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When Spirituality Goes Viral

Meet the magnetic young leader whose Instapulpit threatened to crumble after the death of a follower

When Spirituality Goes Viral

He appears on the screen, calling from an undisclosed location. His name is Bentinho Massaro, and as far as young New Age leaders go, he’s a sensation. I’ve been watching his YouTube videos, which have netted more than 10 million collective views. He’s on a stage in Sedona or Maui or his native Netherlands. A crowd of hundreds gathers at his feet. He sits in the lotus position, hands folded in his lap. He is blond and delicately handsome, and he speaks with a slight accent. He wears mostly loose-fitting yoga clothes, as if he might break into a flawless downward dog at any moment, and he exudes an energy that his followers, whom he calls Wanderers, seem to find magnetic, even hypnotic.

He agrees to talk with me on Skype about his teachings and the controversy that surrounds him. He is going to scan me, he says, to get a sense of my intentions. 

Massaro is part of a new generation of spiritual teachers who use social media to spread their message and gain followers. There are shamans who lead retreats for Silicon Valley executives and swamis who can read your chakras over Skype. Their ranks include Audrey Kitching, the pink-haired model and crystal-healing muse with more than 500,000 followers across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and Amy Woodruff, the kundalini yoga instructor who rocketed to fame after posting a picture of herself doing a headstand while breast-feeding her daughter. 

At 30 years old, Massaro is a master of digital spirituality. He has a slickly designed website offering online courses on enlightenment, a YouTube channel with more than 75,000 subscribers and a Facebook page with more than 300,000 likes.

Like Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh with his scores of Rolls-Royces, Massaro seems to have no interest in eschewing the good life. He posts photos of himself hanging out with his girlfriend, free-diving off the coast of Bali and rock climbing in Colorado. He can be seen admiring his ripped physique and savoring whiskey and cigars, all of it interspersed with messages of positive affirmation and limitless possibility.

In the world of New Age teachers, he was the next big thing. And then something called the Sedona Experiment II went horribly wrong.

There was a death, a police investigation, physical threats. Online, his critics called him “Steve Jobs meets Jim Jones,” a reference to the notorious Peoples Temple leader who led a mass murder-suicide in 1978. Massaro tells me this insinuation is absurd. He is misunderstood. He is on a mission to help civilization upgrade. And because he is a disrupter, blowback is inevitable. He asks why I want to write about him. “It’s going to take a lot of your time and you’re going to delve into a world that perhaps is fairly new to you,” he says.

I explain that I grew up in the Mormon Church and that after experiencing a crisis of faith a few years ago I’ve been on a spiritual journey of my own. I’m intrigued by his teachings and want to learn how he gained his devout following.
He nods slowly, and I sense he understands me, even though we’re a generation apart and have little in common. There’s a look of compassion in his eyes. I find my skepticism dissipating ever so slightly. And then he starts gazing at me with an intensity I’ve seen him summon in his videos. When he does this onstage, it can last for 10 minutes, sometimes longer. A slight smile will appear on his lips, as if he has sensed the aura of whomever he’s gazing at, and it pleases him. With me, it lasts for only a moment, but I wonder what he sees within me.

I tell him I’d like to meet him and his team, who help him with graphic design and video production. I want to understand why people have abandoned lovers, homes and careers to follow him. I want to understand instagrammable spirituality.

I also want to know if he’s a misunderstood teacher, as he insists, or a cult leader for the digital age, espousing dangerous concepts that can lead people to their deaths.

What I don’t tell him is that I’m also wondering if he can help me. 

 


According to Massaro, his origin story goes something like this: He was born and raised in a middle-class neighborhood of Amsterdam, not far away from its famous canals, tulips and 15th century homes. His father worked for an energy company and his mother taught elementary school, and they endured what Massaro, an only child, describes as “bouts of poverty,” when he sometimes went hungry.

From an early age he felt he was special, extraordinary even, both blessed and burdened with a message he had to share with the world. He says that at school he was known affectionately as “the weird kid” with one of the highest IQs in class even though he was a lazy student. He was more interested in telekinesis: He tells me he would spend class periods trying to move straws or pieces of foil across his desk with his mind.

