Many people have gone or plan to go somewhere to seek deeper connection and enlightenment. But what are the dangers to be conscious of before taking such a trip? Today’s guest is Caroline Slaughter. Caroline is a filmmaker and global voiceover talent. Most recently, she was supervising producer on Racket: Inside the Gold Club which is ranked as one of 2020’s top true crime podcasts. Caroline’s multifaceted experience in the entertainment industry has prepared her for the role of curating auditory stories to provoke, impact, and entertain. She is the host of the popular Astray Podcast where she investigates those who pay the ultimate cost in search for spiritual awakening.“People want a fast track to spirituality, and it’s an addiction.” - Caroline Slaughter Click To Tweet
- [1:00] – Caroline shares how and why she started her Astray podcast.
- [2:41] – There’s an idea that this happens in India, but Caroline points out that people seek out enlightenment all over the world.
- [4:00] – During a difficult time, Caroline chose to go to Bali. She was prepared but a lot of people don’t go in with a plan.
- [6:18] – There seems to be a draw to Asian countries for this and Caroline suggests some reasons why.
- [7:19] – Caroline briefly tells the story of a guest on Astray Podcast who had a breakdown while on his journey and would have disappeared without his parents.
- [8:50] – The biggest problem is that many people who fall victim to scams and traps are looking outside themselves for answers.
- [10:22] – Caroline did some research on some of the reasons that could have caused psychotic breakdowns through drugs.
- [11:31] – Some who experience a psychotic break while on this quest for enlightenment, feel that it was meant to happen for their experience.
- [12:50] – People want a fast track to spirituality and it can be addictive.
- [14:40] – Mental illness plays a role in the need for a fast track to spirituality.
- [15:37] – Caroline defines and explains India Syndrome.
- [17:02] – Caroline tells the story of The Beatles seeking enlightenment and a theory surrounding John Lennon never leaving the place of trauma.
- [18:44] – India Syndrome can put you in a very fragile state if you don’t go prepared.
- [19:52] – We tend to let our guard down because of the authority the spiritual guides hold over us.
- [21:32] – You have to trust your inner guidance especially when you look outside yourself for guidance.
- [22:40] – It is tricky to vet the guides in other countries. It is easier to do in the United States; to find others who have worked with them.
- [23:55] – This industry is massive and brings in billions of dollars a year.
- [24:32] – Caroline explains why she thinks the industry needs to be regulated.
- [25:44] – Going with a buddy is key and bouncing ideas and plans off of friends is important to keep up the voice of reason.
- [27:42] – Don’t make major decisions when experiencing grief or trauma.
- [29:01] – We give away our own power when we hit rock bottom.
- [30:45] – There are tragic stories that Caroline shares through Astray of people who have vanished or been killed.
- [32:17] – The problem is not India Syndrome, it is “Seeker Syndrome.”
- [33:26] – What do you sacrifice for the risks you take?
- [35:18] – When seeing those traveling in a new country, there are those who will prey on someone new and unfamiliar.
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Can you give me a little bit of background on why you started the widely popular Astray podcast?
I started it because I really wanted to look at this idea of power and the spiritual industry, specifically. It led me to stories about these men, these various westerners, that came up from Ireland, Australia, the States, who went to India seeking spirituality and then disappeared. I was interested in what happened to them and looking at the broader question of what is the cost of enlightenment.
That's amazing. I've always heard stories of guys saying, “I'm going to go off to India and learn from a yogi.” I wonder what kind of vetting process you do. How did you decide on that particular guy?
I think there needs to be more of a vetting process in the whole $4.5 billion spiritual industry because people are really looking outside themselves for deeper answers to their identity and purpose. If we don't know who's leading us in these quests, it leads to some dangerous situations.
Yeah, I can totally imagine, particularly with the pandemic loosening up and a lot of people have been home alone and isolated, they're looking to explore who they are and trying to find meaning and seeking enlightenment, whether it's in India or some other country, even locally. I can see the draw of that industry and the kind of environment where people are just looking for something.
Yeah, it's interesting. We were able to debunk this idea of India syndrome, which is a psychosis that hits people from developed Western countries who are looking for a cultural space to find themselves or to find this spiritual sustenance.
