Spirituality & Conspiracy, What’s Going On?
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a huge upsurge in conspiracy thinking everywhere, but especially in spiritual communities. What is going on? And what is the mainstream narrative failing to understand about both conspiracy and spirituality?
On May 4th, a new documentary trailer hit Facebook. Professionally cut and awash with slick Hollywood edits, Mikki Willis’ conspiratorial Plandemic came as the coronavirus was reaching a fever pitch.
But there was an unexpected quirk. And in and among Facebook’s nearly 40,000 Plandemic-related posts, the film ran especially well among spiritual communities: a result that may appear curious to some readers. Spirituality is a domain that one could plausibly situate beyond conspiracy theories and the political realm altogether. But the more one plumbs the world of conspiracy theory — and considers its fundamental relationship with reality and the conventional world — the more one sees its true religious or spiritual core.
Those who have spent time (as I have) in various New Age, or spiritual circles will know that conspiracy theory has always been present, but that the pandemic saw a huge acceleration, noticed by many.
Plandemic’s spiritual signs are clear to see. Indeed, considering Willis’ other projects reveals his own deep commitment to spiritual filmmaking: From Neurons to Nirvana, about psychedelic medicine; Be Brave, on Mayan culture; Spiritual Liberation, produced with Rev. Michael Beckwith; or The Shadow Effect, which promises to ‘illuminate the hidden power of your true self’.
Conspiracy vs Corruption
Yet some may object to talk of ‘conspiracy theory’ at all. Pre-loaded with value judgement, the term seems to assume its own mainstream disqualification, which is only too valuable for political and cultural elites seeking to maintain their narrative control. And in reviewing the events of the recent past, it’s clear that some claims — including those surrounding the Jeffrey Epstein case, or more historic examples like the MK-ULTRA and COINTELPRO schemes — rejected as mere ‘conspiracy theory’ at the time have turned out starkly true.
This is a problem. Our system needs critics, and now more than ever. Indeed, Rebel Wisdom was itself created with this in mind, and the claims of conspiracy can only resonate in a conventional mainstream beset with real problems. As Eric Weinstein points out in our recent interview, every institution we entrusted for sensemaking — from doctors and academics to journalists and policy experts — has shown itself essentially unreliable, including and especially at times of acute emergency like these.
Conspiracy theory does something distinct, though. While we can recognise its intent and acknowledge its critiques, the conspiracy substitute is often more problematic than the mainstream narrative it’s replacing. Yet in reaching some measure of balance on conspiracy, it’s no surprise that the mainstream media has failed to make much progress. It’s not just that these players have skin in the game, though — it’s that they don’t get it when it comes to conspiracy’s finer existential shades.
In particular, what I’m trying to address here is NOT alternative narratives, and potential actual conspiracies, but ALL ENCOMPASSING conspiracy narratives that take a near-religious dimension. Many of them are religious in tone, with someone like Bill Gates playing the role of Satan.
Conspiracy and The Death of the Self
There is a particular dimension to spirituality, and the “awakening process” that makes people susceptible to this kind of all encompassing conspiracy thinking, but it’s also a dimension of experience that the mainstream world does not even begin to understand.
Many conspiracy theorists, and especially those who accept the domain in a totalising systemic sense, have had deep, meaningful — but possibly maladaptive — spiritual experiences. Under those conditions, the individual self is usually annihilated, along with any number of its accompanying claims and narratives.
But this can go one of two ways.
“Anything that creates a boundary dissolving, self-eroding, narrative-collapsing lived experience is then prone to, well, ‘Now that’s all been blown to smithereens, what do I repopulate it with?’”, Jamie Wheal, the author of the Pulitzer-nominated Stealing Fire, recently told Rebel Wisdom.
“Oh, I was all up in my head. I was chasing, you know, the 9-to-5 and a gold watch and saving for my retirement, and I realised that was just all a fucking illusion.”
This process can easily go too far, Wheal says. “So, now I believe in aliens and angels and my ability to manifest stuff. And — oh, by the way, if that’s true, then maybe vaccines aren’t true. Maybe the WHO, maybe Bill Gates. Maybe. Maybe, maybe.’”
Yet after transcending the ordinary world, the answer isn’t then to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather, the answer is to correct the faults of the conventional in a dynamic, ongoing inquiry.
“You end up kind of just going through the floorboards of logical, consistent sensemaking”, Wheal suggests, “… and [become] credibly willing to believe damn near anything as a replacement.”
Spiritual experience is also about interconnection. Once the self is transcended, even the smallest grain of everyday reality can be viewed as an indelible feature of the wider whole. Jules Evans, a policy director at the Centre for the History of Human Emotion and the author of The Art of Losing Control, sees conspiratorial pattern-seeking and cosmic unity — especially in its more New Age forms — as being two sides of the same coin.
“One is a kind of positive conspiracy, which you could define by… mystical experience: ‘Everything is connected as I am connected to everything in the universe. And that’s wonderful. The universe, its mission, is flowing through me. I am naturally attracting helpers to… bring this new age, this glorious new age for humanity, into existence.’” You can see this ‘positive’ conspiracy in the writings of Marilyn Ferguson, H.G. Wells, or arguably the entire ‘Aquarian Age’ of the 1960s counterculture.
“And then there’s the negative conspiracy”, he warns.
“…It’s kind of like the bad trip version of that good trip… ‘There’s an elite controlling everything. But I’m not included, as I’m an outsider to it. So, instead, everything is… controlled by some shadowy elite of self-appointed masters all kind of networked together… and they must be stopped.’”