His parents were undergoing a spiritual awakening of their own thanks in part to the Silva Method, a self-help meditation program popular in the 1960s. They believed they could use it to train their minds to control objects, view distant locations and, eventually, connect with a higher intelligence. They enrolled Massaro in a children’s course, which he says he quickly mastered.

It resonated as home for me,” Massaro says. “I always knew I’m a superhero. I always knew everyone can do anything they want.”
He began reading Deepak Chopra, ancient scripture and yogic philosophy. He became particularly fascinated by The Law of One, a series of books purportedly conceived by a non-human intelligence named Ra. He also absorbed the basic teachings of nonduality, or the idea that the universe is one substance and we’re all a part of it, whether we call that substance awareness, consciousness or even God—a concept at the core of some Buddhist strains and everything from Jewish kabbalah and Christian mysticism to The Matrix. Visions of India began popping into his head, and at 18, he and his then girlfriend decamped for Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga and much of the Beatles’ “White Album.” He lived in the country for six months, riding rickshaws, hopping from one hostel to another, meeting with swamis, and practicing yoga and meditation.

“It was a Buddha-like quest,” he tells me. “The Buddha said at some point after seeking, ‘I won’t get up from under this tree until I’m enlightened, until I’ve found what I’m looking for,’ and it was kind of a similar result.”

Not long after he got back to the Netherlands, Massaro began posting videos on YouTube, sharing what he’d found. He quickly gained a following because of what he describes as his ability to distill centuries of wisdom into concepts anyone can understand.
I always knew I’m a superhero. I always knew everyone can do anything they want.
“For the advanced seeker I am a breath of fresh air, or the teachings are a breath of fresh air, because they’ve never heard it so clearly before,” he tells me. “If you had researched all these philosophies and practices—anyone who has agrees that my teaching is genius.”

His fame spread to the United States, and in 2011 he was invited to speak at the Science and Nonduality Conference, an event that draws such New Age luminaries as Chopra and Adyashanti. A few years later he was featured on an audio series produced by Sounds True, the company that publishes the audio and video teachings of Eckhart Tolle. But the more time Massaro spent with other gurus, the more disillusioned he became.

“I had attained greater clarity and purity of mind than most of these other teachers,” he says. “Now it was like, Well, wait a second—it’s up to me. It was really powerful to realize that if I want to change the world, if I want to upgrade spirituality, I’m the one who has to do that.”

Massaro says he clashed with other spiritual teachers because he was drifting outside standard nondual teachings and talking about the law of attraction, popularized by the book The Secret, which holds that we have the power to bring into our lives anything we focus on, good or bad. As Massaro started blending that idea with Eastern philosophies such as Advaita Vedanta, he says he was disinvited from conferences. His Sounds True interview was taken down.
But none of this slowed his rise. By 2016, videos he’d posted on YouTube were getting thousands of views. He had moved to Boulder, Colorado, which has been described as the “New Age’s Athens.” Seated at the base of the eastern scarp of the Rockies, the city is home to the first Buddhist-inspired college in America. It’s the sort of place where you’ll find ads for psychic reprogrammers and past-life-regression experts. Massaro rented an office downtown and assembled a team who understood video editing, web design and social media. He launched Bentinho Massaro TV, a subscription-based repository of his teachings. The followers he gained online were encouraged to attend his retreats, which have cost $5,000 for nine days.

In early 2017 Massaro decided to move his operation to Sedona, Arizona, another New Age mecca. Wanderers who had quit jobs to follow him to Boulder moved with him, fanning out across the city to rent homes and attend his regular talks, which he also live-streamed, at the Sedona Creative Life Center.

He started hosting retreats in luxurious resorts, surrounded by followers so devoted he says he had to hire bodyguards and lay down a rule: If he was wearing sunglasses between sessions, attendees shouldn’t approach him. The whiskey-and-cigars posts began to dot his feed. He says his team was bringing in up to $120,000 a month.

