John de Ruiter was sitting on an elevated stage in a large armchair in front of a packed auditorium. The entire room was intently focused on him and the intense gaze emanating from his steely blue eyes. He's handsome, like a top-tier Porsche salesman. On each side of the stage were mammoth video screens, both projecting an extreme close-up of John's face. For the next hour, we all silently stared at John.
I was told that John can look straight into your soul; other followers said they can see an aura around John during his three-hour staring sessions, or "meetings," as they're called. His followers, who number in the thousands, consider John the "living embodiment of truth." He is the L. Ron Hubbard of staring.
John de Ruiter (simply "John" to his followers) was a humble Christian preacher and orthopedic shoemaker in rural Alberta before he founded the College of Integrated Philosophy in Edmonton, Canada. He's now worshipped as a new messiah by his worldwide followers.
The College of Integrated Philosophy holds regular "meetings" at the Oasis Centre, a $7 million facility near the West Edmonton Mall, hidden within an office park and manned by an army of enthusiastic volunteers. Before that, John held his meetings in a small bookstore off of Whyte Avenue. His followers, largely middle-aged women, are completely "John Gone."
When I heard about John, I was intrigued. Was this the emperor's new spiritual clothes or was there something more to this staring guru? I traveled to Edmonton to find out.
It's $10 a head to attend John's three-hour staring meetings, which consist of "dialogue and silent connection." Forty-five minutes before commencement, the Oasis Centre was already packed to capacity. Before settling in, I went to have lunch at John's café, inside the facility.
"I moved here because of John," said a middle-aged woman standing next to me in the food line. This was the umpteenth time I'd heard someone say this. "Before I met John I was living on a beach near Byron Bay and didn't even know where Edmonton was," the woman added. Now, she had moved to Canada from Europe in search of something she felt only John could offer.
"Have you ever taken acid?" she asked me. "That's what it's like when you hear John. You listen and then suddenly something snaps and you get it."
I hoped that I, too, would have an acid-snapping spiritual moment today. If it didn't happen during the first meeting, there was plenty more to choose from: "Friday night we have a meeting. Sunday we have two meetings. Then Monday we have another one," relayed a gray-haired woman while I grabbed a sandwich wrap. She was smiling broadly. "I go to all of them. I work here, so Monday I go to work and just continue to stay here for the meeting as well as Fridays."
John's upcoming world-staring tour includes seminars in Israel, Germany, India, Holland, and England – and while tickets to meetings are a measly $10, seminar tickets go for hundreds of dollars. Despite the hefty price tag, many of his devotees are willing to follow him around the globe.
"John goes to all these place. I go sometimes," said a kindly woman from New York. She had been a John follower for 15 years before she decided to make the move to Edmonton. "I've been to Israel four times with John."
I sat down at her table, along with some women from Israel, Germany, and the UK, all of whom stared intensely at me.
"It's very international," she continued. "You'll find that there are less Edmontonians than people from elsewhere, but they live in Edmonton now because of John."
"Are you going to sign up to talk to John?" asked the Israeli woman, who also moved to Canada because of John. "You put your name down if you want to talk to John, and you wait and see if your name comes up on the board."
"Maybe I shouldn't dive right into the deep end," I replied.
"No two meetings are the same – it all depends on who asks the questions," added an older Austrian woman who moved to Edmonton five years ago. When she first attended John's seminar in Europe, she couldn't speak a word of English. And yet: "I could understand everything he said; I just knew he was speaking very important truths." She told me that no matter where John moved, she would follow him.
"It might seem really confusing at first at what's going on," she said to me, before advising me to "listen with your heart."
"Have you ever taken acid?" she asked me. "That's what it's like when you hear John. You listen and then suddenly something snaps and you get it."
Before I had come to see the College of Integrated Philosophy for myself, I had spoken with Professor Stephen Kent of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, a cult expert who has been researching de Ruiter's activities for years.
"It's a community of striving, if not naive, followers," he told me, describing the majority of members as older Aquarian-aged people who've grown up expecting the world to be filled with peace and happiness but have been left disappointed. "De Ruiter is maybe seen as the last hope of their generation to provide the kind of world they wanted," he said. "People who want the world to be a good place and think it's attributing to its betterment. But in fact are spending hours and hours of time listening to not a whole lot of insight."
Kent said that John's following stems from the psychological process called "misattribution," based on the idea that humans are meaning-seeking creatures. Followers, he said, misattribute John's relative silence and his scarcity of words as indications of profound depth. "They expect a guru up there pontificating – but he doesn't say much. If you look at the message, there's not a lot of substance to it," he explained. "Many of the people are widely read in spirituality issues. They fill in the absence of the thoughts with their own knowledge and hopes and aspirations. So they give John meaning that he himself may not even realise."
