My journey into the dark, hypnotic world of a millennial guru

Bentinho Massaro offers to guide his followers towards communion with a higher life force. ‘Spiritual influencers’ are flourishing online. Their model is built on recruiting eager followers – but what happens when they attract vulnerable people?

The Guardian/January 9, 2020

by Oscar Schwartz

Towards the end of 2017, Bentinho Massaro, a 29-year-old self-styled spiritual teacher with a considerable online following, chose the town of Sedona, Arizona as the location for a 12-day long spiritual bootcamp. Among the red sandstone cliffs that rise like temples from the desert floor, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Dutchman offered to guide his most dedicated adherents towards communion with a higher life force, or in his words, “the absolute truth of the one infinite creator”.

For those who could afford the $1,199 ticket, this would be achieved through group meditation, self-inquiry and grape juice cleanse fasting. For those who couldn’t, enlightenment would be available for a reduced price online via livestream.

Over the preceding seven years, Bentinho had built a near half-million strong following on the internet. On YouTube (86,000 subscribers), he uploaded lengthy “third eye power” meditations to help followers “activate their pineal gland”. On Facebook (300,000 followers), he offered advice on how to maintain intimate and empowering relationships. His Instagram feed (32,000 followers) rendered a “super accelerated” lifestyle of adventure sports, international travel, and cigar smoking.

The Sedona Experiment II, as the retreat was called, was set to be an intense distillation of Bentinho’s most profound teachings. But a few days before the retreat started, an independent journalist named Be Scofield self-published an article on Medium claiming that Bentinho was using his social media nous to foster a cult-like following. His content, she alleged, encouraged devotees to abandon critical thinking and embrace Bentinho as a God-like figure.

This was not the first time Bentinho had come under scrutiny. Some detractors occasionally accused him of using his platforms to hook vulnerable seekers into endless engagement and blind support. And he did peddle some fringe ideas, like his plan to build a fully enlightened society by 2035, or his belief that he vibrated at a higher frequency than other humans. But for the most part, his followers consumed his content with relish. Though most had never met Bentinho in person, he became a daily, intimate presence in their lives. He was their spiritual influencer and they were his devotional fandom.

The 12-day Sedona retreat started on 4 December 2017. Around halfway through, tragedy struck. A long-time devotee was found in a river at the bottom of a ravine, a few miles from where the retreat was taking place. A suicide note was found in his Toyota, parked 225ft above, beside an overhanging bridge.

As news spread, Bentinho’s well-crafted online image began to unravel. Was it possible, some of his most loyal followers began to ask, that Bentinho was the digital incarnation of the manipulative guru, his powers amplified by the vortex-like suck of social media?

Bentinho’s ascent as an online spiritual teacher began in 2010. The fresh-faced 21-year-old had recently returned to his native Holland after a half-year “spiritual voyage” in India. There, in an abandoned ashram on the outskirts of Rishikesh, he experienced what he would later refer to as an “awakening”, a spiritual experience where the duality between the self and the universe dissolves into cosmic oneness.

Convinced he could guide others towards this euphoria, Bentinho was overcome by an evangelical impulse. From his parents’ house in a middle-class suburb outside Amsterdam, he began recording spiritual sermons and uploading them to YouTube. In one of these early videos, entitled “What is Bliss?”, Bentinho films himself walking down a country road, flanked by green pastures and farmyard cottages. For the first eight seconds he stares into the camera, smiling.

“When the mind starts to realize that its very nature is freedom itself,” he says, voice quavering as if he is about to start laughing or crying, it’s hard to tell, “then the inevitable response of the mind, or you could say of the body, is bliss.”

Along with YouTube videos, Bentinho launched a website and a Facebook page to connect with a community of seekers, many of whom belonged to an earlier generation of New Age spirituality. For them, Bentinho’s youthful energy was rousing – he was a “digitally native” spiritual teacher who could use social media to spread wisdom to new frontiers.

Bentinho was by no means the first spiritual teacher to use the internet as a pulpit. In the early 1990s, the internet was already democratizing and pluralizing spirituality. As well as offering established religious authorities new platforms to spread their message, it gave highly local or more obscure movements, like Falun Gong or transhumanism, new opportunities to recruit and grow. But this was also met with some alarm, triggering fears that the internet would become a powerful recruiting apparatus for a profane and cult-ish underground.

