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Conspiracy theory researchers like Dr. Peter Knight assert that conspiratorial thinking follows 3 axioms:
- Nothing is as it seems.
- Everything happens for a reason.
- Everything is connected.
For seasoned yoga students — and New Age enthusiasts — these principles will sound very familiar.
Funny story: when I cited Knight’s axioms in an interview with Buddha at the Gas Pump broadcaster Rick Archer, the 71 year-old ambassador of New Age media laughed. “But I believe all of those things!”
As well he should. As a half-century veteran of Transcendental Meditation and other forms of yoga, Archer knows that these principles can provide insight, equanimity, and resilience. But he also knows — and this is part of what we talked about— that if they cross a certain line of paranoia, or are stripped of the moral frameworks or the pastoral guidance that give shape to functional religious culture, these same rules can point in another direction. They can form the backbone of conspiratorial thinking.
“Nothing is as it seems”
This sounds an awful lot like the ancient premise of māyā, a Sanskrit term central to many Indian wisdom traditions. The word is typically translated as “illusion” or “magic show”, and reflects a history of understanding the conventional world as being a mirage, and society as a corrupting conspiracy against the pure inner self.
The Buddhist take on māyā teaches that the material world is ephemeral and unreliable, and that our attachments to it, and consequent expectations, are the source of all human suffering. Central to this view is a rebellion against rigid caste structures. The bureaucracy of religious elites is a sand castle. For many Buddhists, māyā offers a keen sense of where social conditioning becomes limiting or exploitative.
The literature central to Hinduism offers a different take on māyā: the material world is a kind of divine play, put on by benevolent forces to lead all souls towards enlightenment. In a book like the Bhagavad Gita, the roles humans play in this theatre are properly understood as ritual stagecraft. A warrior should participate whole-heartedly in battle knowing that everything has already been won, and that no death or destruction is ever in vain.
When QAnons declare that the United States became a corporation in 1871, or that Hilary Clinton has been cloned, or that the Inauguration was a holographic spectacle, they are playing the māyā card. When they view this illusory world as something they must intuitively penetrate by “doing their own research” in order for reality to be revealed, they are leaning on the Buddhist flavour of the term. They are refusing to be sheeple.
But when QAnons liken Q’s plan to a movie, posting popcorn emojis, quipping “Enjoy the show,” and somewhat-ironically seeing themselves as “digital warriors”, they are playing out a more Hindu meaning of the term. They are assured of a victory that has already occurred, but is obscured by their own immaturity. Growing up in QAnon, therefore, demands constant and faithful engagement with Q’s messages as prophetic. The fact that none of them have come true is not evidence of fraud, but of their sublime complexity.
On the outer, softer edges of QAnon doctrine, COVID-minimizing influencers like Dr. Christiane Northrup don’t dwell on the battlefield. Northrup points to the cosmic promise of ascending to the “Fifth Dimension” as she soothes her nearly half-million followers from her mansion in Maine, playing Greensleeves on her golden harp.
“Everything happens for a reason”
Here’s something that sounds like the principle of karma, which translates roughly from Sanskrit as “action”, and carries the implication of “consequence”. Through this lens, there are no coincidences. Every occurrence predicts a pattern, every choice threads a pathway through a moral landscape. The original, indigenous power of the concept is to instil a sense of awestruck responsibility for even one’s smallest choices. But in the QAnon world, the principle degrades into a mania of anxious wishes. Every word out of Trump’s mouth carries a secret code, every flag behind his podium symbolizes stages of an unfolding promise. When Biden stutters, QAnons see a glitch in the Matrix. Meanwhile, Trump plays five dimensional chess with the Deep State, or with Satan himself.
I’ve heard many Buddhist teachers assert that karma is an impossibly subtle mechanism. None but the fully enlightened, they say, can view its impartial mysteries. Not so in QAnon and the broader conspirituality field, where influencers are confident in interpreting complex world events from random screencaps of news broadcasts, and happy to put their thumb on the scale, transforming everything they see into evidence they are winning. Through every tweet, Trump is showing the faithful that everything — even losing the election and court appeals — is part of the plan.
“Everything happens for a reason” also has diagnostic and therapeutic applications. On a personal level, yoga teaching and culture often endows the practitioner with the impression that they have special access to the deep causes of things, within themselves and others. By meditating on karma, many yoga people come to claim intuitive knowledge of past traumas now playing out on personal and global scales. Then, they can position themselves as global empaths who can guide a transformational age. They feel they know how the world works.
This attitude is central to a core theme in conspirituality: if the macabre tales of QAnon are true, they will ultimately provoke mass awakening. This volatile content has a purpose, according to this reasoning. It will force us to transcend our baser selves. It’s all part of the plan.
