Inside the Spirituality ‘Cult’ Whose Members Allege Sexual and Financial Exploitation

VICE World News spoke to dozens of ex-Modern Mystery School members, who described bizarre initiations, sexual coercion, and rampant profiteering.

04 May 2021, 10:00am

Starving hungry and near delirious from lack of sleep, Bernice Van Eck stumbled through the densely packed trees in the forest near Mount Fuji. For three days and three nights she’d been sitting in silent meditation, rooted in one spot on a nearby mountainside, with just a bottle of water to sustain her. Nearby, her fellow Modern Mystery School students had been sitting just out of sight, fighting their own battles with creeping fatigue, the elements and spiritual beings.

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It was late September 2014, a typically warm time of year in Japan, but when darkness fell it had grown unusually cold on the mountainside. By the time she saw the sun dawn for the third time, Van Eck’s mind had begun to deceive her: she found herself haunted by shapes, shadows and faces swirling in the surrounding mist.

Her journey to the mountain had taken eight years. Van Eck was 33 years old and working as a fashion consultant in Cape Town when she discovered the school. A white South African with blonde hair and a broad, confident smile, Van Eck had come to understand at a young age that she possessed psychic abilities. In 2006, she began being troubled by dreams that seemed to be originating from the spirit world. She consulted a medium, who referred her to the Modern Mystery School, where Van Eck discovered a community of people who shared her spiritual convictions. “I’d always felt different my whole life,” she told me recently. “I felt, these people see what I see. They feel what I feel.”

The sense of purpose and acceptance she felt then would be tested repeatedly in the years that followed, as Van Eck was forced again and again to prove her commitment to the school. When things got tough out on the mountain, she reminded herself of the work and sacrifice it had taken to get this far: the hours spent in meditation and study, the tens of thousands of dollars spent, the humiliations and hardships endured. If all that hadn’t been enough, the last 72 hours had surely proved her dedication beyond doubt. But there was one more ordeal to come.

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As the students came down off the mountain, they were guided to a clearing in the trees. Van Eck’s throat tightened as she saw the freshly dug graves. She tried to silence her rising panic as she was told to lie down on the cold ground and a plastic sheet was dragged over her. A shovelful of dirt spattered across its surface. Van Eck cupped her hands over her mouth and took shallow breaths. The dirt piled up; she felt its weight press down upon her.

Over the last two decades, the Modern Mystery School has welcomed thousands of students like Van Eck. At times it has billed itself as “the Harvard of metaphysics”. The school website promises “a transformational journey that will definitely change your life, and that just might change the world”. With a major presence in the UK, Canada, the USA, Japan, South Africa and Brazil, the school claims students in up to 60 countries and describes its mission as creating “peace on this planet by uplifting the hearts and minds of humanity”. The curriculum blends mysticism with personal development, claiming to offer students the tools to “work with energy to manifest the life you truly want to live”.

This kind of knowledge comes at a considerable cost. According to interviews with students, and based on calculations of publicly available costs of programmes, it appears that many students spend at least $20,000 (£14,345) to reach the school’s upper ranks. Some former students say they parted with hundreds of thousands of dollars to access what the school describes as “the top of the pyramid of training”.

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To fund their tuition, students are encouraged to launch their own spiritual businesses, based on the school’s teachings, and are offered classes such as “Marketing Basics for Professional Lightworkers”. The Modern Mystery School boasts more than 900 “certified practitioners” worldwide, and there are hundreds of Mystery School affiliates, with names like Sacred Vibrations and Sky Spirit Healing, offering services ranging from psychic readings to crystal healings and exorcisms.

The school describes this network as an “international community of lightworkers, initiated in an ancient tradition of service, compassion and empowerment”. Its critics, including numerous former students, describe it as a cult and a spiritual pyramid scheme, whose members face psychological trauma, spiralling debts and relationship breakdowns.

Over the course of several months I spoke to dozens of current and former students of the Modern Mystery School. Some told me the school’s teachings had radically transformed their lives for the better. Others described bullying and manipulation, and alleged they had been subjected to both financial and sexual exploitation. Many would only talk anonymously, fearing legal reprisals after signing non-disclosure agreements. Others were equally concerned about physical or spiritual consequences. More than one former student warned me I should be wary of psychic attacks in the course of my reporting.

Aneen Nel, a South African student, agreed to share her experience with me in writing. Nel said she’d “received mind blowing and powerful tools from MMS that changed my life”. Unprompted, she stressed: “Not once have I been forced into anything.” Nel said she was aware that cult accusations against the Modern Mystery School were “again doing the rounds”, but she dismissed them. “People don’t take responsibility,” she said. “They bite off more than they can chew, and then someone needs to be blamed if they choke.”

Some spiritual leaders preach the virtues of austerity and see material wealth as a distraction from the pursuit of enlightenment. Gudni Gudnason, the founder of the Modern Mystery School, takes a different view.

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In his early sixties, Gudnason still sports the same long ponytail he has worn for many years, now streaked with grey, a nod to his countercultural leanings. His fashion sense, however, is less hippie and more technicolour English dandy, incorporating bow ties, dazzling embroidered jackets and ostentatious Gothic jewellery. In a photo posted to Facebook, he is shown behind the wheel of a Maserati sports car, wearing yellow driving gloves that match the colour of the paintwork.

Gudnason claims to have read thousands of books, on subjects ranging from alchemy and astrology to quantum physics, but his references are frequently less high-minded; Modern Mystery School students are instructed to watch The Matrix and Mary Poppins, and Gudnason is prone to quoting the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine”. Another Facebook photo, purportedly taken at Gudnason’s home in Tokyo, shows a sheet of white paper fixed to a bookcase, spelling out three words in large bold lettering: “WORLD PEACE: HOW?”

Asked to describe his life, Gudnason has done so in terms of selflessness and sacrifice. Born in Iceland on the 9th of May, 1958, he has claimed his twin brother died 30 minutes after birth, but stayed with him to pass on teachings from the spiritual realm. In an interview for a Seattle radio show in 2006, Gudnason recalled how, aged ten, he was forced to choose whether he wanted to join his brother and transcend the physical world. For three years he wrestled with the decision, he said, before accepting he had a duty to perform. “At the age of 13, I realised that what I had learned, I needed to share,” he said. “Basically, I’ve been in full service my whole life.”

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There are many different versions of Gudnason’s life story. On the radio show, he explained he joined a mystery school in England, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, where he studied for several years before going out into the world to share what he had learned. He has claimed to have studied with numerous ancient mystery schools, in Tibet, Africa, Transylvania and Japan, and is, according to various biographies posted online, a martial arts master, a doctor of metaphysics, the recipient of awards including Poet of the Year, and trainer to bodyguards of the Dalai Lama.

When David Bowie died, Gudnason posted a heartfelt tribute online, reminiscing about their years of friendship after meeting on the streets of London. One biography of Gudnason notes, apparently without irony: “His resume sounds too good to be true, as it shows the life span of several people put into one lifetime.”

The course of Gudnason’s remarkable life can be traced back to an apprenticeship he took as a young man – but not with an ancient mystery school. By his early twenties, Gudnason had become enamoured with the Icelandic artists Haukur and Hörður Harðarson, twin brothers known for their works incorporating sculpture, movement and martial arts.

In the mid-1970s, the Harðarsons, who were both national judo champions, developed kimewasa, a martial art blending dance and self-defence. Gudnason joined a small group of young men who studied kimewasa with the Harðarsons, just as the twins’ media profile was peaking. When the Harðarsons were asked to appear in When the Raven Flies – a 1984 Viking epic that remains among Iceland’s best-loved films – Gudnason landed a small role as well. He immediately impressed the film’s director, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson, who tasked him with performing a dangerous knife-throwing stunt. “He was the one who was really, really committed,” Gunnlaugsson told me. After successfully performing his scene, Gudnason was appointed stunt coordinator for the entire production.

