The following is excerpted from a chapter in the book on MSIA titled, SEEKING THE LIGHT, Uncovering the Truth about the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness and its Founder, John-Roger. The book is written by James R. Lewis, researcher and expert in nontraditional religions.
II. EARLY HISTORY AND ORGANIZATION
Since the Law has already been fulfilled, you can only have guidelines. And those are simple: Out of God comes all things. God loves all of Its creation. And, not one soul will be lost.
Although John-Roger has often woven stories of his boyhood and later life into his discourses to underline points he is making, there is no hagiographical literature about a miraculous birth or a sainted childhood as there is for the founders of some new religions. Briefly, the bare facts are that John-Roger was born Roger Hinkins on September 24, 1934, to a Mormon family in Rains, Utah. Rains is a mining town and Hinkins' father was a mine foreman. While growing up, the spiritual-teacher-to-be was more interested in girls and sports than in spirituality. The only unusual aspect of his childhood was that he could see 'auras,' the colorful energy fields that traditional occultism pictures as surrounding the human body.
He held down a number of jobs, including a short stint in the coal mines. While in college, he worked as a night orderly in the psychiatric ward of a Salt Lake City hospital. Later he held a part-time job as a PBX telephone operator and dispatcher with the Salt Lake City Police Department. After completing a degree in psychology at the University of Utah in 1958, he moved to southern California and eventually took a job teaching English at Rosemead High School.
The turning point of his life occurred in 1963, during what we might today call a near-death experience. While undergoing surgery for a kidney stone, he fell into a nine-day coma. Upon awakening, he found himself aware of a new spiritual personality--'John'--who had superseded/merged with his old personality. After the operation, Hinkins began to refer to himself as 'John-Roger,' in recognition of his transformed self.
Around this time John-Roger was a seeker exploring a variety of different spiritual teachings, including Eckankar, a Sant Mat-inspired group. Parallels between Eckankar and the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness have prompted critics to accuse him of plagiarizing Eckankar. During an interview with J-R, I asked him about his relationship with Paul Twitchell, the founder of Eckankar. His response was:
I've been asked, 'Were you a student of Eckankar?' Yeah, if you can consider I was a student of the Reader's Digest and National Geographic and the Rosecrucians and some other churches all at the same time. I went to some of the churches to see what they did--[I was what they refer to as] a metaphysical tramp. I call those my 'meta-fizzle' days because none of those ever worked out.
No way do I have anything negative with Eckankar. No way. I had a private interview with Twitchell, and he said, 'You have the sound [and] the names of the Gods on every realm.' I said, 'They're all the same God, it's just a different vibration.' He said, 'You know them?' I said, 'Sure I know them.' And we discussed the initiation words, and he told me a sampling of his. And I said, 'I don't use those, I use the five names.' And he said, 'Well, I don't think the people will understand the five names.' I said, 'Not unless you give them to them,' because he wasn't going to give it to them. I got a letter a month later that said, 'Since you're an initiate of the Sound Current through Eckankar, here's the other information that you're to get.' So I looked through the information, and I said, 'I don't know why I got this, because I wasn't initiated.'
John-Roger thus acknowledges that he studied with Eckankar, but was not, at least according to his own account, ever formally initiated into that organization. As for the parallels between Eckankar and MSIA, John-Roger would probably respond that these similarities result from the fact that truth is one, so why shouldn't they both be saying similar things? This, at least, is how MSIA would view the issue.
Additionally, MSIA's theology is strikingly different in many ways from both Sant Mat's and Eckankar's. One major difference is the position accorded Jesus Christ, who is viewed as the ultimate head of MSIA on this planet. Jesus embodies the Mystical Traveler Consciousness and holds the office of Christ for the earth (roughly like the 'presidency' of this planet). John-Roger has also stated that he consciously changed the traditional form of Sant Mat initiatory tones--the 'names of the Gods' referred to above--to access and synthesize the cosmic energetic route streams to soul transcendence of Eastern and Western mysticism.