These anxieties were amplified in 1997, after 39 members of the UFO-cult, Heaven’s Gate, committed mass suicide on the direction of their guru, Marshall Herff Applewhite Jr. At least one among the deceased had been recruited via Heaven’s Gate’s distinctly Geocities-esque website, where the leader left a goodbye message the day before the tragedy unfolded. In the aftermath, some media reports suggested that the disaster signaled the unacknowledged indoctrinating power of the web – “an object lesson in the evils of the Internet, that Black Lagoon of mind-control cults and conspiracy theories,” as one New York Times journalist put it.

The panic subsided. In the cultural imagination of the 1990s, a cult leader still needed a physical location – a remote farm, a secluded commune – to isolate adherents and pull their cognitive and emotional selves to pieces. As journalist Joshua Quittner wrote in Time Magazine: “A Web page that has the power to suck people – against their will – into a suicide cult?… give me a break.”

But the rise of social media in the decades since has led to a gradual convergence of the virtual and the real, making the notion of being “sucked in” by a website palpable. The internet is where most of us access culture, community and, increasingly, spiritual nourishment. This has, in turn, given rise to a new generation of astrologers, self-help gurus, wellness experts, and mindfulness guides who use their networks to provide answers to life’s most confounding questions, while building personal brands.

Often, these spiritual influencers offer solace and higher purpose at a time when confidence in traditional religious authority in the west is rapidly waning. But occasionally, they can be destructive. As always, there are grifters who extort impressionable followers for clout and money. More disturbing are the conspiracy theorists, religious extremists, and ideologues who draw in vulnerable users searching for something to believe in.

From the perspective of the algorithms, there is little difference between the genuine and pernicious guru: they are simply high-octane users who excel at creating engaging content for their followers. Unhampered by geographical constraints, their entire business model, or spiritual mission, is built on recruiting eager followers.

Although his earliest followers didn’t know it, Bentinho Massaro’s rise as an online spiritual teacher would go to the heart of this dynamic, testing the boundaries between the spiritual influencer and the charismatic manipulator. From the beginning, he had a preternatural talent for making his followers fall in love not only with his teachings, but with his online persona.

“Thanks, Bentinho,” an early student remarked on a YouTube video. “You’re so full of life and joy, jeez its infatuating :)”

Lynn Parry discovered Bentinho in 2012, just as his online profile was rising.

Thirty and living alone in London, she had recently dropped out of a PhD program in educational psychology and was spending a lot of time watching spiritual lectures on YouTube. The platform’s recommendation algorithm registered this fixation, and one day, queued Bentinho’s videos.

Immediately, Perry was drawn in – “I genuinely felt he had a light,” she told me.

By this stage, Bentinho’s teachings had come to focus on two key ideas. The first was that achieving a state of enlightenment was possible without meditation or intense self-reflection. You simply had to become “aware of your awareness”. The second was a re-articulation of the law of attraction made famous by Rhonda Byrne in her 2010 bestseller The Secret, which posited that thoughts have a magnetic pull that physically attract similar energies from the universe.

Parry found the teachings engaging, but she was more interested in the community around them. Throughout her 20s, she had visited several spiritual communities – in South Africa (where she is originally from), in India, in Scotland. Bentinho’s Facebook page was the first virtual community that she actively engaged in.

Bentinho would come out with a new video most weeks. He would be sitting cross legged on a chair in front of a small crowd, musing on topics like “How to Change Your Past” or “Absolute Freedom”. Virtual followers would watch and discuss. “It was a place where things made sense,” she said, “where we all shared the same language.”

After two years, Parry travelled to one of Bentinho’s retreats in the US. She was as taken in person as she was online, and soon was spending long periods of time in Boulder, Colorado, where Bentinho and a core group of followers had set up an office on the main street. Wedged between yoga studios and coffee shops, they were building a movement called Trinfinity, whose core mission was to instigate a global spiritual revolution.

Trinfinity proposed that the solution to life’s most intractable problems were found through personal improvement and spiritual transcendence. If you were struggling with life, it was not because of the social, political, or economic systems that govern it but because of a deficient or “misaligned” perception of reality. Lasting change could only be achieved if an individual was able to “wake up” to their “truest self”, to look past the distortions of the material world and exist in a higher plane of consciousness.