Members have expressed disillusionment with John's group in the past – but few have publicly come forward about it. "They look around and perceive to see a large happy community – and then say, 'Oh the problem must be with me; everybody else sees the wisdom – so it's my problem.' Then they feel that it's their shortcomings," said Kent. "I'd say a lot of people have caught on, but they haven't spoken publicly about what they come to realise."
Kent told me the story of one woman who'd left the group after she saw John at a gas station filling up his off-road truck. She asked the attendant if he knew John, and he told her that John came in all the time to repair his truck from off-road trips over the weekends. The woman realised that the money she was giving the group had been partly funding John's off-road hobby.
"Over a period of time people have spent countless hours and a fair amount of money seeking out a product that is nonexistent. And when people finally realise what they've been doing for so long it hits a lot of them really hard," said Professor Kent. "People are assigning wisdom to John based on what they have picked up themselves over the years. That sense of wisdom gets reinforced with members."
Kent has also been told stories of arranged marriages to help foreign members move to Edmonton, where they become Oasis Centre volunteers. "I've heard that John will point at two people and say they should be married," he said. Kent gets frequent calls from concerned family members and friends. "The devotion to John takes over people's lives. It inhibits the ability to make rational decisions for themselves and for their loved ones."
John's most public controversy involved two sisters he was having a relationship with while he was married: Benita and Katrina von Sass. Not only did their father, businessman Peter von Sass, provide John financial support, but he also introduced John to his young nubile daughters. (The story made headlines because Katrina is a former Canadian Olympic volleyball player.)
The staring guru originally denied the affair, stating he was answering questions on a "personal level." He later told his congregation that "truth" had told him to sleep with the von Sass sisters. John's wife divorced him when she refused to join the sister harem; the von Sass girls eventually sued John, stating they were owed certain entitlements and payments from a decade spent as his common-law wives.
In an affidavit, Benita von Sass described John as "an opportunist and a huckster." She said that he had told her to "sexually submit to him" as it was "God's will," and that he claimed to be "Christ on Earth." At the time, she said, he was still having regular sex with the two of them in addition to his wife.
"There have been constant rumours about affairs, and members either don't take the seriously or don't care," said Kent. "They believe he is operating on a different level of wisdom that puts him in a different realm from the rest of us and give him permissions that normal people don't have."
Then he began staring, his eyes glistening like pooled Visine.
I knew this before I arrived at the staring meeting. Still, I tried keep my heart and mind open as instructed, since I wanted to understand how John could wield so much power with merely a look.
"What John emphasises is it's not about anything he is saying – it's really about opening your heart and seeing what you see and what opens for you," said a volunteer from Holland, who recently moved to Edmonton after coming to John's summer seminar (within a week she was engaged to another volunteer). "Sometimes it could be far out there, based on so much knowledge and foundation and common understanding," she said, acknowledging that at some of the three-hour meetings, John doesn't speak at all.
I paid for my $10 ticket and drew an assigned seat. The gold circle is up front, where you get the most impact of John's direct stare.
"I'm in the boonies," lamented a woman who had been coming to meetings since 1996.
"You've been here for so long, you don't need any more close-ups," her friend replied.
The Oasis Centre's lavish auditorium was designed solely for John and his staring proclivities. Adorned with ornate chandeliers, a proscenium stage, and marble pillars, it's a venue worthy of a king – or a spiritual guru with followers who move from all corners of the world to be closer to his gaze. The College of Integrated Philosophy sometimes rents out the luxurious facility for wedding receptions, which can cost up to $13,000 during peak season.
I took my seat off to the side as roughly 350 people filtered in, filling almost the entire auditorium.
"I've been to about 4,000 meetings," said the young woman sitting next to me. "I started coming when I was seven." She was originally from Vancouver, she told me, "but my parents moved here because of John."
Once seated, a British woman came onstage to tell us about the scholarship fund for those who can't afford John's seminars. She was providing a training workshop for budgeting: "Those requesting a scholarship may be asked to look at their lifestyle and find new ways to contribute to these seminars financially," she said. "This could include simple suggestions like setting up a toonie jar, comprehensive budget planning, managing resources, considering downsizing, or renting a room or a garage out."
I tried to keep my heart open as John's devotees instructed, despite the fact that this woman had just encouraged his followers to rent out rooms in their homes to help pay for these expensive seminars.
Suddenly, the energy of the room shifted dramatically. There was no music – just silence and a few coughs. We were acutely aware of John's presence as he stood at the side of the stage for what seemed an incredible amount of time. Then he slowly walked towards his large comfy chair, his footsteps loudly reverberating throughout the hushed auditorium. The atmosphere was mausoleum-esque. John sat and slowly put on his headset, with dramatic effect. Then he began staring, his eyes glistening like pooled Visine.
What followed was the world's largest staring contest with John's face on the large video screen. It was hard not to break into a smug Richard Dawkins laugh, but this meeting was a no-nonsense affair, so I clamped down on my giggling. Occasionally the video monitors cut to shots of us staring at John. It was like being in church, if the pastor had had a stroke and all he could do was stare at you. This went on for about an hour.
