Home > Personal > Spiritual Scam, or Spiritual Span? A Personal Reaction to Brad Warner

Spiritual Scam, or Spiritual Span? A Personal Reaction to Brad Warner


Yesterday Brad Warner posted a fairly scathing critique of Integral Life on his blog, Hardcore Zen, in which he lampoons some of the marketing copy we currently have on http://www.myilp.com, which is an advertisement for the still-thriving Integral Life Practice Kit. The title of his blog was The Funniest “Spiritual” Scam on the Internet, and what follows here is my own personal reaction to his comments. It should be noted that i am in no way looking for a debate, i am simply using my blog as a platform to express my own personal reaction, speaking as someone on “the inside” of Integral Life.

Okay: first let me get this out of the way.  Myilp.com is definitely not the funniest spiritual scam on the internet. This is: Help me help you help me ^_^

Now that i’ve made that clear, let me begin by pointing out where i actually agree with Brad’s critique, setting aside his snarky/smarmy tone and petty name-calling. I actually agree that the language on myilp.com is not the best overall representation for the ILP kit, which truly is an extraordinary long-term transformation technology when properly applied.  But we aren’t really talking about the integrity of the kit, we are talking about the integrity of the marketing pitch wrapped around it. And truth be told, i honestly don’t like marketing tactics like this representing our more significant products and services.

I think that our public-facing marketing should appeal to our “core audience,” using language that is more appealing to self-identifying “integralites.” We might call this a “2:2 marketing strategy” (second-tier to second-tier, to use familiar terminology that i’ve never really been a fan of in the first place.)  The language we see on myilp.com, meanwhile, is more an example of a “2:1 marketing strategy” (second-tier to first-tier) that tries to expose new markets to new ideas—opening the Integral vision and methodology to people who have never heard of Ken Wilber, or who may only have a cursory understanding of someone like Tolle’s work, or who might even know Tolle’s work inside and out but are looking for something a little deeper and more intellectually engaging.

Language like this absolutely has its place—specifically, it generates higher open and click-through rates in mailers, especially when targeted to specific demographics, just as it has for us in the past. And anyone who has ever worked for any sort of online company knows how important that is. Copy like this isn’t as good, as beautiful, or as true as we might like to idealize. Shit, some of us find it altogether distasteful. Others think it smells like a meth-addled prostitute in a moldy Motel 6. But the simple empirical fact remains—it works.

This is an important point—it works, and it works both ways. Not only does it bring in more revenue, and therefore more oxygen for Integral Life and the Integral movement at large, but it actually brings the dharma to more people, exposing new ideas and new practices and new ways of realizing the “Power of Now” to groups of people who would likely never respond to more high-minded “Naropa-friendly” language. Language like what is currently on myilp.com might not appeal to some (it doesn’t appeal to me) but i can assure you, it does appeal to countless others who read the email and find themselves interested enough to purchase the kit—and i would like to think that their lives are now just a little bit freer and fuller than they were before.  Tactics like these can often have the fascinating side effect of bringing more depth to more span, which as far as i understand it, is one of our core principles at Integral Life.

This is the idea of “values-based marketing”—wrapping your products and services in several different layers of language, each intended for a particular way of seeing and relating to the world. While i agree that we are currently seeing just a single layer represented on myilp.com and not the whole onion as we might like, i also insist that this layer is an extremely important one—perhaps even the most important one in terms of the long-term health of Integral Life.*

Yeah, we’re selling water by the river. But it is being carefully purified and filtered, so that you don’t get sick. And as you probably already know, most people walk by the river every single day without ever noticing the water—until one hot summer day when someone offers them a bottle for a couple bucks.

* Indulge me while i kick a straw man around for a minute. I get really frustrated when people complain about us (or anyone) having to charge money to sell membership, products, events, etc. It is as if many do not bother to consider such pragmatic realities as how many resources it takes to create and maintain something like the ILP Kit, or any like these. Or fact that it’s often vital for companies (especially small start-up companies like us) to offer some sort of high-end product to offset the small profits on the low end. It reminds me of those who believe that all information (and even access to it) should be completely free—or that all spirituality (and access to it) should be completely free—while forgetting how expensive the infrastructure that brings it to you actually is. If we are truly looking to create a platform for spirituality in the 21st century, it is absolutely crucial that we properly integrate the techno-economic realities of our time.

On a personal level, i am essentially dedicating my career to serving people who are way more intelligent and realized than myself, and carrying their visions to as many people as possible (hopefully making my own unique contributions along the way)—and i would really like to think i can find some sort of “right livelihood” doing so. And while i might not be particularly fond of the sort of advertising tactics found on myilp.com (you may have noticed me satirizing it in my previous blog post), i must say that i am grateful beyond words for its existence and its effectiveness, for it has gone a long way to help me carve out a living (meager as it may be) in what remains a very small (but slowly expanding) niche market.

