False prophet.

"But 'tis strange And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths, Win us with honest trifles, to betray's In deepest consequence." - William Shakespeare, Macbeth

So, it's time to have an uncomfortable chat. I know, I know- we like the love and light of it all. The manifestation work. The full moon rituals. The positive tarot card readings. The joyful, buoyant energy that comes from a connection to spirit.

But that’s not the full picture, and to embrace the positive at the expense of transparency, education, and empowerment isn’t in the best interests of anybody. Yes, it’s a bit of a bummer. Yes, it’s a little bit scary. But: I will try to make it meaningful, funny and productive.

My industry has been behaving a bit like a little kid who thinks that covering their eyes means that others can’t see them. Ignorance, feigned or real, is not a real strategy when it comes to energetic, financial, and personal protection.

The strange case of Doreen Virtue

Take the example of Doreen Virtue, prolific creator of angel decks and oracle decks and fairy decks, and dozens of related new age books. For decades, Doreen emphatically insisted that there is no such thing as negative energy or entities. Her whole deal was encouraging people to only acknowledge the positive, which I personally found a bit irresponsible. When attending healing circles and other, related group events in Chicago, I would inevitably come across one of her adherents, who had inevitably paid thousands of dollars for Doreen’s angel card reading classes and certifications and went around the space preaching the gospel of toxic positivity. They would say things like, “Negative entities only exist if you believe in them.”

Bull. Sh*t.

Then, as one might have predicted, Doreen eventually came across a negative entity in her work. The experience spun her out so hard that she immediately and emphatically denounced all of her previous New Age work, and is now squarely pro-Christian (and rather fundamentalist). She pulled the ultimate 180 and, as a result, she effectively abandoned her existing fan base and those who spent large sums of money in trainings that the creator now deemed “evil”.

I remember rolling my eyes and shaking when I heard about this. To me, it seemed like the same kind of behavior that she had exhibited on the other side of the issue, reflecting an apparent inability to embody nuance, context, or a position somewhere in the middle.

And isn’t most of life somewhere in the middle? I mean, how can you be 100% certain on two mutually-opposing sides of an argument without acknowledging a bit of a messy middle? But I digress…

I think that her commitment to toxic positivity set her up for a big gut punch when reality came in to say “hi”, and it’s my opinion that if she had educated herself, gotten real, accepted that she didn’t have ALL of the answers and prepared her fans and clients for a variety of contingencies, her encounter with the inevitable negative entity wouldn’t have been such a shock to the system or resulted in such a dramatic sea change. Perhaps she wouldn’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater if she had given herself- and her millions of followers- the space to accommodate and address new- and sometimes negative- experiences. I don’t take issue with her becoming a Christian- like Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism among others, I think it’s a beautiful faith system when implemented in the spirit of the word.

The issue is more that the permission we give ourselves to change our minds as and when new data comes in is so crucial for every area of life, not the least of which is a spiritual practice.

The energetic ecosystem

While many refer to these negative entities as "demons", I tend to look at them as parasites. After all, we're in an energetic ecosystem: it only makes sense that there are scavengers and parasites and other nasty things to keep an eye out for on the metaphorical nature hike alongside the fuzzy herbivores and friendly omnivores. Essentially, I looked at Doreen Virtue's previous, intentional obliviousness to be the equivalent of a tour guide telling a hiker there is no such thing as rattlesnakes or ticks or mountain lions, so they don't need to worry about it or prepare for it.

But these beings are real, and they can cause some real issues as you move along your path. So, magical thinking may not be the best preparation for reality.

John of God

This theme was reawakened as I watched the new Netflix docuseries John of God: The Crimes of a Spiritual Healer. I had known about John of God, but this docuseries really opened my eyes to the obvious (at least to me) negative entities working through him. Hell, at his “healing center”, he and his team of hundreds of employees and volunteers all referred to him as “the Entity”, acknowledging that it wasn’t the human John doing the work at all.

The opening scenes of the first episode featured video of him in bizarre, unnatural movements and eye contact so intensely creepy that I started to feel like I was watching a horror movie instead of a documentary. There is an unusual quality to the look of the eyes of a “possessed” individual- a kind of opacity with a strange glow, like a burning coal, deep within them. This “film” over the eyes is called a “klippah” in the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah, and John of God has it in spades, not to mention the fact that he doesn’t seem to need to blink. Like, ever.

What also struck me about the series was that, even those accusing him of horrendous sexual abuses (he is accused on paper of sexually assaulting more than 300 girls and women, including his daughter) they ALL acknowledged that he- or, rather, the Entity- really did perform miracles: curing inoperable brain tumors, turning cancerous tumors into benign masses, undoing MS and repeatedly curing the paralyzed such that they could walk without assistance.