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When Hörður Harðarson moved to Sweden in the early 1980s, Gudnason went with him, and remained there for much of the next decade, occasionally appearing in the twins’ dance performances. Gudnason later claimed he was also operating a Kabbalah centre during this time. But by 1992 he was back in Iceland, advertising classes in kimewasa, claiming to be a master of what he described as a 1,600-year-old martial art. This came as no small surprise to the Harðarsons, who say they invented the discipline around 15 years before. Haukur was furious. “He was not qualified for that and didn’t ask me,” he told me. “So now we know what kind of man he is.”

Haukur recalled Gudnason was never the most promising martial arts student, but he distinguished himself in other ways. “He can talk to people and they believe him,” he said. “That is his greatest gift.” (Gudnason did not respond to a request for comment about this dispute.)

The following year, having been instructed to stop teaching kimewasa, Gudnason announced plans to open Iceland’s first bodyguard school, teaching classes in firearms, map reading and driving skills, drawing on experience he claimed to have gained while training the Swedish army. The business was short-lived, but just a few months later, Gudnason opened a gym in Reykjavik where he taught fujika-do, a martial art of his own creation, and offered alternative therapies including crystal healing and energy massage.

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This venture ran into almost immediate problems when the police launched an investigation into a martial arts tournament hosted by Gudnason; video footage of the event appeared to show children boxing without protective equipment. The incident prompted Iceland’s karate and judo associations to denounce Gudnason, stressing that he had no official connection to their disciplines. According to a 1995 press report, Gudnason was acquitted of breaking a boxing ban but was handed a one-year suspended sentence for possessing an air rifle. Not long after this, he left Iceland for good. (Gudnason declined to comment on the press report and denies he left Iceland to escape controversy or diminishing opportunities in the country.)

Haraldur Dean Nelson is a mixed martial artist who trained at the same gym as Gudnason in the early 1990s. Nelson told me that, despite the media attention he generated, Gudnason was never taken seriously by his peers. “People who were doing real martial arts, they just laughed at this bullshit,” he said. Nelson didn’t know for sure why Gudnason had left Iceland, but he had a theory: “It’s such a small community – so people will just know you’re full of shit. It’s easier to move abroad and you can tell people all kinds of silly stories about how good you are, how great you are, and how you can do magic, I guess.”

Gudnason moved to Ogden, a small city at the western edge of the Rocky Mountains in Utah, where he quickly began pursuing a series of money-making schemes. Not long after his arrival, he met and married Laurie Secrist, an established psychic and spiritual healer. Together they ran the Triolite Foundation, a seminar company teaching techniques to “create a mental state of peace and joy”. Archived versions of the company’s website show it sold products including an “elixir of life” named Antimony, priced at $34.95 (£25.08) for a month’s supply. “This remedy may open your connection to God,” the website claimed. “Whether the legends about Antimony are true or not – we leave up to you to determine.”

Over the next few years, the Triolite Foundation began offering a bewildering array of services, ranging from classes in neuro-linguistic programming and chi-do (a moving meditation practice) to relationship counselling. Meanwhile, Gudnason launched The Edge Body Guard Services and advertised seminars in school security and combat shooting. The company proclaimed: “We are the people you read about in books and that they make movies about, who live a life of danger and live in the face of terror all the time.” Having already invented a martial art, Gudnason obtained a patent in 2003 for a “stun glove”, featuring a hand-mounted power pack “for directing an electric shock to an assailant”.

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There is little evidence that any of these enterprises achieved any serious commercial success – until Gudnason and Secrist devised a bold new marketing strategy. Initially, the Triolite Foundation’s seminars were described in terms of personal development, promising to boost productivity and motivation. In 1998, Gudnason and Secrist combined this aspirational ethos with a mystical backstory. Gudnason began claiming to be the latest representative of a 3,000-year-old lineage, dating back to King Solomon of Israel (although the mystery school adopted a new spelling: Salomon). He told his students he had been summoned to Utah by a higher power and instructed to open an ancient mystery school to the public for the first time. He named this organisation the Rocky Mountain Mystery School, and coined a slogan: No More Secrets.

The Rocky Mountain Mystery School promised to reveal “the great mysteries and the old magick of the ages”, offering classes including alchemy, aura healing, shamanism and eroticism. To this cocktail of New Age and mystical themes, Gudnason and Secrist added a contemporary twist. In the late-90s, films such as Men in Black and Independence Day were topping box office rankings, and The X-Files television series was peaking in popularity. On the 21st of May, 1998, Gudnason and Secrist claimed to have had “physical contact with beings from another world”, after witnessing a “plasma ship” landing in a lake in southern Idaho. Inside the ship were members of an alien race called the Nathors, the couple said, who over a three-week period showed them “wondrous technology” and asked them to share it with the world.

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At the heart of the mystery school curriculum was a technique known as DNA Activation. (Today, the process is referred to as Life Activation.) Gudnason taught that everyone has 24 strands of DNA – 12 physical and 12 spiritual. Using a process similar to the energy healing practice reiki, but performed with a crystal wand rather than a healer’s hands, Gudnason claimed he could “activate” 22 of these DNA strands. The technique had been passed down through the school’s 3,000-year lineage, Gudnason said, but the knowledge required to activate the final two strands of DNA had remained a mystery until his extraterrestrial encounter. Combining ancient knowledge passed down from a “spiritual hierarchy of light” with a technique revealed by the Nathors on behalf of a “Galactic Federation”, the mystery school claimed DNA Activation could offer a “complete physical experience of the spiritual world”.

Alice was one of the earliest mystery school students. (Speaking to me recently, she asked not to be identified by her real name.) Alice joined the organisation in the early 2000s and recalled taking classes in Gudnason and Secrist’s home. “It was very much a family feel,” she said. “Gudni did a lot of one-on-one teachings. You just felt very loved and supported.” Gudnason and Secrist, however, were intent on rapid expansion, claiming they had been instructed by the Nathors to “activate” 20 percent of the world’s population by 2005.

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Students were encouraged to climb the ranks of the school, learning first how to perform DNA Activations, then how to teach the technique to others. Rebranding a self-help seminar company as an ancient mystery school backed by aliens turned out to be a marketing masterstroke. Within three years, the mystery school claimed teachers across the United States and in Canada, England and Sweden. With the school’s own students working to bring in spiritual seekers, Gudnason and Secrist toured the country teaching seminars to the latest recruits. Students paid $1,100 (£788) to attend week-long conferences featuring seminars titled Light Laser Healing Technologies, The Intergalactic Experience and Spells and Charms for Women Only.

To many of the students, like Alice, this arrangement seemed to evolve organically. Why wouldn’t they want to spread the word about such life-changing teachings and healings? But regardless of how the school’s network marketing structure came about, within a few years it was clear that Gudnason had recognised the benefits of the model and was seeking to apply it to new business opportunities. In August of 2005, he registered a separate business with the State of Utah, describing Spartan Group Agel as a “multi level marketing company that has the goal of helping people reach financial freedom”.

Within the Rocky Mountain Mystery School, many students were finding themselves drifting further and further away from anything like financial freedom. Alice recalled she was asked to take on more and more responsibilities, helping to organise the school’s events and recruiting hundreds of students. “I was never paid,” she said. “I still had to cover flights, food, car rental, and then I had to pay to participate in other mandatory programmes.”

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Another senior mystery school student at the time told me she also worked unpaid. Christa Swart, a South African student who joined the school years later, said she and others were regularly required to carry out cleaning duties for no pay, an activity the school said was necessary to work on their ego. “There was definitely merit and value in serving the school,” she said. “But then there were instances when they took it too far.”

At first, Alice didn’t question this working arrangement. “That was the way it was done,” she said. In the early years, she considered this a price worth paying to work closely with Gudnason. But, over time, he seemed to take less interest in teaching, delegating more and more of his work to Alice and her fellow students. “I was spending upwards of, easily, $80,000 (£57,318) out of my own pocket to maintain my rank, maintain my certification and receive what ended up being, I would describe as, really half-assed training,” she said.