After John-Roger's post-coma realization, he did not immediately abandon his career as a high school English teacher. It was not, in fact, until some five years later that he began holding gatherings as an independent spiritual teacher, and not until 1971 that he quit his day job to become a full-time religious leader. How the core group of spiritual seekers came together to hold these first seminars is the foundation story of the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness.
MSIA developed out of a series of six seminars held at the home of Muriel Engle in Santa Barbara, California. The first seminar took place on May 4, 1968. Across the course of six evenings, the audience was modest. Attendance ranged from 13 to 30 persons, depending upon the evening.
A number of people who came to the early seminars drove from other cities in southern California. As the seminars became regular, ongoing meetings, these 'long-distance' attendees were able to persuade John-Roger to begin holding seminars outside of Santa Barbara. This expansion of J-R's activities continued until he was doing five seminars a week at different homes in different cities. The Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness was formally incorporated three years later, in 1971.
Despite the later proliferation of classes, workshops, and conferences, the home-meeting seminar remained MSIA's core gathering, fulfilling a role not unlike the Sunday morning meetings of most Christian churches. The format of such seminars was also established in the early days, consisting of a talk by John-Roger, followed by individual 'sharings.' After the seminar proper, attendees fellowshipped together, perhaps accompanied by tea or some sort of snack.
As the organization expanded until J-R could not personally attend every meeting, a distinction developed between live seminars with John-Roger and taped seminars at which the group listened to a tape of a J-R talk. How the seed of the MSIA organization developed out of the early seminars was related by Engle:
The group members didn't need a name; we knew what we were doing and how we were progressing to soul travel and that level of consciousness. But in speaking to others of our activities and development, [we realized that] it was the 'others' that seemed to need some identification.
All the suggestions were listed, first for the title, then later for the symbol, and each member in each of the seminars (seven at the time) had the opportunity to vote his choice. We voted for weeks until, by the process of elimination, the chosen insignia became well-known by the popular acclaim of the first few hundred members of the Movement.
From these humble beginnings, John-Roger's activities gradually expanded until he had become a full-time spiritual teacher. It was only after several years of steady teaching activity that John-Roger began to formally make people his students by initiating them into the sound current.
The Soul Awareness Discourses--the basic lessons that Movement people receive on a monthly basis--originated from the request of some of the early participants for reading material on the teachings, and were derived from seminar transcripts. After the seminars started being taped, each tape would receive a name, based on the topic J-R had discussed that evening. Additionally, a couple of John-Roger's close associates would transcribe the tapes as well as make notes about what was on them.
In response to repeated requests for reading material, these notes were examined for common themes and material brought together from many different seminars to form the basis for printed discourses on particular topics, ranging from 'Sending the Light' to 'Overcoming Discouragement.' The earliest discourses were mimeographed. As MSIA developed, these were periodically revised and expanded, and more advanced levels of the discourses composed for long-time participants.
1971 was an important threshold, being the year in which the organization was formally incorporated and the first issue of the first Movement periodical, On the Light Side, was published. On the Light Side, which was not much more than an elaborate newsletter, soon gave way to The Movement newspaper, a true alternative magazine that reported on events and personalities in the larger New Age movement, in addition to MSIA activities and concerns.
For reasons that will be discussed more fully in the next chapter, the period of the 1970s was a fruitful decade for the expansion of metaphysical spirituality. An important though little-discussed threshold event that helped set the stage for the spiritual ferment of the seventies was the lowering of immigration barriers to people from Asian countries in 1965. Thus not only were the older occult-metaphysical groups able to experience rapid growth in the wake of an influx of post-countercultural youth, but new Asian teachers were drawing students from this same crop of ex-hippies. Teachers from all of these traditions were interviewed in the pages of The Movement.
