Rise out of yourself, out of your house, out of the city. Soar above the West Coast, let the oceanside cliffs drop away, see the whitecaps dissolve into an expanse of blue. Watch Asia appear on the opposite shore and Earth itself hang against a backdrop of stars.
Mars whips past and recedes. So do Jupiter and Saturn's rings. Our sun fades into the distance as you move out of this solar system and past many more. Constellations and nebulae blaze past as you fall backward into space.
The Milky Way's clustered center comes into view. Its arms unfold as you tumble into the abyss beyond their reach. More galaxies fly past, whole clusters of them now, and still you soar outward toward the edge of everything. Finally you're beyond the stars, and the whole universe floats before you, a glowing blob of iridescence, pulsating as it hovers in the void.
That is God.
"At this point I usually get a round of applause," says the man who just told this story, sitting cross-legged on an armchair in a short-sleeved shirt and jeans. But his listeners just sit in rapt silence.
I've traveled 500 miles from Portland to Northern California, where I'm seated on the floor of a well-appointed cabana in back of a million-dollar home an hour south of San Francisco. I'm in a roomful of 20 other people, mainly well-educated professionals like the home's owner, Nicolas Tchikovani, a real-estate agent and financial planner.
We've each paid $100 to spend half a day learning the secrets of the universe from Eric Pepin, a balding, heavyset 42-year-old from Beaverton who claims he can heal the sick, control the weather, travel between dimensions and communicate with God. He teaches his secrets on CDs and DVDs that sell for up to $299 each on his website.
And people buy them.
A self-described world-class psychic, Pepin promises his students nothing less than a revelation of the true nature of reality. He claims to hold the keys to a universe filled with the meaning and the beauty that perhaps you've always known were there, hidden within all that you see and smell and touch.
Like all great sales pitches, Pepin's comes with a money-back guarantee.
"I believe in enlightenment. I am enlightened," Pepin told his listeners at the Saturday afternoon gathering last month. "I can take you beyond this world. I can bring you to the doorway of what one would consider the kingdom of heaven. Whether you choose to walk through it is up to you."
Six years ago, after he left his job as a telemarketer for The Oregonian, Pepin started the Higher Balance Institute. He has no credentials beyond a high-school GED, but thousands of people around the world have bought his materials. Some pay $800 an hour to meet with him one-on-one, and a few dozen are willing to shell out $1,000 or more to hobnob with Pepin at retreats in Hawaii and Mexico.
But Pepin has also generated considerable controversy in New Age circles, including persistent claims that he's used his guru status to sexually prey on followers. Pepin, who vehemently denies the allegations, beat a child sex-abuse rap in a Washington County criminal trial in 2007.
Following Pepin's path doesn't involve shaving your head, wearing robes or performing any rituals. He says he hates being called a guru, and thinks of his students as clients rather than followers. He makes no demands of them other than recommending they meditate twice a day. And, of course, pay cash for his wisdom.
Reduced to the basics, Pepin teaches that developing psychic powers can help you expand your consciousness, understand the universe and come closer to God. His students do that mainly through special meditation; developing the power to read minds, see auras, leave their bodies, communicate with spirits and cross dimensions. Pepin claims he has all of those powers and more.
If it all sounds laughable, you could be what Pepin calls a "red cell"—a drone who doesn't question the world around you. Pepin and his students, on the other hand, call themselves "white cells"—a gifted minority of one in every 15,000 people who are aware and questioning, with an insatiable desire to seek the spiritual truth.
I saw Pepin in Woodside, Calif., to get an unfiltered view of the claims he makes to his followers. By the end of the day, I had told Pepin I was a reporter, and he welcomed a story about him.
Three weeks later, I was on the phone challenging him to read my mind and change the rainy weather in Portland while he was on the road from L.A. to Lake Tahoe, using his vaunted psychic powers. His nasal voice rose with irritation.
"It doesn't work that way," he insisted. "I'm not here to entertain you at your beck and call."
When we hung up a few minutes later, a funny thing happened—the clouds in Portland parted for the remainder of the afternoon. Nothing unusual for a spring day in the Northwest. But it was enough to remind me that Pepin's claims of occult powers aren't any more far-fetched than believing Moses parted the sea, or that Buddha built a golden bridge in the air—parallels Pepin is quick to point out.
