I’ve personally never heard of the term “spiritual influencers” up until a few months ago. A number of my friends online tend to share so many different content about well-being and manifesting that I wasn’t so sure what it all really meant. Who exactly are these people they quote or link a post to? They weren’t really the Dalai Lama type nor were they anyone you’d imagine to be someone remotely looking close to a spiritual leader.
They’re pretty much like your average Instagram motivational influencer types but offering workshops, lectures, wellness products, holistic healing sessions, breath-work, and pretty much everything you’d expect from a one week retreat packet in Ubud. While there’s nothing weird about that, I did start to wonder about just how influential some of these spiritual leaders – or , influencers can be. What happens when they attract the most vulnerable of people? And most importantly, how have they become so influential? After some research and investing some time into following particular online enlightenment sessions, here’s a brief look into what I found out.
Virtual communities are just easier to form
For the first time ever, the definition of a “community” is not necessarily geographically bound. What back then was once a more complex process, gathering like-minded people is now done in a matter of clicks and through social media algorithms. This has led to a new generation of spiritual leaders who effectively use the powers of online platforms to easily attract all kinds of followers.
Consider Bentinho Massaro, the Dutch 20 something year old spiritual influencer with a significant online follower base (91K+ subscribers on his YouTube and 36K+ followers on Instagram). Bentinho dedicates his time teaching “spiritual awakening” and guiding his followers to what he describes as “the absolute truth of the one infinite creator”. While again, there’s nothing quite concerning about that either, I did look into what this form of “guidance” actually looks like.
One of them being Trinfinity Academy, an online university-like platform that centres around Bentinho and his many lessons on reaching “enlightenment” and “empowerment”. Trinfinity Academy offers free online courses for those interested, but Bentinho is known to hold events and lectures too. One of which a ticket to attend had cost around $1,000 – $1,500. It somehow became quite apparent to see why some people would pay so much to join his classes. He comes off as smart, charismatic, and most importantly he’s active on all his social channels.
Midscrolling through his Instagram was as if I’d stumbled upon any other influencer you would find on your explore page. Photoshoots, selfies, poses, cigars, holidays, and a few dozen self-made quotes. Main differences, however, included semi-cryptic messages in his captions and the occasional one or two minute long videos of him staring into the camera in complete silence. Was this what it takes to be a spiritual influencer? Or was I being too sceptical in Bentinho’s version of enlightenment? Before I completed my full-on verdict, I decided to try out some of his at-home-lessons for a few days.
What I got from the first few lessons on his “Free Enlightenment Retreat” was that the way these lectures were given, you couldn’t really wrap your mind around it. It was as if everything being thrown at you was something you couldn’t really question either – simply because it didn’t make sense or it sort of did, to some extent. Did it somehow
unexpectedly change the way I see the world? Probably not or probably not yet (?). Although, after a few self-meditating pauses, I thought about what this must have been like for those in the most vulnerable points in their lives.
It was the way the talks are given, the ease of which one topic jumps to another, and the consistent use of buzzwords that all comes back down to the listener: “YOUR life”, “YOUR meaning”, “YOUR mind”, and “YOUR purpose” Bentinho’s speeches are crafted with a real personal touch. It was this personal touch that enabled Bentinho’s continuous success to maintain a substantial follower base. A journalist’s account of meeting Bentinho’s followers (and Bentinho himself) revealed that most of his followers became “connected” in moments of “extreme vulnerability”. These vulnerable moments ranged from being laid off from work, going through a divorce, and those of which just in search of a purpose to life. They later described that it was only through going online that they were further guided by Bentinho. A combination of both spiritual guidance and YouTube’s recommendation algorithms. Here’s where I think it begins to be concerning.
“It’s really not that difficult: Relax. Trust. Love. Feel happy. Repeat. It is all by choice. No more excuses.”