Bentinho was the prodigious shepherd leading the community towards this enlightened state of being. He commanded respect because of his genuine knowledge of alternative spirituality. His mother, an elementary school teacher, and father, an energy company worker, were enthusiastic adopters of New Age practices. When Bentinho was just a boy, they enrolled him in a self-help and meditation program developed by an American electrician in the 1940s called the Silva Mind Control method, which was supposed to increase IQ and instruct in clairvoyance.

This triggered in the already intense child a lifelong desire to find alternative pathways to making sense of reality. As a teenager, Bentinho enrolled in pseudoscientific human optimization courses like Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Emotional Freedom Technique. He also took up yoga, meditation and Reiki. These interests set him apart at school, and he would later define this period of his life as a “desperate quest, filled with effort, judgment, self-torture and constant striving”.

But in Trinfinity, he found a like-minded community of fellow seekers. When he spoke, they listened.

Initially the core community of around a dozen team members in Boulder were free to spread Bentinho’s teachings however they wanted. Parry established a children’s meditation camp. “At the beginning it was just a bunch of friends who came together with a true intention of real spiritual connection,” she said. “And we just wanted to share that and go deeper into that.”

By the middle of 2015, though, Parry felt the focus begin to shift. Bentinho was spending a lot of time engaging online followers and was diverting more of the company’s resources towards growing and monetizing his following. According to Parry, Trinfinity was spending up to $10,000 a month on Facebook advertising and releasing content in hierarchical tiers. Much of the online material remained free, but if a follower wanted access to “exclusive” courses, a subscription was required. A Skype chat cost $600 an hour. Retreats were held at luxury international resorts, setting followers back thousands of dollars.

Bentinho’s image was also changing from guileless spiritual seeker to a tan, buff health bro, a transformation intimately detailed on his increasingly popular Instagram account. The stream of images – Bentinho free-diving in Bali, posing in lotus position meters underwater; Bentinho scaling a sheer boulder-face, topless; Bentinho sharing a cocktail with a girlfriend – served as living proof that his teachings really worked. This “epic life” would be available to his followers, too, the Trinfinity teachings implied, if they just subscribed to the next lesson, watched the next video, or bought his book.

The re-branding proved lucrative and by 2016, Trinfinity was bringing in “a lot of money”, Parry said. Still in his mid-20s, Bentinho relished the success. He bought himself a new car and took lavish holidays with models he met online. He also picked up a habit of smoking expensive cigars which, he claimed, could be “beneficial if you know how to attune your consciousness to the consciousness/spirit/information of the plant”.

Bentinho’s success attracted newcomers to Trinfinity, too, who were more devotional and ambitious. One woman, who is still close to Bentinho, wrote a blog post claiming that he was a “spiritual prodigy” whose “vision surpassed Elon Musk’s easily”.

On social media, community members depicted their life as a harmonious, carefree example of a fully conscious existence. But according to Parry, there were ever-present tensions and conflicts, particularly around money and online clout. She said Bentinho paid his core team a salary of $1,000 a month, occasionally handing out bonuses for extra work. “He could be very kind and giving, but he had this hierarchical way of paying salaries, which also felt controlling,” she said. “He decided who got paid more and who got to have more prominent positions. It was supposed to be this equal community, but it didn’t feel that way.”

Towards the end of 2016, a few team leaders held a weekend workshop to plan how they could scale Trinfinity beyond Bentinho’s cult of online personality. Feeling betrayed, the young guru left Boulder for a silent meditation retreat in Thailand, after which he emerged with a grand new plan for Trinfinity’s future. They would relocate to Sedona, Arizona, and work towards buying a plot of land where they would lead the planet towards global enlightenment by the year 2035.

“Ben was saying, you know, you need to see me as your guru if you’re going to be part of this,” Parry said. “And I’m not going to have naysayers around.”

While reporting this story, I spent dozens of hours sitting in my bedroom, laptop resting on a pillow, working my way through the vast archive of content that Bentinho has left online since 2010. I found much of the spiritual material inaccessible, requiring a repertoire for abstract concepts like “infinity” and “vibrations” that I simply don’t have. Some of his theories concerning extraterrestrial consciousness and “interstellar absorption” were preposterous, though admittedly entertaining.

But in some of his lectures, Bentinho reminded me distinctly of Tony Robbins, the 6ft7 in motivational speaker who has built a $500m empire by prescribing the secrets to a successful life.