In 2006, Gudnason and Secrist split, creating a rift at the heart of the mystery school. Secrist remained in Utah, continuing her work with the Triolite Foundation. When I reached her by phone recently, she told me the terms of her divorce from Gudnason prohibited her from speaking publicly about their time together. “I am not allowed to comment on Gudni or any aspect of the business personally,” she said. “As the president of Triolite, our time with Gudni was very productive in many ways and controversial in other ways.” Secrist continues to offer metaphysical teachings. She said: “I try to do the work with the best of integrity that I can summon.”

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After his split from Secrist, Gudnason chose once again to make a clean break. He moved to Japan and married Eiko Kurosu, a student who had worked for him as a translator. Later, he rebranded his side of the organisation as the Modern Mystery School. Alice said students were given a choice: “You either went with Laurie or you went with Gudni.” Alice chose Gudnason.

But not everyone did. In a blog post published in August of 2007, Gudnason lashed out at the students he felt had abandoned him, accusing them of joining the forces of evil. “This is the same story as in Stars Wars with Anakin Skywalker who turned to become Darth Vader, thinking that he was doing the right thing,” he wrote. “He was on a mission of Light until it was too late.”

Gudnason accused his doubters of ignoring his teachings. “Remember, I told you all that you would wander in darkness, you would be misguided and that I would lie to you to get you off the path,” he said. “Instead of just doing your job and fulfilling your contract you chose negativity and judgement. Predictable to say the least, my dear humans!”

Dave Lanyon. Illustration: Lily Blakely

On a Thursday evening in October of 2019, I took a seat in an upstairs conference room at the Columbia Hotel in central London. I was there to discover the hidden knowledge of the universe, as revealed by Dave Lanyon, “Master Metaphysician and Lineage Holder in The Modern Mystery School”. Around 200 people filled the room, drawn by the promise of a talk that would reveal “how to achieve your limitless potential”. As we waited for the event to begin, a young woman seated in front of me performed an elaborate ritual with her hands.

Just after 7PM, Martina Coogan, the chief executive of the European Modern Mystery School at the time, stepped onto the stage. “I want to introduce somebody to you that’s a little challenging to introduce because he’s quite an extraordinary and amazing person,” she said. Coogan explained that Lanyon had been one of the youngest CEOs in North America and had opened the largest martial arts dojo on the continent. “And yet, he wanted more,” she said. Lanyon had ascended through the mystery school in record time, Coogan told the audience, achieving the highest possible rank of Ipsissimus. 

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By the time of Gudnason and Secrist’s split, the mystery school was well established in the US, Canada, the UK and Ireland. While he focused on building a new life in Japan, Gudnason needed someone who could continue driving the organisation’s expansion. At first, he considered establishing a western headquarters in Los Angeles. Lanyon, then an ambitious student based in Toronto, persuaded him to change his mind.

According to his official mystery school biography, Lanyon joined the organisation in 2004. “Dave has dedicated his life to serving the world by teaching, healing and helping people from all walks of life to Know Thyself,” the biography reads, a reference to the mystery school motto. Lanyon is described as a member of the Knights Templar and as a world class martial arts instructor, and is said to have expanded the school’s global presence from 12 to 55 countries. On LinkedIn, he lists his occupation as Chief Enlightenment Officer.

Edie Koleszar, a Canadian student who spent ten years with the Modern Mystery School, joined at around the same time as Lanyon. Koleszar told me that Lanyon boasted to her of having been a debt collector for the mob, with whom he claimed his family had connections. (A former associate of Lanyon’s, unconnected to Koleszar, told me Lanyon made the same claim.) When asked about his background before joining the mystery school, Lanyon declined to comment. Former friends and colleagues confirmed to me that he was a greeting cards salesman and held a stake in a Toronto martial arts gym. One former associate, who trained with him at the gym, said Lanyon was always fascinated by mysticism and the concept of destiny: “He wanted people to respect him. He wanted people to revere him.”

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On stage in London, Lanyon cut an intriguing figure. Aged in his mid-fifties, he wore a grey goatee and was dressed like a stage magician, in a patterned pink shirt, a navy waistcoat and a blue jacket. A pentagram hung from a chain around his neck and a gold ring flashed from his finger as he sipped from a large Starbucks cup.

In a speech lasting close to two hours, Lanyon touched on topics ranging from Brexit and Trump to the nature of reality. At one point, he warned against seeking meaning through academic study. “Knowledge doesn't cause transformation, guys,” he said. “It never has.” At one point, he asked: “What is the secret to life?” Audience members shouted out suggestions: spirit, confidence, self-belief, passion. All good answers, said Lanyon, but he encouraged us to think deeper. “Accept your real self?” one woman ventured. “How do we know what the real self is?” Lanyon replied, before answering his own question: “You have to know thyself.”

Towards the end of the evening, Lanyon offered a final piece of advice: “The biggest thing we can do for ourselves is develop a path.” In case there was any doubt as to what this might mean, as Lanyon left the stage, Coogan invited the audience to take up a special promotion on the way out. “This is a powerful path,” she said, “and we’d love to invite you to walk that path with us.” Just outside the conference room, a small crowd began to gather around a table where two women were offering Life Activations for £250.

Illustration: Lily Blakely

It was impossible for Van Eck to know how long she had been buried on the mountainside. Was it seconds? Minutes? Suddenly, the plastic sheet was pulled away. Cool fresh air hit her skin and a wave of exhaustion and relief coursed through her body. She had survived. She had passed the test. She had graduated as a Third Step Ritual Master. (Confirming the existence of this initiation, the school said: “This is part of a symbolic ceremony to manifest ‘out with the old and in with the new’, and only applies to those entrusted with teaching at the school.”)

The mystery school hierarchy is split into two main paths: the healer, and the warrior. Those who ascend the healer path become Guides, while those on the warrior path become Ritual Masters. Students are typically required to follow both paths, but Van Eck always felt a greater affinity with the path of the warrior. Healing was one thing – Van Eck wanted to fight evil. “I used to carry daggers and holy water in my bag instead of lipstick and perfume,” she told me, laughing at the memory. “I was like the Barbie exorcist warrior, you know?”

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After her introduction to the school, Van Eck underwent a DNA Activation and began to explore what else the curriculum had to offer. She discovered the school’s lineage included some of history’s great artists, thinkers and leaders, such as Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill. (The claim is also made in teaching materials given to me by another former student. Asked about this, the school said it attempts to show “all of these individuals were proponents of the school’s teachings”.) Van Eck learned sacred rituals that she was told would allow her to communicate with the Hierarchy of Light, a body of beings bridging the gap between humans and God.

Progress through the mystery school is marked by a series of initiations – ceremonies denoting a student’s progression to a new rank within the hierarchy – and students are referred to as initiates. Prices for these initiations, listed on the mystery school website, increase significantly as students move up through the school. Additional courses, in subjects such as sacred geometry and astral travel, must be taken along the way. At the Healers Academy, a week-long programme on the Guide path, students pay £4,000 to learn how to perform Life Activations. Upon completion, each graduate is presented with their own crystal wand.

Anyone who attains the rank of Guide and Third Step Ritual Master is deemed to be a higher-level initiate within the school – but even these dedicated students soon discover their education is just beginning. Emails forwarded to me by former students contained invitations to embark upon a “School of the Mage” programme, comprising ten weekends of personal tuition with Gudnason, spread over three years, at a cost of more than $80,000 (£57,325). In an email to prospective participants, Gudnason advised: “It is the highest training of them all, the top of the pyramid of training, even though there is always more to learn.”

