SANTA BARBARA — Norman Paulsen has shown a remarkable ability during his 20-year career as a guru to preach asceticism and live in comfort.
While most of his followers live in Utah and work long hours for low pay in one of the commune's small businesses, Paulsen lives in a waterfront Oxnard condominium a short walk from the group's 78-foot schooner, where he can sail every day and ponder cosmic issues without distraction.
Paulsen has also persuaded his followers that he must be free from the constraints of daily labor, so members help support him, some tithing their income.
While many former members of his Brotherhood of the Sun commune--once based in Santa Barbara--claimed in a lawsuit that they were hornswoggled by Paulsen, his current followers draw from a seemingly limitless reservoir of faith in Paulsen's claims of knowing the secret to the "tunnel to eternity" and "cosmic consciousness."
At one time the Brotherhood owned a 3,000-acre ranch in Santa Barbara and was one of the nation's most prosperous communes. Commune members called their businesses Sunburst Farms, and they were the largest shippers of organic produce in the country.
But by the late 1970s, the commune, beset by controversy and problems, began to collapse. Some members were frightened by Paulsen's decision to stockpile weapons and conduct military training drills at the commune. Others were disillusioned when Paulsen, who preached abstinence, became addicted to drugs.
Hundreds defected; some sued. By 1980, the Brotherhood could no longer make the payments on its ranch and lost the property.
Despite the tribulations and a move from California, the Brotherhood has survived. There are about 35 members still with the group, the last of the true believers, men and women approaching middle age who joined almost 20 years ago and have persevered, working in the commune's small businesses in Utah and Nevada.
"All religions have been started by someone who has had a breakthrough in cosmic awareness," said Jonathan King, 39, a portly, gray-haired man who bears little resemblance to the ethereal seekers once associated with the group. "Men like Jesus and Mohammed had that breakthrough. And so has Norm. He still has a lot to teach us."
In 1963, Norman Paulsen's visions landed him in the psychiatric ward of Santa Barbara County Hospital. A few years later, his visions made him a guru.
The man and the era had met.
Paulsen was working as a bricklayer in Santa Barbara in the early 1960s when he says he passed out after taking a few sleeping pills before retiring for the evening. At the hospital, while surgeons performed a tracheotomy, Paulsen said he had a "near-death" experience. He later told followers that he watched his body float above the room, saw three "ethereal men in robes" hovering about and was confronted with a "swirling vortex of light . . . the tunnel to eternity."
The doctors "thought I was wacko," Paulsen says now, and he awoke in leather restraints in the psychiatric ward. He was transferred to Camarillo State Hospital for psychiatric observation and released after 90 days.
In the years afterward, he began talking about this experience and others. But this time, instead of staring into the arms of a straitjacket he found a receptive audience of young seekers open to bizarre ideas, mystical experiences and Eastern religion.
Melanie Arcudi was 19 years old, had just moved to Santa Barbara from the East Coast and wanted to learn how to meditate. She heard that Paulsen was leading meditation sessions at his home, a converted ice cream warehouse in downtown Santa Barbara. Arcudi, like many of the hippies, surfers and students who gathered at Paulsen's house in the late 1960s, was seeking a direction in life.
"A lot of people were coming out of the turmoil of the 1960s," Arcudi said. "Many of us came from broken homes and were searching for the security we never had in our own families. At that time, Norm was a very strong father figure for all of us."
Paulsen commanded respect, Arcudi said, because he was older than the others (40 when he started the group); bigger (6-foot-4 and 275 pounds), and had greater experience as a spiritual seeker. He had been a disciple for a few years in the Los Angeles ashram of an Indian guru. Paulsen learned a meditation technique from the guru, Arcudi said, and enough Eastern religion to sound authoritative to a group of American teen-agers.
Arcudi, Paulsen and a few of the regular meditators decided they wanted to live communally, grow their own food and form their own alternative society. They purchased 160 acres in the Santa Barbara mountains, using as a down payment, Paulsen said in an interview, a $6,000 worker's compensation settlement he had received. But Arcudi says her mother contributed $50,000 toward the down payment.
The early years, Arcudi said, were a glorious time.