I was recently asked to join a (money) mandala, which is also known as a blessing loom or gifting circle. At first, it seemed like an incredibly simple way to manifest financial abundance. It was sold as an ancient system used by women in African tribes to support each other. And you know.. we all have some debts to pay off, so I tried to not overthink it. I wanted to remain enthusiastic (read: ignorant), because it seemed like such a miracle, so I wanted to focus on the positive side of it. Or like its members will tell you: embrace it with trust and surrender, because it’s about more than just the money. And it’s exactly this new-agey, manifest-your-life and law-of-attraction language that is used to draw in a certain crowd. But are they really manifesting financial abundance or is it just an old fashioned pyramid scheme that’s been rebranded?
The unknowing perpetrators will assure you it’s not, because there’s supposedly no growth. And unlike a pyramid scheme, everyone keeps moving towards the centre of the circle, giving everyone an opportunity to earn more money than they initially invested. That didn’t make any sense to me, because you cannot create something from nothing. It’s true for thermodynamics AND finance. So when I don’t fully understand something, I research. In that sense I’ll always be a scientist. I desperately looked online for success stories, and only found sources that warned me to stay away from it. But they didn’t explain WHY or HOW these systems are doomed to fail. I finally understood why it was sketchy after I thoroughly understood the systems and did the maths myself.. So here’s how it works, and here’s also why it won’t work. At least, not forever.
What I noticed then, and now gives me the creeps looking back at it, is the terminology that is used in modern day versions. If you deliver any form of critique, you’ll be told something along the lines of that “the winds of change are very strong, and any negative feelings towards the system are a result of fears and old patterns rising up. However, the challenge here is to observe and overcome them!” The insiders will tell you to not overthink it, and just take a leap of faith, because good things come to good people. My alarm bells didn’t go off at once, because obviously I wanted to believe that you can make money from nothing.
The rest of this article will focus on the maths, but if you’d like to read more about ways in which spirituality and sisterhood is abused to sell a business model based on recruiting new members, read this.
Before I start, I’d like to state that I’m writing this article without blame or judgement. I understand the allure. However, it really only takes some calculations to prove that it will never work in the long run. I repeat: in the long run. It may work for you, and the people you recruit. But if you do the maths that enables you to look at the situation further down the line, you know the shit will hit the fan at some point. And maybe that’s just me being a biologist, but I like to be able to model an ecosystem so I can understand and predict what will happen in the future when the population grows. If maths isn’t your forte, the exponential component can be overwhelming. So I totally understand how people can be convinced to ‘just’ trust the process, since it looks so simple, yet totally convoluted at the same time when it comes to the bigger picture.
Here’s how it works
In this example I will use the terminology that was used when explaining it to me. The circle consists of 4 rings:
- 1 water element in the middle (receives)
- 2 earth elements (supports)
- 4 air elements (recruits)
- 8 fire elements (newly recruited, and ‘gifts’ the inner circle).
You will be recruited as a new fire element by an air element, and your investment for joining the circle is €150, which is paid to the person in the middle, the water element. In some circles, they will ask you to sign a waiver saying that you are gifting the money without expecting anything in return. But, they’ll assure you, once you get to the centre, you’ll receive the money back in 8-fold, which is €1200 (8×150), of which HALF is passed on to your ‘elder’ (the first person you gave your €150 to), leaving you with €600. And once you leave the circle and become an ‘elder’ yourself, you’ll eventually receive another €4800 in total (€600 from each of your ‘fires’ that have become ‘waters’). That’s a total of €5400 from a mere investment of €150! Because remember, 8 ‘fires’ had to ‘gift’ €150 to the water element (elder), and later on these same 8 people ‘gifted’ €600 to their elder. (6×800 = 4800 and 4800+600 = 5400).
This particular circle had been beautifully packaged as one that serves your path in personal development. In each level, you are asked different questions to reflect upon and are related to the four elements. And I was told that there was a great sense of community spirit amongst like-minded individuals and that it was about trust and surrender. Admittedly, it’s what drew me in. But that was before I understood the maths.
Once all eight ‘fire’ spots are filled, the mandala splits. The water leaves the circle and becomes an ‘elder’, and all the other elements move up one place, leaving the fire spots blank, which once again need to be newly recruited by the air elements.
“But there is no growth, so it’s not a pyramid scheme”
Of course there is growth. Because how else can your €150 turn into €5400? It doesn’t appear from nothing. It comes from other people’s pockets. The pockets of 36 people to be exact (5400÷150 = 36). And to have their pockets filled, another 36 x 36 = 1296 people are needed. And to have their pockets filled another 36 x 1296 = 46,656 people are needed. Do you get it? These calculations were still too abstract for me to grasp the severity of it though, so let me explain it differently with an argument that is used to deny exponential growth (which by definition, by the way, is not sustainable).
