Since embarking into the worlds of wellness, spirituality, and self-development, I have been invited into more money-making schemes than I can count on two hands.
My gut response has always been a “no,” and yet, the promise for a large return has always remained seductive when working in an industry that notoriously pays low incomes to most of its practitioners.
Once called pyramid schemes, these spiritually fashioned versions show up in all shapes and sizes. Firstly, they will adamantly tell you they are not a pyramid scheme, perhaps because pyramid schemes first became illegal in the 1970s.
A simple breakdown of the math and structure will show you, however, that they work remarkably like a pyramid scheme, if not exactly the same.
What is a pyramid scheme?
The biggest sign of a pyramid scheme is that there includes a “buy-in”; a small or reasonable sum gets you into the scheme, with a promise of a larger sum in return.
This is sometimes cloaked under multi-level marketing, which is the legal form of a pyramid scheme. Legal as long as you are selling a product, more than you are recruiting new members to the selling team. This can be vague as I have been invited into hemp, telecommunications, and natural beauty selling groups that very much seem to focus more on the recruitment aspect than selling the product itself.
Likened also to a Ponzi scheme where you are simply taking money from investors who are promised big returns, to pay earlier investors promised the same, and always keep some to yourself in the middle to keep going. Someone is always doing well from these schemes—often and only, those who initiate them. They also always collapse.
Having now been a witness of many iterations, the promises never appear to quite meet the reality for those who join along the line.
Money mandalas that promise you a $40,000 return in three months from a $5,000 contribution can drag on for over a year without the cash-back materialising. You may be blamed for your lack mentality, and an inability to think-positive in-lines with law of attraction rhetoric.
Looms or weaving circles have a similar structure, and often, if not always, crumble from the lack of new members joining. A feeling of shame for asking others to buy-in before you really know that it works yourself can often block its growth.
The only way the schemes function is from a continual addition of new members who can never be sustained, as it multiplies out exponentially.
So they work until they don’t work, and they work for the ones who enter in early or initiate them. If you join you have to make peace that somewhere down the line you will ask someone to join who will lose their investment, and that may also be you.
It can be very hard to get an honest, clear, and direct answer from anyone in a scheme because once you “buy-in” the only way is through—you can’t get your money back for changing your mind. The only way you can reach success is by now recruiting new members and promising them all the same things you were promised.
These schemes thrive on secrecy and a lack of clarity for how they work and how they do not.
And they appeal to our most human and vulnerable needs. The need for community, purpose, survival, and a sense of self-worth with earning. This can typically be fraught for historically and currently marginalized groups such as women, people of color, and immigrants.
This can become treacherous territory. When you manipulate the truth to those most needing money, only for them to then have to continue on that manipulation, you can end up together in a more vulnerable, disillusioned, and bypassed state.
It can also break apart communities, as there becomes an in-group and an out-group—or those who join and those who do not. Distrust, shame, and insecurity can quickly erode relationships and friendships.
Are they all bad?
No, they can truly deliver a sense of community and inclusion. They can feed energy and excitement into all the participants and real manifestations can come through from believing them to be possible, and also providing a network for word-of-mouth. You can gain accountability, a sense of purpose, and focus.
What can be missing is the self-work needed to maintain that state of being. The integrations of shadow including the shame, insecurity, and fears that brought you into the scheme in the first place can increase as they become avoided and not looked at. The marketing for these new schemes can also be deeply manipulative, confusing, and disorienting when linked to concepts such as “ancient gifting circles,” “sacred economics,” and “the new paradigm way of making money.”
Ancient gifting circles work in a way where each member of a circle loans one member, one at a time, an amount to invest. That member then returns, and then each does the same for the next member. This is circular, and you know and can see exactly when your turn will be. You start with the same number of members at the beginning as at the end.
Indigenous gifting concepts work in the opposite direction to a pyramid—where the elders give their resources to the young or “new ones” joining the community.
The irony of the Sacred Economics Mandala is that in Charles Eisenstein’s book, Sacred Economics, he breaks down exactly how and what he is writing about is not a pyramid scheme. Furthermore, he expressly warns against them.
The problem with the “new paradigm way of making money” is that we’re not there yet, and most people do not understand the current system to begin with. It takes a long process of being deeply honest with our own money dysfunctions and becoming curious about how the money system functions as a whole, with the philosophy of economics that runs behind it.
It can feel seductive to reject the system and say that all the ways people are earning money are corrupt. Therefore, let’s enter into this new paradigm—but actually a pretty old concept of a pyramid scheme—where still a few do well, and many do not.
We can have a deep desire to believe in the “get rich quick” promise. It’s alluring to give up the concept of work and hustle, to magically receive a bigger sum than what we have.
But we have to ask ourselves honestly:
Is this sustainable?
Who will lose out and be left more vulnerable down the line?
Am I distracting myself from putting my own services and offerings into the world?
A common myth sold to you before entering these schemes is that it won’t take up much time. I have since had a few candid friends share that it takes up far more time than they first imagined. This adds to the real survival need for an income that can multiple anxiety and stress when overridden by this spiritual money bypass concept.
I have seen many pyramid schemes crumble around people I know and yet, those involved can still adamantly believe in them. Perhaps, the other benefits of inclusion make it worth the experience overall.
I have seen people part of pyramids that are inching closer to receiving, and they may still do so. Others make all their main income in this way and it has worked thus far.
What I know personally is that when I get offered to be part of these pyramids, I get a hard instinctual “no” in my body and that is enough for me to listen to.
I do not wish to have my income tied up in the actions of those I do not know for an unclear exchange and at the suspense of someone potentially losing everything. I love the feeling of receiving income as part of a substantial exchange, where what we give and receive is clear to begin with.
In general, we need more honest conversations about how pyramids work and how, often, they can be hard and also do not work.
If your body says “no,” just know that voice is the only one to listen to—inside or outside of a pyramid scheme.