There is a story Aubrey Marcus likes to tell about the time he transformed into a triceratops. “You would think the most interesting part about being a triceratops would be having a big horn. But nope,” he began one Saturday last year, in front of a crowd of about 100. “The most interesting part was how full my heart felt and how connected to everything I felt. There was a complete absence of anxiety. I was so warm and open. And I was a dinosaur.”
His audience had gathered for the first day of the Aubrey Marcus Mastermind Weekend in a beige and frosty downtown Austin event space. Animal horn and moss centerpieces adorned tables of 10, where everyone sat rapt for much of the afternoon. But in response to the triceratops story, the group erupted in a knowing chuckle: Many of the people in the room, I will learn later, have also participated in an Ayahuasca ceremony, either in an illegal one here in the United States or in the jungles of Peru like Marcus. These ceremonies, which traditionally last several days, involve multiple doses of the drug also known as “the vine of the dead,” and are not recreational. In fact, they are often terrifying.
But as in Marcus’ case, the Ayahuasca experience can also be a valuable teacher. For example, when Marcus turned into triceratops that one time he learned that underneath it all, we are all that dinosaur — or at least, we can be if we risk the journey deep inside ourselves to discover it, Marcus says into the mic. The quest can be scary, and bizarre, but the trip is worth it because once you do, whatever you want to achieve will be right at your fingertips. Once you know how connected you are to everything and everyone, you’ll experience a deep knowing that it’s not the big horn that makes the man. What makes the man — even the *manly-men* who make up most of Marcus’ fanbase — is that which makes you human: that feeling that Marcus felt that deep knowing that we are all worthy of love, because we’re made of love.
This is the basic philosophy of the church of Aubrey Marcus, a popular podcaster, author, CEO of a multimillion-dollar wellness company called Onnit, and a new kind of spiritual influencer. Marcus’ central message is simple: Whatever you want to achieve is right at your fingertips, as long as you remember that we are all the same, and that being the best you can be is the path to changing the world. Remembering these basic truths are the roots of self-mastery and the way to success in business, in love, in life. And if you are having trouble remembering? Worry not, there are tools (so many tools!) that can shift you back to a higher consciousness, including Alpha Brain, a “revolutionary” plant-based nootropic available from Onnit, for $34.95. There’s also meditation, diet tweaks, exercise (Onnit tools like maces, gorilla kettlebells, clubs and battleropes can help), breath work, ice baths, various psychedelics (not for everyday use, mind you), and of course, the Aubrey Marcus Podcast, as well as his book Own The Day, Own Your Life, that will help you “optimize” your every second.
Marcus, 38, is tall and brawny, with a chin that’s so precisely chiseled he looks like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast (minus the ponytail). He is what incels would call a “Chad” — in fact, he even has multiple girlfriends, as normalizing open relationships is another of his pet causes. His interests in the gym, entrepreneurship, and mixed martial arts align him with the typical red-blooded American male. And yet, he is also one to categorize things as “high vibration” (good) or “low vibration” (bad). He does yoga, but is also into ax-throwing. His affinity for both cutting-edge biohacks, like intravenous IV infusions that supposedly support your mitochondria, and ancient wisdom, like the Toltec philosophy that ruled the Aztecs of Central Mexico, makes him a tough study. Is he a bro-version of Gwyneth Paltrow? A knockoff Joe Rogan? A wannabe cult leader? All of the above?
When I first came upon Marcus on Instagram, I couldn’t identify the specific rules of his lifestyle ideology. Anyone who knows anything about wellness culture knows there are always rules, driven by one imperfect ideology or another. The thought behind Paleo is that eating like a cave man solves modern diseases; Marie Kondo’s dogma is that tidying up sparks joy. In the case of Aubrey Marcus and his Onnit associates (because duh, I had to start following them, too), there were plenty of kettlebell and “amrap” workouts, but then there were also posts about hyperoxygenating ice baths, marijuana, magic mushrooms, and open relationships? What?
His podcast wasn’t very clarifying either. It was heavy on both “human optimization” which is a fancy way of saying wellness, and psychedelic-induced self-actualization. It was Aubrey Marcus talking about psychedelics with the guy who started Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) or with business leaders about the “hero’s journey,” one of his favorite topics. So, when I signed up for the Mastermind Weekend (I was able to go as press because Marcus was promoting his book at the time, so I didn’t have to pay the $795 fee or for lodging in Austin), I was expecting to finally figure this whole thing out. I was sure I was going to learn a ton about the ketogenic diet and work out like a New Age Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But that’s not quite what happened when I got there. “Fundamentally, I think I’m a philosopher more than anything else,” Marcus told me, during one of our one-on-one interviews the Friday before the weekend began. “I’ve set out to solve a variety of different problems. Some of those solutions have turned into a business, some of those have turned into a book, some of it is a podcast, sometimes it’s a poem.”