In more recent years, The Movement was succeeded by The New Day Herald, an in-house newspaper focused on MSIA news and events. Most of the space in the early On the Light Side periodicals was taken up by transcriptions of seminar talks. The content of these transcripts provides a good sense of John-Roger's teachings in the early days. The following citation from the first On the Light Side accurately captures J-R's homey, down-to- earth style:
First you learn who you are. And when you learn who the real Self is, the false images fall away rapidly. The person you thought you were, the religion you thought you were, the philosophy you thought you were may fall away. You may find out that all of these philosophies that you've been adhering to just don't work. But you may be afraid to throw them away because you don't know what will take their place. When you get rid of the things that don't work, you will find the true Self. And the true Self doesn't have anger or jealousy or greed or lust or avarice. It doesn't have any of these things; it doesn't need them. But the false self has them and needs them and fights for dear life to hang onto them. If you could just once see within the true Self, if you could get that image just once in your consciousness for a fraction of a second, you could go on for the rest of your life using that as a inner guiding light.
This focus on spirituality was, however, supplemented by discussions of some of the more fantastic phenomena one could encounter when treading an esoteric spiritual path. Also, some of the older members I interviewed recalled that many of John-Roger's seminars presented information about the inner realms. This is related, in part, to a topic that was enjoying considerable attention in the metaphysical subculture of the 1970s-- astral projection.
Astral projection in the early 1970s was what channeling was to become for the late eighties and, more recently, what angels are for the mid nineties--a popular fad that almost everyone in the metaphysical subculture had some interest in. While J-R often discussed astral plane experiences, he was also careful to emphasize that MSIA's goal was soul transcendence, NOT astral travel. Nevertheless, it is easy to see how the widespread interest in astral projection was the basis for initially bringing certain seekers into contact with John-Roger's teachings. To cite a relevant passage from an early MSIA book, Inner Worlds of Meditation:
One of the first indicators that you have tapped into the astral consciousness within is that the imagination becomes very fertile. . . . Continuing within, you may start seeing lights--circular lights, triangular lights, square lights, colored lights--and this is all saying that you are moving further within. . . . You may start to see some beautiful, fantastic shapes and designs. If you watch carefully, you will start to see whole scenes appear within the inner vision. It might appear that you're back in King Arthur's court, at his round table. Just observe; it could be one of your past incarnations reflecting through the astral realm.
While John-Roger never stopped discussing inner plane experiences, progressively less stress was placed on providing information about the lower planes as the Movement matured and as the astral projection fad faded away. Despite this slow shift in emphasis, J-R's basic approach and style has changed very little over the years. John-Roger has written dozens of books, conducted thousands of seminars, and provided material for hundreds of hours of taped lectures over the past several decades, but comparatively little has been added to the basic themes laid out in the first few years of his spiritual teaching activity. At the same time, J-R has said that as the Spirit moves him with greater clarity, he also moves with greater clarity; therefore, the teachings are constantly undergoing slight revisions, and, from the point of view of participants, the teachings go deeper and deeper with time.
In contrast to his simple, unadorned teaching style, another characteristic of John-Roger's activities has been a steady stream of usual psychic-spiritual experiences among his students. These experiences have characterized his ministry from the very beginning. Some sense of this dimension of J-R's activities has already been conveyed in the preceding story of the early days of MSIA. These experiences have come to be accepted as what we might call 'everyday miracles' by many people in the Movement. Such experiences provide, as I indicated in the introduction, evidence for the reality of the subtle, inner levels that are not immediately accessible to our ordinary, everyday state of consciousness.
Reflecting the counter culture's interest in communal living arrangements as well as the model of the ashrams and monasteries being established by the new Asian spiritual groups, many early Movement participants felt that MSIA should establish a spiritual household. After a couple of initial experiments with different residences (e.g., a large house referred to as the 'Light Castle' served this purpose for a few years), the Movement acquired an old mansion that, prior to their acquisition of the property, had been expanded and converted into a retirement home for doctors.
