How to stay far, far away from spiritual charlatans, scam-artists and New Age bullshitters
“Keep the company of those who seek the truth, and run from those who have found it.”
– Vaclav Havel
When it comes to navigating the world of spirituality, wading through all the conflicting teachings and willful obfuscation can be frustrating and off-putting. There are many noble traditions that offer useful tools to the earnest seeker—but unfortunately, charlatans and spiritual snake-oil salesman can easily corrupt them. In addition to being confusing, these teachings could be dangerous or manipulative in the wrong hands. But how can you know the difference between effective methods and manipulative shams?
Here are three ways to recognize spiritual phonies and their general woo-woo nonsense.
1. Claims of Absolute Truth
No person or spiritual system can heal you instantly, tell you what your purpose is, or tell you how to live your life. They can only, at most, give you the tools to accomplish these goals on your own. Be suspicious of anyone who tells you that you’re lacking in something and that they have the only means to correct your supposed flaws. If someone claims to have the correct answers for you in regards to spiritual or personal growth, be wary. Spiritual or internal regeneration requires consistent, uncomfortable, hard work on your part. There’s no way around this. No one can do it for you, and no one can give you an easy way out.
Furthermore, if you’re unclear about what exactly the solutions or methods for progress are, or how they will benefit you in real world terms, be even more wary. Is the teacher making promises or claims that are too good to be true? Do these claims absolve you of difficult internal work or release you from exerting any effort at all? Do they help you in real world, practical terms, or are they just vague processes that supposedly affect your “quantum energy” or change your “vibrations”? What do terms like this really mean, and what is the basis for their validity? Are there agreed-upon definitions, or will you get ten different interpretations from seven different people? This leads to number two:
2. Confusing Language
It’s incredibly easy to generate tired, clichéd or confusing language to appeal to people in spiritual crises and manipulate them. In fact, someone wrote a computer program to generate it automatically. Now you too can “print it out as a speech for your yoga class and see if anyone can guess a computer wrote it.” Presenting language like this, that is willfully indirect and open to endless interpretations, can leave a teacher free to shift and change himself, or to play a role, according to what the student hopes he or she is hearing. Remember, language is a potent magical tool, and it affects the way we perceive reality. If a teacher or advisor of any kind cannot or will not explain themselves in a simple, straightforward manner, without the need for flowery language or smoke and mirrors of any kind, then their motives are suspect. If you don’t understand someone’s instructions, intentions or directives, you aren’t entirely at fault for the confusion; the teacher is also at fault for not being clear and communicating properly.
Some may make the argument for the importance of keeping occult secrets. Keep in mind that obfuscation of magical or spiritual practice within hidden forms (most often in various forms of writing or art), was much more of a necessity in centuries past, when you could be ostracized or killed for even mentioning anything even remotely resembling heresy or alternative spiritual practice. In the current era, this practice still exists and has its place, but the reality is that it isn’t a matter of life and death, as it once was.
This, of course, gets into a grey area in the world of spirituality or internal work—because we all know the stories of Zen masters, magicians, spiritual advisors or whatever other title you want to use who use smoke and mirrors to help the student come to realizations or epiphanies on their own—seemingly without specific direction or guidance. This can be a useful method when the teacher’s intentions are noble, but this is also exactly how so many charlatans manipulate their students or followers. If you aren’t careful, you may find yourself the victim of unhealthy student-teacher boundaries and relationships, or even emotional and financial manipulation.
The teacher should be able to communicate clearly and directly with you, and they should be honest and upfront about their intentions and the desired results. They should not tell you that they have all the secret answers, or that they’re the only one who can help you. There should be no fear, coercion or guilt present at all within the relationship. If you feel at all confused or uneasy about their intentions, have doubts about their character or feel that you are being taken advantage of in any way, don’t take those feelings lightly. Trust yourself.
3. Charging Exorbitant Amounts of Money
Another red flag is being charged incredibly large sums of money, especially for goods or services that have no quantifiable effect on you or any solid effect in the real world. Is someone charging you $1000 for a short session to “bring more light to your astral body” or “cut your negative vibrational emotional cords”? Do you know what they mean by this, exactly? Can they explain it without the use of vague, clichéd or confusing terminology, and are you just accepting their definitions without critical thinking or analysis? What is the basis for such claims?
One of the major drawbacks of approaching spirituality in the framework of consumerism isn’t always the amount of money charged, or even that money is involved—it’s the idea that spiritual regeneration, which takes years of hard work and dedication to improving oneself, can simply be traded like a commodity, in an instant. When it comes to the Great Work, larger amounts of money do not equal quicker or higher quality enlightenment, and there is no “bang for your buck.”
So be careful. Trust yourself. Do you really think you can erase or heal decades of emotional trauma in the blink of an eye? Does the person you are learning from seem more suited to be a game show host or a car salesman than a spiritual advisor? Try to be skeptical without being cynical, use critical thinking and remember—only the tools for the Work can be given to you, not the fruits of the labor.