FULLERTON — In their quest for enlightenment, Southern Californians have tried est, hung out with swamis, turned themselves into yoga pretzels and eaten psychedelic mushrooms.
The latest wave of soul-searchers are turning for inspiration to a big, blue gilt-embossed book titled "A Course in Miracles"--a half a million words of spiritual instruction, a how-to manifesto for changing the world by changing the mind.
Since it was first printed in the mid-1970s, the book has steadily grown into a grass-roots bestseller that has sold 800,000 copies at up to $40.
Its pupils have propagated at least 1,900 autonomous study groups worldwide that meet weekly in churches, homes, offices and bookstores. Although most are informal, some resemble church services, complete with collection baskets and music.
The single largest and most visible contingency of followers is in Southern California, where 200 study groups from Paso Robles to Chula Vista gather each week. One of the oldest is at the Fullerton-based Miracle Distribution Center.
In addition to sponsoring speakers, offering counseling and holding Easter and Christmas Eve services, the 6,000-square-foot center is the largest connection for course information worldwide. Among the services it provides is a bimonthly "Holy Encounter" newsletter, a recorded daily lesson on the 24-hour phone line.
Through its "Miracles by Mail" catalogue, customers can order the course plus more than 100 offshoot items including software, the board game "Love Is Letting Go of Fear" and buttons that say: "I don't believe in miracles, I rely on them."
While the course has followers in a number of countries--including India, Israel and Zimbabwe--most of those who have embraced it live in the United States. They reflect a spiritual smorgasbord of Christians, Jews, New Agers, 12-steppers, est graduates, burned-out yuppies and intellectuals.
Some "students" tout the tome as a correction and clarification of what Jesus really said 2,000 years ago. Others take a more tempered view, bypassing the issue of authorship and calling it a blend of contemporary psychological principles with those of Christian and Eastern philosophies.
Serious adherents study quietly alone every day, using 365 thought-training workbook exercises starting with, "Nothing I see . . . means anything."
Thousands of proponents who have never cracked the original book devour dozens of related books and hundreds of tapes begot by high-profile course followers. In addition to newsletters and magazines, there are lectures, retreats and weekly conferences around the nation, with the highest concentrations of activity found on both coasts.
Like Alcoholics Anonymous, a self-help program grounded on the principle of anonymity, the course is supposed to have no official spokespeople, churches, proselytizing or membership dues.
The intent of the course, devotees say, is to be a disciplined self-study program. And because most followers study alone, it is difficult to estimate the number of serious adherents beyond book sales. But because of human nature's tendency toward organization, autonomous study groups and centers have developed.
In Southern California, audiences have for a decade flocked to hear course woman-of-the-hour Marianne Williamson. She is author of the 1992 book "A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles." Her racy, celebrity-attended lectures and appearance last year on Oprah Winfrey's talk show helped spark a flurry of mainstream interest.
"I have never been as moved by a book," Winfrey told viewers, adding that she had experienced 157 miracles since reading "Return to Love" and had purchased 1,000 copies for the studio audience.
In less public settings in Orange County and elsewhere, study groups meet to discuss what it all means.
At an evening session at the center in Fullerton, Beverly Hutchinson, the center's president, invites group participants to share miracles that they have experienced during the past week.
One woman says she had been in physical pain when touring Catalina, but after repeating an affirmation beginning with "I am not my body," her discomfort disappeared. "I was completely relaxed," she says. "I was running up the stairs."
Another, however, says she has not been seeing miracles. She says she met a man whose legs had been cut off by the Viet Cong. "I didn't feel any miracle in that," she says. "It affected me so badly that I'm not at peace."
Hutchinson listens to each story and dispenses smiles and sympathy with a heavy peppering of course principles. Before ending with meditation and music, Hutchinson reminds the group that the course requires great effort.
"This is a course in mind training, not mind washing," she says. "You can't sit back in the celestial easy chair."