Thursday, June 2, 2016

Tripping on the stairway to heaven

A documentary takes an inside look at a cult and its leader.

No one asked, but here -- anyway -- a few tips for spiritual seekers: 1. Follow no one who asks you to break all ties with your family. 2. Unless you're entering a monastery, be suspicious of anyone who asks you to avoid romantic involvement. 3. Be wary of any spiritual path that lacks roots that go beyond last week.

Ignoring some of these rules, director Will Allen spent 22 years following a self-proclaimed guru who attracted some 150 adherents to a group called The Buddhafield.

Known as Michel, this supposedly enlightened being walked among his followers wearing a Speedo. Sun glasses covered what we later learn is the glassy-eyed stare of someone who claims to be able to transmit spiritual experiences to others.

In an exercise called "The Knowing," Michel introduces "select" members of the Buddhafield to a direct experience of the divine -- or something like that.

Consisting of footage Allen shot while in the cult -- he was in charge of the group's videography -- Holy Hell also presents testimony from many of Michel's now-disillusioned followers. The big source of their disillusionment: betrayed trust.

During so-called "therapy" sessions, Michel sexually abused some of his male devotees. Turns out that Michel was a second-rate actor who apparently found his calling among the susceptible.

According to the film, Michel still works his "magic" in Hawaii, where he has accumulated new followers.

Allen doesn't penetrate deeply enough into Michel's psyche to explain him, and from the outside, it's sometimes difficult to understand how so many apparently intelligent people fell under his sway.

The major gains for members of the Buddhafield seem to involve a sense of belonging and, perhaps, the notion that devotees are on a special road. And, yes, some are genuine seekers.

Holy Hell plays best as a cautionary tale. Beware of anyone who promises to show you the way to higher spiritual ground. There's a danger that the path will lead only to the leader's self-aggrandizement -- and possibly worse.

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