Purchased in 1974, this house in L.A.'s Crenshaw district was designated 'Prana' (a Sanskrit word referring to the subtle energies tapped by certain yogic techniques). From then until now it has served as MSIA headquarters, though John-Roger never made it his residence. In the early days, over a hundred people lived in the Prana complex, and many other Movement participants resided in an adjoining apartment complex. Listening to the stories members tell of this period, one comes away with the impression that Prana served as a kind of spiritual 'basic training' center for many young aspirants.
As the Movement and its members matured, the interest in communal living waned. The population of Prana eventually decreased from a high of about 130, to, at present, thirty-some-odd people, mostly core staff. The facility now serves as organizational headquarters and as a seminary--Peace Theological Seminary and College of Philosophy (often referred to by the abbreviation 'PTS')--and the bedrooms that formerly held avid ashramites have found new usefulness as dorm rooms for visiting students. PTS offers a variety of classes, correspondence courses, and a 2-year Master of Theology degree to Movement participants (the program has also been held outside of Los Angeles in other areas of the country), and there are plans to institute a course of study for a Doctor of Theology degree. As someone who has casually observed the Master of Theology program develop, my impression is that it has become one of the MSIA organization's core activities.
How the Movement spread beyond southern California to other parts of the country is another part of the MSIA story. This juncture in the Movement's development is, however, quite complex because the story line splits off into separate narratives for each area. Rather than attempting to tell all of these tales, I will note a few points that will provide some perspective on the organization's expansion.
In the early days, the teachings were spread outside of California via people sending tape recordings of John- Roger seminars to relatives and friends in other parts of the country. These friends or relatives would then hold home seminars at which J-R tapes would be played. (This seems, in fact, to have been the actual origin of the 'taped' as opposed to the 'live' seminar.) At first these tapes were quite crude--people initially recorded John-Roger's talks with omni-directional microphones on cassette records--and the switch to more professionally- recorded sessions was prompted by complaints about tape quality from other areas of the country.
The story and the pattern of MSIA's expansion outside of the United States is not unlike the Movement's expansion across the country, though there are a couple of prominent cases--Africa and Australia come to mind-- where the initial contact came from individuals who had read a piece of MSIA literature and wrote for more information. In other cases, people who had studied with the Movement in the U.S. moved overseas and started holding home seminars in their country of residence.
As will be discussed in detail in Chapter Seven, over half of all currently active Movement participants reside in the United States. Of these, around 40% live in California. The impression of MSIA as still being centered in the Los Angeles basin is reinforced by the fact that, as a corporate entity, most properties owned by the Church are in southern California. In other parts of the country as well as overseas, Movement activity has been largely confined to home seminars, with occasional visits by J-R, John Morton, or some other person empowered to hold live seminars. One reason why MSIA has not established a larger presence outside of California is the tendency among participants from other parts of the country to move to the L.A. area in order to be closer to the Traveler and to the Movement's organizational center.
A different kind of organizational expansion arose from John-Roger's active experimentation with different vehicles for the teachings. While the basic ideas have remained the same over the years, there has been a remarkable proliferation of classes, spin-off organizations, and other activities since the Movement's beginnings. This diversification is a reflection of John-Roger's open-ended, let's-try-this-and-see-if-it-works attitude.
As should be clear by this point, the Church of the Movement of Inner Spiritual Awareness and the other organizations that have been inspired by John-Roger and MSIA members are the products of a gradual process of growth. All of these structures were significantly shaped by J-R's input in their earliest stages. However, far from constituting a monolithic block, most of these have expanded out from underneath the umbrella of MSIA and matured beyond the need for the ongoing personal tutelage of John-Roger.
There was some point, and maybe there has been more than one point, where J-R said, 'I basically have finished what I came here to do, what was my job, my responsibility, as the Traveler.' And when he said it, he didn't keel over and die. Instead, he kept doing work and seminars. But I picked up that statement as, 'Okay, the key information, whatever it was here for him to do, he did.' The way I related to it was, it's been passed on, so that whatever I need to pick up about Soul consciousness through the Traveler, has been delivered to me, it's been placed into my hands, the information is available, and the energy fields are on the planet.
-- John Morton