And here is the first myth of a false prophet: that they are not psychic and cannot do any spiritual works.

I think John of God had a natural psychic ability. He came from a “Spiritist” family rich with practitioners, tarot card readers, and energy healers. I think he facilitated a great number of miracles and measurably, quantifiably healed some people. But I also know that those things don’t necessarily make you a good guy, nor do those attributes or capabilities mean that you are leading people in the right direction. Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman of NXIVM legitimately cured Tourette’s syndrome in a dozen or so individuals, but they did it via Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and hypnosis. What does this mean? It means that their “power” came from rewiring the neural pathways of their followers, which can be- and was- abused for nefarious purposes alongside their more altruistic applications.

In this way, the miracles and great acts are often a false virtue signal. They are a slight of hand that distracts you from the full reality of what is occurring and, more precisely, the “source” of the “power” being brought to bear and the “payment” the practitioner must be making to their Entity in exchange for such power.

Put more simply: it’s a red flag, and is less of an indication of ability than an indication of some serious skullduggery.

It’s not all or nothing. Bad guys can do good stuff from time to time and, in fact, this is a brilliant strategy for a wolf wanting to wrap themselves in sheep’s clothing, throwing the suspicious off their scent while dazzling with good- and quantifiable- deeds.

It’s is also a brilliant energy parasite strategy: to “infect” a faith system or spiritual group of impact, corrupt it, and thus turn the people against the whole concept of spirituality, effectively getting us humans to give up, throw the baby out with the bathwater, and lose our faith in spirit.

It’s efficient.

The second myth of the false prophet is that, if they are endorsed by celebrities, heads of state, or leaders of industry, they must have been vetted and be legitimate.

NXIVM was endorsed by the Dalai Lama, the global leader of Tibetan Buddhism, in exchange for a several million dollar “donation”, paid to him by the Bronfman sisters (i.e. the heirs to the Seagram liquor fortune). Likewise, John of God was given a several-episodes long deep dive by Oprah Winfrey, a mega celebrity who was herself a victim of sexual abuse and has done outreach work in this space to raise awareness and support survivors. While both of these figures have made statements defending themselves and their actions, they have not issues any statements disavowing these organizations, practitioners, or their crimes. Considering their moral high ground and position of ethical authority, it’s particularly noteworthy and confusing.

And more than a little strange, isn’t it?

Celebrities, spiritual leaders and the rest are, in spite of their incredible achievements and global reach, still human beings. Humans are messy and fallible and, in the particular case of celebrities or leaders of organizations, may have profit motives that incentivize the occasional bad decision, or at the very least inform a reticence to admit fault. Their endorsement of an organization or individual, particularly a psychic or practitioner, does not mean that they’ve undertaken an exhaustive background check. It doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a good person.

It doesn’t mean that you should trust them.

In fact, many sketchy groups make efforts and substantive investment to garner celebrity mentions or endorsements specifically to disarm the otherwise reluctant, skeptical, or questioning among us. It is a concerted, cogent business strategy, and in addition to increasing reach, eminence and revenue growth, it also provides a bit of soft risk mitigation in the form of public perception. After all: How likely are victims to come forward if he’s endorsed by Oprah? How likely are victims to report abuse to the police when the Dalai Lama personally endorsed your abuser?

Who will believe the lone survivor in this paradigm?

It’s downright diabolical, a word that is pretty apropos for this topic.

The red flags

So what do we do about all of this? How can we discern the ethical from the unethical, the good from the bad, and the supportive from the harmful? For a start, it’s crucial to keep an eye out for the red flags:

  • MLM structure: An ethical spiritual practitioner is not going to pay people to refer them clients ala multilevel marketing schemes (ala Herbalife and LulaRoe). Full stop. Now, we practitioners need to make a living and pay our bills in order to do this work, and it is appropriate for an exchange of roughly equal value (a service or product of value in exchange for money). But referral commissions and train-the-trainer commissions and the like put an additional profit motive into what should be transparent and genuine business operations and efforts made in good faith.

  • Thought-terminating cliches: I recently learned this phrase from an episode of the A Little Bit Culty Podcast. A thought-terminating cliché is a heuristic, cliched platitude that stops critical thinking, open dialogue, or natural questioning. A few examples include: “Be better, not bitter”, “It is what it is”, “What does it mean?”, and “Maybe you need to journal on that.” As a practitioner who is more than a bit sensitive and sincere about what I do, I can assure you that I will still always answer your questions to the best of my ability. Some things I don’t know- after all, we play in the realm of the mysteries of spirit and the meaning of life- but I’ll readily admit where my expertise begins and ends.