Like Robbins, Bentinho commands attention by cultivating a hyper-masculine persona, presenting an archetypal image of total control. The key difference, though, is that Robbins, who began coaching in the 1980s, came up through the seminar circuit, spreading his message in venues that have the energy of mega-churches.

Through this direct interaction with attendees Robbins has, over the years, come to understand that his seminars attract a vulnerable demographic. Now, as a precautionary measure, Robbins’ staff do thorough background checks on attendees, compiling “red flag” lists of people to watch over carefully throughout the seminar. (Robbins was recently accused of abuse by some former students, a claim that he denies.)

Bentinho, on the other hand, has gathered his flock on social media, meaning that most followers experience his “life transforming” teachings as I did: all alone in their room, with no background checks.

Lukas Jansen (a pseudonym) stumbled upon Bentinho’s YouTube videos when he was 25, living at his parents’ house recovering from a period of heavy drinking, obsessive gaming and panic attacks. He had already explored the writings of other self-help gurus, like Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti, but he found Bentinho more immediately relatable.

In particular, Jansen was drawn to Bentinho’s message of self-empowerment, the idea that suffering could disappear through force of positive imagination alone. “He told us that we are all the best and have infinite potential, and at those moments, I felt like I was in a bubble. I felt super happy, super energetic. I felt on top of the world,” Jansen said. “Like a child can go into his imagination and forget the whole world, that’s pretty much what I did when I watched the videos. I could distance myself from this suffering Lukas with a very mediocre life.”

But the moment Jansen stopped engaging, the high would wear off and he’d once again be faced with the reality that he was a man in his 20s living with his parents, rarely leaving his room due to crippling anxiety. To avoid the comedown, Jansen retreated further into Bentinho’s teachings, sometimes watching up to 10 hours a day.

Having waded my way through Bentinho’s content, this level of dedication was perplexing. But Jansen explained that what really held him was this sense of manufactured intimacy that Bentinho cultivated. In some videos, Bentinho would spend minutes simply gazing into the camera, smiling, occasionally whispering “I love you.” Jansen felt seen. He would respond beneath Bentinho posts with comments like, “You’re amazing. You’re the most beautiful spiritual teacher ever I’ve ever seen.”

I spoke to several other Bentinho followers, a diverse demographic, who described a similar feeling. In moments of extreme vulnerability – after being fired, during a divorce, coming off prescription drugs – they had gone online looking for spiritual solace, and were guided by the invisible hand of YouTube’s recommendation algorithms to Bentinho. He told them that all they needed to improve their lives was to believe that their lives were good, and in front of the screen, with his unceasing affirmation, they could momentarily believe it was so.

Though they never met Bentinho, these followers were the silent engine behind his spiritual movement. They shared his content, commented on every one of his posts, and were often responsible for moderating his Facebook page. They were repaid with new spiritual content from the guru. But the joy they derived from the videos was hallucinatory, dissociative, fleeting. When they looked away from the screen, they were once again faced with the reality of their lives. So they went back online.

One woman told me that Bentinho’s teachings gave her a dopamine rush: “It made me feel manically better. It was definitely like a drug.” Another said that the videos allowed her to disconnect from her emotions. “It’s all about pretending you are in a life in which you really aren’t,” she said.

In 2017, Parry moved to Sedona to stay close to the Trinfinity community, who had become like family, but she stopped associating with Bentinho, unwilling to abide what she felt was “increasingly authoritarian behavior”. But others, including her close friend, Brent Wilkins, remained loyal adherents.

Parry met Wilkins several years earlier, at her first Bentinho retreat. A former tennis pro, Wilkins was tall, square-jawed, and handsome. But he was plagued, Parry felt, by anxiety and low self-confidence. After the retreat, Wilkins, who had already tried sobriety, Christianity and Eckhart Tolle in his quest for inner peace, bought into Bentinho’s teachings and online persona. He began consuming his content in large volumes and attending retreats. Eventually, he was spending long stints living with the Trinfinity community in Boulder.

His friends outside the community felt that the more committed Wilkins became, the more anxious and dissociated he grew. At one point, his parents convinced him to move home and seek psychological help. But no matter where Wilkins lived, his teacher was just one click away.

Towards the end of 2017, Wilkins moved into a spare room in Parry’s house, preparing for the Sedona Experiment II. Parry had completely disengaged from Bentinho’s teachings, which she felt were “full of shit”. But she avoided discussing this with Wilkins. “He had Ben on a pedestal and he really believed the perfect image that he put out there,” she said. “I didn’t want to confuse him by shattering the illusion.”