“Everything is connected”
Yoga, Buddhist, and New Age enthusiasts will recognize the echo of “interdependence” here. In Sanskrit, pratītyasamutpāda is the principle that nothing emerges on its own, but rather from an infinite network of causes and influences.
This principle can be understood as the crowning touch of the previous two. When a person is able to see through the illusion of separate people and things, when they are able to understand time as an endless flow of causes and effects, they can also see — and be humbled by — the palpable fact that it is never clear where one person ends, and another person, or the world, begins. One traditional goal here would be to inculcate humility and empathy.
In QAnon land, “everything is connected” looks like this:
The image comes from QAnon promoter and fashion designer Dylan Louis Munroe, who discloses that his initiation into conspiracism came through theories about 9/11, but developed through his connection with cosmic forces. He channels “light-codes from these Galactic entities,” he told an interviewer. “I am part of this ground crew working with extraterrestrials to raise the vibration of earth, and raise the consciousness of humanity.” The fluid lines of his Q-labyrinth went viral in the Anon world in 2018, and also caught the eye of curators at the Met in New York, who included his work in an exhibit called — you guessed it — “Everything is connected”.
Conversion and Evangelism
A final overlap between New Age spiritualities and conspiratorial thinking can be found in the perilous moment of conversion, or “redpilling”, and how this shatters the initiate’s life, and eventually compels them to proselytize. Since its coinage by the Wachowski sisters in the Matrix films, “redpilling” has been co-opted by everyone from 9/11 Truthers to pick-up artists, to incels — and mostly recently QAnons — to describe the existential crisis that catapults the vulnerable into an exhilarating scavenger hunt of conspiracism and apocalyptic promise.
My first introduction to the term came through the cult I was living in when the first film came out in 1999. The charismatic leader of Endeavor Academy, Wisconsin Dells, relied on Marianne Williamson’s favourite book, A Course in Miracles, for most of his content. But when The Matrix hit the big screen, Charles Anderson, the leader, quickly upleveled to co-opt the red pill as a metaphor for the unexpected moment in which a spiritual seeker’s life turns inside out. He insisted the epiphany was unique to the individual, but he also described the traditional mythic arc of terrifying descent, followed by resurrection and evangelism. The so-called “Dark Night of the Soul.” The person had to “hit bottom”, Anderson would say, drawing on his Alcoholics Anonymous language as well. They had to pass through the belly of the beast. Like Jesus, they had to pass through the darkest night, the coldest earth.
This was precisely the language I saw emerge in the YogAnon movement in 2020. Influencers and their followers described the red pill and the rabbit hole in paradoxical terms: the conversion experience was overwhelming, it almost killed them with disillusionment and despair. But now they were on the other side, and the world would never be the same. They had been dreaming, and now they were awake. And it was all over, but for the posting. They would become missionaries with links, memes, and Q-maps.
Another version of the Q-map comes from a young QAnon graphic designer named Champ Parinya. As covered in a recent episode of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, Parinya’s map-making capacity is linked to experiences with psychedelics, “five-dimensional” reality, and the Tibetan meditation school of Dzogchen, which focuses intently on the realms between living and dying. The map itself, he says, emerged through the power of prayer.
“I made a very, very intentional prayer,” Parinya says. “I said to the universe, ‘I’m going to need your help channeling this information. I’m going to make a one page meme, and I need this to be the best thing I’ve ever made because I want to awaken the world.’”
“So I made the intention to have this higher dimensional knowledge channel through me, through my higher self, through my higher mind angels.”
If the spirituality and conspiracy worlds mirror each other so closely, what pulls a person over the threshold from the former into the latter? How is it that Rick Archer can hold these axioms as articles of faith, and yet be disturbed enough by the conspiratorial shadows they cast to invite me onto his podcast to caution his tens of thousands of listeners about QAnon?
Some researchers are beginning to outline personality traits that might predict susceptibility to conspiracism. “These people tend to be more suspicious, untrusting, eccentric, needing to feel special, with a tendency to regard the world as an inherently dangerous place,” Professor Josh Hart said to a student reporter at Union College, where he teaches psychology. “They are also more likely to detect meaningful patterns where they might not exist.”
As a cult survivor and researcher, I’m wary of overplaying the personality angle, or any attempt to typecast the “believer”. The fact is that cultic groups and movements are successful insofar as they are able to recruit from diverse populations. The broad recruitment spectrum of QAnon — global, multi-generational, a mixture of educational and class backgrounds, and not exclusively white — underlines this point.
If it’s unclear what ultimately drives people from spirituality into the parallel world of conspiracism, what is clear is once they head in that direction there are deep currents of history, political-economy, and technology that can push them along.
Next week, I’ll examine the history. It involves Nazis.