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Students are warned not to proceed along the school’s path lightly. Prospective Ritual Masters are advised that they are embarking on “the Great Work”, and sign an agreement that states their teachers will push them “emotionally, mentally and spiritually”. Those on the healer path are advised that to be a Guide is a “deep and holy honour” and “the highest service one can do for another human”. Guides are told they must behave accordingly, abstaining from recreational drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

While the path promises hardship, the promise of enlightenment can be a powerful incentive. Liane Salgado spent more than three years with the school, travelling to programmes in Boston and Toronto, attaining a rank of Ritual Master 2.5. She told me: “I’ve always felt curious about things that will be normal in 100 years, but right now people think it’s insane or unworkable.”

Salgado was deeply sceptical from the start, but she was also intrigued and puzzled by the way the teachings seemed to be working for those around her. Salgado saw how her fellow students seemed to feel “connected to some sort of invisible guidance”. She wondered why she was different. “The mystery school always blamed you,” she said. “Your ego was in the way. You weren’t meditating enough. It was always your fault if things didn’t work.” Salgado stuck with her studies, although she frequently expressed doubts to her teacher. “She always gave me the party line,” Salgado said. “She always suggested another class, another healing, another something within the school.”

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Outside observers have noted how the school’s business model appears to rely on the constant recruitment of new students. In 2010, Ioannis Gaitanidis of Leeds University published a PhD thesis titled: Spiritual Business? A Critical Analysis of the Spiritual Therapy Phenomenon in Contemporary Japan. Gaitanidis identified 40 schools and academies in Japan offering training in spiritual therapy. Of these, he wrote, “the largest and most popular of these schools seems to be the Rocky Mountain Mystery School”, concluding that the organisation “resembles a spiritual business version of a pyramid scheme”. (The school denies its business model relies on the continuous recruitment of new students.)

Steven Arawn spent several years as a student of the Modern Mystery School, first in the Bay Area and then in Austin, Texas. Arawn told me he attended one meeting in Toronto where Guides were told they hadn’t done enough to initiate new students: “During that meeting, they just came out and just reamed the Guides.” Emma, a former student from Seattle who asked not to be identified by her real name, recalled it was only when she passed her Guide initiation that she found out the school set targets for recruitment of new students. When she attended a school programme in Toronto, Emma saw Guides being ranked according to the number of initiations they had performed. “They were belittling people,” she said. “That's when I looked around and I thought, ‘This doesn't feel like the light that they’re preaching.’”

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Others recalled similar experiences. One former Guide told me she saw her fellow initiates reduced to tears after failing to hit their target of bringing in ten new students: “All of those people got taken into another room and yelled at for three hours.” (The school denies initiates are admonished for failing to recruit new students.)

In addition to bringing new recruits into the school, the life of a higher-level initiate involves significant ongoing financial commitments. Guides must travel to Toronto or Tokyo every year, paying to “recertify” their initiations. The school website states this is a requirement “for all Guides to remain certified and active”.

The threat of having initiations stripped, and losing the ability to earn money by offering mystery school healings and classes, looms large for those who have relinquished any other sources of income. Advanced initiates told me they were encouraged to leave their jobs and dedicate themselves to the school full-time. Edie Koleszar recalled: “They told everybody: quit their jobs, work at your expense, only teaching what we tell you.”

In an email to South African students, Lanyon questioned why they were not more like their counterparts in Brazil: “They are full time Guides. They had ‘day jobs’, but through the work and service they have moved beyond the matrix life and in this have broken free!” (The school denies initiates are encouraged to leave their jobs and says it “does not operate under multi-level marketing principles” but “does welcome new students”.)

Additional or unexpected fees for courses or equipment are common. An official school order form from 2014 lists supplies including a set of “Guide candles” for $715 (£512), an “exorcism manual” for $227.50 (£163), a “life activation wand” for $195 (£139) and an “Enochian dagger” for $433 (£310). “They just seem to always have another reason to spend more money,” Arawn said.

All students who have passed their Ritual Master 2.5 initiation are required to attend the school’s annual Warriors of Light programme, a retreat lasting several days where students practice meditation, martial arts, rituals and spells. These advanced programmes include a range of optional additional classes and healings. In an official school email to students, attendees at the Warriors of Light retreat in February of 2020 were invited to learn how to perform baby blessings for a $3,500 (£2,509) fee. In other mystery school correspondence, students were advised that payments for Ritual Master initiations must be made in cash. One school email from 2014 instructed students that payment should be made in “large USD bills”. (When asked why it requires payments in cash, the school said: “This is simply untrue.”)

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Despite the school claiming to offer the tools to manifest financial abundance, and encouraging its members to leave their day jobs, few of the Guides I spoke to said they were able to make a significant income from teaching the school’s curriculum. Several Guides reported that they were required to pay the school a portion of all the fees they earned from teaching mystery school classes.

Combined with the pressure to take increasingly expensive programmes, it seems this makes it difficult for even some of the highest-ranking teachers to make a reasonable living. In an email to Van Eck, Martina Coogan said she was “scrambling to survive financially”, despite having led the school’s UK operation for several years. (Coogan did not respond to requests for comment.) 

Emma told me the school was quick to dismiss students’ financial concerns, instructing them to “manifest” the money to pay for programmes: “They’d say, ‘Oh, that's your poverty mindset. You have to break through that and spend the money.’” Tim Van Minnen, a South African initiate, estimated he spent more than £50,000 on mystery school tuition. At first, he was able to cover these costs through his work as a spiritual healer. Eventually, “I ran out of money to pay them,” he said. According to Van Minnen, he was then stripped of his Ritual Master rank and told not to attend school events. A total of seven former students told me they had spent their life savings or gone into debt to keep progressing within the school.

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Alice said she eventually left, after close to a decade with the school, due to her growing disillusionment with this situation. “You’re coercing people to stay in the organisation, getting them to pay money and threatening to take away the initiations that they earned and paid for,” she said. “I just couldn’t have a part of it anymore.”

Illustration: Lily Blakely

Occasionally, Van Eck had doubts about the school’s teachings. Recalling a workshop on Galactic Activation, she remembered thinking: “This doesn't make any sense to me at all. There’s no aliens coming down from the sky. I'm not feeling any different. I'm paying all this money. I'm getting in debt.” Like other students, Van Eck had been struggling to finance the increasing cost of her mystery school studies, maxing out credit cards and taking loans. (Van Eck provided statements confirming she had taken out bank loans shortly before making significant payments for mystery school programmes.) 

Nevertheless, she stayed. Van Eck had found a sense of purpose in the school unlike anything she’d experienced before. How many people have the chance to fight for the future of humanity? But there was also another reason: she had begun to develop feelings for Lanyon.

Around four years after Van Eck found the Modern Mystery School, Lanyon visited South Africa. Van Eck recalled an air of mystery and reverence around him; students were instructed not to address him unless he spoke to them first. Van Eck and her fellow initiates arrived 90 minutes before class to prepare the room, performing rituals and outlining sacred shapes on the walls to offer protection from negative energy. When Lanyon arrived, “it was literally like I was magnetised towards him”, Van Eck said.

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In the months after their first meeting, Van Eck would see Lanyon only sporadically, when he visited South Africa to teach or when she travelled to Toronto for the Warriors of Light programme. But she felt a connection building between them. In September of 2011, Van Eck was struggling to pay for her Guide initiation when Lanyon sent her an email offering to waive the fee. “WOW!” she replied. “I have been in shock since receiving your e-mail and I am so happy … I no [sic] that I’m a very important key to fighting evil. So YES YES YES I will do what ever it takes to get there … Dave thank you with all my heart!”

Van Eck redoubled her commitment to training. She told me she attended all the school’s courses and performed hours of monotonous rituals, even while her teacher screamed that her efforts weren’t good enough. “You're going to tell me I'm going to stand there and draw the pentagram for eight hours?” she said. “I stood there and I drew the pentagram for eight hours.” Any hardships simply served as extra motivation. She had always known the path would be hard; this was a life of service. It wouldn’t be long before her skills would be needed to save every soul on Earth.