We debunked that because it's not just India. Like you said, it's anywhere. It's in the States, it's in Bali. I just feel like that's one thing I wanted to debunk in Astray. That being said, India has this rich spiritual history and people go there looking for something more.
To your point about people after the pandemic coming out and looking for answers and purpose, yes. I've been talking to a lot of people who've done similar podcasts around cults and they think that cults are going to boom after this, which is really interesting and scary.
Yeah, very. The people you've interviewed and the stories that you've told, how do people end up choosing what country they go to, or is this just some random process?
I can speak for myself. I think this happens a lot when people are seeing, going through a rock bottom or transition in their life. They've gone through a breakup, they've had a loss, a death, whatever it might be, they're looking for something more. I chose to go to Bali. Thankfully, I had people that I knew there that I spoke to before I went that knew the lay of the land and people that I should contact.
I was prepared before I went, but I do think a lot of people—and this is what I discovered through doing Astray—they don't really go in prepared. They don't go in with a buddy. They’re open for scams or people preying on them, unfortunately.
That's interesting that you say that. It's so consistent even with intentional fraud. Let's assume that some of the enlightenment is not intentionally fraudulent, but a lot of the scams and fraud, it's about finding people that are alone, finding people that are isolated, and exploiting that isolation.
I'm sure you've seen them in a lot of the podcasts that you do just on that predatory behavior. It is finding people that are seeking connection, but I wonder how we're going to be able to handle that with people coming out of the pandemic. Being able to create a connection without them losing themselves, if that makes sense, without them giving their power away.
To me, I think this is a very Western viewpoint. If we're looking to Asian cultures, Indian cultures, I think we look to that because it's so fundamentally different. It has a diversity and history that we don't necessarily have, or at least we don't have familiarity with. That makes me wonder if that's some of the draw, that maybe we've all been around a couple of hundred years as a country. What has this culture learned that we haven't been able to figure out?
Or what have they not adapted? We have gotten lost in our iPhones and this Western idea of having to work consistently and live to work. I think that they've done something right. In India, from what I've gathered, they value more of that connection and they value a connection to a higher power, whatever that might be, and also just a lineage of religion there and spirituality.
I was supposed to go to India for this podcast but COVID hit, so I couldn't. But from what I've heard, my counterpart was over there. Ankita Anand who is an investigative journalist is in India. It resonates with something that feels almost fulfilling for those that are spiritually seeking.
Something deeper, something bigger.
Yes, something powerful. I think that's what leads—just from speaking to this one guy who came out of the woodwork during Astray, which Charlie Marinelli is his name. I covered three stories at that time—Ryan Chambers, Justin Alexander Shetler, and Jonathan Spollen stories about going to India and disappearing. Then I get an email from this guy who said, “I would have been just like them if my parents hadn't come to find me in India.”It's almost like K2 if you're a mountain climber—that’s India for spiritual seekers. -Caroline Slaughter Click To Tweet
Basically, episode seven of Astray is his parents having this crazy thrill ride trying to find their son who had a psychotic break over there. I think from talking to Charlie, he went there because he was looking for the next level of his spiritual growth. He thought that India was the place to do that. It's almost like K2 if you're a mountain climber—that’s India for spiritual seekers.
For people who are seeking enlightenment and seeking to take things deeper, I don't want to say where they are going wrong, but what are they missing that's leading them to disappear or to be taken advantage of?
I talked to this woman, her name is Suzy Singh, she's a therapist, and she works around a lot of this idea of enlightenment. I asked her opinion in episode nine and she basically said, “What they're doing wrong is they're looking outside themselves for answers,” and, like I said earlier, “they're giving their power away to these gurus or yoga ashrams.”
She made a really good point with a teacher she had where he said, “I can open the window where I can point you to the moon, but I cannot get you there. You will have to make that journey yourself.”
I say that only because I think a lot of teachers say, “I will show you the moon, I will lead you there, and then you will give me everything that I have given you.” We've seen it with NXIVM, which is a great example of this cult that gave people tools that they could use in their life and that made them happier and clearer in their life, but those tools were used against them. Then they found themselves in this cult where they had totally lost their identity.
I think that's what I started to see with this. It's the idea that I'm looking outside myself for something, I trust this, I'm going to try this, and they take it a step too far. Justin Alexander Shetler—he was episode three—he trusted a bad sadu. Sadu is a holy man in India.
