There I was, nearly 36, being paid to do mundane work (but not paid nearly enough), unable to finish any of the large writing projects I’d been working at, and victim of a series of professional disappointments. This was a far cry from the international literary fame I’d envisioned at age 19. I was old, and this was life: nothing would ever get better.

Then the New Age came to my rescue.

In desperation, I had begun listening to a set of self-help motivational tapes. Dear God, they were like M&M’s to a chocaholic! I learned that I was in charge of my own destiny; that it’s what’s inside me that counts, not what’s going on around me. I learned to make goals, and my little notebook was never far from me. I boned up on my assertiveness.

Still, something seemed not quite right.

The grand dame of the New Age was the medium Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who in 1875 founded the Theosophical Society and taught that we can benefit from listening to spirit “Masters.” Leadership of the order eventually passed to Alice Ann Bailey, who established Lucifer Publishing Company in 1922, changing the name to “Lucis” in 1923. When the psychedelic 1960’s effected the wholehearted acceptance of drugs and astrology in the civilized world, the stage was set for the popularization of all New Age tenets.

For a quick glance at the New Age, riffle through The New Age Catalog (1988). Learn about Lucifer, channeling, developing your psychic skills, reading an aura, and using crystals. Order tapes on palmistry, reflexology, dowsing, firewalking, and dying (from people who have done it). Discover that less is more when it comes to money (except for the prices on this stuff) and what Christ really said to his disciples.

This is what’s at the heart of the New Age, and I’ll come back to it—but it isn’t the aspect that most New Age leaders choose to show us. The seduction of the New Age lies in its leaders’ gift of saying exactly what we want to hear.

When they founded CareerTrack in 1982, Jimmy Calano and Jeff Salzman, two nice-looking, clean-cut young guys of 24 and 27, respectively, with a healthy appetite for money (no “less is more” for them), cashed in on Americans’ double urge to, as we say, “feel good about ourselves” and prosper without doing anything really hard. CareerTrack, in Boulder, Colorado, sells self-help tapes and seminars across the nation and internationally. The topics are hardly esoteric—time management, organizational politics, dealing with difficult people, business writing, reading dynamics—and for the most part they’re taught by hard-nosed Ph.D.’s and psychologists and businesspeople. CareerTrack revolutionized the business seminar industry by offering under-$50-per-day tuition when the industry average was $145 per day. Sales in 1982 were at $220,000. In 1988 they hit $52 million—all without a cent of outside financing.

Calano and Salzman work very hard. Last year Calano was named the fifth-best entrepreneur under 30 in the nation by the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization, and Inc. named Career- Track the tenth fastest-growing privately held company in the US. I own some CareerTrack tapes and have attended one of their seminars, and, far from trying to rip anyone off, they’re doing their best to give people their money’s worth. (For instance, they guarantee that you can get a refund on a CareerTrack tape or even a seminar up to one year after you buy the tape or attend the seminar, no questions asked.) These guys would join the Peace Corps before they’d attend a seance, and in their honest earnestness they’re typical of many self-help companies.

They’re also as New Age as you can get. Because New Age philosophy teaches that Man is God, that the answer to every problem is within us. And the kooks in The New Age Catalog use precisely the same language and methods as the pinstriped Ph.D.’s selling assertiveness training. Very few self-help seminars instruct us in prayer.

The New Age would have us believe that we can control our lives—which should make us skeptical right off the bat since it’s flatly contrary to Western religious teaching. (But see: we want to hear that we’re the boss.) First, it’s important to set goals in elaborate detail, in writing. (Would you like to leave a lover or spouse? many seminar-givers ask coyly. Well, then, put it down. This is your “wish list.” Go crazy.)

Next, engage in creative visualization, which simply means imagining, in detail, doing the things you said you’d like to do. Part of the trick is to use affirmations, (false) statements saying that you already do or have whatever it is you said you wanted to do or have. You must repeat these lies to yourself first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

Get rid of that useless guilt. All of these people—especially the psychologists—will tell you that guilt is the most useless emotion there is. Toss it away! Shrug it off! (This will most certainly be a relief to those people who set a goal of ditching a spouse and then did it.) And keep up that motivation! Tell yourself, “I can have what I want. I deserve it. Nothing has to stand in my way. I have power. I empower myself.”

It’s important to say here that not all purveyors of motivational tapes and books belong to the New Age. One who most emphatically does not is Zig Ziglar. He gives three important clues that he’s a nonmember. One is his constant reminder that what we want to do is hard. The second is his belief that if you work hard for something and it just doesn’t happen, perhaps you’ve been working at the wrong thing. And the third is his frequent references to God, Scripture, and prayer. You’ll never hear any of this from a New Ager.

John Joseph, a Carmelite brother and student of the dangers of the New Age, warns, “Many people middle-aged and older have fallen into the New Age Movement, a world-wide network consisting of tens of thousands of cooperating organizations.” What are all these people after? Well, whether they know it or not (and most of them do not), the goal of the New Age is, ultimately, to bring the world to the worship of Lucifer.

Now, maybe your church group is into “possibility thinking” and you’re not prepared to believe that Devilworship underlies New Age help-yourself thought. Still, consider the Old and New Testament lessons teaching us to obey God’s will, and then understand that New Age adherents believe that we create our own reality. You can’t eat your cake and have it, too.

And there are other, even better hooks to catch normal people than greed or selfishness. The New Age also appeals to mankind’s nobler motives. Joseph writes, “This is where the Hunger Project, Bread for the World, and a host of other projects . . . fit into New Age plans. Too often, those initially attracted by such good works fall prey to the false philosophies of the New Age (which, even in its charitable undertakings, is strong on impossible global solutions and weak on personal reform).”

The peril of these New Age practices is that they work somehow—for a time: long enough for the New Agers to get a stranglehold on a mind. I really was invigorated, cheerful, and more in control after my morning visualization and goal-recording sessions. And all that nutty out-of-body travel and channeling and firewalking—people really do that, too. Books written by sensible, grown-up, traditionally religious Christians and Jews about their youthful experiments with New Age practices testify that they experienced occult phenomena, often without the help of drugs. I fooled around with yoga long enough in my late teens and early 20’s to know that out-of-body travel must be fairly easy, if you want it badly enough.

What finally brought me out of my blessedly short-lived New Age trance is this: the vague feeling that I was falling into peril. The New Age’s motto is, “My will be done.” The only thing New Agers see as evil is the thwarting of their own aims, either individually or as a handsome, menacing group. But New Agers are not often thwarted; they breed in a culture they themselves created. Listen to the radio; watch TV. Read one of the best-sellers offering “global” advice to “Spaceship Earth” on everything from investment to the whales. Look at “Christian” bookstores, selling books and tapes on meditation and “self-fulfillment.” Consider the church, with its clowns, balloons. rock music, and utter lack of silence and sanctity regardless of denomination, attempting, as John Joseph says, to “reshape orthodox Christianity according to the mind of man.”

The mind of man is a very small place—thank God He doesn’t live there.