As Massaro’s following grew, his teachings became more grandiose. In one interview he said he didn’t want to have children because he already had 7 billion of them: “The people of this world are my children.”
He claimed that he had the power to teleport, levitate and move mountains—that he was an “upper-density spirit” who had descended to the earth to help civilization upgrade. “My vision is to buy a large, amazing piece of land and to start a new city of sorts with all of you and a teaching like mine as a focal point,” he said during a talk at the Sedona Creative Life Center. “There’s amazing potential to live in a new way and to create a little pocket that is an initial example of what is possible for all of humanity. So I see it as a flower popping up through the mud.”

In the fall of 2017 Massaro started to talk about a new retreat, called the Sedona Experiment II. He had already held the first Sedona Experiment with about a dozen of his most devoted disciples. To market the sequel, which he wanted to expand to more than 100 followers, he bought the domain name sedonaexperiment.com and posted a short video trailer in which he explains that he’s shifting his followers’ “sense of identity from being human to being not human” and eventually arriving at a place called “infinite consciousness.”

By this point, the Sedona police had begun to get complaints. Sedona is a small city of about 10,000 people, and it relies heavily on tourism. Of its nearly 3 million annual visitors, some come to browse the downtown galleries or to hike or mountain bike, but thousands come to visit the vortices, get their auras photographed or cleanse their chakras. Sedona has also attracted its share of fanatics and cult leaders. In 2010 there was a noticeable drop in visitors after a celebrated guru named James A. Ray presided over a sweat-lodge ceremony near Sedona that had resulted in three deaths the previous year.
According to reporting by The Arizona Republic, there were now similar complaints about Massaro. Someone told the Sedona police chief that Massaro encouraged his followers to live on nothing more than grape juice for weeks at a time. (The Sedona police declined playboy’s interview request.) He had encouraged his followers to cut off ties to friends and family if they got in the way of enlightenment, and to look forward to their own deaths. “Don’t fear death; be excited about it,” he says with a smile in one video. He said he was unafraid of his own death and once wrote, “Looking forward to death makes you truly come alive.”

“Wake up to something important,” he says in another clip. “Otherwise, kill yourself…. Make that agreement every day: You either kill yourself or you dedicate yourself to something important.”

Before long, a detective would be repeating those words back to him.

A few days before the second Sedona Experiment, an article was published on the blogging platform Medium by an activist and writer named Be Scofield, who had infiltrated Massaro’s inner circle. “Tech bro guru has arrived,” Scofield writes. “The OS has been upgraded. Cult 2.0 is upon us.”

Scofield traces how Massaro had used start-up principles and “growth-hacker marketing” to build a New Age empire. His product was spiritual ideas, and using Facebook and YouTube he could test out this product at no cost, noting what resonated by analyzing clicks. Massaro had also founded something called Trinfinity, Scofield writes, a murky entity that sounds like something from the mind of L. Ron Hubbard or a Batman comic. Trinfinity Corp. had a master plan that would be executed in four phases. It would start with apps, virtual-reality machines, an astral-projection inducer, film and TV studios and a publishing platform, and would culminate with Trinfinity City.

As the second Sedona Experiment began, Massaro took to the stage to address the allegations raised in the article, which included video snippets of Massaro yelling at a female follower and a Facebook post advancing conspiracy theories like Pizzagate.

“It has no context for me,” he said of the cult label. “It feels so empty and meaningless. Like, okay, great. Yeah. We’re a cult. It doesn’t change what we are.”
Massaro recalled that Wilkins had met with him at a party prior to the retreat and expressed his doubts about participating in it. He sometimes had “freak moments” at retreats.
He told those who had gathered for the 12 day retreat that a better label would be a “social memory complex.” In the coming days they would grow so close that the electromagnetic fields of their consciousnesses would merge and they would become one, bound by the bliss of enlightenment, and “penetrate the Absolute.”