  • Complete certainty. And, along those lines, total certainty regarding all spiritual issues- such as the very nature and intent of God and the meaning of life and the answers to all of the great existential questions- is another big red flag. First of all, I believe it to be impossible, inasmuch as a human is NOT God, but it’s also an indication of hubris: the inclination to consider oneself so spectacular as to be above reproach. Honest practitioners, no matter how educated and experienced and talented, will never claim to have all of the answers, and the more genuinely confident and honest the psychic, the more they may answer some of your granular questions with a straightforward, “I don’t know.”

  • Hypnosis and NLP. These are my personal bugaboos, as they are used in Scientology, were used in NXIVM, and were used by John of God in order to gain coercive control. Hypnosis works, and it works by planting new seeds in your subconscious- not conscious- mind. Because of this, you would literally never know- i.e. be conscious of- the changes made in the session. NLP is a soft form of hypnosis, and is a persuasion technique executed through mirroring and conscious, intentional ways of speaking. Now, I’ve had a hypnosis session with a certified hypnotherapist and MD doctor (to ease my fear of dental surgery), but even that model has its flaws. Check out The Shrink Next Door: a true story of a certified therapist who manipulated his clients such that he lived in their homes in the Hamptons and actually made his clients maintain the grounds and clean the floors for free like his own, personal servant.

  • Pricing extremes. The two extremes of pricing structures- from thousands of dollars for a single session to free workshops and retreats- can be an indication of trouble a brewin’. The super expensive stuff resonates with what’s called the Sunken Cost Fallacy, in which a client is more psychologically and financially inclined to “make it work” because of the huge, upfront investment. People don’t want to admit, even to themselves, that they may have spent a bunch of time and money on something that doesn’t work. On the other end of the spectrum- of free workshops and classes and retreats- I go back to what my Grandmother used to say to be as a kid: “Nothing in life is free.” Or, as I recently gleaned from the Social Dilemma documentary: “If something is free, you are the product.” This freebie phenomenon can be another form of manipulation, one in which the client feels obligated to then sign up for other services or support them via social media. What’s more: the free intro is always to get you on a list and work to get you into a “sales funnel”, so proceed if you’re interested…but stay aware that you can always say no and stop whenever you feel like it: you don’t owe anyone anything!

  • Dramatic displays. The good guys- angels, ancestors and benevolent spirit guides- know that life itself is a miracle. In this way, demonstrating an overt miracle is really beneath them: the whole point of existence is to commune with and understand the very miracle of being here, in this body, on this beautiful planet. The good spirits are secure enough to say “no” and enforce boundaries, respecting free will and understanding that their purpose is to aid in the personal and spiritual development of the client- not to show off or erode the fabric of reality. In Voodoo, Santeria, and even Luciferianism, there is a transactional exchange of sacrifice for abilities, riches or power. The benevolent spirit guides are not transactional; rather, they are focused on supporting you in a long-term relationship, and one that ideally helps you grow as a human being. To do this, they can’t just indulge what we may want in a given moment. Instead, they give us what we need for our personal development and growth.

  • Love bombing. Starseeds, ascended masters, walk ins… yes, it’s all real. But, what really matters is that we’re here, we’re human, and we’re having a human experience. This IS THE MIRACLE. Practitioners that focus on elevating your specialness, as John of God did with the women he raped by telling all of them they were “powerful mediums”, are always using this spiritual love bombing technique to disarm and take advantage of you. This is a classic cult technique, and is also used by malignant narcissists in abusive relationships. It gives us what we all want: a sense of specialness, of worth, and of being worthy of love and admiration. But, in the wrong hands, this is used to manipulate us such that we start to act against our own best self-interests and personal wellbeing. A practitioner can acknowledge something special in you- I do it gladly all the time- while still focusing on the tangible, concrete human experience unfolding before us.

So, stay alert out there. As a member of this community, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to hold my own accountable. I’m not the asshole police, and I know that “pride goeth before the fall”, but with so many incredible new resources, books, podcasts and documentaries, I can at the very least just share some resources (see embedded links above).

To this end, here are a few other resources if you’re interesting in learning more and getting additional tips and tricks:

And, if nothing else, I know a lot of really good, transparent and well-intentioned practitioners that do NOT pay me for any referrals, so just reach out anytime if you’re curious and want to explore the landscape with a bit of curated editing: rachel@totemreadings.com.

Stay curious, stay spiritual, but also stay aware. With the economy shrinking and inflation exploding, we’re about to see a whole new batch of “healers” and “practitioners” hitting the marketplace…best to play it safe in matters of spirit.