Sitting cross-legged on pillows that they had brought from their hotel rooms, the crowd of 700 neatly dressed middle-aged and middle-class couples were mesmerized by the tall, slender, blond woman in front of them. Dressed in a starched white Oriental tunic over gray sweat pants and sneakers, J.Z. Knight, 40, sat on a makeshift stage in a sturdy armchair surrounded by a veritable garden of lavender flowers. Her voice, almost preternaturally husky, seemed to take on a gamut of accents from European to Indian as she spouted a relentless stream of imperatives about self-reliance and the god within. "You will receive what you want," she said. "You are masters of your destiny." Every so often she would animatedly cry out to her listeners, "Get it?," to which they would roar back, "Got it!" Many in the audience were weeping or laughing, or both. Two of Knight's assistants trailed her as she snaked her way through the crowd, providing tissues or cups of water as necessary.
J.Z. Knight is a housewife from the farming community of Yelm, Wash., about 50 miles south of Seattle. But to the 700 people who paid $400 apiece over Thanksgiving to attend her weekend seminar at the Doubletree Plaza Hotel outside Seattle, Knight is the conduit for the distant voice of Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old "warrior." (That would make Ramtha a contemporary of Cro-Magnon man, giving new meaning to General MacArthur's statement that old soldiers never die.) According to Knight, Ramtha speaks, or "channels," his wisdom and prophecy through her. Ramtha first spoke to her in 1977, she says, when she was experimenting with crystal pyramids.
Knight is one of dozens of so-called channelers who purport to be mediums for "spirit guides" long dead and buried, or those from "different dimensions." Most of these channelers are clustered in the Pacific Northwest. The more established ones, like Knight and California-based Jack Pursel, who channels a rather likable spirit named Lazaris, have built up multi-million-dollar businesses to market themselves and their wisdom through weekend seminars and audio- and videocassettes. On a lesser scale, such channelers as Hossca Harrison ("Jonah") in Boulder, or Paul Tuttle ("Raj") in Bellingham, Wash., make a comfortable living through private and group consultations.
For an increasing number of middle- and upper middle-class Americans (as well as celebrities like Shirley MacLaine) the channeling movement seems to offer an exotic way to spiritual fulfillment. Over the past few years, hundreds of families, inspired by their spirit guides, have left behind conventional lives and migrated to the Northwest.
The growth of channeling is a part of the larger New Age movement, an apparent outgrowth of the counterculture of the 1960s. An amorphous amalgam of mystical groups that take a "holistic" approach to everything from business to gardening, the movement adds an overlay of Eastern mysticism to the '60s-era rejection of materialism and the Establishment. Through a variety of techniques that may include meditation, yoga, hypnosis and fealty to a guru, the movement blissfully hopes for a new age of spiritual and social harmony.