Towards the end of 2011, word began to spread among the mystery school initiates that a world-changing event was looming; one that the school’s leadership had been building up to for two years. In the months before the 5th of May, 2012, students received a series of increasingly dramatic emails telling them to prepare for this potentially cataclysmic event.

With eight months to go, Lanyon emailed Ritual Masters to advise that an upcoming Warriors of Light programme would be the most important in the school’s history. “The world needs us now more than ever before,” he wrote. “There will always be many excuses NOT to train and not to serve… but if we don’t succeed on May 5th, 2012 EVERY soul will be lost to heaven.” Two months later, Gudnason emailed: “We are getting closer to the end of days, the Armageddon or the End of the World AS WE KNOW IT!”

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Ritual Masters of all ranks were called upon to help. While no one knew quite what the 5th of May would bring, all were certain it would be a tipping point in human history. Arawn, the veteran mystery school student based in Austin, understood the event to be “an energetic gateway that is going to change the future of humanity”, involving an epic battle between good and evil.

Temples – ceremonial gatherings where participants perform rituals to channel magical energy – form a regular part of the Modern Mystery School’s activities. Ritual Masters sign a contract that states they are “required to serve in temples”, and are left in little doubt as to the importance of this work. Gudnason has claimed these ceremonies have paved the way for events including the Arab Spring.

“The effects of our temples are felt all over in so many ways, crime going down, bad guys falling down dead and people rising up against injustice,” he wrote in one email, while warning that failures at temples had caused the flooding of New Orleans. Gudnason warned: “IF WE DON’T DO OUR WORK, PEOPLE DIE!!!!” (The school denies students are warned people will die if they fail to do their work.) 

In preparation for the 5th of May, 2012, mystery school temples were convened in several locations across the world. Success would mean “an upgrade in consciousness” for all of humanity, one student recalled. Lanyon warned the students by email that defeat would mean the loss of all the souls on earth.

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With such high stakes, three months before the event the mystery school held a mandatory five-day training programme in Toronto. Students were advised by email that they were required to pay between $725 (£520) and $975 (£699) to attend. (The school says it has “no knowledge” of this event or request for payment.) Beforehand, Lanyon emailed: “TO BE 100% CLEAR, MISSING THIS TRAINING MEANS YOU WILL NOT BE ON ANY MAY 5TH TEAM AND YOU WILL NOT BE A SERVING RITUAL MASTER.”

Two weeks before the date, Gudnason offered some final encouragement: “We are almost there and we are ready!” He warned the Ritual Masters to prepare for 30 hours of non-stop work to defeat the forces of evil. But he also began managing expectations. “Some have asked me: ‘What will happen on that day’?” he wrote. “Well my answer is: ‘I don't know’! Perhaps nothing, then we know that all the work that has been done in the past few years has paid off.”

At the beginning of May, mystery school students gathered in Tokyo to make their final preparations. Around 200 initiates took part in the main temple, while smaller gatherings were held in Toronto and Cape Town. The days before the event were spent conducting meditation, martial arts and breath work exercises. Many of the Ritual Masters had been practicing sleep deprivation for weeks. 

When the 5th of May dawned, the Ritual Masters in Tokyo embarked on the most important work of their lives. Some performed ritual hand movements, others chanted mantras. The students worked in shifts to avoid exhaustion. (Details of these rituals were independently confirmed to me by two former students who were present.) Throughout the day, Gudnason posted updates of their progress on Facebook, with photos of mystery school students embracing one another, describing it as a mission to “hug the world”.

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At a secluded site outside Cape Town, Van Eck was participating in the South African temple. The atmosphere was focused: everyone knew what was at stake. “If you let your guard down for a moment, you could let a demon go, or a soul disappear,” Van Eck told me. Isolated students all over the world also played their part. Arawn spent the day in his Austin apartment, sitting underneath a pyramid fashioned from copper tubes, performing ritualistic hand movements intended to ward off evil. “I found myself in a mental space where I was on the battlefield, energetically,” he said. I asked what his rituals involved. “A lot of pentagrams. A lot, a lot, of pentagrams.”

When the morning of the 6th of May arrived, word came from the school leadership: the Ritual Masters’ efforts had been successful. All over the world, exhausted students reflected on a momentous event in human history. An unthinkable disaster had been averted – and most of the world hadn’t even noticed. “It's remarkable,” Arawn said. “Look, whether we’re right or wrong, the passion, the care, the intensity behind the people that were doing this 2012 exercise was pretty fucking intense. It was very real to us at that time.”

On the 8th of May, 2012, around 72 hours after what the school had claimed was the most significant event in human history, Gudnason posted the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine” on his Facebook page. Later that day, he posted another update: he and Eiko were going to Disneyland.

Leonardo da Vinci, Plato, Winston Churchill and William Shakespeare, all of whom were proponents of the Modern Mystery School's teachings, according to the Modern Mystery School. Illustration: Krent Able

The 5th of May, 2012 was a landmark moment in the Modern Mystery School’s history. But it was just one example of the students’ ongoing service. As Guides, former initiates told me they were required to maintain a constant supply of new recruits to swell the school’s ranks. As Ritual Masters, they were encouraged to maintain constant vigilance in the fight against evil.

Former students on the Ritual Master path told me they received self-defence and weapons training to prepare them for their work. Several said they carried ceremonial daggers with them at all times. At home, initiates engaged in field work such as gridding – rituals in which participants draw sacred geometric shapes – to protect their local areas from demonic energy. Once or twice a year, hundreds of Ritual Masters travelled to the school’s Warriors of Light programmes in Toronto and Japan, posing for class photos in their martial arts robes.

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Emails from the school’s leadership reveal regular participation in temples was also expected. The atmosphere at these events varied depending on the magic that was said to be deployed. Enochian temples were serious affairs, based on ceremonial rituals dating from the 16th century. Others, such as Egyptian temples, were more sensual in nature, and young female students were enlisted as dancers. One photo posted online shows several initiates wearing brightly coloured bejewelled bras and hip scarves.

Lisa Leon-Guerrero, a Seattle-based initiate who spent around four years with the mystery school in the mid-2000s, was chosen to dance at temples several times. “Gudni would pick four to eight beautiful young women to dress the part,” she told me. “And they would get together and put on provocative clothing and basically dance during the temple to raise the sexual energy in the room.” Leon-Guerrero saw the role as an honour: “I thought that I was doing a critical task for the temple.”

Some students felt uncomfortable participating in ceremonies where initiates would touch each other in a sensual manner. “I was shocked,” one female Israeli student said. “I was like, what is this thing? I don’t want to be part of this.” (The school says students are not required to take part in such rituals: “Touch in all human interaction is important but there are no such compulsory ceremonies at the school.”)

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For many students, however, sensual dancing in temples was perfectly compatible with the school’s broader teachings on female empowerment and sexual liberation. While the Modern Mystery School is led by three men – Gudnason, Lanyon and Hideto Nakagome, who manages the Japanese school – lists of mystery school practitioners show women outnumbering men by at least two to one, and most student interactions are managed by a group of female leaders known as the Council of 12.

As they progressed through the curriculum, former initiates report encountering more and more teachings on sex and relationships. Christa Swart recalled students being told to let go of society’s stigma around sex. “They would say sexual energy is such a powerful energy in terms of life force and our existence,” she said. “And the darkness knows how powerful sex is, because it’s of the light. That’s how the dark tainted it and skewed it, made it what it is today.”

Former students told me sex was explicitly promoted in Ritual Master classes as a tool to be used in the school’s fight against evil. A Canadian student shared notes he had taken during one Ritual Master class. “Sex is the most powerful ritual magick which can be performed,” he wrote. “Sex in its purity opens the heart and chakras … To advance spiritually we need to get out of our heads and get into our hearts.” Van Eck took similar notes. In October of 2014, on a sheet headed “Tantra”, she wrote: “Sexual energy holiest energy … What we go through in temple will heal the world … HAVE MORE SEX.”