On 4 December, Wilkins began the 12-day program. At some point during the sixth day, he quietly left the group and drove his Toyota to a nearby bridge that passed over a river some 225ft below. He parked, walked over to the ledge, and jumped, plummeting between the red sandstone cliffs to his death.

As news of Wilkins’ death spread online, it prompted a debate about whether Bentinho’s influence played some part. This was compounded by the fact that three days before the retreat began Be Scofield, who frequently reported on cases of abuse in spiritual communities, had published an exposé entitled, Tech Bro Guru: Inside the Sedona Cult of Bentinho Massaro.

Scofield had moved to Sedona a few months earlier, attracted by its New Age history. By chance, in her first week in town she was invited to a Full Moon gathering where she met a number of core members of Bentinho’s community. When they told her that their young teacher would be leading them towards “The Absolute” her “guru-radar” was triggered.

Over the next month, under the alias “Shakti Hunter”, Scofield spent more time with Bentinho’s community, carefully observing how it all worked. She liked the people she met at the various group meditations and ecstatic dance sessions – they were young, welcoming, free-spirited. But they also appeared to suspend their better judgment when it came to their teacher. One acolyte unselfconsciously told Scofield that they believed Bentinho could change the weather.

As well as spending time with the community, Scofield trawled through Bentinho’s online archive. Having encountered people that she considered to be manipulative gurus in the past, she came to the conclusion that Bentinho was using social media to build a cult-like following. She wrote a Medium post outlining her concerns, and on 1 December, posted it to Facebook and then left Sedona for Texas.

In her article, which was shared hundreds of thousands of times, she levelled serious accusations against Bentinho: that he was verbally abusive to students; that he pushed some people away from family and close friends; that he traded freely in bizarre conspiracies. She also dug up archival footage of Bentinho saying that he had tortured a cat as a young child. For Scofield, this was textbook behavior for the manipulative guru, supercharged by the affordances of online platforms. “Tech bro Guru has arrived,” she wrote. “The OS has been upgraded. Cult 2.0 is upon us.”

Most concerning for Scofield was how Bentinho’s teachings seemed to “normalize” death. In one video referenced in her article, Bentinho says that because we all eventually die, life is about “giving up everything you have for the sake of the vision, to become the vision.” In another, he tells followers not to fear death, but to be excited by it. (Scofield’s article, according to her, was eventually taken down by Medium for violating company policy by uploading recordings of Bentinho and his staff without their consent.)

Scofield was not alone in her concerns. According to reporting in The Arizona Republic, the police chief in Sedona had been notified about Bentinho’s group. After Wilkin’s death, he sent two detectives to pay Bentinho a visit at his house, questioning him about a video they found online in which he says, “wake up to something important. Otherwise, kill yourself.”

Ultimately, Bentinho was not a suspect in Wilkins’ death, which was treated as a suicide. No criminal or civil charges were ever brought against Bentinho or Trinfinity.

Two days after Wilkins’ death, Bentinho posted on Facebook expressing his condolences to the family. “I am sad to never see your physical smile again, my handsome, radiant friend,” he wrote, “but I feel your essence and its light within me, and I sense your newfound freedom.”

But according to Parry, Bentinho developed a stigma in Sedona. “A lot of people were really hurting,” says Parry. “Somebody even shouted at Ben in Wholefoods, ‘You’re no longer welcome here!’”

After Wilkins’ death, Bentinho’s name became associated with the label, “cult”. For some he was still a “spiritual rockstar” making enlightenment accessible for a new generation via social media. But he was also accused of being an “Instagram douche meets cult leader” and “Steve Jobs meets Jim Jones”.

In April 2018, Bentinho responded to Scofield’s article on Facebook, not addressing any of the specific accusations, but instead accusing Scofield of being a cult leader herself, “appealing to all the dormant fears in those around the world who are part of one of the biggest cults on our planet today: The Average American Cult – indoctrinated by media, scared of just about anything outside of their own family home, and ready to pull a gun out on anyone they do not understand.”

Two documentaries soon followed, which explicitly explored the cult accusations. One, produced by the UK-based YouTube channel, Barcroft TV, splices together audio recordings of Bentinho shouting at followers –“You are scared little toddlers… Fuck you” – while playing footage of a woman breaking down on stage at one of his seminars.