On the seventh day of the retreat, according to the Republic, two detectives showed up at Massaro’s house to ask him about one of the participants in the Sedona Experiment. His name was Brent Wilkins, a 34-year-old former tennis pro who had drifted in and out of Massaro’s inner circle. According to what Wilkins’s parents told police, he had quit his job back East and moved to Boulder to follow Massaro. For two years he poured everything he had into finding enlightenment through Massaro’s teachings. At one point he had come home at his parents’ urging and admitted to a psychiatrist that he sometimes thought of hurting himself. He spent a week in a local psych ward and vowed to stay in Virginia when he got out. They hired a cult­extraction specialist, but before long Wilkins had returned to Boulder.

“I want to go back to your words,” detective Chris Stevens said. “ ‘Wake up and do something important. Otherwise, just kill yourself.’ ”

“Right,” Massaro said.
Massaro recalled that Wilkins had met with him at a party prior to the retreat and expressed his doubts about participating in it. He sometimes had “freak moments” at retreats. But Wilkins was always swinging from doubt to certainty. At the end of the conversation, Wilkins had held Massaro to his chest.

“He’s confused, right?” Stevens asked, his voice sharp on a recording later obtained and reported on by The Arizona Republic. “He’s trying to figure out his life?”

Massaro voiced his agreement.

“And he’s not doing anything? What do you think might be the outcome?”

“Um, not that. But I understand. I understand.”

And then Stevens told Massaro that Wilkins had killed himself.

“No,” Massaro said softly.

Wilkins had been found at the bottom of a 225 foot cliff in Sedona. In his pocket they’d found a name tag: The Sedona Experiment II. Participant.

It was as though a dark cloud had moved into Sedona, he tells me, “like a scary movie.” The energy had shifted there, and he no longer felt welcome. And so, after careful consideration with his two lovers at the time, they went on the run, revealing their whereabouts and what was next to only a handful of people.As police decided whether to charge Massaro, the empire he had built began to teeter. (Sedona police ultimately did not press charges.) Followers turned on him.

Threatening messages appeared online. He no longer felt welcome in the community that had been his home base for years. 
At the time of our first Skype session, Massaro appears to be still on the run.

There are pictures of him in Hawaii and the Netherlands, in Egypt in front of the pyramids and in the misty jungles of Colombia, meeting with a reclusive tribe called the Kogis. The captions on his Instagram feed are vague, perhaps intentionally so. At times it seems he’s ready to retire, and then a post surfaces in which everything he once prophesied still seems possible.
In late August he invites me to visit him in Boulder, suggesting a trendy restaurant off Pearl Street, the downtown pedestrian mall where you can pay for someone to balance and align your energies, buy pot or get smashed among rowdy University of Colorado coeds, who have just arrived for the fall semester.

I’ve been waiting for half an hour, at a table Massaro has reserved in the back, when I see him enter. He is of average build and carries himself with confidence, scanning the room as though he owns the place. He’s flanked by three staffers, the Wanderers I’ve heard so much about. There’s a tall and willowy blonde who left an international modeling career to follow him; a recent University of Colorado grad who helps with writing and graphic design; and an aspiring filmmaker from Florida who helps with videos. I’ve seen all of them on Massaro’s Instagram feed.

Over the next two hours, as the members of his team explain why they’ve abandoned careers or moved across the country to follow Massaro, their leader sits near the head of the table with a pleased look on his face, cutting in here and there to explain some esoteric spiritual concept. I sense him watching me as he sips his cocktail.

I had expected Massaro to be aloof, that it might take some work to get around the facade of an upper density spiritual teacher, but in person the so-called tech bro guru seems mostly like a bro. He peppers his conversation with references to comedies like Wedding Crashers, laughs about the time he tried out for the Netherlands version of American Idol and forgot the lyrics to an Elton John song, and seems delighted to learn little biographical details I tease out about his team.
If he’s scanning me again, I’m scanning him too, wondering if he really believes he descended from another planet to help Earth upgrade, as he says in one of his posts. To me, he seems nothing like the sociopathic narcissist who reportedly once told a girlfriend she was disrupting his flow into eternal bliss.