My personal level appears to be cluttered with parentheses today.

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  1. July 24, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    When I first learned of Integral Theory I bought the ILP Kit and really enjoyed it. As far as the advertising method selling the kit on http://www.myilp.com what is it that you find distasteful about the language? Just curious. 🙂

  2. July 24, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    As far as what Brad Warner said I don’t even know where to begin other than he misses the entire point.

  3. rachel
    July 24, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    well, just all the marketing stuff that goes with this kind of selling, i am beginning to realise that it goes with the US, and Europe is not going to get it, ever with any luck

  4. Ali Tataryn
    July 24, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Corey- Really well written. Step by step guide of 2 sides to one coin. Thanks! I will forward the link

  5. Jessica
    July 24, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    I enjoyed your post (and your actual “funniest spiritual scam”) post too.
    Thank you for your sincerity.
    I agree that simply rejecting contemporary communication techniques, such as cheesy marketing, out of hand is unwise. It just generates more shadow. A rush to Inquisition. Notice how some of the posters responding to Brad become even more ultra. Saying in effect, “I not only reject marketing, I reject blogs too. If you were REALLY Zen, you would be sitting zazen, not blogging.”
    On the other hand, I worry that there is a tendency to move beyond blanket rejection into something close to uncritical acceptance.
    I would like to see spiritual folks in general and Integralistas in particular examine the techniques we are not rejecting. Marketing plays to and reinforces precisely the illusions that ILP and zazen and so much else is trying to wake us up from. Its original purpose was to sell people stuff, regardless of whether or not it was any good for them. To use their insecurities and illusions to overcome their good sense. Even when the content being marketed is good, there is still this negative side to the form.
    Sometimes, the content (the end) does justify using the form (the means). But not always. And if we ignore what is going on with the form, then we will pay a price for that. It is akin to “those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it”.

    Reading this post, Brad’s post that it responds to, and the comments on both blogs, I notice that I place a great value on writing that encourages discussion and inquiry and dislike writing that is trying to shut it down.
    And shut it down can take the form of arrogance and anger, as in some of the comments on Brad’s blog, or it can take the form of playing to people’s insecurities. “No, need to worry your little head about that. Your celebrity betters have figured it all out for you already.”

    • Richard
      July 24, 2009 at 10:23 pm

      “I place a great value on writing that encourages discussion and inquiry and dislike writing that is trying to shut it down.
      And shut it down can take the form of arrogance and anger, as in some of the comments on Brad’s blog, or it can take the form of playing to people’s insecurities.”

      Well said… Thanks

  6. Richard
    July 24, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    Hey Corey

    Great post. I love the honesty! Don’t change : )

  7. July 25, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Corey,

    Great, thoughtful post. You’re definitely making contributions of your own–with this blog, and elsewhere–and I strongly encourage you to keep it up. The controversy surround the ILP marketing is not unlike the other “controversies” surrounding the Integral movement in general. It comes down to the use of language, like you say. I’ve struggled with this for years, because not only am I embarrassed by the 2:1 language of the myilp site, but I’m also embarrassed and bothered by the 2:2 approach, as it plays right into the commonly held perception that the Integral scene is “culty,” self-referential, closed to critical dialogue, etc. I prefer the no-nonsense, common sense, jargon-free approach of say, a Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has found a way to appeal to the “Naropa” crowd AND the mainstream, Oprah-watching masses AND really smart progressive types (like, eh hem, yours truly).

    But that’s just me bitchin’ and moanin’. I’ve got my opinions, and I feel strongly about them because I really, really do want the crux of Ken Wilber’s work to gain some degree of widespread acceptance, because I think it would help make the world a better place. But it’s up to each of us, I’m finally realizing, to take responsibility for making the shit happen that we want to happen. You, for instance, write with your own unique voice, one that’s neither culty nor cheesy. I’m trying to do the same thing in my own writing. Nobody can sing my song for me.

    Thanks for doing what you’re doing.

  8. Eric Giesbrecht
    July 27, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    nice posting cdv. keep bringing the sanity to the table.

    thanks for helping me stave off severe brad-warner-induced indigestion. your table manners are most poignant.

    thanks for enduring my cheesy metaphors…

    ~chef

  9. Aaron
    July 28, 2009 at 7:52 am

    Hi,

    I’m a reader of Brad’s blog but certainly no fanboy, and I’m aware of Genpo Roshi and Ken Wilber. I don’t agree with the way Brad attacks some of the people and groups he disagrees with.
    But I do think you’ve slightly missed his point here.
    I believe that Brad and others are reacting to the idea that you’re selling experiences, promising things that aren’t realistic, and playing to the lowest common denominator in the process.