"It's good to pick on the person that is New Age or metaphysical," he says with sarcasm. "But let's look at the majority of the people who are pointing the fingers. Let's look at Jesus Christ walking on water, and who can read minds and heal the sick."
But cult experts are troubled for a different reason—not because Pepin's claims are outlandish, but because they've become so commonplace.
Steven Hassan, a former high-ranking member of the Moonies who now helps victims get out of cults, says there are literally thousands of self-styled gurus pushing their products online. Boosted by the power of the Internet, and by our own growing dissatisfaction and loneliness as individuals, people like Pepin have found a market niche that increasingly tunnels straight to the heart of mainstream America.
"People have lost faith in a lot of existing institutions, whether it's the Catholic Church and their pedophilic priests, or the U.S. government, or their own economic security," Hassan says. "People are extremely vulnerable to someone who comes along and who says in a very confident voice that they know what is going on in reality, and that they can give you the window into that knowledge."
For Kelly Smith, the window is Eric Pepin.
By all appearances, Smith is a successful single mom from Saratoga, Calif. At age 42, she's fit and outgoing, and makes six figures a year in software sales.
Smith also happens to believe she can control the weather, read minds and do remote viewing—the psychic term for seeing far-off places without being there. She's had "lots of different experiences with different kinds of intelligent energy," she says—all with Pepin's assistance.
I could ask her 12-year-old daughter for confirmation, she adds.
Smith has been searching for a spiritual guide all her life. When she first saw a picture of Pepin with his balding pate, she says she recognized him from her dreams. Two years ago she joined Higher Balance's Star Reach program. She pays $199 a month for CDs and an hourlong phone conversation with a coach from Pepin's staff every other week. She's seen Pepin in person six times, including two $800 one-on-one sessions.
Smith says the thousands of dollars she's spent on Pepin was well worth it.
"I was looking for my purpose. I knew there was something more than just living and dying. I knew that there was a greater plan and a greater purpose," she says. "I can only imagine what it was like studying with the Buddha. It would be something similar to that, it's such profound information."
At the Woodside gathering, Smith implored Pepin to teach her a new hand motion to gain extra powers during meditation. Another woman begged Pepin to reveal how to reverse aging. Pepin declined both requests, adding that his age-reversal technique is due out in an upcoming CD.
It was the second time Smith asked about the hand motion. "I'll keep asking the question," she says, "because someday the time will be right and he'll answer."
What causes a seemingly rational person to believe she's learned telepathy and can change the weather? Psychologists say it helps to think of Hitler's sweater.
Imagine you're shivering and someone hands you a sweater. You put it on. Then you're told that it used to belong to Hitler. Many otherwise logical people would tear it off their back, even though they know there's no possible way it could harbor Hitler's essence.
Northern Illinois University psychologist Brad Sagarin studies such irrational beliefs, which psychologists call "magical thinking." He says the sweater example suggests human reason is far less reliable than many of us would like to think it is. Especially if people fall into the orbit of someone like Pepin.
"All of us harbor superstitious beliefs, but they can certainly be fostered by a strong authority," Sagarin says. "They can be fostered by the social support they get from this organization."
Smith and her two daughters live with one other Pepin follower, but she says she's no victim of brainwashing. She sees Pepin instead as an inspirational figure working to enlighten minds.
"What made Mother Teresa a hero? Her selfless actions. Spending her life devoted to the One. She did it within the structure of Catholicism. But Eric is doing the same thing," Smith says. "He's devoted himself to something bigger than himself."
In fact, to hear Pepin talk, all of our fates may rest with him and his students.
Pepin tells his followers there's a battle raging across time and space between good and evil. Borrowing from Star Wars, he calls them the Force and the Dark Side.
Pepin speaks of channeling his students' psychic energy in order to affect the outcome of that fight, especially as the year 2012 approaches, when some New Age and occult believers think the world will undergo a cataclysmic upheaval because the Mayan calendar ends on Dec. 21 that year.
In a YouTube video, Pepin warns new students that studying with him can bring both danger and safety.
