Lonely? Depressed? Bored? Anxious? Fatigued? Gripped in nameless dread? Frightened that all life flows into a void, that all effort is without meaning and that human suffering will cease only when the insignificant chunk of mud upon which we toil finally whirls off into gaseous oblivion?
Vernon Howard is coming to town.
The rare visitation this weekend might not lighten the load of the uninitiated, but it makes soar the hearts of the 100-odd members of the New Life Foundation, a group devoted to the "spiritual scientist" and his guidebooks to inner bliss.
Three times weekly, they gather in a converted school on a ridgetop between Santa Paula and Ojai, trading nuggets from such Howard classics as "The Mystic Path to Cosmic Power," "The Power of Your Supermind," "Pathways to Perfect Living," "Esoteric Mind Power: Secrets for New Success and Happiness," and "There Is A Way Out!"
What Howard offers might sound hopelessly hokey ("The Mystic Path is sunny," he proclaims) but his followers find in him a profound source of hope.
"It seems I was always in psychological pain, no matter what I was doing," says Garland Etheridge, an Ojai insurance investigator. "I've had marriage counseling, and I was in AA for 10 years before I found Vernon.
"I heard people talk about being free of pain, but I'd never got there. I really didn't think it was possible. But somehow I sensed when I first heard him that he was the only person I'd ever met who was really living the words I'd heard spoken before."
Once a month, Etheridge and dozens of others convoy seven hours across the desert to Boulder City, Nev., Howard's home and the headquarters of his "Success Without Stress" program. There, the 70-year-old Howard exhorts them and other followers from around the United States to deeper levels of introspection and greater heights of happiness. At a banquet, they put on skits and dances, and often are led in merriment by the most celebrated among them, Desi Arnaz Jr., who credits Howard with helping him lick his drug and alcohol problems.
"I've been going to the Boulder City gatherings every month for three years," Etheridge says. "I wouldn't miss one for the world."
But this weekend, for the first time in seven years, the New Age Mohammed is coming to the mountains, and his students are busily paving the way for his arrival. They have distributed thousands of posters pitching the "world-famous happiness author" and his free lectures. They have put the finishing touches on the once-dilapidated school building on California 150 that they have transformed into the foundation's whitewashed headquarters, and they are eagerly bracing for a brush with the infinite.
"It's plausible to me that there is a man living here on this earth who knows more about life than I do," says Aaron Baker, who abandoned a prosperous San Diego real estate business to devote himself to Howard's teachings. "I can't say for sure, but to the best of my knowledge, he is that man.
"Wouldn't it make sense to come and find out for yourself?" asks Baker. "What if he's like--an inside trader with heaven?"
Lives on Royalties
If he's a cosmic con artist, Vernon Howard, an avuncular sort who can come up with a parable for almost every occasion, would not likely be the stuff of sexy headlines. He asks no money of his students or associates, except for a $3 donation per class. His foundation is a nonprofit corporation, and he says he lives comfortably just on royalties from his books and tapes.
For awhile, Howard drove a food truck. He served in the Army in World War II. He drifted into the writing trade with children's books, including "Handbook of Bible Games for All Ages" and "101 Funny Things to Make and Do."
But he never disavowed the truth he discovered as a teen-ager--the same observation gleefully made by every adolescent since the beginning of time.
"I noticed how all adults were pained and strained, and while they pretended to have the answers, that they weren't as on top of things as they said. Soon I understood almost everybody on earth is walking around in a dream state. I noticed how they brag, how easily men made women cry, how they crowed when they got a big raise. I knew the whole world was in trouble.
"I was going to stay alert to see if there was a higher answer," he said, "above mind, above thought, above emotions, above human authority."
It falls somewhere between Buddha and Norman Vincent Peale. It flits between old-fashioned common sense and the airiest mysticism. If you check your False Self at the door, you can be guided by pointers from Howard on "How to Feel Great Every Minute," "How to Stop Heartache and Suffering" and the "Sure Cure for Fear and Tension"--just three chapters in his "Mystic Path to Cosmic Power."