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Asked about these teachings, the school said: “The way this is framed is untrue. Talk about sex (given that it is part of the human condition) is encouraged, but it is untrue … that students are encouraged to have more sex in order to channel ‘magical energy’.”

To some, the school’s messages around sexual liberation and empowerment seemed at odds with aspects of the student experience. One school policy forbade women from wearing trousers at school programmes. A Modern Mystery School document, circulated to attendees of a 2018 training programme, advised: “For women who have a problem with being asked to wear a skirt or a dress, please notice there is not one depiction of any goddess from any pantheon anywhere on the planet that wears pants. Another perfect example is Her Royal Highness the Queen of England – you will never see her wearing pants unless she is riding a horse.” (When asked about this dress code, the school said: “This is simply untrue.”)

During classes, some initiates observed male teachers making inappropriate comments about students. (The school denies this.) Canadian student Edie Koleszar told me: “There was a lot of flirting, saying sexual things during classes, like shocking people with sexual talk.” Several former students said Gudnason would regularly receive massages from female initiates, which he said were necessary to keep the energy flowing through his body. Arawn said: “At any given time, somebody from the programme would be giving him a massage or taking him to get a massage.” According to Lani Renee, a higher initiate with the school for several years, students would bring massage tables to school programmes. “Gudni was always getting a massage,” she said. “They were always the young girls, for sure, you know, who had the tables.” (Gudnason did not respond to a request for comment about receiving massages from students.)

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Few initiates ever learned the true extent to which sex played a part in the school’s activities. There were rumours, however, about a secretive group within the school, comprised of the most dedicated and skilled higher initiates. Some heard this group employed sex magic as a weapon in their spiritual warfare.

During her time at the school, Leon-Guerrero began a relationship with a man who was serving as Gudnason’s bodyguard. Despite her junior rank, this relationship offered her an unusual insight into the school’s inner circle. Leon-Guerrero told me she soon learned that rumours of these “shadow teams” were true, and that groups of higher initiates had been trained to be “the special forces of the inner circle of Ritual Masters”. She heard reports of shadow teams being dispatched at short notice in the event of disasters such as school shootings, conducting exorcisms and holding magic rituals to fight demonic energy. (A member of one of these shadow teams told me he was part of a group sent to the scene of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.)

In October of 2007, Leon-Guerrero received an email inviting her to commence training for this shadow work. She was intrigued but apprehensive. By this time, she had heard accounts of “tantric” or “passion” temples; ceremonial rituals that involved much more than sensual dancing. “My understanding of these, quote, temples was that more sexual contact was actually being had, and that they resembled more like orgies than actual religious rites,” she said. “They were basically orgies under the guise of raising sexual energy and achieving enlightenment that way.”

Koleszar said she spent two years serving on a team that engaged in shadow work, including holding temples where she says sex magic rituals took place. “That team was a very small part of the school,” she told me. “It was sort of kept hidden and very secretive.” Koleszar said members of the team were encouraged to engage in sexual relationships with one another.

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While she didn’t personally participate in group sexual rituals, on one occasion, at a school programme in Japan, she said she was instructed to wait outside a room where a tantric temple was taking place, giving massages to participants when they emerged: “We were told to do certain things afterwards with all the participants, to help them through the whole situation, after they came out of the room, after they did their sexual work. We had to massage them certain ways. We had to be in certain meditations outside of the room while all these things were going on.”

Koleszar said participation in these rituals was voluntary and that many saw it as an honour to take part. However, she later came to question the spiritual justification. “I wouldn’t say it was ever forced,” she said. “But it was definitely groomed and psychologically manipulated.”

Two other higher initiates, both of whom have since left the school and asked not to be named, told me they took part in tantric temples in which up to 16 participants would engage in acts ranging from sensual massage to sexual intercourse with multiple partners. One of them was Alice, the American student who left the school due to concerns about financial exploitation. Alice told me she was also worried about the damaging effect of tantric work on some of the students.

“I didn’t like the fact that people would have a temple experience and – what we refer to it as – they would get blown out,” she said. “In other words, it was too much energy, they didn't understand it, they couldn’t process it. And they would flip out.” Alice said there weren’t enough safeguards in place to ensure students participating in sex magic could cope with their experiences. “When I was leaving the school, it was like a giant sex party,” she said. “You know, ‘Oh, she’s hot, let's invite her. Oh, he’s hot, let’s invite him.’”

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For some, invitations to participate in this side of the school sparked a crisis of faith. Lani Renee recalled being invited by Gudnason to join a tantric ritual at the end of a day’s classes during a mystery school programme in Canada. While Gudnason was unspecific about what would take place during the ritual, Renee said she was in no doubt about what it would involve. “There was a sexual door within the school,” she said. “And I chose not to enter.” Not long afterwards, she left the organisation. “That was the moment I knew I was leaving,” she said. “Once I had that invitation.”

Likewise, Leon-Guerrero said the moment that she learned about tantric rituals was a tipping point in her decision to leave. “I just was done,” she said. (The Modern Mystery School denies holding tantric rituals and says claims that students are encouraged to channel magical energy by having sex are “untrue”.)

Lower-level initiates, while largely unaware of this side of the school, nevertheless allege they were subjected to sexual advances from the school’s male leaders. Five students told me they experienced sexual harassment, coercion or manipulation at the hands of Gudnason or Lanyon. Some of these students were distressed by these incidents at the time, while others believed they were engaging in activity that would serve their spiritual progression, only later coming to question what had happened to them.

Kali Ren, an American student formerly known as Rachel Grayner, joined the Modern Mystery School in 2010. The following year, she volunteered to help at an alchemy conference where she met Gudnason for the first time. “Gudni met me the first night, looked at me, shook my hand, and then walked away,” she told me. The next day, she said she met Gudnason again in a corridor. This time, “he pulled me really close to him and he started rubbing up against me as he’s whispering sexual stuff in my ears,” she said. “It was not a normal hug. I have had normal hugs. It was a sexual-charged hug.”

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Ren provided copies of social media messages in which she discussed the incident with another former mystery school student, prior to being contacted for this article. A friend also confirmed she had discussed the incident with Ren, shortly after it happened. (Asked about this incident, the school said it never took place and “emphatically denied” allegations that its students face sexual impropriety.)

One Japanese student told me she twice witnessed Gudnason suggesting to female students that they should have sex with him to further their spiritual development. She said on one occasion she was invited to Gudnason’s hotel room, where she was instructed to give him a foot massage. Afterwards, he told her to perform oral sex on him. “I thought giving him oral was almost like an initiation for me,” she said. “I thought it was like a test.” Afterwards, she struggled to come to terms with what had happened. “It really destroyed me inside,” she said. (Gudnason declined to comment on this alleged incident.)

Other students told me the school’s leaders used their influence to manipulate them in other ways. A Canadian initiate, who spent six years with the mystery school, recalled how, in 2010, she met a business associate of Gudnason’s from Utah at a mystery school programme. Then in her late-twenties, she judged the man to be in his late-fifties, and said he approached her and asked if she would sleep with him. Initially, she said no.

Later that day, she said Lanyon told her: “If you did fulfil his request, that would probably be really healing for him.” (Another Canadian student told me she was also asked by Lanyon to sleep with the same individual but said she declined to do so.) The student knew the school’s teachings on sex and had decided she wanted to advance to higher levels of service. She said she followed Lanyon’s suggestion: “The entire time I was like, ‘Okay, you’ve got to get over the fact that you’re totally not attracted to this person. And this is more about healing him and helping him.’” (The school “emphatically denied” this incident took place.)

