A few weeks ago, my friend Barbara and I traipsed south on Michigan Avenue to the 11th Street Theatre to hear a lecture by Joseph Chilton Pearce. Barbara and I go back several years, to the days when we were new mothers, nervous and doting. We regularly attended La Leche League meetings, which helped us to be nervous and doting and to nurse our babies every two seconds.

One of the books we were encouraged to read by our league friends, as we called them, was The Magical Child, authored by Pearce, a teacher of humanities and a pop scientist. The book contains an esoteric version of the growth of a child’s mind and an explanation of how a mother can foster or inhibit that growth. The book, which we liked very much, inevitably served only to increase the misery of doting with added doubt. Anyway, these several years later, we decided to hear him speak, to find out if by seeing him in person, he had ever been worth worrying about.

We entered the darkened foyer of the theater to find it reeking of incense and bedecked with pictures of Indian gurus, books on Eastern mysticism, and young WASPy women brimming with enthusiasm over something.

We thought, naturally, that we were in the wrong place, the wrong day, the wrong lecture. But, we figured, as you get older, if you’re out for the evening, you stay out for the evening. It’s too confusing to change in midstream, and if we ended up at some Indian affair, it must be a sign from God, so we took our seats.

The person sitting next to us turned out to be the midwife from my doctor’s office, who had come to my house the day after my daughter was born to do whatever it is one does with the stump of the umbilical cord a day after a child is born, while I prayed she wouldn’t smell the remnants of the Big Mac I had hidden under the covers. She assured us that Pearce was “really into this person” whose huge likeness adorned the stage, that we were indeed in the right place to hear Pearce.

A few minutes later, Pearce began. He briefly summarized his theory of the growth of the mind, which had fascinated us so long ago. But now, he explained, he had decided there was another dimension of the mind–95 percent of the brain, no less, the upper level, which totally diminished, really, the other 5 percent he had been writing about so enthusiastically. He explained that the only way to get this part of the brain to fruition was to have an “Intensive” (intensive contact, I presume) with this Indian guru he had discovered, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, a woman who by chance was coming to Chicago in a couple of weeks to give introductory lectures (for free) and Intensives (for $250). Pearce told us that the best legacy he is in the process of leaving his family is to take a bank loan every year in order to send his whole family–kids, grandkids, etc to India for Intensives with Gurumayi (an affectionate term meaning “guru mother”).

Back in the foyer, now replete with lots of juice and cookies, the fresh-faced, well-scrubbed young women handed out very expensive looking multipage invitations to hear Gurumayi, as well as cards to fill out to be on the mailing list.

A few days later one of them called and in a breathy voice encouraged my presence at a program aimed at introducing potential Intensive participants to Gurumayi.

She is a “Siddha Guru,” the invitation explained, a “Self-realized spiritual Master . . . part of an extraordinary lineage that goes back for thousands of years. . . . To be in the presence of such a being for even one moment can transform our lives. Such a one has abolished the difference between what she says and what she does, and by virtue of this inner wholeness can ignite our own inner flame. Gurumayi teaches that it is this flame of love burning in everyone’s heart that makes life worth living.

“Through the power of the Intensive, negative attitudes become positive ones. Our idea of ourselves as petty and small is destroyed.”

Barbara and I decided to try the free introduction–which was touted as something that would “draw us deeply inward and give us an experience of our own greatness.”

This time we traipsed north on Michigan Avenue to the Westin Hotel. The entrance of the hotel was lined, reception-line style, with the followers of Gurumayi–mostly attractive young women, some not so young, and some distinguished middle-aged men in business suits. We were guided by these people to a second-floor banquet hall. First we were told to leave our shoes in a shoe room, the walls of which were lined with white metal racks holding hundreds of pairs of shoes. I was terrified I would never see my brand new Avia aerobic shoes again, but I did as I was told.

We were ushered into the dark ballroom, the Cotillion Room, where women sat on one side and men on the other–like an Orthodox Jewish wedding. Rows and rows of people in the front sat on the floor, the rest on chairs toward the back. there was taped East Indian chanting that filled the room as we got settled. Then near silence–as sentimental, soap-opera theme music played softly on the PA, while slides of Gurumayi were shown. A posted sign warned against tape recording and note taking.

A commodities trader rose and told how Gurumayi gave him a “center of stability.”

Then a family social worker from the suburbs with, we were told, a meditation room built right into her home spoke in a soft, sweet voice with a touch of a giggle about how Gurumayi told her to “trust herself” the first time they met. But, said the social worker, I wanted to ask her how to trust myself but I realized how silly it would be to ask her that if I’m supposed to trust myself. Giggle, giggle. She then described a peaceful, warm feeling in her heart.

Then there was more chanting in the dark, the end of which saw Gurumayi herself seated as if on a throne at the front of the room. She began her spiel. She sounded more like a Puerto Rican or Italian movie star than an East Indian.

“You are living without knowing who you are. . . . Disagreement and argumentation take place out of ignorance. . . . You are afraid of death and afraid of life because you are afraid of the unknown. . . . You are living without knowing what you are. . . . For knowledge of self–abandon viewpoints . . . renounce petty concepts which are a nest, a shelter . . . the answers are within.”

Throughout her talk, Gurumayi, 32, peppered her outlook with lots of corny jokes that she and everyone else seemed to really get a bang out of. Then it was time for silence, the purpose of which I never really understood. So in a completely dark room we sat for at least 15 minutes without a sound, except coughing. I waited for someone to yell out, “Get me the hell out of here!” but no one did.

Then came the crowning glory: Darshan. Hundreds of those just witnessing this great knowledge would be given a chance to line up and greet Gurumayi in person at her throne. We lined up four abreast in a line curving into the hall. We could watch Gurumayi and those with her at the front of the line on closed-circuit TV monitors interspersed throughout the room.

An Englishwoman in front of me instructed four yuppies on the correct way to greet Gurumayi. “She’s just gorgeous. Just kneel down and say anything to her. Say whatever you want. She’ll talk to you. She’s beautiful.”

It became apparent during the time we spent in the long line that many of Gurumayi’s followers were bringing their friends for a personal introduction. As the line formed and reformed in order to keep the four-abreast formation, many people had looked worried and angry at the prospect of being separated from their friends, whom they wished to impress. Like young men bringing their girlfriends home to mama and successful women introducing their colleagues to mother.

Finally, I reached the front. I knelt down in front of Gurumayi but could not bring myself to lower my head. Her face was striking, with well-defined and prominently rounded features. Some of those in the front with me introduced their friends, and Gurumayi made more of her corny jokes and everyone guffawed, not really sure, I don’t think, of exactly what they were guffawing about. But some of them, I think, rushed right out to plunk down their deposit for the Intensive–cash, check, money order. No credit cards accepted. Or at least to sign the mailing list. Because Gurumayi will be spending the summer in South Fallsburg, New York, and will do Intensives there, too.

After being hit over the head by Gurumayi several times with a peacock feather–her trademark–I rose, and as I left the Westin ballroom, I received a piece of chocolate wrapped in plastic and tied with a red ribbon. An offering, I was told.

We retrieved our shoes, which were undisturbed, thank God. And stood amidst a lot of different kinds of people also on their way out. Yuppies, businessmen, bored suburban housewives and mothers, old ladies, some old men, young people that looked like old friends from the 60s, intellectuals, office workers, a few blacks, blue- and pink-collar workers. They could have been leaving a Baptist revival, a gospel gathering, a Unitarian church, a Presbyterian service, an EST seminar, Saturday Sabbath services at the synagogue, Mass at Holy Name or an Amway distributors’ pep rally.