In another chapter, Howard's advice on "contacting Higher Power" includes tips like:
"Use your mind to raise the sails, but let the winds of psychic awareness carry you forward."
"If it helps us to awaken, it is right. If it keeps us asleep, it is wrong."
"Take orders only from the headquarters of your True Self."
"You will win!"
The message has not fallen on untrained ears.
Dr. Jesse Freeland, who left his psychiatric practice in Santa Barbara to serve without pay on the "Success Without Stress" advisory board in Boulder City, has described Howard as "a sort of modern-day Emerson . . . who shows a phenomenal ability to penetrate hidden realms of human nature and psychology."
Howard also lured to his board Ellen Dickstein, who in 1980 left her post as an associate professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas to move to Nevada for four doses a week of his teachings.
"It's a completely new life for me," says Dickstein, who now teaches and does public relations work in Boulder City. "I've seen tremendous changes in myself. My general level of anxiety has gone down very much. Vernon Howard teaches us that stress comes from a false sense of who we are, that it comes from inside, never from a situation.
"Before, it was just words," says Dickstein, who received her doctorate from Johns Hopkins University at the age of 24 and focused her postdoctoral research on development of self-concept and personality theory. "Traditional psychology didn't help me. I knew I wasn't happy. I was so confused. Something inside was drying up.
"But what Vernon Howard teaches is so practical. Our whole perspective of daily interactions is different. I ask not what I can get from this or that event, but what I can learn."
What exactly is learned can sound elusive.
Relates New Learning
Students at the thrice-weekly classes at the New Life Foundation are encouraged to troop to a microphone with tidbits of new learning.
"It's hard to talk about," said one woman at a recent class. "I'm not right, but doing something right is--well--right. . . ." Another student volunteered: "I heard something encouraging in the talk this morning. I heard that the horse doesn't know there's a finish line, but he runs anyway."
One man paused before the mike a full minute. His voice quavering and his eyes cast down at a piece of notepaper, he said: "It's here--it's real--don't panic--just go slowly!" The centerpiece of the afternoon was a talk by Guy Finley, a former composer and lyricist who, along with Murray Oxman, a former distributor of hot-rod parts, conducts the foundation's classes.
Finley chided the crowd with one of Vernon Howard's many maxims.
"Complaints are lies," he announced. "You insist on living in haunted houses and have the nerve to complain about spooks!"
We're eternally napping, Finley said, and we're dangerous to ourselves, if not to others. He drew a revelation from his previous day's lunch--a hot dog, which he didn't particularly want, gulped on the run outside a Ventura hardware store.
"Life caught up to me in the parking lot of Grossman's," he said. "I couldn't stop. Most of us do that and then wonder why there's no pleasure in our lives. . . . Being asleep in a psychological or emotional state, I found myself in a place I didn't want to be.
"What we're trying to do here is to get the film, the fog off our eyes so we can really see," Finley said, as murmurs of "Right!" wafted through the room.
If it all sounds familiar, there's good reason.
"It's a fairly simple message that's been served up in a hundred different ways," says Ted Nardin, editorial director for Reward Books, publisher of "The Mystic Path to Cosmic Power" and several other Howard volumes. "At one point these books were called 'occult.' Now a lot of publishers are going out and raiding their back lists and calling the same books "New Age."
Reward Books, a division of Prentice-Hall with about 200 "self-improvement" titles, is redesigning Howard's "Mystic Path" this year because of high demand, even 23 years after its first publication, Nardin said.
With about 200,000 copies circulating, it doesn't break any sales records--Reward Books' top performer is Joseph Murphy's million-copy seller, "The Power of Your Subconscious Mind," but "through word-of-mouth, it does strike some kind of responsive chord," Nardin said.
"Vernon Howard," he said, "was new age before there was a New Age."
Howard will speak at 2 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, and at 10 a.m. Sunday at the New Life Foundation, 12626 Highway 150, nine miles north of Santa Paula.