Even the Mystical Traveler had to admit: Oct. 5 was a particularly trying day in a trying season.
Earlier in the fall, California's Senate race had taken a weird hop, with national media and Democratic spin doctors suddenly blasting Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, wife of Republican candidate Mike Huffington, for her involvement with spiritual teacher John-Roger and his Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, or MSIA.
All week the Doonesbury comic strip lampooned Arianna Huffington, calling MSIA "a cult."
That morning, though, the jokes took on a sinister edge when 53 members of a Swiss-Canadian sect called the Order of the Solar Temple were found dead in a murder-suicide.
Abruptly, commentators' snide slaps at MSIA, which teaches that "the Mystical Traveler Consciousness" can help achieve "Soul Transcendence," turned more serious.
By evening, longtime minister and staff member John Morton, to whom John-Roger passed "the keys" to the Mystical Traveler Consciousness in 1988, was countering what he termed media "witch hunts" that threatened MSIA's religious freedom, and trying to rebut those who "mocked and . . . persecuted" the movement he loves.
Later, in a lengthy interview, Morton said there is enough of a "track record" so that the issue of Arianna Huffington's involvement with John-Roger and MSIA will "take care of itself." He also said that if she would defend MSIA, it might dispel the notion that "this is 'a cult' that only stupid fools would get involved in."
The public, he continued, might then see that "maybe Arianna is on to something that is profound and deep and real." He added, though, that given her recent efforts to distance herself from MSIA, he felt obliged to describe her involvement "in the past tense."
Arianna Huffington, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has said MSIA is not a cult, that she is a member of the Greek Orthodox Church and that John-Roger, whom she first met in 1973, is merely a friend.
Current or not, her ties to MSIA have put the movement and its 4,000 to 5,000 participants worldwide back in the public eye.
John-Roger, 60, was born Roger Delano Hinkins, to Mormon parents, in Rains, Utah. After working at various jobs and obtaining a psychology degree he moved to California.
As a Rosemead High School English teacher, Hinkins was, by most accounts, well-liked. Students enjoyed his propensity for turning out the lights and leading intense "guided imagery" excursions so vivid that some were literally knocked out of their chairs.
In 1963, Hinkins awoke from a coma caused by a kidney stone operation, possessed, he said, by the spirit of "John the Beloved." Hinkins started calling himself John-Roger--J-R to some. He said he anchored the Mystical Traveler Consciousness, a spiritual mantle that had been assumed by others including Moses and Christ. He spoke of his communications with "beings of light" and his "special dispensation" to serve humanity.
In 1970, he and the school parted ways, but at least one teacher and one of his former students stuck with him, and remain involved in MSIA, which was incorporated as a tax-exempt church in 1971.
Over time, the teachings expanded, and J-R--who said he also anchored a rare force called the Preceptor Consciousness, which comes to the planet only once every 25,000 years--began offering, for a fee, "aura balancings," "polarity balancings" and "inner phasings"--services still integral to MSIA.
On Oct. 5, about 200 people gathered in a rented Santa Barbara hall to hear a scheduled "open seminar" by John Morton.
Children skittered between pews and folding chairs. Adults, some of whom had participated in MSIA for 25 years or longer, chatted and expressed amused disbelief that a group that teaches "Don't hurt yourself and don't hurt others," was being mentioned in the same breath as Jonestown and Waco.
A few longtime followers wore the purple clothes once said to be the Traveler's color, and others wore MSIA's insignia jewelry. Otherwise, the diverse group could have blended seamlessly into a Lutheran or Catholic congregation.
The seminar began with a ritual known as "calling in the Light." Then, as "a means of moving farther into the higher realms of consciousness," the group chanted soothingly what MSIA literature calls the sacred names for empathy and God, Ani-Hu .
Finally, with John-Roger, now Traveler emeritus, sitting in the back receiving a neck massage from a smiling woman, Morton strode onstage in a stylish olive suit, looking more junior executive than Mystical Traveler.
Morton's monologue, like those of John-Roger that run on public access stations nationwide, came across to an outsider like stream of consciousness. A minister later explained that the Traveler was simply "picking up" and commenting on the audience's thoughts.