The message of many gurus is oddly similar: joy and peace follow enlightenment
When John de Ruiter went looking for inner peace, he tells people he discovered “inner truth.” What he may have found is what scientists call the ‘absolute unitary state’.
Some religions characterize the out-of-body sensation as being one with the universe or with God. The Edmonton guru’s spiritual awakening is, in point of description, virtually identical to one described by others working what is known as the “international guru circuit.”
Bestselling authors Eckhart Tolle, the maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Byron Katie and even Deepak Chopra all started teaching after such an experience. Similar descriptions crop up in transcendental meditation, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and just about every major religion, along with related practices such as chanting and yoga.
Scientific research suggests the ability to feel as if transcending time and space while simultaneously at peace or joyful is hard-wired into people, and that while all “gurus” or religious leaders may feel they’ve had a unique experience, they’re probably wrong.
Australian Peter Sumner holds classes in the city of Fremantle, similar to de Ruiter’s – a process known as Satsang, from two ancient Sanskrit words meaning “truth gathering.” Although he believes de Ruiter’s unfaithful behaviour marks him as a false teacher, he tries to teach the same message: that they can tap an inner wellspring of truth and happiness.
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“The person who has awakened to the truth about themselves (and the whole world/universe) will be liberated from (feeling the) need to add ‘more’ to themselves in order to establish and strengthen their ‘egoic identity’. They will also begin to be freed from mind-made suffering and will cease causing suffering to others,” he says.
“In other words they will begin to behave less ‘unconsciously’ and … more ‘consciously’ which means more in accordance or alignment with the loving, joyous, peaceful essence now recognized as their true or unborn nature.”
For Sumner’s perspective on true consciousness to be universal, everyone who experiences it would be left with a nature that is “loving, joyous, peaceful.” It assumes they’re all benevolent, a leap of faith researchers aren’t yet willing to take.
De Ruiter’s ex-wife Joyce used to assume his perspective was benevolent. Then he admitted in front of his followers he’d cheated on her. Now living in Europe, she has moved on to study theology and cults, and found history full of people who gained power by turning the curious into believers, often by describing a similar spiritual experience.
“What is fascinating is that when one studies the history of other ‘gurus,’ one often finds similar history. I used to say it is a potent combination of strengths and weaknesses. There is no doubt John (and the others) have these qualities. They are charismatic, extreme, radical, perhaps fearless. There is also deep need, pain and perhaps dysfunction.”
She asks herself a lot of questions about her faith and why she had so much faith in the intangible.
“Critical thinking is the first thing to go, and the last thing one realizes has left,” says Joyce. “Critical thinking was discouraged. Since most of the discussion is based on abstract theology and constructs, there really is hardly any way to disprove or prove any of it. Today, I do trust my critical thinking. I do have faith, but I worked hard to earn this back.”
The flexible nature of de Ruiter’s teaching encouraged “‘being OK with everything’ and a form of passivity. I think this in some ways can be positive. It enabled me to be flexible, less rigid, less stressed about challenging situations,” she says. “On the other hand, I now have to fight to understand the balance as to when to “give in” and when to “confront” or to fight for what is right.”
Medical experts who help people recover from being in cults describe the same experience and blame it on a process called “dissociation,” in which the mind withdraws from reality based on cues and no longer connects properly to such tasks as consciousness, memory, identity and perception.
It can come about from achieving the “absolute unitary state” too many times. At its best, it can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and stress and offer practitioners a renewed sense of purpose. At its worst, it can cause extreme mental illness and even symptoms of related multiple-personality disorders.
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For a man preaching passivity, she notes, de Ruiter will pick a fight. Since she left, he has sued two former members to get back film and video of him, including former CBS News reporter Jeanne Parr-Noth.
He also sued a potential landlord for not promptly returning financial records. Joyce says she’s been in and out of court with de Ruiter since she left. “I have agreed to not do anything ‘that is potentially harmful to his earning potential.’ “
Therein lies one of the big criticisms of modern gurus: they make an awful lot of money for people who have already achieved perfect spiritual balance and happiness.
De Ruiter charges daily fees for his weeklong seminars of $25-30, with as many as 500 attending.
He charges just $5 a head for regular weekend sessions, but has four, and again draws up to 500 people.
He has more than 30 days of week-long retreats scheduled overseas this year alone, to go along with a massive collection of merchandise for sale. And none of that takes into account the cash that followers just donate.
Other gurus are similarly organized. Vancouverite Eckhart Tolle’s books are in 20 languages. Byron Katie speaks across North America.
Dr. David Hawkins has his own publishing company, pushing the combination of spirituality and applied kinesiology.
When transcendental meditation’s maharishi Mahesh Yogi started charging whole course fees in the 1970s, they cost $75. Now, it’s $2,500. One study found TM was bringing in in excess of $6 million per year just from its $125 entry fee.
The maharishi now runs health spas, a university, lobby agencies, a natural herbal supplement company and more spinoffs than you can shake a stick at.
Deepak Chopra, the maharishi’s former disciple and business associate, once appeared on Oprah and within hours sold 138,000 copies of a book in which he claimed the ability to fly.
As with de Ruiter, the TM movement is based around the concept of connecting with a sense of universal consciousness, although it suggests this can be done in multiple stages. Its websites boast that it can “increase immunity to disease, reverse the effects of aging,” and allow you to “radiate an influence of harmony to your surroundings.”
It’s such a popular message that it claims six million supporters worldwide and has made international guru stars out of Mahesh and Chopra.
The combination of TM practices, Hindu rituals and forms of ancient East Indian ayurvedic medicine made both men multimillionaires.
But according to studies, some of its claims are outlandish.
– Is TM a religion?
No one has proven, as both Chopra and the maharishi have claimed, that TM can make you fly, or that it can influence the community around you.
In fact, a 1982 TM-sponsored study purporting to show crime levels dropping in five states due to meditation was debunked for using phoney stats. A similar survey in 1993 in Washington, D.C., claimed success, only for it to be later revealed the year was a statistical anomaly and crime was actually higher during the meditation period.
That same year, The Journal of American Medical Association revealed that both men had promoted studies showing benefits of ayurvedic treatment without revealing business connections that allowed them to profit from the study via product sales. They sued the journal unsuccessfully.
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That’s another problem with spiritualists: critics such as as Quackwatch, the American Medical Association’s unofficial vanguard against snakeoil salesmen, note that scientific analysis is rarely part of the packaging.
TM has at least learned that to be accepted, it will need scientific support and has spent the decade since those debacles building a huge database of independent scientific support for its benefits.
But for every movement willing to back up its claims, there are plenty who will not. De Ruiter, Chopra and Hawkins – along with several followers of each – all refused to comment on their critics, their practices and their sales.