Algorithms are the answers
You might have imagined, right after I went through several of Bentinho’s YouTube videos I started getting into an endless loop of other spiritual influencers and their many versions of “guidance”. Click after click, it was pretty much YouTube’s algorithm leading me down this “well-being, manifesting and meaning-of-life seeking” road I never thought of taking. It didn’t take long for me to stumble upon some of the most interesting yet I would soon learn, controversial names in the spiritual influencer business. One of which being, Teal Swan who has 700K+ subscribers on YouTube.
Known for being a very vocal in the topic of life and death, Teal’s teachings has been a talking point for quite some time after it has been linked to the suicide of two of her followers. Mental health experts have also made clear that her teachings around the topic of suicide could especially be dangerous for those vulnerable. Apart from claiming that death can be some sort of “re-set button”, her content also includes parentings tips and cooking recipes. The types of niche topics that would attract a far broader group of people. This was where I thought of YouTube’s algorithms to be one of the strongest driving forces in gathering such a large virtual community. You could go from looking at a recipe on how to make your own vegan trail bar, to spending the afternoon learning how to see auras.
Just by searching for “Teal Swan” up on Google, you’ll notice that the first page results are filled with positive information. If it’s one thing for sure, Teal Swan is definitely a master of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) which could explain her rise on YouTube and other social media platforms. By masterminding SEO, the first page results suggests everything far from a controversial spiritual leader. Instead, it displays her various creations, talks, blogposts and the big names she works with such as book publishers HayHouse and the “Netflix of spiritual awakenings”, Gaia.
Communication with the follower base has to stay consistent
While I continued stepping into the world of spiritual influencers, I decided to follow some well-known ones on Instagram too. I wanted to further get an understanding of what a spiritual influencer’s follower base looks like and the types of interactions you’d usually see. Some days I’d wake up to words about how vital it was to “live in the now” and other days I’d do a three minute meditation session.
Scroll after scroll it was as if I’d gone back to my 2013 Tumblr homepage as there were just so many quotes on how to live your life, how to handle emotion, how to know if my thoughts are to be trusted, and to the downright bizarre of what to do when people’s aura isn’t bringing you enough joy. It wasn’t concerning at all, of course there were a few videos which I personally felt could be a sensitive topic – especially when it came to the topic of death. Nonetheless, these were the types of content that a large number of people enjoy (or possibly need.) In most posts you begin to see that people aren’t afraid to get personal with one another.
From comments that talk about deceased loved ones or how going vegan changed their love lives, it was quite apparent that for many followers this wasn’t just an Instagram page. It was a community, a non-geographically bound safe zone.
Let’s talk about the term “cult”
In most pieces that criticise such groups, the word “cult” is oftentimes being thrown around. In the defined imagination of the 1990s, for a group to be considered a “cult”, it would first need a physical location. Somewhere secluded from the outside world, a place to isolate members from other people so that their cognitive and emotional factors are always put in check by those leading it.
Now the continuous rise of social media has inspired a new idea of the word “cult”. As we continue to seek for things like culture, community, guidance, pleasure, and clarity online, an advanced wave of upcoming well-being experts, astrologers and self-help gurus have found a way to seize this demand. An opportunity to somehow answer some of life’s most difficult questions and make their own personal brand while at it.
A huge responsibility
Before I conclude my whole look into the world of spiritual influencers, it might also be important to point out that not all are alike. For example, (depending on how you see it) most people would probably say you can’t really compare the Bentinhos of the spiritual guiding world to the likes of renown self-help gurus such as Eckhart Tolle or the late Ram Dass. That being said, could a degree in philosophy or psychology really determine how “legitimate” a spiritual influencer can be? Or is it all down to how influential they are in reaching out to those seeking for answers?
As the new generation of self-help gurus rush in, that might be a question best answered in time. It will, however, be determined by how supportive social media platforms continue to be. With people becoming ever more disconnected with one another and more invested with the internet, the responsibility of spiritual leaders will have to be carefully watched. Considering the fact that people will continue to seek clarity online as they look into sensitive topics that may be a taboo to look in the real world, it might be time to look into the moral duties the self-help gurus have on society.