A former housewife from Washington state, JZ Knight, is coming to Santa Barbara this weekend to lecture about spirituality, but no one is much interested in what she has to say.
Instead, people are coming to absorb the teachings of Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior for whom Ms. Knight claims to be the channeler. Channelers, like mediums, say they have contact with beings in the spirit world.
It's a strange story, to be sure, and skeptics abound. But a widely respected scholar of religion in Santa Barbara who has studied Ms. Knight extensively -- along with researchers in physics, psychology and musicology -- has concluded that Ms. Knight is not a fraud.
G. Gordon Melton of Santa Barbara's Institute for the Study of American Religion, who is also an ordained Methodist minister and expert on new religious movements and cults, spent several years in the mid-1990s studying Ms. Knight at the Ramtha School of Enlightenment in Yelm, Wash.
Mr. Melton wrote a book about the Ramtha phenomenon, and then convinced Ms. Knight to undergo a year of study by a team of researchers, including scientists, in 1996-97.
Whether Ramtha is "real" or not is not the point. "The testing doesn't lend itself to an opinion one way or another, and to go in either direction is to get into a political discussion that pits sceptics against believers." And he's not willing to enter that debate.
When the entranced Ms. Knight channels Ramtha, her physical posture becomes masculine, her jaw hardens and her speech takes on a British accent. As Ramtha, Ms. Knight is capable of lecturing for hours about the divine nature of the human spirit and how to access it. Ramtha's key message is that God is within you.
While "channeling" Ramtha, the researchers monitored Ms. Knight's brain and bodily functions, recording dramatic jumps in blood pressure, muscle tension and other responses. While entering and leaving her trance state, Ms. Knight's heart beat dropped as low as 40 beats per minute, and rose as high as 180 beats per minute.
The tests indicated "a major change in the state of consciousness" exemplified by changes in eight areas of body function," said Mr. Melton, a church historian. "By comparison, the most experienced yogi is able to change perhaps two bodily functions at once. If you were faking it, you couldn't change all those functions at once and then hold it."
The scholars who studied Ms. Knight included professors from Colgate and Temple universities, Chicago Theological Seminary and the University of Oregon. Their research produced papers on charismatic religious figures, psycho-physiology and channeling.
The reclusive Ms. Knight -- who does not typically grant interviews, but speaks about her experiences channeling Ramtha in informational videos -- says she feels as though she is entering a light-filled tunnel before Ramtha takes over her body. She claims to remember nothing while Ramtha holds forth.
"We have ruled out that she is faking it, or that it's pathological," said Mr. Melton. "It's not multiple personality and she's not delusional. She has pretty full control of when she goes in and out."
Mr. Melton said the researchers found that Ms. Knight is "wired differently from the rest of us," an unusual personality with certain traits that are shared among people who report having paranormal or psychic experiences. The reasons that people might have trouble believing in Ramtha are obvious. Ms. Knight, who is now 55, says Ramtha introduced himself to her "as the enlightened one" while she was sitting in her kitchen 24 years ago.
She has been accused of being a fraud and maligned for years, and it was because of those charges that she agreed to open herself to study, she has said. She's even said her Ramtha association has caused her a lot of trouble, but she wouldn't trade it for anything. In fact, it's made her rich.
Literature from the Ramtha School of Enlightenment states that Ramtha is a warrior from the ancient continent of Lemuria, who freed his people from the tyranny of the Atlantians and went on to fight against injustice wherever it presented itself. Eventually he was mortally wounded, became enlightened and conquered the physical world and death.
Critics question the story. The Hamden, Conn.-based New England Skeptical Society says that Ms. Knight is "an obviously fantasy-prone personality, that when mixed with dual intoxicants of beauty and charisma have once again resulted in a recipe that has bilked millions from an uneducated mass." Fans admit it sounds strange on its face, but say the message is what counts.
"I read Ramtha's 'white book' in the 1980s and it turned my life around," said Santa Barbara resident Patricia Diorio, who hosts a local public access TV show, "Paradigm Shift," on Channel 17.
Ms. Diorio had investigated many different spiritual paths when a clerk in a metaphysical bookstore insisted that she read the book "Ramtha." When she did, she was reduced to tears.
"There was one sentence that said, 'You are God in human form and there is no God outside of you,' and I just wept. I knew this all my life, but I was raised Catholic and a statement like this was considered blasphemous."
Ms. Diorio has been a fan of Ramtha ever since, and has attended Ramtha lectures for years. She and a group of like-minded friends gathered to watch a Ramtha video last week to share the news that Ms. Knight and Ramtha would be in town on Friday for a three-day conference at Fess Parker's DoubleTree Resort. The conference is $350.
Another follower of Ramtha is the actress Linda Evans, who rose to fame 16 years ago as a star on the popular nighttime soap opera "Dynasty."
She was introduced to Ramtha at about the same time and now lectures on the benefits of Ramtha teachings. She also accompanies Ms. Knight on tour and lives a half-hour from Ms. Knight's 40-acre estate. She refers to Ms. Knight as one of her dearest friends and, "one of the most honest and honorable people I've ever met in my life."
During her "Dynasty" stardom, Ms. Evans' life felt empty, she said in a telephone interview from her lakeside home in Washington. Someone gave her Ramtha's white book (there are now eight books featuring his teachings) and her life was forever changed. Ms. Evans found Ramtha to be a "brilliant mind" who didn't push a dogmatic religious truth, but instead "initiates you to your own truth."
Through exercises such as wearing a blindfold and shooting an arrow at a target -- and sometimes hitting it dead on -- students learn that they are capable of far more than they've ever dreamed of, Ms. Evans said.
Mr. Melton described the school's rigorous program as part spiritual boot camp and part psychic development, with elements of Gnosticism thrown in.
He said the program is novel because it includes full group exercises that require students to challenge their comfort zones and it is honest about the fact that changing one's perception and experiences of the world is hard work that requires diligent practice.
The teachings have particular appeal among people who have seen themselves as victims, because the personal story of Ramtha -- and of JZ Knight -- are about overcoming victimization, said Mr. Melton.
Ramtha's School of Enlightenment claims about 3,000 students worldwide. Mr. Melton's research shows that most are unattached women in their mid 30s and 40s, some of whom could be considered in the "mid-life crisis" phase of life.
"I understand that people are confused by the concept of a 35,000-year-old warrior," said Ms. Evans. "And yet the mind that was teaching me was so brilliant and the information so valuable, it was no longer important to me whether it was a he or a she. The important thing is that God is within you. What's sad is that a lot of people aren't open to that."