Koleszar recalled helping to prepare for an Enochian temple being held by the school in Toronto. Taking a break, she said she was sitting on a table when Lanyon approached her and positioned himself between her legs: “It was right up close and personal.” Koleszar said Lanyon remained in this position for several minutes, while making a series of sexual remarks. “I thought, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’” Koleszar said. “I’m not in any way attracted to you. I’m here to help put up a holy temple, is what you’re telling me. And you want this energy here? Like, what’s going on?”

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Responding to Koleszar’s account of this incident, the mystery school denied it took place. “At such a ceremony there would have been at least 100 people who would have witnessed this making it inherently unlikely,” it said. After receiving clarification that the alleged incident took place before, rather than during, a ceremony, the school declined to provide further comment.

In its initial response, the school alleged Koleszar had “an axe to grind” against the organisation, had failed to pay outstanding tuition fees after leaving and had at one point sold products offered by the mystery school to her fellow students at lower prices. In turn, Koleszar acknowledged the outstanding fees but said they related to courses she was coerced into attending, and pointed to the many hours of unpaid work she says she carried out for the school. She also acknowledged selling ceremonial daggers, which were sold by the school for $333 (£238), to a handful of fellow students after finding they were available online for $11 (£7.88). Koleszar left the mystery school in 2014, a decision she attributes to this dispute and to her growing concerns about Lanyon’s behaviour towards initiates.

The events that follow were recounted to me by Van Eck – and corroborated by two sources who said she gave the same account to them at different times over the last five years. (The school and Lanyon deny Van Eck’s account.) Van Eck told me that, ever since Lanyon had waived the cost of her Guide initiation, she’d felt a growing connection between them. She said any doubts about the nature of this relationship were dismissed in 2014 when Rita Van Den Berg, the recently appointed head of the mystery school in South Africa, told her: “Dave asked me to protect you and to watch over you. You’re not allowed to have a boyfriend, you’re not allowed to be with another man. You have to keep yourself for him.” (Lanyon and Van Den Berg deny this conversation took place.)

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Her interactions with Lanyon remained brief, but she could feel their bond growing stronger. Some of the other students sensed it too, remarking on the extra attention she was given during class. But Van Eck said she was told she could not be with her teacher until she attained the rank of Third Step Ritual Master. (The school describes this allegation as “complete nonsense”.) As Van Eck recalled, only once her energy reached the appropriate level would she be ready for a sexual encounter that would save millions of souls. After her initiation on the mountain in Japan, she was finally ready.

In January of 2015, Lanyon was in Johannesburg to oversee a Ritual Master programme. According to Van Eck, at the end of the programme Van den Berg asked her to stay an extra night. Van Eck told me the two women went shopping the following day: she recalled Van Den Berg taking her to buy items including condoms. (Van Den Berg denies asking Van Eck to extend her hotel stay, and says the shopping trip never took place.) Afterwards, Van Eck returned to her hotel room to sit in meditation. She told me that, at around 11PM that evening, she travelled to Lanyon’s hotel, collected a keycard left for her at reception, then made her way upstairs.

Gudni Gudnason. Illustration: Lily Blakely

On the 7th of June, 2012, a month after the school’s triumph over evil, Gudnason emailed the mystery school’s students. He thanked them for guiding the world through an epochal shift. “So here we are at last: DONE! and a NEW CHAPTER begins in the history of the Mystery School tradition,” he wrote. “A new way of being and seeing the GREAT WORK!”

Gudnason advised the students that, while the school had been preparing for the 5th of May, he had been busy with humanitarian work. In 2009, he had toured spirituality and wellbeing conferences all over the world with a Golden Pyramid of Peace – a literal golden structure that he said was built in the exact proportions of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. In 2011, in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Gudnason used the Golden Pyramid of Peace name for a non-profit organisation he said would deliver aid to those affected.

The extent to which Gudnason contributed to the relief effort is unclear. He certainly organised prayer circles and made repeated requests for donations. At one point, he enlisted Olivia Newton-John and her husband to film an appeal for funding. (The couple declined to comment on the appeal or their relationship with Gudnason.) The Golden Pyramid of Peace website advised donors that the organisation’s non-profit status was pending and that payments would be processed “via Gudnason directly”.

Three weeks after the disaster, Gudnason posted photos of a trip he made to the disaster zone. Jamie El Banna, a relief worker who met him at that time, told me Gudnason was particularly preoccupied with handing out iodine pills, despite there being no evidence that radiation had affected the area in question. In a blog post from August of 2011, Gudnason claimed to have raised $400,000 (£286,766) for the relief effort. When the Golden Pyramid of Peace was eventually registered as a non-profit in California, public filings show the organisation declared revenue of just $44,000 in 2012 and listed no income in previous years. (Asked to comment on this discrepancy, Gudnason denied this was the case.)

Gudnason told the students that his humanitarian efforts would require him to step back from the Modern Mystery School, continuing to train the highest initiates but leaving day-to-day operations in the hands of Lanyon and Nakagome. In the years since, Gudnason has pursued an astonishingly diverse range of business ventures, including sustainable ecodomes, kelp dietary supplements and organic beauty products. In 2012, he embarked on a career as a trance and techno DJ, going on to release an album of ambient compositions and playing at the 2016 Fuji Rock music festival. He established a music events company with Rob Schwartz, a former Billboard Asia correspondent, with whom he also collaborated to produce a feature film, Stay. In recent years, he has partnered with former FOX producer Daniel Smith on Defending Japan, a military documentary series that aired on the History television channel. As of 2017, Gudnason remained listed as the manager of Warrior Elite Group, a personal protection and military training contractor based in Utah.

In November of 2019, I emailed Gudnason requesting an interview to discuss his life and work. A few days later, he replied saying he would agree to an interview, on one condition: “We need to have 100% control of the material, we need final cut of the whole thing. I know that most journalists don’t want that, but then again most journalist just write what ever they want.” When I explained this wouldn’t be possible, Gudnason declined to speak. However, during the course of our exchange, he told me: “I am not oblivious to the fact that our reputation in the UK is not good.” Gudnason claimed the family of a student who suffered from mental health problems had attacked the school. “Since then we have gotten harsh criticism from some websites and people have gathered around this one point,” he wrote. “It is not about truth, but how people perceive the truth and the truth is that our reputation in other areas is very good.”

The following August, I approached Gudnason again, seeking his perspective on the experiences recounted by dozens of his students. This time, I received a letter from his lawyer, describing the allegations made against Gudnason and the Modern Mystery School as “entirely false, defamatory, and highly damaging to Mr. Gudnason’s professional and personal reputation”. Attempts to contact the Modern Mystery School (described as “a Canadian company for which Mr. Gudnason has provided services”) had caused Gudnason “substantial damage and emotional distress”, the letter said.

Visitors to the Modern Mystery School website find the organisation’s reputation addressed directly. An FAQ section of the website includes the question: How do I know you are not a cult? “This is a very interesting question that comes up now and again,” the answer begins, adding: “The school’s entire system of training is based on FREE WILL and taking control of your choices in life and not surrendering them to us or anyone else.”

However, several anti-cult organisations told me they had been contacted by concerned friends or relatives of mystery school members. “I dealt with a family that’s lost someone to it,” said Ian Haworth, general secretary at the UK-based Cult Information Centre, adding: “It is a group about which we’re concerned.” A case worker at the US-based Families Against Cult Teachings described the Modern Mystery School as “another little group who has all the answers and wants world peace, and they have their little classes that cost however many thousands of dollars, and you have to do more and more and more”.

In recent years, students have been required to sign a non-disclosure agreement in which they state they will “always speak in good and positive terms” about the school, its teachers and its leaders. (The school says “NDAs are now standard in contracts of this nature” and “are not intended and have never been intended for the purpose of covering up impropriety”.)

The school website states: “There is no one GREAT LEADER who is the end all and be all of the school and its beliefs.” In other communications, however, the school refers to “Founder Gudni” in reverential terms. In 2017, students were charged $150 (£107) to fund a celebration in his honour. “Of course this is a time none of us will want to miss!” an official school email read. “To honour the man and the GREAT lineage that has allowed you to be the initiate and Guide that you are.”