He muses that maybe the best way to spread his message is entirely online. In person retreats are too messy. People always approach him between the sessions, a tendency both exhausting and tedious.

“It always feels—I wouldn’t say scary,” he says. “But I can’t be personally responsible for every person in a group. I don’t know where they come from, their issues.”

I ask if he’s referring to Brent Wilkins.

“No, not at all. I don’t feel responsible for his death. I’ve always felt this. I know I’m not responsible ultimately. They’re responsible for signing up for the retreat, their meditations, how they interpret things I say.”
I’ve asked myself, if Buddha or Jesus lived today, would they have a Facebook page?
Before long, their attention turns to me. I describe my path out of Mormonism and how it led to a dark period during which I felt an existential void and lack of any sense of meaning. The Wanderers, all in their 20s, nod and smile as if they’ve been there too and know the secret to my wandering.

Massaro suggests we continue the conversation the next day but instructs me not to call him before noon. He usually stays up all night, he explains, because that’s when the “world goes to sleep. All the brains quiet. I can feel the conscious mind drop into the subconscious mind.”

We meet the next afternoon at a coffee shop in a suburb of Boulder, where Massaro and his team are living with the parents of one of his followers. He tells me they’re looking for a place where they can all live and work together. Without his team, he doesn’t seem quite as upbeat, and I think of something I’ve heard: that he’s rarely without at least one of them by his side. Or maybe he’s just groggy after staying up all night.

He dodges questions about what they’re up to, saying he can’t really get into it, and explains how difficult the past year has been for him.

“Friends were turning against me. People were threatening me and my loved ones,” he says. “I’m sure famous people get this all the time, like threats on social media, comments, messages, messaging through our site. ‘You deserve what’s coming for you. Just wait and see.’ Or ‘You’re responsible for Brent’s death.’ ”
On Wilkins’s suicide, he offers this: “Maybe it was a powerful moment. I don’t know. Maybe it was a super powerful moment. I don’t recommend suicide for anyone, but I also don’t judge it. I think sometimes, for some people, it is a powerful decision.”

I ask if he has ever considered suicide.

“Oh yeah,” he replies. “I think every sane person has contemplated suicide every once in a while.” Reality is an illusion, he reminds me. Our bodies are too. It’s like a video game.

“You’re playing a video game. You know it’s not really you; it’s not ultimately real. The video game ends. If you fall down a cliff, you still exist. You just walk away from the game console and you’re fine.”

I came here wondering if I could find a sense of peace outside organized religion, trying to be as open as I could to a new sort of spirituality. In one of our Skype sessions, Massaro agreed that he had tapped into the cultural zeitgeist that allowed him to reach people in a way a traditional spiritual teacher no longer could—especially with millennials, the generation least likely to identify with a religious group, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
“I’ve asked myself, if Buddha or Jesus lived today, would they have a Facebook page?” Massaro says. Instagram in particular is a medium he finds conducive to spirituality. “The pictures have an energy,” he explains. “It’s why people stare at gurus in the East: They have a certain power.”

He says he shows a life of abundance because otherwise millennials wouldn’t click on any of his photos. I admit I find some of this confusing: He talks about overcoming attachment and desire, yet he seems to like nice things.

“Is that really what I like, or is that part of the message?” he asks. He compares himself to a martial artist, responding intuitively to what’s coming in. The “collective” likes to see pictures of “an epic life,” and so he posts them to draw his followers in.

The more he talks, the more worn out I feel. Maybe I don’t want to get to the place where all thinking stops, or to feel eternal bliss, or to get beyond consciousness to “the Absolute,” an idea that, no matter how long Massaro talks and what kind of diagrams he draws on the napkin before me, I cannot wrap my head around. I think of something the Buddha said, about how the whole point of non-attachment is to get to a place where you don’t really care if you’re not in a state of bliss or if you have a toothache or if your life just seems really shitty.

“Ultimately it’s about practicing what you post,” Melati Bishop says. “Are you living a lifestyle that’s aligned with what you’re saying? Would some of us still be meditating if we couldn’t prove it online?” 