In the other, produced by Vice, Bentinho tries to convince a skeptical journalist that he can make it stop raining telekinetically. “Once someone in the media has labeled you a cult it’s really hard to ditch that label. How do you feel about that?” the journalist asks. “We are a cult,” Bentinho responds, smirking. “We are a Curious, Understanding, Loving, Tribe.”

When I asked Parry and Jansen whether they felt that Bentinho’s community was cult-like, they expressed ambivalence. Both acknowledged there were elements of authoritarianism and manipulation, but also had an aversion to the label.

But for others, particularly family members of people who had become part of Bentinho’s community, the term “cult” was preferred. Trish Wilkins, Brent’s mother, was quoted in the Arizona Republic saying: “He’s a member of a cult! He joined a cult there. We call it a cult.”

Another mother, Janet Smith (a pseudonym), whose daughter is still intimately involved with Bentinho’s community, was also adamant that “cult” was the right term.

“Since she went on one of Bentinho’s retreats she has not been the same,” Smith told me. “When I call her she gives weird answers and meditates all the time. She talks about 2035 being the time when the whole world will live in peace. I ask her what the hell she is talking about. She tells me: You have no idea! You are trapped in your limited prejudices about humanity. I managed to free myself from that. I have the overview.”

A number of former followers published articles online about Bentinho’s behavior, including a one-time lover. She alleges that Bentinho would often subject her and other followers to “distortion readings”, a kind of intense, unregulated therapy, where he would “dissect” their egos, tell them where they were “out of alignment.”

This process was supposed to lead adherents towards an understanding of their “truer self”, but the former girlfriend, who has since left the community, says that it left her emotionally shattered. “Anytime I would express my own opinion, I was told it was my “ego’s” defense mechanism to try to survive. That the best thing I could do was to surrender to the death of my ego,” she writes. “It was ten months of complete obliteration of everything I knew myself to be.”

Rick Ross, a noted cult deprogrammer and founder of the Cult Education Institute, an online resource that provides information about contemporary cult-like groups, told me that this feeling of being led away from yourself is a symptom of cult dynamics.

Ross’ definition of cult dynamics are based off the work of Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist and historian who rose to prominence after studying the techniques used by the Chinese military to brainwash captured American servicemen during the Korean War. Lifton called this process “thought reform”, and Ross, who has followed Bentinho’s online ascent, believes that his teachings act out elements of this process.

He uses language that makes little sense to those outside the group but become “loaded” with connotations and meaning for those on the inside. He offers up his own “sacred science”, a set of dogmatic principles that claim to embody the truth about human behavior and psychology. And he assumes the position of an omniscient leader with a “God’s-eye view” whose insight can, alone, guide others to an otherwise inaccessible truth.

“Whether or not he is meaning to do it, these techniques are designed to break down individual autonomy,” Ross told me. “If you’re exposed to it for long enough, suddenly everything else stops making any sense.”

What makes this most troubling, for Ross, is that the impact of Bentinho’s teachings are not limited to those directly in his physical orbit. Any vulnerable person who might stumble on, or be recommended, his content online can fall under the spell. He compared it to fishing with a line versus trawling with a net. “There is just so much more scope now to catch new followers,” he said.

Over the past five years, we have heard stories about dejected adults people being fed conspiracy theories, isolated youth radicalized by white nationalists, children incited to inflict violence by nefarious virtual characters.

Within these narratives, social media is depicted as a vortex that algorithmically siphons us into homogeneous echo chambers controlled by ideological extremists and malignant narcissists. The internet, in other words, is a cult machine under whose influence we have all lost our collective minds.

But Tara Isabella Burton, an academic theologian turned religion reporter whose forthcoming book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, examines contemporary religious and spiritual expression, says that the history of cults offers more nuanced insight into contemporary life online.

In the 1960s and 70s, she explained, traditional religious institutions began eroding in the West while the desire for spiritual nourishment remained steadfast. This led to what has since been called the Fourth Great Awakening, the first three referring to a series of fervent Christian revivals that swept through New England throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Unlike these earlier revivals, which were Evangelical in spirit, the fourth awakening was characterized by an individual search for metaphysical truth that looked towards the East and the occult for inspiration. Conservative institutions and Christian groups reacted with fear and demonization, which intensified after the highly publicized case of the Manson family. But according to Burton, most of these new movements were not dangerous. “They provided a sense of meaning, a sense of community and ritual,” she said, “a way of participating in the grand metaphysical architecture of the world for those who otherwise felt left out of such an experience.”