These kind of Marcusisms pop up all over while I’m at the Mastermind. At Black Swan Yoga, the Austin-based chain of studios that Onnit acquired in November 2014, there’s an Aubrey Marcus quote on the wall: “Inhale truth, exhale fear. Perspire doubt, inspire growth.”
Marcus’ friend Kyle Kingsbury, the 6’4” former MMA fighter, and now director of human optimization at Onnit/fellow podcaster, spoke at length at the Mastermind about using the various tools of “wellness” not just to stay healthy or get ripped, but to find your way to a higher plane of existence. “There are many paths up the mountain,” Kingsbury said, as he took us through tactics like meditation, breathwork, movement practice, and being careful with the media you consume (Cable news: bad; thought-provoking interview-style podcasts: good).
But it was Christine Hassler, a spiritual life coach and author, who boiled down the Marcus effect the best: “Onnit is just a trojan horse for consciousness” she told me. “I don’t think Aubrey even realized it when he started it, but by starting with the gym and the supplements and just by his nature, he’s attracting this very macho, male audience and it’s a way to give them space to tap into their vulnerability.”
I didn’t become interested in Aubrey Marcus because of any particular fascination with men, and their state of being. I really thought this would be a fun story about yet another wild lifestyle-craze. But I definitely didn’t not notice that I was one of the few women there, and that there was something more going on here beyond your typical wellness fare.
To be sure, the gym, the daily Onnit primal pack of vitamins, getting “BAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLSSSSSS DEEEEEEEEEP” in ketosis as Kingsbury put it on Instagram once under a photo of his blood sugar numbers, are all pieces of the puzzle. But, as I quickly learned, the body isn’t really the point here. The focus on the body is just a means to the ultimate end: a higher awareness, a sense of connectedness with something bigger than themselves and with people on a similar path.
“How many of you are suffering?” Hassler asked to open her session, and hands shot up around the room. “Uh-huh,” she says, before asking for a volunteer to come up for some “live coaching.” The first person to throw up his hand is a former aerospace engineer turned entrepreneur named Joe Sheehey, age 28.
“I basically go from one addiction to the next,” he confessed into the microphone. “Coming out of college, I was addicted to drugs and losing my mind and partying. And then I went into body building and got addicted to steroids and got out of that. And now I’m addicted to working. I’m addicted to my business.”
For the next 20 minutes, Hassler examined him with questions that dug into the specifics of his problem: Why do you think you have this pattern? Whose approval are you seeking? What does approval even feel like? Have you ever felt proud of yourself? By the end, Sheehey is sharing that he’s an approval junkie, and that he never felt truly loved by his distant father, and Hassler is explaining that his father loved him in his own way and that the only way for him to solve his “addiction” is to love himself.
“How many people are receiving value from what he’s sharing?” Hassler asks the room, after Sheehey, eyes-welling, says he’s never really felt proud of himself. Hands go up. “How many more can connect or relate to what he’s sharing?” More hands go up. “Okay, so now is that something to be proud of?”
“Yes, yeah absolutely,” Sheehey says, holding back tears.
“So can you just be still for a second and be proud and let that in?”
The room roars in applause. “I love you all,” Sheehey says. “Thank you.”
A post shared by Aubrey Marcus (@aubreymarcus) on May 4, 2019 at 11:56am PDT
Marcus’ success at selling himself, his friends, and his experiences, as a pseudo-spiritual product shouldn’t be surprising in the context of America today, where traditional institutions are eroding and Marianne Williamson is a candidate for President. More than a quarter of Americans now identify as “spiritual, not religious,” according to Pew data. Some have flocked to other ancient wisdoms — the astrology explosion among young women comes to mind — while others have found other paths to community and purpose: niche fandoms, or political activism. (Still others have found themselves in the terrifying world of 4chan or white supremacist Facebook groups.) Fewer Americans than ever have faith in traditional religious institutions, at the same time that all the confluent factors of our modernity — changing social norms, social media, political polarization, increasing inequality — have left many people searching for something to believe in, or at least, hang on to. In response, Marcus is creating positive community around those most American ideals: individuality, greatness, entrepreneurial success, and self-actualization— and to be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about that.
Marcus would argue that what he’s doing has nothing to do with gender, and in fact, I wasn’t the only woman in attendance. But what really interests me about him is that he is speaking to young men in a language they are interested in hearing, telling them that the culture wars, and especially women, are not to blame for their problems: They are, and only by taking responsibility for themselves, allowing themselves to be vulnerable, will they find themselves on the right track.
