going on. You feel that high of your body relaxing in Quigong, the self-yet-not moment of cyclical breathing, or the psychedelic top-of-your-head-blows off of a drug or visualization trip. Something happened, and you have a powerful experience and often see and feel life differently.

However, I think a lot of people see the high as the goal. They want the sign of enlightenment, of achievement, of spiritual fulfillment – and to them that’s the rush of the therapeutic relaxation or some stunning vision. They want to own it by owning an experience.

I think this is why we see so many people falling under the spells of gurus, grifters, endless substance experiments, and shifting trends. They’re chasing the high or looking for a new one so they can once again “hold” that sense of spiritual enlightenment. But it’s just a senstion.

Spiritual highs are just roadsigns you’re onto something (and, in some cases, just on something even if it’s your own neurotransmitters). Something in your head and personality just shifted, got blown apart, or made connections. But the question is what you do next.

Plenty of seekers’ next step should be to ask if they just deluded themselves. But for many they had some authentic insight and that’s a chance to grow, not just find a new way to get high again.

What did you learn? How can you apply it? Does it help you understand yourself, others, and your teachers better. Where does the spiritual experience send you next? I mean even if you go to conventional therapy, good job, you learned something.

Spiritual experience should help you grow, not become a junkie.

I’m reminded of the famous Ten Ox-Herding pictures of Zen. They’re a lovely metaphor for meditation and spiritual practice based around seeking and taming a recalcitrant bovine. Eventually the trainer – the seeker – returns to society after many insights, helping others. He doesn’t leave the world or stay in his seeking, but returns a better person.

If your spiritual highs don’t help you become better, if they don’t someday lead you back to the bustling marketplace and busy town, then pause and take stock of yourself.


The Map Is The Mirage

Earlier I commented on how my own meditative work was slowed when I focused less on doing it and more on reaching milestones.  When I focused on milestones, I got frustrated or risked taking shortcuts.  When you have a map, you can forget the importance of the journey – and no matter what you still have to make the journey.

This was part of a realization of why many esoteric documents may resort to obscurity and symbolism.  Too much of a map, and you end up inviting frustration and confusion.  However, I want to share another realization from my “contemplation of maps” – that detailed “mystical maps” also invite self delusion.

One of my interests is keeping an eye on spiritual grifters (indeed, it comprises a surprising part of my podcast listening).  As I follow the grifters I also wonder about the followers.  These followers will report spiritual experiences, alien incarnations, but heir descriptions were filled with jargon, repeated conspiracy theories, and so on.  They seem quite sincere, but their experiences often seemed to be, well, a little too imagined.

I’m sure we’ve all had times in meditation or magic where we realized “I am deluding myself,” of course.  Remember when you had expectations and later realized you’d made some of it up?  When you map out experiences you can make yourself believe you’re experiencing them.

I think some people taken in by spiritual grifters imagine these experiences as the grifter gives them a map.  Do this meditation to awaken your starseed self, be it Blue Avian or Pleadean!  Do these meditations and you’ll experience Angel communication!  Tell people their needs are met by “doing x to get y,” throw in some social pressure, and people will imagine all sorts of things.

Plus the grifters get to sell books, amulets, talks, get internet exposure, and so on.  If it goes stale, just make up some new grift and do it all over again.  Some people selling spiritual ephemera go through multiple entire belief systems.

Thus we can see another reason for use of symbolism or a little obscurity in mystical documents.  Not providing too much of a map lowers the chance people will delude themselves.  I imagine finding the right balance is a challenge, and makes me appreciate the many monks, magicians, and philosophers who found it.

As a closing note, as stated earlier, I believe mystic practices are fundamentally liberating and should be shared far and wide.  I’m just realizing it’s good to require some work, skepticism, and analysis of those you’re trying to reach.

– Xenofact