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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?
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.’ ”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.