He trusted this guy and this guy was going to show him the fast track to enlightenment and Justin ended up dying in that process. That's a legend, we don't know for sure, but that's pretty much it. Ryan Chambers was the first two episodes. His parents and brother have come to believe that it was the antimalarial drug that he was taking that caused this psychotic break. When I went down this research hole around this, this is very true for the malarial drug he was using—that it causes these hallucinations and mania.
There are all these reasons behind it. Unfortunately, there's no real answer and that's why Charlie Marinelli's story was interesting—someone who's actually lived it and then survived it. We found out with him that he doesn't know for sure, but he's pretty sure he's being drugged by the guru that he was working with to get to this higher form of spirituality.
From his recollection, was it that it was malicious, or this is just part of the process and that is one of the potential outcomes?
It's a really hard question because I spoke to another woman who had a similar psychotic break to Charlie and she said something to me that really stuck out. She said, “This didn't happen to me, it happened for me.” She feels like this psychotic break that she had in India almost gave her more insight into her life. It made her see things differently and gave her a new perspective.
He goes back and forth. He doesn't want to think it's malicious. He wants to think that this guy really wanted to help him reach this higher form of enlightenment, but then when we really look at it when I had to play devil's advocate, I’m like, “This guy was drugging you. You didn't know this is what was in whatever you were drinking or eating.” I have to see it as malicious, but I don't know if Charlie will totally see it that way.
It makes me wonder if some of this is, like you said, trying to fast-track enlightenment. Everybody has a journey that they're on. I think particularly, as Westerners, I want it and I want it now. I want to remove all the hard work. I just want the answer, I just want enlightenment. Enlighten me now. If you want to enter those conditions, this is your only option.
Right. It's interesting too because Suzy Singh—that therapist, and she's from Delhi—she’s an Indian woman and she has such an interesting viewpoint of all of this. She said, “That fast track to enlightenment, that’s addiction. That's not enlightenment, that's not spirituality. Spirituality is about doing deeper work, and that's the work that all of us don't want to look at.”
Our relationship with our parents, whatever it might be, joining a recovery group. I think people are going to these places to find enlightenment during rock bottom times and they're looking for the fast track because they don't really want to sit with their own feelings.
I think that's what we're finding with COVID as well because people had to sit with their shit for a long time. Coming out of it, they want either answers or a way to heal this. It's not going to be a fast track. As she said, that's an addiction, that's not spirituality.
My uneducated viewpoint on the topic is when I think of monks or gurus, I think of people that have figured out what they figured out over the course of a lifetime. Me knocking on their front door saying, “Hey, can you distill your lifetime of experiences down to a 40-hour session?” It's a very American thing to say, but I wonder if that's part of what gets people into trouble. They're just trying not to do the hard work.
I think you've hit the nail on the head with that one. Then also I think it's important to look at mental illness when it comes to all of these too. We debunk the name India syndrome, but the actual syndrome is real. There's this culture shock that happens when you go to these countries and there's travel. Just that long extensive travel that you're still trying to come down from when you get to these countries.
Sometimes that can shake people and things show up. I think it's important to look at mental illness as well when it comes to this because some of that stuff can appear when your body is shocked.
Whether it's real or caused by something else, what is India syndrome?
It's defined by this guy—his name is Regis Airault and he's this French psychiatrist. It was defined as a psychosis that “hits people from developed Western countries who are looking for cultural space that is pure and exotic, where real values have been preserved.”
When we talked to a psychiatrist in Delhi, he was like, “I've never heard of that term; it's not used frequently here.” It was something that he saw as media eye candy. He did say that the psychosis is very real and he sees it with culture shock, travel. Then people can meditate too quickly and it can be too intense too fast, and that can also lead to this psychosis too.
It's interesting, we interviewed this guy who was in Rishikesh, India, with the Beatles when they were there seeking enlightenment with the Maharishi. The Maharishi called it icebergs that you would hit. These are places in your subconscious where you had hit trauma. He believed it was from this life or past life.