I wonder if Massaro would even exist as a spiritual teacher without Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. I also wonder if he’d be doing any of this if he couldn’t post about it and track how many likes he gets. 

“Many of these practices are based in Eastern traditions that are thousands of years old, and when you take it out of that context, people are practicing only slivers of the thing itself, so it becomes fragmented and fractured,” she says. “People are simultaneously becoming more enlightened and more lost.” 

After my Boulder trip I call Naomi Melati Bishop, a writer and self-described millennial hippie who has done Mayan steam baths, traveled 10,000 miles tracking down a mystic and become Facebook friends with her shamans. She acknowledges that social media might be great for raising awareness of things like crystal healing or that studio in Brooklyn that offers shamanic purification rituals, but it can also present an inaccurate picture of what it takes to attain something even close to enlightenment.
Massaro stays in touch. He texts me on Whats­App to vent about a documentary on YouTube that makes him look like a cult leader, explaining that he allowed the filmmakers access to a retreat he held in the Netherlands thinking they would portray him fairly. Instead, they spliced together snippets of Massaro saying things like “When you stumble upon a point of view that feels good about someone else being raped, are you willing to accept that point of view?”
The video shows him once again confronting the C word: “I don’t really have a definition of cult. But you could break it down as Curious and Unconditionally Loving Tribe, C-U-L-T. That would be the positive expression of a cult.”

Not long after, I’m alerted to a new post on Facebook, this one by Massaro’s ex-girlfriend Jocelyn Daher. She describes how Massaro told her he couldn’t have sex with her unless she lost weight because fat suggests stored toxins. She describes three months of eating only fruits and vegetables, dry fasting and working out twice a day. On a related blog post, she describes her time with Massaro as “10 months of complete obliteration of everything I knew myself to be.” His disciples hovered near him, looking for constant approval, Daher writes, but none of them seemed happy; they all seemed lost.

As their relationship progressed, he told her she was preventing him from accessing his “God-self.” “I remember one time he said to me that my mind to him was like having ‘a fly in the room.’ My ‘personhood’ seemed to be an annoyance and a hindrance to his ‘absorption into the all.’ ”

In the weeks after I meet Massaro, he continues to post affirming messages, encouraging his then 23,000 Instagram followers to stop doubting themselves and unlock their potential through forgiveness.

But then something shifts. Massaro’s posts begin to take on a menacing edge. The week after Daher’s piece, he posts videos on Instagram in which he suggests that most people aren’t up to the task of pursuing “real spirituality” and don’t know what real love is. He posts a picture of another girlfriend, the former model, saying women who think they’re oppressed are living in a fantasy world. It seems like a shot at Daher, who described their relationship as oppressive. He tells his critics to get off his page.
“You’re mostly blind,” he writes in one post on Instagram around that same period. “You’re ruining your life; no one else is. Most of you are nowhere near who you truly are.”

The comments, many of them negative, start to flood his feed.

I think of the last time I saw him, the two of us sitting outside a coffee shop. I asked him if he ever thought about quitting. He did, he said. Sometimes he just wanted to go “sit on a rock in India.” But he wasn’t like other spiritual teachers. There was something alive in him. “There’s a fire, a passion, a devotion that’s willing to die for the cause,” he’d told me earlier.

He asked me what I think happens when we die, and I told him I wasn’t sure. “I used to think it just fades to black,” I said. “The light goes off. We cease to exist.”

He nodded, and for a brief moment I saw something I hadn’t seen in him before—a crack of doubt. He didn’t seem like a New Age guru with all the answers or an enlightened being who had achieved upper-level density, whatever that means. We were just two dudes, sitting outside a strip mall in Colorado, sipping coffee and trying to figure out if any of this had any meaning.

“But now I wonder,” I said. “Maybe there is something beyond this.”

The light returned to his face, and he nodded with excitement, once again the spiritual teacher so many had found online. It seemed he really believed he could help me, that I too could find eternal bliss and that, if I listened long enough, it would all make sense.

I just had to trust him.

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