“I think there is a real crisis of masculinity in that men think to be a man you have to act a certain way. Be strong,” Marcus says. “It’s not about cowering, but it’s about not being threatened by a woman in her full power, or by anyone really. You can only be your authentic, true self and only by finding that can you be the type of person who isn’t threatened, isn’t afraid.”
As unique as he is, Marcus is actually just one of a larger ecosystem of a new generation of influencers making bank via their lifestyle optimization podcasts, coaching sessions, wellness product empires, and social media presences. These are the “podcast bros” as Molly Worthen, PhD, an associate professor of religion at the University of North Carolina, refers to them.
Marcus’ peers include the the 4 Hour Workweek’s Tim Feriss, the meditation teacher, Corey Allen, whose podcast, The Astral Hustle is about “how to live better with less suffering and more wonder,” and former arena football player Lewis Howes, who runs The School of Greatness podcast, who is also well-known for being open about surviving childhood sexual abuse and authoring the book, “The Mask of Masculinity.” It also includes the comedian and MMA commentator Joe Rogan, the most popular (and problematic) of the bunch. If you’re not into self-improvement or long-winded podcasts, you may have no idea who these people are, but the fact is they are very popular: Marcus alone has millions of downloads. Rogan’s podcast is regularly in the number one spot on iTunes.
“On the one hand it’s easy to make fun of these guys,” Dr. Worthen says. She got pulled into the podcast bros ecosystem and became fascinated in much the same way as I did. “There are aspects that are silly — the cold showers, the nootropic supplements — but there’s so much that’s worth taking really seriously,” Dr. Worthen says. “The popularity speaks to something human beings in the 21st century are really starved for: a sense of transcendence. Marcus and his colleagues really do provide this for a lot of people, both with this message that is often explicitly metaphysical, but also with what they offer in the routines. The cold shower, the meditation, all these things are a way to offer a daily liturgy. They make it possible for their members to feel like they’re part of this far flung secular monastic order.”
Marcus, especially, is the most “metaphysical” of all of them, Dr. Worthen explains. And this is exactly what Marcus’ fans like best about him. “I have so much respect for him,” Laura, one of the few women who joined the Mastermind told me during lunch on Day 2, right after a session of ecstatic dance, and right before the poetry-writing session that closed the experience. Marcus was the “catalyst” for her and her husband’s trip to Peru for a week-long Ayahuasca ceremony. “I feel a gratefulness to Aubrey. He could hide all this stuff. What’s so admirable to me is he could make this all about physicality, but he’s telling the world about psychedelics, about awareness.”
“I am broken. We’re all broken. But for me, when I started to be vulnerable is when I found people actually connecting with me, and I found actual true deep relationships with people, rather than surface-level bullshit,” Sheehey, the coaching volunteer, would tell me in a later interview. “That’s why I see a lot of myself in Aubrey. More than creating just a supplement company, he’s created something that helps people understand what is it that we are here to do?”
There are limits to this brand of awareness, of course. For starters, “human optimization,” which appears to me to just be the practice of constant self-improvement with an emphasis on the most cutting edge wellness trends, seems exhausting, expensive and some of the stuff (okay a lot of the stuff, from mushroom teas to nootropics) is experimental at best.
Beyond that, Marcus’ philosophy is oriented around the central idea that self-reflection and personal growth are the only things that can truly change the world. Unlike Jordan Peterson (who is also arguably a member of the podcast bros fraternity, and once a guest on Marcus’ podcast), Marcus isn’t interested in reinforcing social hierarchies, he’s interested in eliminating them, the same way a heroic dose of psychedelics does. The problem, however, is he doesn’t seem to realize those hierarchies exist. Gender and race are not real to him, so not worth obsessing over. He is proudly “anti-political,” and doesn’t vote anymore. “I think people get very distracted by this dark side of tribalism,” he says. “Let’s stop being liberals. Let’s stop being conservatives. Let’s be the best version of ourselves.” Instead, what is worth discussing is the hero’s journey, which he believes everyone of us has equal access to, even if our challenges look different on the surface. “Am I worthy of love? is the question we’re all asking, really. The truth is, you are love! We are everyone, because we’re all the same. And when we start living that way, that’s when shit starts to get really good,” Marcus says.
This is a wildly optimistic way of looking at the world. It’s something only a financially successful, conventionally attractive, heterosexual, able-bodied white man born with nothing standing in his way except himself could believe. It is also pretty much par for the course as far as commercialized self-help goes: when you’re selling self-improvement — whether that’s in the form of a book, fitness, supplements, self-help retreats or all of the above, as Marcus is — acknowledging that structural inequalities exist, much less fighting against them, is not good for the bottom line.