The notion of a controlling ‘other’ is part and parcel of the spiritual experience. For those awash in the collective unconscious, the psychologist Carl Jung wrote that all-powerful archetypes can create serious feelings of disempowerment, and their visionary feelings must only be enjoyed periodically.
“The idea that there is a collective unconscious, that there is this very powerful, larger than human force… is very much centred around topics of power”, Eivind Skjellum, the creator of Reclaim Your Inner Throne, told Rebel Wisdom. “And so the question is, ‘Where is the locus of power oriented — is it in me? Am I defining my own life or is there some external entity that is sort of pulling the strings?’”
Being immersed in the mytho-poetry of archetypes can certainly colour their outlets, too. One need only consider the Christian symbology of contemporary conspiracy theories, whose doctrines are peppered implicitly with apocalypse scenarios, communities of the damned and wicked (with Bill Gates and George Soros almost as devils), but a hope for salvation and utopia if all were revealed.
David Icke’s Long, Strange Trip
These kinds of experiences are only growing in number. And under the ‘non-specific amplifier’ of the pandemic — when difficult material is being unearthed and the veracity of conventional narratives under greater question — the bull market for conspiracy will likely remain in place. (See more on the ‘non-specific amplifier’ and COVID-19 in our interview with Erik Davis here).
The mystical journey isn’t always ‘love and light’, either. Dehumanised, stripped, and filled with almost-constant questions, many will undergo what Stanislav Grof (see our interview here) called a ‘spiritual emergency’, whose symptoms appear to outsiders as vanilla expressions of mania and delusion. Unlike conventional mental illness, though, the key to spiritual emergency is more often to progress through its symptoms and mould a newly-integrated self, rather than to judge or apply the tools of psychiatry. Things can go badly wrong otherwise.
David Icke stands as a perhaps compelling warning. Formerly a respected football commentator, Icke’s public reputation was destroyed by an appearance on the chat show Wogan, in which he claimed to be the Son of God and a manifestation of Jesus Christ. He claimed with total certainty that the world would be destroyed later that year.
While such behaviour would be seen from any mainstream medical perspective as mentally unwell, it’s clear that Icke’s occupation with spirituality was playing a role. After a radical spiritual experience, it’s not unheard-of for subjects’ psyches to ‘inflate’ and cling to cosmic identities as life rafts. But Icke didn’t reach the other shore. He didn’t get the chance to work through the struggle. Wogan’s studio audience roundly mocked the new persona and Icke was lambasted in the tabloid press. In many ways he became stuck midway through a spiritual transformation.
Nowadays, Icke remains deeply engaged with spirituality, and of a thankfully more inclusive kind. But it seems that Icke’s life raft was simply switched for totalising conspiracy. In an interview with Brian Rose’s London Real, Icke seems at once the beneficent guru and a convinced paranoiac.
We’ll find salvation, Icke claims, “when we realise the true nature of what we are: which is consciousness, eternal, exploring forever consciousness having a brief experience called human.”
“I have tracked these people, this cult, for 30 years full time”, Icke continues.
“…I am more powerful than they are and they frickin know it. I ain’t come here to fail. And I frickin won’t”, Icke told Rose.
It’s easy to jeer at Icke from the sidelines. His claims around a lizard race, the Royal Family, flat earth, and now the alleged falsity of the coronavirus pandemic, are well known. But we ignore Icke at our peril. Wildly popular, his online channels boast millions of views and likes — and in a mainstream media climate in decline, his platform is fast-becoming a serious competitor.
Not Waving, But Drowning: The Perils of Spiritual Emergency
If we want to avoid a future Icke — and ensure a mystical experience that goes right — an awareness of spiritual emergency is paramount. We could all go through one, too. I underwent a period of deep crisis myself, and even pursued a documentary, Learning To Swim, about this very domain.
Tim Read is an unusual case of a psychiatrist who was deeply immersed in the mainstream medical paradigm, but with an understanding of spiritual emergency. He led the Crisis Intervention Service and the Psychiatric Liaison service for twenty years at the Royal London Hospital, while also training in Holotropic Breathwork and Spiritual Crisis with Stan Grof.
The key to avoiding that darker path is a real integration with our personal shadow, he says. “[By the shadow], we generally mean those parts of ourselves and our individual psyche, maybe even our collective psyche, that we’re not aware of or we’re blind to…. And we construct often quite elaborate psychological defences around them.”
Under the stress of spiritual experience, it’ll help to be acquainted with that darker element. Otherwise, settling for delusional beliefs may be only one of the costs. “After such experiences, people will be feeling so very vulnerable — their ego structures, if you like, have been cracked right open. And in a way, they can be likened to an infant state and newborn babies, in that they need a gentle, holding, bright, gentle space while they recover themselves.”
In Icke’s case, a mocking studio audience and a press-based character slayer must have tipped the balance. “…And if that doesn’t happen, if enough people re-engage with ordinary, everyday, noisy, smelly, dirty reality too quickly, it can be absolutely brutalizing. And this is very often where we see people running into problems.”
The spiritual experience can be jarring. Once an ego is lost, it’s tempting to grasp one in the rubble. But bad ideas and malicious conspiracy are not the fixes we want.
And if we seek a sensemaking environment that can resist conspiracy’s faults and accept its criticisms, we need to see it as a thoroughly spiritual phenomenon. To avoid being blinded by the clear light — or, indeed, by the shadow’s darkness — we must put in the work ourselves.