“But the people that leave the circle can flow back and start over”
Yes, they can. But there aren’t enough people that ‘graduate’ from the circle to flow back into a system experiencing exponential growth. So what does exponential growth look like? I tried drawing it out in the image below, but ran out of space after 7 splits, so had to group them in blocks. After only 10 splits, which doesn’t sound like a lot, there are suddenly 512 separate looms. One person starts the mandala by recruiting 2 friends (as ‘earths’), who each recruit another 2 friends (as ‘airs’) and it all looks innocent enough. What can go wrong? They convince others that there is a way to ‘hack the system’ and create financial abundance for everyone involved. Is that true? Let’s take a look at the amount of people required to keep this
pyramid scheme blessing loom going. In these calculations, we’ll look at the number of new ‘fire’ recruits for every circle. As you now know, each circle splits up into two. So two becomes four, and four becomes eight. Is that not exponential growth? Here’s a visualisation of what happens when the loom splits 10 times:
Now let’s put it in a table and look at the number of people that are newly recruited as ‘fires’ each time the mandala splits. It’s 8 for every mandala, right? The number of new recruits required after each split is in the middle column:
|Round||Number of new recruits (‘fires’)||Number of graduates (‘elders’)|
|2||16 (= 2^4)||2|
|4||64 (= 2^6)||8|
This is described exactly in the diagram that is sent around (see below), but nobody seems to see it’s just a slightly more complex pyramid turned on its side. So the argument that it’s a cycle, and that graduates can flow back into the system is fundamentally flawed. If you just take a look at the right column above, the calculations show that there can never be enough people to fill up the blank spots in the left hand column. This means more and more people need to be recruited continuously, and in the end you will simply run out of people, because the world population is finite. And the argument that the population is expanding does simply not validate it, since it can’t grow fast enough to keep up. So in the end, your choice to join is not based on the TRUST that it will work out, but based on your knowledge that the system will eventually collapse, and whether you want to participate in that.
Sure, you may experience a great community vibe; everyone is so lovely and it really is about more than the money. Chances are you’re in on the game pretty early, meaning you’ll be able to make a quick buck. We all want financial freedom and to trust that the universe can grant us anything. All it takes is convincing two friends to join. That’s it! How much damage can you really cause when you are only inviting two friends? In the next part I will show you that you are taking part in a system that is unsustainable. And the longer it continues, the more victims there will be.
The numbers are staggering
We’ve seen what happens after 10 splits, and it seems manageable. A few thousand people are needed, and I’m sure there are spiritual communities that have this number of people. So what happens when the loom has split up 100 times? The answer is 2.5 × 10^35 people. A 25 with 34 zeros. Can’t fathom how big of a number that is? Let’s do 20. After 20 rounds, 4,194,304 recruits are needed to fill up the blank spots. Four million one hundred and ninety four thousand three hundred and four. And all those recruits then need to recruit two people each. So in round 21 you need 8,388,608 in total. Once you get to round 22, you’ll double the previous number again and you have a figure of almost 17 million. This means that after only 22 rounds, the entire population of the Netherlands –every woman, man and child– is involved in this thing.
How do you calculate that? 2^n+2, where n is the round you are on. (Round 1 being an exception to this formula). And to refresh your maths knowledge, ^ means ‘to the power of.’ As an example: round 2 is 2^2+2 = 4. Round 4 is 2^4+2 = 64. You can verify this in the table above. And therefore round 20 is 2^20+2 = 4,194,304. And round 22 is 2^22+2 = 16,777,216.
In the end, only a fraction wins
Once I realised this, it suddenly became more of an ethical question. It wasn’t about the money at all, but whether I could live with someone getting ripped off down the line. Whenever the mandala stops, only a tiny amount of people will have gotten their money back. The majority will always lose out, and this is exactly why these things are illegal in some countries.
How many people win and lose exactly? Let’s say it stops after 10 rounds, when 512 have moved onto ‘water’, which leaves 4096 people in ‘fire’, 2048 in ‘air’ and 1024 in ‘earth’. Together, that’s 7680 (or you can just do 512 × 15, which is the number of people in each mandala). Remember how to calculate percentages? (512 ÷ 7680) × 100 = 6.67%. Those are the number of people that walk away with money, while 93.34% lose theirs. Always. No matter when the cycles stop. Even after two. (2 ÷ 30) × 100 = 6.67%. Is that fair? And if you are still convinced it’s about more than just the money (let’s say you are on the losing end), what stops you from sending a vague acquaintance that’s doing a fundraiser €150?
It’s not a scam in the classical sense that you are likely to lose your money right away, because in all fairness, you will probably make 36 times the money you invested. And that is exactly why I didn’t want to believe it was so shady at first. I’ve learned it’s so harmful to look up information when you are looking for a certain outcome that confirms your belief. It’s true for science, and also true for our personal decisions. This is why we need to consider the bigger picture. How many people are going to be affected once this thing collapses? Because it will. The question is, are you okay with that? And no, these are not my old patterns or fears coming up, and it’s not my scarcity mindset talking either. It’s maths.