“Someone said to me recently, ‘the problem is all the angry white men,’’” Marcus said in his closing remarks on day 1 of the Mastermind. “Angry white men? No, I don’t see that. This is one of the big challenges of our time: People who say ‘this is a white thing, this is a Black thing, this is a male thing, or a female thing.’ All of this is untrue. Don’t engage in it.”
I bristled at that. And yet. Depression, loneliness, a lack of meaning, these are real problems in our society, too. These are the problems I heard again and again from the ranks of Aubrey Marcus listeners when I asked what drew them to Austin.
Jake Kerch first came across Marcus on Tim Feriss’ podcast, and what hooked him was a story Marcus told about ending his relationship with Brown Sugar Poptarts. “I ate those every day for at least a decade,” Kerch says. But over time, after listening to Marcus’ podcast, and reading his book, his interest became more spiritual in nature. Over the past few years, Kerch has gone through some ups and downs — a breakup, a back injury, a cross-country move, all of which contributed to a pretty serious period of isolation and depression. Marcus and Ferriss (who is known in part for his openness about his own experience with depression and suicidal thoughts) were key to moving forward, he says. “It’s like look, I need to get my own shit in order. There are a lot of things I can be doing better, and I want to get every one right that I can get right,” he says.
So while it may have started with a ketogenic diet, it didn’t stop there. Then, he started meditating. When he couldn’t lift weights or workout like he used to due to his back injury, he started doing yoga. That led to experimenting with LSD microdosing on the weekends as a way to find a true calling. “I would have never have described myself as a religious or spiritual person beforehand,” he says. “But I definitely questioned that afterwards. I would have said this is bullshit hippie crap a few years ago. But now I will argue to my death that it’s powerful.”
A post shared by Aubrey Marcus (@aubreymarcus) on Apr 27, 2019 at 12:10pm PDT
Before Marcus stepped up to the microphone in Austin, I found my seat at an open table. Sitting in front of me on a place setting was a gray journal with the Aubrey Marcus Mastermind Weekend logo imprinted on the cover, and a copy of The Mastery of Love, “a wisdom book” by Don Miguel Ruiz. At my table were three late-20s best friends from El Paso, who came for an enlightened boys weekend. The trio had tripped on psilocybin together just the weekend before, an experience that one of them, a wild-haired entrepreneur named Jonathan, said showed him that he needed to stop discounting his personal traumas as insignificant.
There was also a coal mine engineer from West Virginia who shared how happy he was “to be able to be here, around like-minded individuals,” and a Youtuber who had traveled all the way from Singapore to get business advice and meet other entrepreneurs. Everyone was excited when Marcus himself is spotted milling about.
When it was finally time for the festivities to begin, Marcus stepped up to the mic in the center of the room. Those of us sitting with our backs to him promptly swiveled our chairs around, and opened our notebooks. After a brief welcome, he explained that we’re going to begin with an exercise that will help us connect with our “life force energy.” This simple practice first taught to him by his “kung fu master,” he said chuckling a bit at the mention, was one of the “first things that shook the cage a little bit,” when he was just a teenager, way before he felt himself transformed into a triceratops.
He then led us in shaking out our hands. Then 10 seconds of rhythmic breathing.
“Okay, now what you’re going to do is you’re going to imagine there’s a life force energy that runs through your body that’s linked to your breath,” Marcus explained. “Now take your hands in front of you, and get ‘em nice and close, and when you expand it’s going to be like a bellows, and you’re going to feel like you’re stretching the energy between your hands like taffy. And then as you breathe out, imagine you’re condensing that energy into a dense disk between your hands.”
“As your hands get close, it should feel like opposing magnets. Do you feel the tension?” he asked.
Reader, I felt it.
“Once you feel that energy, take that energy and then push it all the way up your Chakras from your root, all the way through your chest. Imagine that chi, that life force energy, straightening out the lining, strengthening and energizing all those systems in your body.”
Not gonna lie, 5 minutes of breathing and stretching my life force like taffy felt pretty nice.
“Dope,” Marcus says, as we opened our eyes. “Now on a scale of one to Dragonball Z, how did you guys feel? Could you feel it?” A sea of hands shot up around the room. “Good.”
“That’s really what started me on my path,” he continued. “That was my first moment of awakening and just feeling something that was beyond the scope of what I’d normally known.”
It was the moment that set him on a path toward finding the truth, he said. “When people ask ‘what happens when you die?’ Well, I don’t expect anyone to take my word for it, but I feel like I know. I’ve traveled there. I’ve seen it,” he says, with the certainty of someone pointing out that water is wet. And when I looked around the room it was clear that his fans found comfort in this assuredness about the magic inside of everyone—inside themselves. They too wanted to know. I can’t fault them for that.
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