This is pretty cool. I think it's interesting because I'm obsessed with the Beatles, but John Lennon hit an iceberg when he was with the Maharishi. What you’re supposed to do when that happens, when you hit this trauma, is you're supposed to work with a vetted practitioner through this. The Maharishi was there to help John Lennon work through it, but it also is terrifying.
Some people stay there. He bolted when it happened. He’s like, “I don't want to work through this,” and he just left. Rikki Cooke, who we interviewed, who's actually Bungalow Bill. John Lennon wrote a song about him on the White Album. He said that when John Lennon bolted, he stayed in that place of trauma and that was the year that his marriage broke up, The Beatles ended up breaking up, that was the year he was still living in this.
He says that it was detrimental. That was Rikki’s own point of view; I don't know my thoughts on that. I thought that was interesting because you can hit this trauma if you meditate too quickly and too intensely. It's like what we were saying: it's a fast track to enlightenment but you have to build muscle. It's not something that can happen over night and the Maharishi really noticed that.
I keep coming back to—this is a very American thing. At least from my perspective, a very Western “I want it and I want it now.” But when the going gets tough, I don't want to deal with it. That makes sense to me. If you're going somewhere, you've been on a plane, there's culture shock, there's jetlag. You're dealing with emotional issues that maybe you've never tried to deal with. It just puts people in a potentially very fragile state.
I agree. I think that you're right. Also, with India, factor in dehydration, the food, and all of that stuff. It can put you in a fragile state. That's why I think having a touch base there or a buddy with you, having someone you can call at home to tell them where you're going, that's all very important.I am more cautious now and not being completely trusting of someone just because they are a “spiritual guide.” -Caroline Slaughter Click To Tweet
I think that you have to be careful about who you end up looking for spiritual enlightenment from wherever you go as well. Suzy Singh, the therapist, also said that as women or men, going to be with a guru one-on-one is not the best idea. Just also making sure that you're aware of what you're drinking, eating, and maybe bringing your own water. I hate to be so overly cautious, but just dealing with these issues in Astray, I am more cautious now when it comes to this and not being completely trusting of someone just because they are a “
That’s funny because that hits again on another one of those common traits of scams is this aspect of authority. Whether that person truly is an authority or not, they're perceived as an authority so we tend to let our guard down, assume that they're the expert, and stop doing the due diligence that we might otherwise do if it were somebody else.
Yeah, you're absolutely right.
Is there a good way for people, if they're interested in a particular type of enlightenment—I’m being intentionally vague here—that there's a primer, so to speak, that they can do? You talked about not sitting down one-on-one with the authority figure but more of as a group. Are there programs that are more class-oriented with groups that are an introduction to enlightenment?
Oh my gosh.
Even if a particular teaching, it’s to rather than, “Let's dive into ice-cold water, let's work our way into this and see if this is what you really want to be doing in a setting where it's not being fast-tracked.”Enlightenment, first of all, is different for everyone. That idea of enlightenment is such an enigma. -Caroline Slaughter Click To Tweet
Depending on what that enlightenment is for you, they always have group classes. Even for Tony Robbins’ stuff, who a lot of people find “enlightenment” in. You can go to introductory group situations and feel it out. I think being able to trust your inner voice and your own intuition in those situations is key.
I think what happens is we begin to look outside ourselves for those answers and then we don't trust our inner guidance, which is something—to your point about the Western culture—a lot of us have forgotten how to even listen to it. I think meditation and this idea of meditation—these people that I'm speaking of—were doing meditation to reach this higher plane. If you're using meditation to listen to yourself and to actually hear your own inner voice, that's different.
I think being able to sit with yourself is important and in these group settings, be it with a guru or be it with these yoga ashrams, and being able to ask the right questions and vet those places as well I think is very key.
Not knowing about yogis, sadus, and whatnot, how would someone go about vetting someone like that?
It's tricky because if you're going to India and it's just some guy—the sadu that you've heard about who can take you on this enlightenment journey—you can't really vet that, which is why it can be dangerous. I think for someone in the States, there are ways to figure out who their followers are. I hate to use the word followers. That’s sort of a guru…
Yeah, students. You can always find people that have been involved in that. Usually, these are organizations and you can call and interview them. Look, everyone has a Yelp page now. Even for Astray, there are reviews. Just read the reviews.