"It awakens something in you that emanates a certain frequency out from you, and the Dark Side can pick that up," he says. "If you're near me, you're kind of at an advantage in that you're a little bit more protected. Because it knows you're kind of connected to me, and it doesn't want to interfere because it knows I'm going to react back."
It's a struggle Pepin says he's been fighting, in one form or another, since he was a young boy.
The son of an Army officer father and a German-born mother, Pepin says he was raised in various cities on the East Coast. He declined to name either of his parents, but said his father would disappear for months at a time when he was growing up.
The old man had a strong interest in the occult. One way for Pepin to gain his father's affection was to show off his own psychic powers at séances and readings, beginning when he was 8 years old.
After leaving home at 16, Pepin says he charged up to $75 to tell people their future. He moved west—first to Arizona, then up to California, where he opened a spiritual bookstore in the canyons north of L.A. It was there he met Eric Robison 10 years ago.
A 24-year-old film editor at the time, Robison says he started as a skeptic out to prove Pepin's act was a sham. Eventually he became a true believer.
"I thought at best he was completely insane, at worst a fraud," Robison recalls. "But he truly believes. It's not just this shallow form of spirituality. It's that there's this deeper meaning in life."
After the dot-com crash in 2001 killed a computer head-hunting firm Pepin had started, Pepin, Robison and Robison's brother Matthew moved to Beaverton. Pepin took a job at The Oregonian, but quit in 2003 after a dust-up with his boss. At that point, after years of teaching his friends for free, Pepin says he reluctantly decided to start charging for his services.
They started Higher Balance in their apartment, with Pepin providing the material and Robison running the business side.
"We sold our first CD for $150," Pepin recalls, "and we said, 'Oh my God, we're rich!'"
They built a website, advertising by direct mail and email. Business took off, eventually reaching $2 million in worldwide sales. By 2005, they had 11 full-time employees and an office in Beaverton. That year Pepin bought the house he still owns in Beaverton, for $383,500.
Today the business runs out of a three-room rented office off U.S. 26 in Portland. Two employees sat speaking on the phone to clients on a recent weekday afternoon, while a third was busy shipping orders of CDs, the discs pulled from metal shelves stacked to the ceiling.
The Woodside retreat showed Pepin's operation in action. Before he appeared, a traveling entourage of four young men who looked like models from GQ magazine swept into the cabana. They set up a table full of merchandise, including dozens of CDs, Higher Balance meditation supports, custom pendants and magnetic pills to boost psychic powers for $49 a bottle.
Pepin's entourage included both paid staffers and volunteers, one of whom says he moved cross-country from Pennsylvania to be closer to Pepin. That's not unusual: Robison says two other students recently moved to the Portland area from Texas and Alaska. There have been problems with stalkers parked outside the Higher Balance office, Pepin adds.
Pepin's staff tapes video of every moment he spends speaking to students, recording every word for the ages. They even videotape him on the road, climbing in and out of their RV, or just washing a car. The star treatment has done nothing to diminish his ego—in Woodside, he repeatedly snapped at his entourage and his host for being slow to fetch items and cool down the room.
Pepin delivers his shtick with a mix of scientific jargon, Eastern mysticism and pop-culture references that seems designed to flatter his listeners and fan their intellectual vanity. What pours out of his mouth is a nonstop, grammatically twisted stream of loosely connected concepts, delivered in a strong New England accent. In one recording, he explains his often rambling delivery.
"I am trying to share knowledge from a dimensional state of consciousness, and slowing them down to convert into a physical format for you to understand," he explains. "This is not an easy task."
After four hours of Pepin's barrage, I was left mentally numb—a feeling one longtime student at Woodside confirmed. "Your mind just kind of goes blank after a while listening to Eric," he said. "No one's been able to explain it."
But Pepin can just as quickly charm his audience like the goofy uncle who showed up for dinner. At Woodside he reminisced about hanging out at a nude beach. When a student asked how to cure a mental block when he meditates, Pepin smiled.
"It's kind of like taking a crap," he said. "You're pushing. You want it to go. But you have to let it go."
But Pepin's talent as a communicator may not save his business from its considerable liabilities, including one former acolyte with troubling claims.
On a scale of spiritual gurus, with New Age inspirational speaker Tony Robbins on one end and Heaven's Gate leader Marshall Applewhite on the other, Pepin tilts much closer to Robbins' benign self-improvement end of the spectrum.
