“Have you had a spiritual experience? Out-of-body or near death experience? A flash of blue light or an inner sound? A sense you’ve lived before?”

If you browsed through The Daily Princetonian last week, you may have noticed this advertisement for a “free workshop” Thursday evening, September 30, at the meeting room in the Panera Bread on Nassau Street.

“Discover what your experiences really mean. Learn techniques for exploring Past Lives, Dreams and Soul Travel. Connect with other like-minded souls”

I was hooked. Although I’ve never personally encountered the paranormal, I’m always eager to meet people who have. I envisioned a Carson McCullers cast of lost souls and fancied Panera as the setting of a latter-day Ballad of the Sad Café.

Apparently, the ad’s target audience does not share my curiosity. In addition to the two event coordinators, only three other people showed up; all appeared to be between the ages of 50 and 65. Perhaps those who stayed away knew something I didn’t: there is no such thing as a “free workshop,” and “Connect with other like-minded souls” is code for “Please, learn about our cult.”

The meeting was sponsored by a New Age religion based out of Minneapolis called Eckankar. The name Eckankar supposedly means “Co-worker with God” and is derived from the name of an ancient Egyptian deity. Founded in Las Vegas in 1965, Eckankar is described by its followers as “The Religion of Light and Sound of God,” having been formally known as the “Ancient Science of Soul Travel.”

While equating “soul travel” with “science,” may sound ridiculous, Eckankar, at it was presented to me, is also not really a religion per se. The two “ECKist” speakers described themselves as having been alienated by traditional religion before finding solace in Eckankar’s non-prescriptive style of spirituality. They showed a PowerPoint presentation about the ECK teachings, which focused on achieving spiritual mindfulness through the chanting of a specific mantra. Described less as a religion than a set of spiritual tools, it sounded like yoga without the exercise. Eckankar, they stressed, is about achieving peace with a divine and universal spirit/God/Life Force, and is therefore a complement to say, Christian communion with the Holy Spirit. Then again, I am uncertain to what degree the ECK tenets, particularly the esoteric ones like reincarnation and soul travel, in fact align with Christianity or other Western religion.

Doctrinal questions aside, what struck me most about Eckankar was its generic appeal. Ostensibly, the purpose of Eckankar is to help people who have had spiritual experiences understand and identify them. According to Eckankar literature, this applies to a large crowd since 84 percent of people (or possibly just Americans) believe in the survival of the soul after death; 43 percent have had a prophetic dream; 33 percent have had an unspecified spiritual experience; 27 percent believe in reincarnation; and five percent have had an out-of-body experience. The steps to enlightenment are remarkably vague: open heart to divine love; awaken the “God knowledge”; overcome fear; recall dreams; seek guidance. If these concepts seem similar to those of other religions, that’s because they are. The writings of Eckankar’s late founder Paul Twitchell are widely accused of plagiarism. Twitchell, a student of several New Age religions and a former high-ranking Scientologist, is said to have designed Eckankar as a pastiche of the world faiths’ most agreeable elements—the Esperanto of religion. In some ways, he succeeded. Eckankar puts a heavy emphasis on loving thyself, is very tolerant of other faiths, and takes no position on polemical issues such as abortion. Like Esperanto, though, Eckankar never caught on globally. It is believed to have thirty to fifty thousand members, mostly in the United States.

Nevertheless, Eckankar has a few baffling idiosyncrasies. Why, for example, is it so crucial to chant “the HU” (pronounced like the word hue)? “HU” is allegedly an ancient word for God (unclear what language), and singing it is considered a love song to the Divine Being. Would chanting a different sound really matter though? Isn’t the act of chanting, of clearing one’s mind, more important than the mantra itself? The HU is at the forefront of the Eckankar literature I received and appears to be the religion’s primary teaching. Yet I wonder if it isn’t simply a clever bit of marketing. Encourage chanting, gain followers; insist on your chant and establish brand loyalty. I can picture the new tagline: “Eckankar: The Religion of Me and HU.”

It is admittedly easy to take pot shots at new American religions, as if the mere antiquity and foreignness [?] of major religions legitimizes them or precludes them from mockery. In truth, there was nothing to suggest that the two ECKist speakers weren’t intelligent or sincere in their belief. Moreover, they weren’t at all pushy. In keeping with standard Eckankar practices, they didn’t proselytize so much as facilitate a discussion about spirituality. There was no talk of conversion, and they were respectful of our presumed Judeo-Christian backgrounds. Afterwards, we were given the option to submit our contact information and encouraged to read more about Eckankar online. (Wisely, they understand that no one’s joining a new religion without at least skimming its Wikipedia entry.) Perhaps this is a shrewd advertising tactic, the ol’ bait-and-switch. After all, I went to Panera hoping to meet oddballs and hear some freaky stories; what I got was a two-hour slide show featuring inspirational clipart. They were clearly promoting something, but it seemed harmless enough. If Eckankar is a moneymaking scam, it hides it well.

I suspect, however, that the recruitment effort was impaired by poor attendance. The selling point of Eckankar is not its questionable origins—those aren’t mentioned—but rather that it can somehow explain the inexplicable: that time you thought you saw a ghost; that dream that seemed to come true; your nagging suspicion that you were an iguana in a past life. A cynic would say that this promotes delusion. But imagine that you’re a normal person who’s had one or more fantastically abnormal experiences. Meeting people who can relate and corroborate your story would be an enormous relief. You’re not crazy; you’re spiritually attuned.

In the beginning of the session, we were presented checklists in line with the event’s advertisement: Have you ever experienced a divine line to a deceased family, friend, pet etc.? A knowingness, coincidence, or déjà-vu? An inner guide, whether angel, voice, or spiritual master? Recognizing that the group was too small for a vote tally, the leaders instead asked us which experiences we most wanted to hear about. Someone muttered “soul travel,” and one leader tried to explain how in the early 1970s, he used to have out-of-body experiences. But because no one else had a similar episode to share, the storytelling fizzled out.

Despite its middle-aged homogeneity, the group represented diverse viewpoints. Of the three other attendees, there was one believer, one skeptic, and one person who seemed ambivalent but persuadable. The believer alleged an ability to share dreams with adjacent sleepers à la Inception. The skeptic disputed the bold claim that “reality is what we’re willing to accept.” And the ambivalent person smiled and nodded a lot. My own skepticism was difficult to hide in a crowd of four. I didn’t say much, but the incredulous expression plastered on my face spoke for me. Had the advertisements been more forthcoming, I probably would not have spent two hours in the back room of a chain store bakery, trying to open my Third Eye while timidly humming the HU and fighting my smirking impulses

And that would have been a loss because despite my misgivings, I had a pretty good time. Put it this way: there are worse ways to spend a Thursday night in Princeton. In planning their next event, the Alcohol Initiative may want to take a page from the Eckankar marketing handbook and cryptically bury the lede. At the very least, a few townies may show up. And who knows? Maybe a few souls will be saved.