You say it's a multibillion-dollar a year industry, is this the yogi charging people to visit them? If you want to learn from me, do you have to pay this amount of money?
Oh my gosh, have you never been part of this spiritual world?
Not in the sense of I'm paying for enlightenment.
Oh, dude. It's a huge thing. You pay psychics. For these yoga ashram things, you have these talks, like I said Tony Robbins, speakers. People pay thousands of dollars for clarity in their life, for purpose, for identity. We look to these people to answer this for us. Tell me who I am and I'll pay you thousands of dollars for it. That for me, I don't like it. Therapy now has regulations. I wish the spiritual industry was regulated. I think that needs to happen.
There was a podcast called Guru that was out, and it was about this guy—I can't remember his name—but he was this Tony Robbins-type guy. People came to him because they thought he had the answers. He eventually ended up getting everyone into this big—I can't remember what it's called now. In Native Americans, you say it's a sweat lodge. He had them in there and there are four people that died during this.
I think I remember this.
He was basically testing their strength, their will as humans, and they died. I spoke to one of the mothers of one of the women who died and she said the people that had buddies, that had someone else that went with them on this workshop weekend, they're the ones who left this sweat lodge. Those that didn't were alone. There's something in that. I think having that voice of reason or someone to bounce this off of is key.
During the times of my life where I sought some sort of answer outside of myself and it might be a little trippy, I always ran it by my most skeptical friend or my mom. Then when I know when she's sort of like, “OK…” I’m like, let me rethink this. Am I doing this because it's really going to help me, or do I want to have a quick fix and a quick answer to my life right now?
Yeah, that's funny because that's one of those other key things with scams: bouncing the results off other people. “Does this seem reasonable to you?”
Yeah, you have to. I think having that voice of reason is very key because we get lost in the idea of it.
Yeah. We can get lost in the excitement and the passion of it. Sometimes it's well-placed and sometimes it's a passion running towards a cliff and you don't have that bungee cord.
Exactly. I also think too, I don't know if you do this, but I get really excited about something. I’ll be like, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing.” Then if I sleep on it, the next morning I'm like, “Oh, that was just this quick-fix thing that I have where this person is going to solve everything.” Even just being able to give it some space and time and see if it still has the same effect a night later or a week later.
That is a whole huge rule of thumb for me: is no big decisions get made at the moment. If it truly is of value, it will be just as much of the same value tomorrow as it was today.
That's such a good point. I have a friend too—this is a little dramatic—but if someone dies in her life, like her father passed. She doesn't make any big decisions that entire year because she knows she's living in a place of that rock bottom.
I definitely heard the advice of don't make major decisions when sudden things have happened to you. Whether you were involved in a natural disaster, in a car accident, someone passed away. While you're working through those things, that's not the right time to buy a new house, it's not the right time to change your job, it’s not the right time to get married or get a divorce. There's so much other stuff going on in your mental and spiritual space that you just need to let those things settle down. That way, you're making a wise decision as opposed to something that's emotional and feels right in the moment when things are topsy-turvy.
Right, that impulsive decision. I think that's what I really realized with doing Astray is that people really are seeking more when they are in those rock bottom places. I think it's just continuing to check in with yourself and make sure that you’re not….You know when you're giving your power away. It always feels like an off dynamic, and I think people choose to ignore it. So I think just being aware of that.
Honestly, I think in some cases, I could think of times in my life where I wanted to give that power away. I didn't want to be the one who had to make the decision. I wanted to be like, “You figure it out for me and then just let me know.”
I totally feel you. I've done the same thing. As I become more of an adult, I realized that it's really my responsibility to do that. I mean, it's weird too. I used to be a big psychic person. I used to love going to psychic and energy healers before doing Astray. And since doing Astray, I've been a little more skeptical. But I also realized that enlightenment is really just being present in the moment. That's as close as you're going to get.Enlightenment is really just being present in the moment. That's as close as you're going to get. -Caroline Slaughter Click To Tweet
I like that. Enlightenment is being present in the moment.
It's true. Like that guy, Rikki Cooke, I told you about who was with The Beatles. He studied with the Maharishi for decades and he said that's what he learned through all of this. He was a seeker and then he realized, “I don't need to be seeking anything outside myself—it’s all in me. It's just being present here.”
