Last week I drove to Sedona, in Arizona, to find out how conspirituality has affected the New Age capital of the United States.
Why did this little town of 10,000 people become such a New Age Mecca? It’s in a gorgeous location, hidden away beneath giant red-rock sandstone protrusions, like alien vessels from an ancient civilization.
And it was also the place where, in 1984, a local psychic called Page Bryant came to the conclusion that Sedona was the site of an ‘energy vortex’, or in fact several vortices, emerging from or going into the Earth. This vortex made Sedona a particularly powerful site for spiritual activity, she said.
Word spread through the New Age network — ‘it’s all happening in Sedona!’ — and now you can’t throw a crystal without hitting a psychic healer, or medium, or spiritual retreat. Page then moved to Asheville, where she discovered another energy vortex, prompting a similar transformation of the town. She sounds like the spiritual version of Rockefeller, striking New Age oil wherever she went.
New Age spirituality is now the dominant religion in Sedona. Walk around and you constantly hear snippets of conversation like ‘you need to step into your power’. I went into one gorgeous little cafe, with a garden full of butterflies and flow-boys, and asked for a coffee. It wasn’t just any coffee, a waitress told me, eyes closed in reverence, it was ‘the Mother of Coffees’, made from indigenous beans, or something.
It is a pretty adorable place, all in all. But some dark spiritual elements also waft into the whirlwind of woo. I phoned Be Scofield, the guru-hunter, to brief me about the place beforehand. She laid out some of the more ‘conspiritual’ elements of Sedona that she has been tracking and exposing for the last few years.
Be was called to visit Sedona in 2017, on her birthday. In fact, her astrologer told her to go there for her solar return. She wasn’t sure why, but when she arrived, she kept meeting acolytes of a young tech-bro spiritual guru called Bentinho Massaro, who was running a retreat in Sedona.
The more acolytes Be met, the more she felt this sounded like a cult. So she decided her mission was to infiltrate the organization and find out what it was like. Her internet marketing skills were very attractive to a tech-based organisation like Bentinho’s, and he accepted her into his inner circle. From there, she observed some of his methods — he claimed to have a divine awakening, to be able to move mountains and alter the weather, his followers insisted his spiritual consciousness was at a higher level than Jesus, that he was in fact God. And if anyone questioned him, he turned on them. His followers were in a trance-like state of submissiveness through food and sleep deprivation — some were fasting for 100 days. Be suggested than Bentinho brought a Silicon Valley start-up-style experimentation to the organisation — test new techniques for persuasion and coercion on a small group before rolling it out to his online empire.
Be wrote a Medium article outlining her concerns and exposing the cult-like aspects of Bentinho’s organisation, which went viral. A few days later, one of his followers leapt to his death from a bridge in Sedona. Bentinho fled the town. Be followed this up with other cult exposes. She provided in-depth coverage of the Love Has Won cult in Crestone, whose leader, Amy Carlson, was discovered dead, eyeless and wrapped in Christmas lights earlier this year — her followers apparently expected her to return from the dead.
Read this article by Be, which explores how a man nearly died after he was radicalized by watching Love Has Won videos during the pandemic, prompting him to leave his job and family and move to Crestone to join the cult. There, he was told he needed to conquer demonic forces within him. He wandered off into the desert and nearly died. It’s a fascinating story of how cults now operate online, and how they can indoctrinate people hundreds of miles away — the Jihadi murderer of British MP David Amess also seems to have become ‘self-radicalized’ by watching online videos. As Matthew Remski has put it, we’re in a golden age for charismatic online influencers. On the other hand, we’re also in a golden age for online debunking of spiritual bullshit, thanks to the work of people like Be and the Conspirituality podcast.
Be and I discussed how the last few years of spiritual mayhem have changed our attitudes to spirituality. Has her work made her disenchanted and cynical? Like me, Be is a friend of the hosts of the Conspirituality podcast, and has collaborated with one of its hosts, Matthew Remski, on a collection of essays on yoga and social justice. But, like me, she feels slightly more open to ‘the spiritual’ than the Conspirituality hosts. We’re both trying to tread a fine line between enchantment and disenchantment.
She still has a spiritual, supernatural frame — she sees her work as a spiritual vocation, identifying the dark forces within our culture and ‘slaying the demons’, so to speak. She still uses her intuition to guide her work, feeling herself drawn to places for each new expose. It reminds me of an 80s TV show, like The A-Team or Highway to Heaven — she turns up in a town and discovers the next mission. But at the same time, she balances her intuition with critical thinking and advanced investigative techniques. Her work can’t be just intuition — she needs hard facts, otherwise she is exposing herself to legal risk.
That’s an interesting balancing act that I’m trying to work out — how to combine spiritual intuition and critical thinking.
In Sedona, I met a spiritual teacher called Peter Cutler. I was introduced to him by Rick Archer, host of the podcast ‘Buddha at the Gas Pump’ — Rick and I have had several discussions on just this question, of how to balance ecstasy and critical thinking.
Peter was a successful advertising executive living in Boston, twice married, with five children. He also had a mystical side, ever since he grew up in a broken home run by violent alcoholic parents. Alongside his flourishing business, he felt drawn to the spiritual path, and for a while followed the teachings of Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
In his 50s, Peter was diagnosed with cancer. The doctor told him if he didn’t have an operation, he had about five years left to live. He felt a strong inner voice telling him not to have the operation, that it was his time. But his family insisted he was being silly, and their more sensible voices prevailed. He had the operation and survived, but was plunged into a five-year spiritual crisis. He felt he had lost his soul, by disobeying the inner voice.
