Examining the Spiritual Placebo Effect

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Kumaré with his first followers.
Kumaré with his first followers.

I recently rewatched the fantastic documentary film Kumaré (2011), where filmmaker Vikram Gandhi dressed himself as a guru, and with the help of a few first followers, recruited a small following of disciples in Phoenix, Arizona.

His point of doing this was simple, and hence a stroke of genius. It was to show that all gurus were illusions—that you could live as your ideal self without any external guide. And to show that some, even many, gurus do not have their disciples’ wellbeing in mind, but have allowed their positions to corrupt them. In the film, he interviews quite a few despicable ‘gurus’ who talk with him about enriching themselves, sleeping with their students, or otherwise abusing their power.

As Vikram Gandhi wrote in an article afterwards, “The character Kumaré was the center of a social experiment testing what we coined “The Spiritual Placebo Effect.”” His goal with the film was to explore the question: “Can a fake religion and religious leader have the same effect as a real one?”

Kumaré shows that the answer is yes. With the help of some made up mantras and, more importantly, the kindness that comes with playing a loving spiritual leader (what he called his ideal self) he had a real and lasting effect on the lives of his students.

But while Gandhi, at the end of the film, argues that this reveals that we all have the inherent power to unlock our inner gurus, I am not sure he is right that we can easily unlock them on our own. It is Kumaré’s energy, his role modeling, his affection for his students, and his sitting with them to ask them how they want to improve and then holding them to those commitments that makes his efforts so successful. It is also the support that comes from the community of adherents. His disciples clearly cared for each other, had bonded with each other, and had reinforced each other’s efforts to improve themselves.

So a guru isn’t necessary, but some combination of belief, leadership, and community are all essential ingredients in religious practice.

Belief

Clearly, as Kumaré shows, as do the many religions of the world, people are willing to believe in just about anything—from God and gods, to ghosts and aliens. But only if the belief system makes coherent and internal sense, and comes with a practicality or applicability that makes life better. Buddhism creates a calm and centeredness for adherents through the belief system and through its practical application (e.g. meditation and non-attachment). Christianity’s belief system creates an impetus to be good and caring for each other. Truly following either of these paths makes life measurably better in different but clear ways.

One of my favorite essays on religion is by Peter Donovan, in which he argues how a religious prophet is like a person with sight in the land of the blind. By listening to this prophet, adherents will increase their odds of survival (‘there’s a cliff just beyond that log,’ ‘get to your homes, wolves are coming this way,’ etc.). But he or she might also tell you many things that are beyond comprehension (or frankly just sound like nonsense).

“Oh wow,” says the prophet, “there is a rainbow over there.”

“What’s a rainbow?” asks one of the blind.

“It is an arc of color—of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, curving through the sky and landing just over the horizon.”

“What is color? What is red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet? What is the horizon?”

This is where faith ends up eventually infiltrating religion. Religion becomes storytelling and trust—the acceptance of stories that one can’t comprehend, because, ultimately, they make life more comprehensible.

But as our realms of knowledge have expanded, why shouldn’t the sophistication of religious knowledge expand as well? We know now that the Earth wasn’t created in seven days, that the universe wasn’t willed into creation, that heaven and hell and gods are mythical not literal. But science has also revealed that the Earth is alive. And that it provides everything for our existence—with the continuing energy bath of the sun. And that there is no other planet that will sustain us (if there are other living planets, which there certainly are, they are adapted to other life, not us, and are so far away that we humans will never reach them—and that’s ok, as we have a planetary being that is perfectly suited for us). This is the truth that is the keystone of the Gaian Way, and from this stems the moral responsibility that we must work actively to heal our planetary parent before Her splendor—and Her ability to sustain us and all life—is destroyed. That to me, while new at some level, or even made up, feels more genuine, and more authentic than any other system I’ve encountered.

Leadership

Ultimately, I hope that the understanding of the Gaian Way will spread—helping others to help themselves (by eating a healthier, more sustainable diet, by moving more, consuming less, reskilling, preparing for the changes ahead, and by connecting with and caring for others) and helping the planet (by all those ways, by choosing to have fewer children and pets, and by getting actively involved in our Earth-saving quest—politically and spiritually). But that will require much leadership. Not just a few individuals who map out or preach these ideas, but the scores of local leaders who help knit their communities together, supporting their group of 3, 6, 12, or more individuals who come together to support each other in their efforts to heal themselves and Gaia.

As I grew up in the Christian church, the role of my parish priest was instrumental in shaping my values, my beliefs, my actions. His reflective kindness, his instruction, his role-modeling, and ability to listen, were essential in my development. Would I have been as good a Christian without good community leaders guiding me (as it wasn’t just the priest, but the head of the church youth group, my Sunday school teachers, and the many others that provided guidance over the years)? The answer is a definitive no. Having true parishes with individuals serving the community in a variety of complementary ways is what builds community and models right behavior, and helps us to strive for living as our ideal selves as frequently as possible. Vikram Gandhi might be too hopeful in thinking that we can achieve these shifts without some external nudges and guidance—but he is right. These nudges do not need to come from gurus. All the guides I mentioned surely had their flaws, their struggles—all humans do—but they still served this role of helping others to be their ideal selves, and simply being put in a position of leadership helps them, too, to live up to that ideal (as others are counting on them)—just as Gandhi saw in his own life as Kumaré.

Community

The third component, which is most overlooked in Gandhi’s final analysis, is community. Toward the end of the movie, when Gandhi returns to reveal his true self some weeks later, there is a scene where all the disciples are hugging—like they hadn’t seen each other since Kumaré’s departure 7 weeks earlier. His absence, because this religious practice was based around him, appears to have led to the dissolution of this community.

But none of these individuals would have succeeded to the extent they did without other community members also working toward the same ends and reinforcing their own efforts. They stared into each other’s eyes in Kumaré’s ‘blue light’ meditation, they connected emotionally, spiritually, and physically (e.g. embracing), and all of that is essential in forming the bonds that are an inherent part of us being social animals.

The key for any religion is to develop that community, and hence the local parish is key, which is why over time, the goal is to establish local Gaian parishes (more on that to come).

Together these three—belief, leadership, and community—add up to far more than the sum of their parts. A religious community achieves real change in the world, based on its belief, nudged on by its leaders, and enacted by its community. Kumaré shows that even mumbo-jumbo can quickly be turned into something beautiful and beneficial. Imagine, if instead we took what we all know to be true and good, that Gaia is alive and that our purpose, more than anything else, is to care for and restore Her, and built a community around this.

Kumaré with his disciples
Kumaré with his community of followers

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