You don't have to go seek something that's already here. You just need to see it.
I'm wondering, in your research for this, and you even talked about it in the promo of your podcast, people disappearing without a trace and people ending up dead. Is this just a person here and there or is it a larger issue?
We're trying to trace it to something that may be larger. Like, maybe it was a guru in Rishikesh doing this, but honestly, no. It's a handful of people that have created more of a narrative around this. Unfortunately, these are tragic stories, and the families that are still dealing with the grief, I can't even imagine what they're going through.
I was very lucky that they trusted me with their children's stories, but there were a handful of situations that were very tragic. Unfortunately, from when I first found out about this, the media made it seem like it was much bigger than it actually was. No, India is not a Venus flytrap for your vulnerability.
They're not taking in hundreds of millions of people from all around the world and vanishing them.
Right. I will say too, I got called out a lot with doing this around India. People thought that I was demonizing India, and that's what I boil it down to at the end. It's not India syndrome; it's seeker syndrome. This could happen anywhere. I think I really want to be very, very direct about that and bring awareness to that.
I think you very well could reverse it: How many people have come from other countries to the US? They're seeking power, they're seeking rich, they're seeking the American dream, and get caught up in drug addiction, mental health issues, getting taken advantage of by some horrible business owner.
This doesn't just point one way. This particular discussion is in the context of enlightenment, but if you switch it around and seeker syndrome is not just necessarily enlightenment. It can be seeking financial gain and it is going to have the same risk associated with it.
I think that anytime you're seeking in general, you have to ask yourself why. What I was really looking at with the cost of enlightenment is what do we sacrifice for this risk? What do we sacrifice for, in this case—enlightenment, in the case that you made—this financial goal, what do you sacrifice for that?
It's scary, just the thought. To me, anytime I travel overseas has always been with people because I don't want to be somewhere alone and not knowing how to get help if I need it.
I traveled alone when I was in Bali, specifically, and I remember just being so trusting. I had read Eat, Pray, Love so I was like, “I think Bali is fine.” But I do think I wished I had a little bit more awareness around it. I did do my due diligence and I vetted the places I was going, but I just want people to be safe. I know it's such a bummer because you just want to go places and trust your experience, but I think there always needs to be awareness around travel in general.
Yeah. The further you are from home, the further the culture is different from your own, the further the languages are from your own. Those things in and of themselves are not bad, dangerous, or they're not the cause of the danger. But there are always going to be people that are going to look to take advantage of people whether they're domestic or foreign. Once you have a language barrier, cultural barrier, a distance barrier, you're just a little bit more of a target.
Travel is the best for a change of perspective. To be able to travel just opens things up. I really believe in travel, but to your point, yes, there are a lot of people that are preying on this new person who is in this new country. I'd like to believe that I have a better gut instinct now towards that kind of stuff.
Yeah, it's part of growing up, and I'm sure the podcast has heightened a bit of the senses as well.
Oh my gosh, yes, totally.
If people want to listen to your podcast, where can they find it, and where can they find you online?
My podcast is on all the podcast platforms. Online, I'm at carolineslaughter.com. I am @cslaugthers at Instagram and I do not do the Twitter or Facebook thing. I'm probably there, but I don't read that page.
You don't need to. It's not a requirement these days.
Yeah, it's true.
What is the full title of the podcast?
It's called Astray, that's it. It's a simple title for a very complicated subject.
Do you have a website dedicated to the podcast?
We don't. If you want to talk about the podcast, you can go to my website, carolineslaughter.com and you can hit me up there.
Awesome. I'm sure there are people that have questions.
Oh my gosh, I still have questions. The thing is, you interview a lot of experts, and I am a seeker myself. I did this podcast to explore this idea of enlightenment further, so I'm still figuring out my own questions around it. I think that will always be it: it's a process.
I think that's what enlightenment is. I don't think it's a process that stops. I think of that in terms of Christianity. If you think you've arrived, you've got another story in store for you. Anytime you think, “I've done the work, I'm done, I'm finished. I don't need to work on myself. I don't need more insights.” I think that's where we get ourselves in trouble from that perspective.
Yeah, and something else shows up.
Yes, it does. Caroline, thank you so much for coming on the Easy Prey Podcast today.