The Master’s Manipulation: How to Spot a Fraud and Protect Yourself from Spiritual Brainwashing

Ah, the wise master. The Yoda to Lucas’ Skywalker. The Mr. Miyagi to young Daniel Larusso. The Shiyu to Po the Panda. And now, thanks to the painfully addictive new Netflix docuseries Wild, Wild Country, the Baghwan to the infinitely disturbed Sheela. He — and yes, it is almost always a “he”— is the guiding light, the one with all of the answers, and he alone can guide us along our own personal journey toward enlightenment, success, and power.  

In the movies, the master is all-knowing, existing on another plain from us mere mortals. He simultaneously feels accessible and out of reach, a humble servant yet equally regal and divine. Of course, like so many idealistic visions, there is an ugly side to this Hollywood trope, a darker reality that is often lurking just beneath the surface. When searching for a real-life master, the seeker, vulnerable in her quest for understanding, can easily fall into traps centuries in the making.  

And search for him, we do. Even the most cynical of us will inevitably look to someone we feel we can trust, someone who can show us the way. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking guidance, especially in such an overwhelming and confusing world. The trouble comes when we look in the wrong places and put our trust in those who should not be trusted.

The pitfalls of misguided devotion are all too clear in Wild, Wild Country, in which we learn the story of an Indian Guru, the Bhagwan, and his followers, the Rashneeshees, who set up shop in America in the 1980’s looking to create a utopia on earth in the untamed hills of Oregon. It is an idealistic notion, this utopia, but it doesn’t take long to see the cracks in the facade. Because it is a facade, all of it. Of course it is. The man sitting on his literal throne, preaching his message to an entranced crowd of devotees, reeks of hypocrisy, narcissism, and the unbridled hunger for power. Those closest to him, the women ensnared within his web of manipulation, are the victims of this hunger, often to the detriment of their sanity and, ultimately, their freedom.

The question, then, emerges: How do we actuallly protect ourselves from a master’s manipulation? What are the warning signs of a guru gone wrong? Lucky for us, the signals are there from the beginning, and they are plentiful. Here’s what to be on the lookout for:

1) Followers extrapolate on the power of the master’s “presence”.

What does this even mean? He has a sparkle in his eye? An unnamed calmness? A magical serenity? Keep in mind, “presence” can easily be conjured for a desired effect. Con men have been using charm and charisma to get what they want for centuries. This is not to say that someone can’t emit a feeling of genuine peace and joy that is palpable, but this shouldn’t be touted as the #1 reason for blindly following someone to the edge of the earth and back.

2) Followers are entranced by the master in an unreasonable manner.

What do we mean by “unreasonable?” Well, if said master enters a room and everyone a) breaks into song or chant, b) falls to the floor in beguiled reverence, c) begins weeping/screaming/heaving a la a Beatles performance circa 1964, or d) some combination of the above, be wary. Be very wary. Focused attention and admiration is reasonable. Emotional upheaval at the mere sight of a person? Unreasonable.

3) Enlightenment… for a price

Repeat after me: “Spirituality isn’t expensive. Enlightenment doesn’t come at a price. Anyone who says otherwise is just after my money.” Seems pretty simple, right? And yet. Somehow, smart, intelligent, able-minded people get suckered into spending away mountains of money in the name of some exalted “awakening” that only this one person/program/organization can provide. Ploys can take many forms, including but not limited to:

  • Tiered workshops, classes, and retreats that often require mastery of one “level” in order to pass to the next. Scientology has mastered this technique to renown, but others have cultivated their own unique versions.
  • Endless merchandising, from specialized “uniforms” to printed coffee mugs
  • Pressure to buy in “for your own good.” Never, ever let someone else determine what is best for you. Trust yourself, and trust in your own ability to make decisions. If anyone tells you otherwise, question their motives. It’s likely they have something to gain.
  • Financial investment is equated with spiritual devotion. Nope. Just walk away.

The temptation to cash in on spiritual growth is a time-honored tradition, and one that many have cultivated to their own advantage.  Spiritual leaders can often fall culprit, as can many in the self-help field. (Anthony Robbins and Landmark Forum are two particularly egregious examples that come to mind.) In either arena, when in doubt, ask yourself the following: who stands to benefit from my participation? What ulterior motives might be lurking beneath the surface?


4) Emphasis on being “open-minded”

Do you feel pressure to “break down walls” or accept behavior that you otherwise wouldn’t? Do you feel uncomfortable with what you are being asked to say or do? In the grand scheme of things, yes, open-mindedness can be a value worth developing and expanding one’s comfort zone can be beneficial, but these traits shouldn’t be touted as the supreme characteristic of a devotee, and your lack of willingness to compromise your own pre-established values shouldn’t be seen as a negative or an inhibitor to personal growth. It could just be that this particular path isn’t the right one for you, and that’s okay.

5) An Us vs. Them mentality

“We” are wiser/smarter/more present/awakened. “They” are stupid/ignorant/asleep/somehow lesser. “They” cannot be trusted and do not/will not understand.

Ultimately, this leads to an isolationist mindset, which is one of the most dangerous characteristics of any spiritual community and one of the defining characteristics of a cult. Get Out Now.

6) Shaming tactics

How do those in the group handle dissenting opinions? How do they treat people who leave or want to learn about other methods, other disciplines? One person’s spiritual journey may not be right for someone else, a fact that any true spiritual master should understand without judgement or punishment. If, on the other hand, curiosity, exploration, and argumentation is discouraged or portrayed as a lack of devotion, something is probably wrong.

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7) If the message feels too good to be true, it probably is.

Indulge in temptation! Free yourself from judgement! Do what you want, when you want, and don’t worry about the consequences!  Woohooo!!!

Ummm… no. If it were that easy, we would all be floating high on the cloud of enlightenment. Just because something feels good in the moment doesn’t mean it is right. Use your judgement, and watch out for anyone who tells you to completely throw your moral compass out the window.

8) Spiritual growth takes effort, self-reflection, and TIME.

There is no magic formula or secret sauce. No five-step plan will immediately transform you into a perfect person in five days. One weekend in the desert will not magically heal all of your pain and turn you into the Dalai Lama. Anyone who tells you otherwise is delusional at best, lying at worst. Think of it this way: that diet pill may help you lose weight fast, but will it really make you healthier? Probably not. In fact, it may have the opposite effect. Well, spiritual gimmicks are the same, as are the masters shelling them out. Such get-awakened-quick promises are marketing ploys. Nothing more. True spiritual growth is both simple in its methodology and slow in its implementation. Ain’t nothin’ quick about it.

Inevitably, these warning signs all circle back to one central principle: keep your critical thinking cap on, especially when the draw of devotion pulls you near. Hold onto that cap for dear life, and be vigilant, be cautious, and always be questioning. Not every Master Manipulator will look like an Indian guru or African shaman. Some disguise themselves as penniless artists or successful businessmen. No matter their appearance or tactics, the red flags will be ever present, if only you know where to look.


Photo by Robin Benad on Unsplash

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