Then, John went one by one and stared directly at each person in attendance. When he looked at me, my heart fluttered and I realised how uncomfortable it is to be stared at by non-blinking eyes.
I tried melting into his stare, to feel what his followers must feel – his handsome face, his pouty lips, his steely blue eyes. Staring at John was like staring at a glassy-eyed Dutch painting. It started to feel like he was staring solely at me, and it felt incredibly intimate because of the utter silence. The room was crowded, yet it was just me and John.
Then, abruptly, the spell was broken. John's large staring head on the video screen started to remind me of David Cronenberg's Scanners, and I was afraid it might explode. Was I beginning to read too much into this?
Then it got weird.
A teary-eyed woman appeared on the large video screens. She had signed up to ask questions of John and took the chair directly in front of him. The woman was a fragile mess and spoke very slowly: "It's important for me to speak to you. I have a really hard time articulating. I don't have a question, I just love what I'm responding to."
John stared at her.
"I just so love responding. It's not even a choice; it's just happening. I have no direct experience what is now – but I love our bond." More staring. There was a long pause. Strained coughs. "I don't know what this is, but somehow we are in this together in some sweet way."
John and the woman were now staring at each other. We stared at them. Who would blink first?
Professor Kent had told me that in the old days, anyone could ask John a question. Now, there's a preliminary screening; if they don't like what the person is going to say, they don't get called on.
"How to see the speck of gold that has no weight – it is weightless?" a Dutch woman now asked from John's hot seat. There's a long, long pause.
John spoke, at last. His words were slow, soft, and deliberate: "You enjoy knowing the gold directly."
We waited for hours for John to speak, and now he was speaking; so I guessed his words must be very important: "It is real to you. The gold," John said slowly. "You respond to what you know is golden." Pause. "You see that which is most deeply real in you."
Slow and torturous, John threw out more fortune cookie Haiku statements: "The plough breaks the ground in yourself." Long pause. "When you are in flow, do what is golden; that which is not golden breaks."
John's followers stared intently, hanging on to every word, creating meaning out of it all. The Dutch woman kept questioning with equally slow delivery; it was like watching two people on mescaline hold a conversation.
"I feel small," she said.
"You feel that because your self is too small for you," John replied.
The woman's chest heaved with each question as John continued his dreamy, hypnotic dialogue. Sometimes she said things and John didn't respond – he just kept uncomfortably staring at her.
Then, John pulled what I assume is his most popular parlour trick: He shed one tear that slowly trickled down his cheek. I could feel the entire auditorium gasp.
"Tell me to stop because I could go on forever," said the Dutch woman. John remained quiet. The two ended up staring each other down for another ten minutes until John slowly took off his headset and walked offstage.
I felt confused – had I missed something? John seemed to give people a sense of happiness, but all I saw was underlying confusion and sadness.
"It's a lot to take in for the first time," I said to the kindly New York woman as we left for our dinner break in John's café.
"John opens the door for you and gives you the direction," she explained. "Once the door is open, you're there." I asked her what she meant. "It's not a practice like Buddhism," she said. "It's more direct. This is direct knowledge – a direct transmission, and John's a portal to it. He awakens the answers within you."
"Sometimes you can say a lot more without words," I replied.
A man from London overheard us and offered his own interpretation of the profound depth: "Life is uneventful; it's meant to be uneventful."
"Is that how it usually is, where he channels the answers within the person?" I asked the Austrian woman, trying to connect the spiritual dots.
"It's not channeling, it's so much more. It's what the person can see," she clarified, adding: "You came to a very special meeting. You're lucky!"
Since I made the trek to Edmonton, I decided to stay for the second session, which meant I was moving into my fifth hour of staring – and this one was maybe not as special, though it started similarly. Another attractive, teary-eyed woman stepped into John's hot seat. Her question had to do with hysterically sobbing on the drive home from a meeting.
"Your deeper womanist is more than yourself," John said slowly, and then stared for a long period of time before adding: "It has no past. It flows without a path."
"Can you say more about that?" she asked with frustration. "I really want to know more."
"Use the pathways into yourself. But it still has not path – as your deeper womanist moves through the pathways of yourself." Pause. "As it moves through yourself, it will change yourself." Pause. "Your deeper womanist."
"Is my deeper womanist an aspect of my being?"
John sat unmoved, unblinking. Was he channeling the answer or did he not have an answer? After several minutes: "Without a self it has no purpose."
The woman seemed frustrated by the painfully long silences between responses. "I am not affected by how you are not responding," she said.
John gave the woman his silent, steely stare. Was John helping the emotionally fragile, who are willing to believe everything he says (no matter how slowly) with blind devolution? Or was he a charlatan conducting an elaborate parlour trick for the vulnerable and weak? The man sitting next to me looked like he was dragged here by his wife, and began dozing off. Then silence. Then nothingness.
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