Over the past decade or so, Burton added, the internet has broadened and intensified this dynamic. Online spiritual communities offer a safe and exploratory experience for those who feel marginalized, alienated, or exiled from traditional religions. As in the 20th century, these new spiritual movements are often met with condescension and fear. But while the low-barrier-to-entry of spirituality online means that vulnerable seekers are at risk of being exploited by a larger pool of ideologues, narcissists, and charlatans, Burton emphasized that spiritual communities on social media are mostly just filling a void.

“We still have the same spiritual needs and spiritual hunger for meaning and purpose and community and ritual that we’ve always had,” she said. “But the panoply of spiritual options online means that there are never-ending alternatives for almost everyone.”

Bentinho’s online presence satiates this hunger for tens of thousands of seekers online. For some, he comes to engulf their lives. For most, he is just one of many characters in the feed, popping up between astrology memes, witchcraft wellness advice, and political news, offering a moment of insight or some temporary solace,

For Burton, the malleable constellations of spiritual experience we can curate signify a new era of pluralism. Gurus are selected not only because of their insight, but because their content is highly engaging. Long term commitment to a single teacher or doctrine is no longer a requirement, and adherence can be as easy as “following” and “unfollowing”.

To be sure, Bentinho is just one minor act within this broader online awakening. Although he is no prophet, his rise does foretell something: the next great religious leader, when they arrive, will deliver their sermon not form the mount, but from the smartphone. They will find their flock online.

For Lukas Jansen, Bentinho’s influence started to recede when he learnt of Wilkins’ suicide. On the advice of a friend, he began reading articles about narcissism, and over the course of a few weeks, he came to believe that Bentinho’s spiritual movement existed only to satisfy his own fathomless need for admiration.

In 2018, he quietly disengaged from the community and joined the Bentinho Massaro Recovery Group on Facebook, made up of around two dozen others who had come to see their former guru as a spiritual fraud.

To begin, Jansen felt intense anger towards his former spiritual teacher, but as he regained a stronger purchase on his own identity, he saw things differently. If he once needed Bentinho, he now realized that the guru needed his followers even more. Jansen could leave, unfollow, start again. Bentinho was stuck in an echo-chamber he had created. “He can’t live without the reassurance of his followers now,” Jansen said. “If it’s a cult, it’s a cult of attention.”

Parry, who no longer blames Bentinho for Wilkins’ death, has arrived at a similar conclusion. Bentinho, she felt, started out as a genuine spiritual seeker who became intoxicated by positive feedback online.

“But I guess this is what a lot of people do on the internet,” Parry said. “They put out a perfect persona and image without putting out, you know, all the hard stuff and how they’re struggling. Without meaning to, they make other people feel like they’re not good enough, that there’s this gap between where they are and where they should be. And for people like Brent, for many of us really, it’s just too much for the spirit to handle.”

Parry still lives in Sedona and is, in spite of everything, committed to spiritual self-actualization. She guides meditation classes among the red cliffs that rise from the desert floor around the town, where the Earth’s spiritual vortexes are believed to converge, amplifying the energy of whoever sits in their presence.

Bentinho, on the other hand, has gone the opposite route. After Wilkins’ death, he left Sedona citing an influx of “ominous” energy. Then, after one final retreat in Holland in 2018, he shifted to an entirely online model of spiritual leadership. All of his teachings, all of his communications, all access to his person were, for the time being, fully mediated through the platforms. He became a guru in the cloud.

I tried on numerous occasions to reach him for comment. I hit up his Instagram, his Facebook, his YouTube, a handful of email addresses. I called old acquaintances and got phone numbers that had all been disconnected. I even reached out to his mother, who responded that she would try to get in touch with him, but then ignored my follow ups.

Then, by the end of summer, I received an update from Bentinho on Facebook. It was a link to his “newest offering”, a 25-week course called The Next Level. The website featured an image of an astronaut being sucked through a funnel of moonrock towards the light, as if falling into an endless abyss.

Those who took the plunge and hit subscribe, Bentinho pledged, would experience a “Shift in Identity From Which You Can’t Recover”.

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