Mongol shamans, by Munkhbayar.B — Own work

The Guru, the Shaman, and the Millionaire

Why are the wealthy elite fascinated by new-age, pagan traditions?

On the outside, Guardian Angel looks like any private club in the purest British tradition, with services starting at £1,500 a month. According to its website, it “exists to serve London’s Celebrity and Elite with upmost (sic) discretion and confidence.” What isn’t apparent on first sight, however, is that Guardian Angel is a shamanic clinic. On another page of their site, one can read the extraordinary claim that:

When all else has failed, we are here for you. Guardian Angel has the ability to influence reality, which can be used to treat and cure illnesses in ways in which conventional and alternative healing can not.

Clear your Mind. Balance your Body. Heal your Soul.

The Faena Miami Beach Hotel, where room rates start at around $900 a night, offers an in-house shaman service. Said shaman, also known as Carlos Gomez, “salutes the earth, the heavens, the sun, north, south, east and west. And as the client journeys through this, the shaman is invoking all these different spirits from heaven.” The New York Times, in a review of new-age healing services offered by luxury hotels, specifies that:

The ritual can be paired with a “unique healing arts” treatment, like the spa’s sound bowl therapy, which is said to heal through vibrations. Be prepared to spend about two hours and $400.

On the Pacific coast, the Four Seasons Beverly Hills provides its wealthy guests with the services of “an internationally acclaimed Ayurvedic Panchakarma expert, Ayurvedic Chef, Master Ayurvedic Pulse diagnostician.” At a rate of $250 per hour, you can pamper yourself with all kinds of energy-balancing treatments

From the Four Seasons Beverly Hills website

There is also a Reiki master who promises to “Clear your Mind. Balance your Body. Heal your Soul. Find your Truth. Love and embrace your Sacred Self.”

Practices like the ones above tend to be associated with hippies, with a rebellious Western youth searching for meaning more than health. These healing rituals evoke images of remote tribes, feathered masks, and ancient knowledge rooted in oral traditions, and as such, they represent a departure from the traditional bourgeois establishment. It is fascinating then to observe how it attracts the wealthy (and the ultra-wealthy), how they have adopted these traditions and integrated them into a form of neo-paganism that purports to be their religion. The bourgeoisie has adopted the tribal cult and transformed it into a new Credo.

For the wealthy elite, religion has shifted from a reinforcement of their position in the community to an affirmation of the self.

To understand how and why this happened, we must shed light on the wealthy’s minds' obscure functioning. In a fascinating article for American Affairs, Willis Krumholz argues that this resurgence of pantheistic, neo-pagan beliefs amongst the elite is due to:

A sense of guilt over the wealth they have accumulated and the long hours they have spent in their careers.

To make recompense, they speak of “giving back” — but to nature, rather than to God or neighbor. They give back to the earth on their own terms.

That they would give back to nature, and not to “God or neighbour” tells a lot about what they think of their success and whence it comes. They do not owe it to luck or to the humans that have accompanied them on their life journeys, their employees, colleagues, mentors, or friends. Thanking “nature” for their riches can mean either that they believe they “had it in them” or that some form of primordial energy helped them.

By Dhtrible at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Further in his article, Krumholz answers the question without ambiguity. When asked to what they credit their achievements, the rich and famous who have elected residence in Jackson Hole (a billionaire’s favourite getaway):

[They] attribute their wealth to natural advantage, crediting superior intellect or even genetics. “You know, that’s just how it is, and some people are born smarter than other people and it’s not their fault . . . some people just don’t have the capability,” a wealthy resident told Farrell. Another resident said that the “gene pool is another element of it.”

If you believe that Nature has imbued your person with unique gifts, it is logical that you’d be thankful for it. But thankfulness isn’t the only motivation, as Ross Douthat points out in a New York Times op-ed.

This paganism […] sees the purpose of religion and spirituality as more therapeutic, a means of seeking harmony with nature and happiness in the everyday.

If anything, the wealthy are always pragmatic. Killing two karmic birds with one spiritual stone is indeed a lot more efficient than going to church on Sundays and the shrink on Mondays. As an a-dogmatic, agnostic, and non-materialist cult, the neo-paganism practised and promoted by the elites allows for various beliefs to co-exist simultaneously. It also removes any coherence and strict inner logic requirement, making it that much easier to blend syncretically Hindu traditions, animist paganism, Chinese medicine, and modern pseudo-science à la Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Lab.

It also absolves one from having to follow a specific and demanding set of rituals. Let’s face it, who among the well-off wants to wake up early on Sundays? More importantly, when it comes to social norms, the decline of religiosity in the West over the past three decades suggests that being seen as a devout church-going believer doesn’t matter as much when it comes to public recognition.

For the wealthy elite, religion isn’t reinforcing their position within the community anymore. It is now a way to affirm their self. It has transformed from a social and communal experience of transcendence to selfish and individual immanence. As Douthat points out:

[T]his new religion would lack a clear cultic aspect, a set of popular devotions, a practice of ritual and prayer of the kind that the paganism of antiquity offered in abundance.

This loose interpretation of religious devotion also fits perfectly with our modern experience of the world. Its à la carte nature allows any practitioner to fulfil their needs without ever having to conform to any duties or norms. And this leads Douthat to one of his core arguments:

And that absence points to the essential weakness of a purely intellectualized pantheism: It invites its adherents to commune with a universe that offers suffering and misery in abundance, which means that it has a strong appeal to the privileged but a much weaker appeal to people who need not only sense of wonder from their spiritual lives but also, well, help.

In its traditional form, religion provides all believers with social and ethical structures that guide them through life and show them the path to salvation. It provides a framework to understand a universe that appears indifferent at best, cruel at worst. Through its institutions, it also helps the weakest amongst us in spiritual and material ways. It is a system that functions on the premise that the more you give, the more you receive.

The kind of new-age paganism practised by the wealthy does not adhere to these ideals. It seeks truth within the universe itself. A universe that the well-off perceive as fundamentally fair and right: after all, it has allowed them, genetically or otherwise, to succeed and amass wealth beyond most people’s wildest dreams. How can it be cruel or mean?

Far from its primordial origins, the new-age neo-paganism embraced by the wealthy elite does not seek to comprehend the universe or to explain the world. It doesn’t purport to provide meaning or support. Its goal is to alleviate the guilt the rich feel over the inequalities they help create and maintain on the one hand, and to satisfy a therapeutic need for chronic stress and fatigue on the other.

Its lack of strict rituals and dogma allows practitioners of this new religion to “consume it” and not live it. It is a form of at-will spirituality that you can leave without notice. It is also agnostic in its construction: the believer can integrate any tradition into a syncretic mish-mash that suits their needs.

More importantly, it is a form of spirituality that is free from obligations and duties. It’s also much more Instragramable than a traditional religious service. Perhaps this is its real appeal?

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