The Modern Mystery School denies it is a religious organisation. Gudnason has written: “We are not a religion and we do not represent any religion on this planet.” However, public records show at least one Modern Mystery School affiliate – the Institute of Awakened Mastery in Washington state –has obtained tax-exempt status on religious grounds.

In March of 2018, a complaint was filed with the Michigan Board of Psychology Disciplinary Subcommittee against psychologist Christine Elwart. Describing the Modern Mystery School as a “religious group”, the complaint alleged that Elwart had promoted its teachings as “alternative therapy” for countering “spiritual evil”, and described her conduct as constituting “negligence”, “incompetence” and “exploitation”. Upholding the complaint, the subcommittee found Elwart had violated the Public Health Code by encouraging a client to join the school. Elwart surrendered her licence.

In the past, Gudnason has addressed criticism of the school and his character. In 2006, in the wake of his divorce from Secrist and the rift that had opened up at the heart of the school, he sent a lengthy email to students in which he mused on truth, honour and the fight between good and evil. He alluded to followers who had questioned his credentials.

“Let's for a moment imagine that I am the Wizard of OZ,” he wrote. “He, as you know, was a fake. He had no true powers, BUT he did create magick because the people believed in him … Perhaps the message is more important then the messenger.” Gudnason went on to list a series of figures he said had been the subject of sexual misconduct claims, including Aleister Crowley, W.B. Yeats and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He urged: “If these kinds of attacks start just remember to stay focused on your path and do not listen to gossip and evil talk as this is the way that evil works.”

In January of 2020, a few weeks after my first request for an interview, Gudnason published a Facebook post in which he once again railed against his detractors. “The critic is always someone who is a coward and has not sacrificed anything for others, but rather sit in their ivory towers and judge me and others like me. So I have no respect for people like that, most journalists who make up a story, just to sell newspapers,” he wrote. “I will not yield to inferior minds and timid souls, but rather I will stand strong and shout into the wind: WAKE UP PEOPLE, STOP BEING SLAVES!!!!” 

The sentiment echoed what Gudnason had said in his first email to me. “If you are a real journalist then you would understand my point of view and my desire for someone to tell the truth about me and my work for the last 40+ years,” he’d written. “My main focus is to help people to stop being slaves to the system that is all around us, to become free from dogma from society. Our teachings are about the truth being inside each one of us, that we need just to remember the things that are inside and with that they can become free.”

Bernice Van Eck. Photo: Lizl Sheridan Photography

In the summer of 2017, Bernice Van Eck left the Modern Mystery School. It was not an easy decision. Several students told me they were given dire warnings about what awaited them if they left. One Canadian initiate said he was encouraged to cut off contact with former initiates: “They said that when people leave they have been abducted by the dark side.” Edie Koleszar recalled being warned, “You will be attacked demonically like crazy if you leave and you say anything. They say your life will fall apart.” (The school says claims that students are warned against leaving and that former students are ostracised are “completely untrue”.)

After her encounter with Lanyon in Johannesburg, Van Eck told me she left his hotel room feeling confused. She said the events of that night were troubling; at first, Lanyon had seemed loving, but after they’d had sex, he acted as if he was just her teacher again. As she recalled, Lanyon gave her the choice to stay or leave. At around 5AM, Van Eck decided to go. Later that day, she left Johannesburg and flew home to Cape Town. A friend and fellow mystery school student told me Van Eck called her that day in tears, and described having a sexual encounter with Lanyon that was “awful and amazing at the same time”.

Responding to Van Eck’s allegations, lawyers acting for Lanyon, Van Den Berg and the Modern Mystery School attacked her credibility, claiming she had a substance abuse problem, as evidenced by a drunk driving incident in her past. In turn, Van Eck said she was once arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and required to perform community service, after being stopped at a police roadblock in 2013, but denied any ongoing issue with substance abuse.

The school claimed Van Eck owed money for classes and had failed to repay a loan given to her to cover debts and living expenses. Van Eck said the school once gave her money to cover living costs, but that this was in return for providing assistance with school programmes. She said Lanyon had waived fees for school programs, and that she believed this was part of his efforts to groom her for a sexual relationship. The school claimed Van Eck has been “unlawfully competing” with it and using “proprietary information for her own financial gain”. Van Eck acknowledged her ongoing work as a life coach and healer, but denied her services are based on the school’s teachings.

Lawyers acting for the school said: “Other than the fact that Bernice Van Eck was training to be a teacher at the school there was no relationship between Dave Lanyon and Bernice Van Eck and for the record no sexual relationship of any kind.” The school alleged Van Eck developed an “unhealthy infatuation” with Lanyon and said her allegations were motivated by “a deep personal animus” that arose after she was refused certification as a teacher at the school. It said Van Eck was repeatedly told that Lanyon did not want a relationship with her.

Van Eck provided me with copies of emails she exchanged with Lanyon after their alleged encounter in Johannesburg. In one email, sent in January of 2016, Lanyon wrote: “I saw your Facebook photo, very nice!! :)  You are looking amazing as always! … Love to You Goddess, Miss seeing you…its feel like [sic] forever!” In another, he signed off: “Love and Licks! :)”

On other occasions, Lanyon questioned Van Eck’s dedication to the school. Van Eck had always been more interested in fighting evil than bringing in new students. In February of 2016, a year after their alleged encounter in Johannesburg, Lanyon admonished her for failing to recruit initiates: “If you feel you can’t or won't initiate people,” he wrote, “then you can’t hold the higher energy of the light work because without initiation we are screwed.”

Confused, Van Eck replied, questioning why he was criticising her, making apparent reference to the night she says they spent together. “YOU are the only reason why I haven’t left yet but I am starting to think that I have my head in the clouds and you don’t feel the same and that this is just a game to you,” she wrote. “I have kept my secret as promised and out of respect for what we had. Energetically you chop and change with me and you are very confusing.” She signed off: “I love you and I don’t want to fight but I am starting to see stuff my soul is not happy with.” Lanyon was incensed. “You are WAY out of line,” he replied. “Goddess, do not ever talk like this to me again. I have earned better from you than you have given me.”

Van Eck told me she struggled to make sense of Lanyon’s attitude towards her: so she hadn’t recruited many new students – hadn’t the night they’d spent together saved millions of souls? She said she was repeatedly denied certification as a Guide, despite having passed her initiation and having met all the school’s requirements. She began to question the story she’d been told leading up to the night she said she’d spent with Lanyon. Her uncertainty soon spread to everything she’d learned in her years at the mystery school. When she attended school programmes, she found the teachings made less and less sense. The doubts she had held at bay for years came crashing in. Eventually, they became too much for her to continue.

If her decision to leave the school was difficult, adjusting to life outside was even harder. “Your whole world has been taken away from you,” she told me. After committing herself to fighting evil, she found herself searching for meaning. “How do you save souls?” she asked herself. “How do you go forward from here?” Her dedication to the school had created rifts with friends and family. Leaving meant losing the only relationships she had left. “You’ve got nobody,” she said. “So a healing process then starts and it is tough. It’s bloody tough.”

Nearly four years on, Van Eck is still coming to terms with her time at the Modern Mystery School – and repaying her financial debts. She works as a personal development coach and volunteers with women and children’s charities, teaching meditation. She continues to explore spirituality and healing, but no longer puts her faith in self-proclaimed leaders.

Occasionally, Van Eck receives messages from others who have left the mystery school, seeking reassurance about what might lie ahead. Whenever that happens, she tells them the most valuable lesson she gained from the school was learned when she walked away. “The freedom that you have when you leave a cult, it is unbelievable,” she told me. “I actually found my power and my light. And I found it on my own.”

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Features, vice long read, worldnews, dave lanyon, gudni gudnason , multi level marketing scheme , DNA Activation, Life Activation

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