Not as materialistic as New Thought minister Michael Beckwith, nor as simplistic as the Oprah-backed bestseller The Secret, Pepin has made his reputation by mixing their seltzerized spirituality with explicit claims about psychic powers—a rarity in mainstream New Age circles.
Pepin's emphasis on the paranormal seriously limits his commercial potential, says Manny Otto. Otto has a widespread view of the New Age world as head of Internet marketing at Sounds True Publishing, a Boulder, Colo.-based clearinghouse for New Age authors. For this story, Otto speaks only for himself.
"His platforms, they're pretty extreme," Otto says of Pepin. "I haven't found in my personal experience that their claims are incorrect. It's just that people don't make those claims, typically. People who are big are trying to make it palatable for a broader audience."
Otto says another stumbling block to Pepin's mainstream success are allegations of sex abuse that continue to turn up on the Internet. Those allegations now threaten to drag Pepin back into court for a second time.
In 2006, Pepin and 21-year-old Jamison Priebe—a member of Pepin's spiritual inner circle as well as his romantic partner and employee—were arrested after a former acolyte claimed he was sexually abused by Pepin and Priebe when the victim was 17.
After a five-day trial in which prosecutors accused Pepin of running a cult to recruit sex partners, a Washington County judge acquitted Pepin and Priebe of multiple counts of sex abuse. Now his accuser is pressing a $3.1 million civil lawsuit in the hope of winning a courtroom victory.
Pepin admits having an affair with the man, but says it was after the man turned 18. He says he's been baited by prosecutors and the media. Who could be easier to demonize, he asks, than a man painted as a "gay cult leader"?
Robison said the impact on business has been severe—Google searches of Pepin's name still generate accounts of the alleged abuse. Yearly sales, Robison says, have dropped 25 percent from $2 million to $1.5 million as a result. Pepin lost a $4.4 million federal lawsuit he filed in 2008 against Sign of the Times, a New Age website that accused Pepin of running a "front for pedophilia."
"We're cleared of those charges, but in the public's eye we're guilty," Robison says. "That's a trial you're never going to win."
His accuser, now a 22-year-old musician living in Northwest Portland, calls Pepin a master manipulator who sexually preys on nearly all of his inner circle of attractive young men. He says Pepin calls this "crossing the abyss." Pepin admits he's slept with several of the men on his staff, but says that's nothing unusual given that they've been friends for years.
Those allegations are the reason Rick Ross, a New Jersey-based national expert on cults, calls Higher Balance a full-blown destructive cult, with Pepin exploiting the group.
"When you have a person that has the kind of authority that he exercises over his followers, there is an imbalance of power," Ross says. "This is very similar to a psychiatrist who takes advantage of patients or a teacher who has an affair with a pupil."
But Higher Balance lacks some of the qualities Hassan, the former Moonie, associates with a classic cult. Most of Pepin's followers don't live anywhere near him. Some of Pepin's inner circle have lived with him, but without a cult compound, he can't exert the kind of all-out control over his followers' lives that infamous cult leaders like Jim Jones and David Koresh have wielded over their flocks.
Pepin hits back, saying that established religions throw around the "cult" label to protect their own business. "They finger-point and say everyone else is a cult," he says. "I call it challenging their jobs."
Ross says Pepin is dodging the question.
"The reason he is in court right now is not because he claims he can travel between dimensions or change the weather," Ross says. "The allegation is that he used his spiritual authority, his aura of power, to take advantage and exploit someone. The issue is behavior, not belief."
Pepin is forging ahead, gearing up for a weeklong Higher Balance retreat in Hawaii starting May 31. His website claims he'll take students there on a journey into the distant past and far future, and help them "experience inner hyperdimensional space consciousness."
Despite such bold claims, Pepin insists in interviews he remains humble—even after a student in L.A. last month asked to touch Pepin's feet. Pepin refused. "I don't want someone to think I'm God, because I certainly don't believe I'm God," Pepin says.
"I tell people, 'Don't call me an enlightened master,'" he says. "I can't live up to your expectations. I'm going to make mistakes, I'm going to make errors, and you're going to put me in a stature that I can't uphold. That's my worst fear."