Hopelessly devoted: the hypnotic rise of online spiritual influencers

By passively scrolling on Instagram, I found myself watching internet wellness gurus on my phone throughout the day. But online guidance videos can’t replace real life

January 04, 2024
Russell Brand set himself up as a YouTube wellness guru. Image: YouTube
Russell Brand set himself up as a YouTube wellness guru. Image: YouTube

I can’t remember the first video I saw, but I can remember his hypnotic blue eyes. An influencer, formerly a monk and now a “positive psych instructor”, gazed at me through my phone, in between photos of friends and acquaintances, and told me about meditation. I don’t remember what he said, though it would have been about staying in the moment, and about why that spiritual practice is hard, but why it’s worth sticking with. And so, before I had even decided to watch a video, to have a spiritual practice, I was listening to instruction and taking in advice. I did as I was told; amid all the other videos and images bombarding me, this seemed more peaceful and worthwhile. Even though this was an Instagram account, it seemed to offer the antithesis of Instagram. This version of Buddhism was just waiting for me to let it in, to be open to the truth; all I had to do was keep watching.

After I watched that video, others followed. Again, I didn’t seek them out, but now that the algorithm had registered that I had been willing, one time, to watch a whole 30 seconds of a meditation video, it put more of them in my path. After a few months, with no great effort on my part, I was passively watching several spiritual leaders in fragmented moments throughout the day, absorbing far more than I ever intended to. Without any intention whatsoever, I had taken on a sort of quasi-spiritual practice.

The algorithm had created a bespoke and yet inconsistent selection. Together, random spiritual influencers existed in the ether, communicating to me every day with a hypnotic gaze and steady, comforting voices. Drawing on insights from an array of religions and theories, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Paganism and Psychoanalysis, these faces lulled me into a passive devotion. I had never committed to any of it, despite the many invitations to buy books, documentaries, premium memberships, lecture series or apps—and yet here I was, still, months later. They told me to live in the moment, not to let my life disappear into distraction, and yet this is exactly what was happening. I was listening to them when I could have been outside, walking or swimming or seeing a friend. I was living in this expanding moment on my phone. This spiritual journey was taking me not to ashrams or retreats or an Ayahuasca ceremony, or church—but to this seemingly endless rabbit hole of short videos. I was being hypnotised in the most mundane way, and I was not the only one.

Spiritual gurus are nothing new, but their online presence is, and the way that social media affects individual psychology is still difficult to grasp. There are many well-known gurus such as Jay Shetty, Gabrielle Bernstein, Wayne Dyer, and Anthony Robbins, who all use a similar format for drawing in new followers. Russell Brand set himself up as a wellness guru via YouTube, offering meetings, classes and advice on addiction and depression. Spiritual influencers now take a strange position in many of our lives, offering an alternative to traditional mental health services, and yet not typically regulated in any way. Some of these gurus sell packages which offer meditations and classes every day through your screen; others organise retreats and expensive workshops which you have to sign an NDA to attend. Watching the occasional video on social media can escalate to an expensive habit. So what exactly is the draw? Why are people giving up so much time and often money?

One obvious cause is social media, which uses mimetic systems to make us like what our peers like, because we follow particular accounts or like specific videos and images. Accounts can use social engine optimisation (SEO) to target particular audiences depending on their search history. The structures that hypnotise one person into a cascade of self-help or spiritual videos will draw others into political extremism, porn or gambling. At the heart of these behaviours is a submission, often effectively coerced by social media for the sake of profit.

The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote about the desire to submit to another, or an ideology or a group, as being rooted in a fear of freedom. Such an abdication of personal responsibility can clearly be exploited—he argues, in particular, that the rise of fascism epitomises this behaviour. More generally, he reveals the sense of complicity, and power experienced vicariously through submitting to another, which comes from putting oneself in the role of follower. Across political and religious movements and institutions, and indeed the entertainment and wellness industries, the dynamic between a leader and their followers sustains an unequal power dynamic that both comforts and exploits people. Perhaps it is human nature to want for an all-consuming power, even if that requires self-sacrifice or submission. The interesting question, I think, is where the responsibility lies in these scenarios: to what extent are followers being exploited, and to what extent are they responsible?

When I think about these spiritual influencers, I remember moments of comfort, which I knew simulated the experience of listening to a friend, therapist or family member. Part of me always felt silly for submitting to an internet voice when I knew it was just selling me something. But I ignored this at the time, partly because the videos were telling me to. I was encouraged to just let these thoughts drift by and to focus on their vision of connection and cohesion instead, expressed via the avatar of a leader, a teacher. These were such easy, lulling steps to submission.  

The spiritual gurus whose videos I watched seemed genuinely helpful, or at least benign, but there are of course also those whose teachings may be dangerous. Spiritual teachers who discuss issues such as depression, addiction, anxiety and so on target individuals who are struggling in some way. There is no meaningful way of accounting for what viewers are taking from these videos, and how it affects their mental health. Turning to a spiritual practice is for many people a good way to deal with these issues, and yet because the online spiritual gurus rarely see their followers, they cannot be responsible for how their guidance is received.

Social media may be contributing to a new spiritual turn, but these online practices present unique issues. Traditionally, in the major religions at least, spiritual practice involves acts of service, within a robust moral framework, and often a degree of study and reading—rather than simply a desire for transcendence and escape. It requires a communal foundation that can produce real empathy and actual transformation of life—people helping one another, essentially. But despite the rhetoric of cohesion and peace, current trends of spiritual gurus are profit-driven and atomising. The detachment and dissociation inherent in social media relationships, spiritual or otherwise, can lead to loneliness. Watching these videos can perpetuate a loop of seeking connection and finding only the illusion of connection.

In this way, my unexpectedly online spiritual journey helped me appreciate the necessity of acts of service, study and being physically part of any spiritual practice—and life itself. Simply desiring abundance or peace, while remaining detached from physical reality, was not enough. In that regard, I have only gratitude for the online gurus who by accident or design nudged me in that direction, and therefore stayed true to their word. In the monotonous and hypnotising online world, perhaps they did prove to be the antithesis after all, pushing me (mostly) offline in the end, away from the false light and false idols of the screen.