    Promising people kensho experiences, taste of enlightenment, and these sorts of things, is really giving folks a backwards view of spiritual practice. Meditation (zen or otherwise) tends to be boring. Its boringness is part of what makes it important and unique. Sitting with our crazy boring thoughts and staring at a wall is simple and basic and challenges us in a way that isnt necessarily fun.

    I think Brad’s point is that by trying to sell meditation as something that will make your life different then it is (it will but not in the way we think it will) is playing to the part of us that will take these practices and twist them into something unproductive. Searching for the “high” or the cool visions or auditory hallucinations one might experience during meditation is having it backwards.

    We all have peak experiences. They arent that meaningful. Seeing through these experiences is what becomes meaningful. Seeing through to what this normal, ordinary moment really is–which is to say, its extraordinary–that is meaningful. But it is NOT some peak experience or a high.

    And pandering to people’s wish that life be one giant 24-hour high, or mystical state of oneness, is counterproductive and dangerous.

    I may have misstated Brad’s position here, but tried my best. Again, I am not a huge Brad fan by any means, for the record. I think he can be quite an ass.

    Aaron

    • cheryl
      July 31, 2009 at 1:34 pm

      I wish I had said that. Very well put.

  10. atinyspeckofdust
    July 28, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    This conversation looks to be about what forms of maya can be utilized to point one away from maya – if this marketing tactic is an early exploration of an evolving process that will hopefully will stick – and if AQAL has any real value, it should prove itself able – as survival of the fittest operating system.

  11. Aaron
    July 28, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    Maybe this conversation is about something more than that. Maybe it’s also about the abuse of power that can occur when the dharma is misrepresented and teachers misrepresent themselves and their abilities. Go read whatenlightenment.blogspot.com to see some examples of Andrew Cohen’s spiritual legacy. This is part of a comment left by a former disciple of Cohen’s:

    “Do those of you who remember the men’s sauna with all the posted letters and humiliating caricature s of us forget about the enlarged (almost Floor to ceiling) Ken Wilbur letter where Ken himself called us (Andrew’s Formal Men) “whiney Babies”. I believe this letter was in response to a missive Andrew sent to Ken complaining about how hard his life was trying to get us to move in the right direction.

    I remember thinking, how the hell does Ken Wilbur know anything about any of this, the sauna, the humiliating “spiritual practices”, how I was asked to make a “man” out of someone by taking them to the large meditation room and “rough them up” & the rest of it. I remember asking myself who is he to call me a “whiney baby”?

    It must be nice to have your ivory tower conversations published but I wonder what Ken would think with his head coming out of Laurel Lake for the 999th time chanting “I only got one side of the story”.”

    Ken also really liked another classy individual, Franklin Jones aka Adi Da. A little research on Mr. Da goes a long way.

    Yes, most teachers have skeletons in their closet if you look long enough. And that’s kind of the point. Hyping the dharma and spiritual practice into something hyper real makes room for a dangerous mindset. It might be better to tone down this sort of hype, rather than trying to turn the volume up a notch.

    We need to look critically at our teachers, our dogma and our cherished beliefs. We need to try and be moderate in what we tell people spirituality can deliver. Because the truth is that there are a lot of scammers, charlatans, and just well-intentioned fools on the path. And the bigger the claim, the bigger the burden is to justify why you should be making such a claim.

  12. July 29, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    I might as well chime in, too.

    I could care less about the way in which it’s being sold, but rather it’s what’s being sold that’s the issue.

    It’s not the Dharma you’re selling.

    And it’s not better than the Dharma.

    And it’s not a superset of the Dharma.

    It’s something else, and to confuse it with the Dharma is problematic.

    And Wilber’s issues with not coming to terms with statements known to be wrong should give pause.

    It’s not just Adi Da, but also evolutionary biology that has been problematic for Wilber. He doesn’t get it, he doesn’t get the scientific method and won’t even acknowledge that fact.

    Finally, one last word: if you want to sell something, drop the jargon. In all the things Wilber has ever put on the ‘net I’ve not read one thing new, except for a misapprehension of much of upon which he pontificates.

  13. Greg Mayers
    July 31, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    Corey:

    Very well said! How soon we forget. Reading your blog I was reminded of St. Paul, who seemed to spend a lot of precious ink begging for funds to keep the business (more politely known as ‘ministry’) going. It is both “shirt and spirit”. No shirt and you can’t see the spirit, no spirit and the shirt is empty.

    I applaud and support all that Integral is doing and have the strongest admiration for all the staff like you do, and give up, for this work.

    Peace,
    Greg

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