But then, he had a profound awakening. He began to have past life regressions — he experienced himself as having previously been a Native American shaman in Sedona, which inspired his move there. He also experienced his last existence, as a healing spirit guide in ‘the formless realm’. Living in the formless realm, he said, was an existence of pure bliss. Why didn’t he stay there? Why be incarnated into this human realm with all its troubles?
He realized that the problem with being a formless spirit guide is it’s difficult to communicate with humans in order to help them. You don’t have a body or words at your disposal, just you have to try and communicate through feelings or intuitions, which humans are rarely open to. That’s why he chose to incarnate, he said — it’s a whole lot easier to communicate and help others when you have a body.
Now, he feels he has experienced an awakening which takes him beyond his ordinary ego, beyond ‘Peter’. He is both ‘Peter’ and this other unconditioned ego-less state, to which we all have access if we just learn to let go and surrender to God. His wife (now ex-wife) and daughter worried that he had gone crazy. ‘Maybe’, he replied. ‘But at least I’m happy.’
Peter told me this story while we clambered over rocks beneath Thunder Mountain. Now, usually this sort of talk would have my cult radar bleeping off the scale. I’ve met three people in my life who claimed to be ‘awakened’, and am always pretty dubious of such claims. It usually sounds like a Bentinho-type hustle to me.
What reassured me somewhat about ‘Peter’ is how guileless he is. He doesn’t have a big online platform — he posts videos on his site and on Facebook about awakening, which get a handful of likes. He says he once tried to use his old marketing skills to attract people to an event, and ‘nobody turned up’. He seems at peace with simply surrendering to his inner sense of God, teaching to whoever wants to listen, and offering healings. There does not seem a strong drive for worldly success, power or control. He seems a pretty chilled 72-year-old man, albeit one who has had an unusual experience and now has an unusual perspective on reality.
In addition, he is embedded in a community. He lives with a friend — Swami Steve, another ex-Boston mystic — and his son Noah is staying with him at the moment. Noah says: ‘My Dad is an interesting person, because he’s both his personality and…something else.’ He’s well known in the small Sedona community too, and seems liked and respected (Bentino, by contrast, was more or less chased out of town).
So is he genuinely ‘awakened’? I don’t know. Is it possible he is somewhat awakened, that he has had a taste of a genuine experience beyond the ordinary ego? That experience seems to have been ‘bad’ for his career, in a way — a worldly careerist would say he left a successful life to become a mystic fool. But a happy fool. I liked his ideas about learning to let go and surrender to God — something I definitely need to practice as I wander in the middle of my life, fretting about the future.
We discussed ‘conspirituality’ a bit. He says that several of his friends in Sedona got sucked into the Qanon conspiracy. ‘Two friends who were really into the whole love thing got really into Qanon. I was surprised…the whole trip seemed more about fear than love. But they seem to have come through it somewhat. I’m hoping the Qanon thing is blowing over.’ His housemate Swami Steve, also in his 70s, says: ‘I’m old enough to have seen many fads come and go in spirituality. This too will pass.’
Now, there are some aspects of Steve and Peter’s teachings I am not into, and that I would even say are indicative of problems in spiritual culture. Steve was a devotee of Osho, while Peter is a big fan of Mooji — both of them have been called dodgy gurus (see Be’s work on Mooji, for example). Peter is also deeply suspicious of modern western medicine. He hasn’t been vaccinated, and has got COVID twice. I personally think getting vaccinated against COVID is a no-brainer for yourself and for the benefit of others.
A person can have a genuine spiritual awakening, and have interesting things to tell others about how to achieve that awakening. But that person may not know everything about everything. I wouldn’t put that person in charge of a public health campaign. To them, everything is perfect, everything is beautiful, everything is just as it should be. You don’t need medicine or other modern technologies — just trust in God and spiritual healing. Yes…to an extent.
It’s like the tension between the famous Indian mystic Ramakrishna and his student, Vivekananda. Ramakrishna had a profound mystical awakening, and sat in complete blissful union with what he experienced as the Divine. Everything was perfect. His student Vivekananda shared to some extent in this mystical experience. But he also — perhaps galvanised by the invasion of reforming Christian missionaries into India — worked to set up schools and hospitals, to try and make the material world a better place. Why bother, Ramakrishna may have said. Everything is already perfect.
In fact, Peter seems to be facing this conundrum in his own life. He spoke a lot about the challenges that Sedona is now facing. Like many other picturesque towns in America, it has become infested with a plague of AirBnBs, which are driving up property prices to crazy levels and making it impossible for the locals to live there. Workers in the local health food stores are having to sleep in their cars in ‘Angel Valley’, then drive into town to do their jobs (the same ‘Angel Valley’ where a participant died in a sweat lodge retreat run by James Ray, by the by).
The tourists are turning Sedona into a Disneyland, Peter said. You can make a fortune renting them ATVs — they may damage the desert and harm the ecosystem but so what? It’s quick money. And the local council is happy to defend the interests of big money, rather than the interests of Sedona’s inhabitants. Never mind the energy vortex — Sedona has been sucked into the vortex of late capitalism.
He is wondering what to do about it and has been trying to persuade friends to run for local government. None of them want to do it. He wonders if he will have to run for the local council himself. ‘I’m a 72-year-old Zen monk, I don’t want to do it. But if no one else will, maybe I have to.’
That’s what the spiritual life is like in this world. Full of dilemmas, paradoxes and messy compromises. Good intentions, and unexpected consequences. Beautiful experiences, fallible people, and the occasional psychopath.
And in that life, you may meet teachers who can offer you genuinely helpful advice. But that doesn’t mean they know everything about everything. We can appreciate their wisdom in one domain of existence, while disagreeing with them about other matters.
Maybe that is one clue to this question of how to balance critical discernment with mystical surrender.