It was 3:30 p.m. I was already running half an hour late. This was because I am not from Los Angeles and I had grossly underestimated the time it would take to get from Santa Monica to West Adams on Interstate 10, a mere 11 miles as the crow flies.
That sound you hear right now is the sound of a thousand Angelenos scoffing: “The 10? Going east? At that hour? What are you, some kind of masochist?”
What should’ve taken me 12 minutes took more than an hour in five-lane, bumper-to-bumper traffic. There’s a kind of existential calm that settles over you when surrounded by such a sea of cars, when there is no chance of anyone getting anywhere anytime soon. Even the on-ramps seem to be in on the joke: Like a doorman at a very desirable club, a traffic light allows only a single car at a time the great privilege of merging into this gridlock. Sitting there you must embrace the ancient, contradictory notion of festina lente: to make haste slowly. You are not where you are supposed to be, but you are where you are.
This meditative mindset was fitting for my 3 p.m. appointment, for which I was now 45 minutes late. I was supposed to be visiting the Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens as part of a larger quest to seek out spaces of refuge and retreat across the city’s endless suburban sprawl. I wanted to find the quiet, contemplative Los Angeles, the hidden pockets of reverence, reflection, silence; places Angelenos repair to in order to recharge their batteries so they are ready to face another day, another traffic jam, another screaming child, another vindictive boss. A city is not necessarily defined by its landmarks or its flashiest moments but by all the subtle ways its citizens forge the necessary solitude that allows them to live in proximity to their neighbors.
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The Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens is tucked behind a beaux-arts Italian villa on one of those wide, anonymous Los Angeles boulevards. These boulevards offer both the best and worst of the city: There are never any pedestrians; every surface is too bright; every lawn too green, and yet every building, no matter how garish, has some fantastical story to tell if only you stop to listen.
The Italian Renaissance Revival villa that houses the Peace Gardens is sandwiched between a Polish shrine to Pope St. John Paul II and a low-slung stucco apartment block that looks like the scene of a murder in a 1930s noir film. The lavish villa was built in 1914 for Secondo Guasti, a penniless Italian immigrant who became California’s largest winemaker despite widespread skepticism at the time that such an industry could ever thrive in the state.
The Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, a new-age church focused on “soul transcendence,” purchased the villa in 1974 and, in 2002, constructed the Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens, optimistically, for a post-9/11 world. The gardens are open to the public by appointment. If possible, try not to miss your appointment because of existential traffic jams.
Despite the late hour, I was greeted at the villa’s entrance by a kind man named Juan Roberto.
“We’re very glad you’re here,” he said. Memories of I-10 bedlam began to evaporate as we promenaded through the compact, tiered garden, serenaded by the gentle babble of small fountains. The Japanese call such walks shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.”
“There used to be many more plants, too many plants,” said Juan Roberto. “We realized you needed open space to reflect.”
He showed me how to walk the labyrinth, a circular pathway of travertine marble. Have you ever walked a labyrinth? Labyrinths, unlike mazes, are unicursal — they have only one way in and one way out. Each step becomes a purposeful movement. They are an ancient form of meditation; this one is based on the labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral in France, built in the early 13th century. As you walk, the city becomes a distant dream, a movie half-remembered. In a way, it is bit like the festina lente of Interstate 10, but without the cars, the smog, the man in the neon-yellow Dodge Charger listening to Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” at peak volume. One way in, one way out.
What is strange is that many Angelenos I talked to echoed this view of interstate gridlock as a kind of contemplative lacuna. I was told on multiple occasions that in order to be truly at home in this city, you had to make peace with your commute.
“My car is my safe space,” one person told me.
“It’s all about the podcast,” said another.
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For many, the car, that private palace of glass and steel, is now the place where we perform the majority of our essential business; the place where we make up, break up, wake up.
Maybe it is the East Coaster in me, but I find this slightly dispiriting. Have our automobiles replaced our churches? Can you practice shinrin-yoku in a Chevy? Cars and all their associated infrastructure do not help build communities in cities. For decades, interstates have cleaved open neighborhoods, lowered property values and compounded segregation. What will happen when fully autonomous vehicles arrive on a wide scale and we can finally take our hands off the wheel? Will we binge-watch Netflix shows during our commute? Will we ever get out of our cars again?
Then again, places of refuge can take on all forms. Who am I to judge? A sanctuary for one can be a hell for another. In New York City, where space is at a premium, there are strict, unspoken codes of privacy and proximity: You can stand this close in a subway car and this close in an elevator and this close while waiting in line for an egg and cheese. An end seat on the subway becomes a private temple. A pair of earphones offers a cocoon of sound. A closet becomes a consecrated shrine to high-top shoes.
In Los Angeles, there is more room to spread out. Aside from the strange liminal anomaly of downtown, Los Angeles is not a vertical city; it is a city of boulevards and interchanges, of 30-foot palm trees and drive-through liquor stores. The quality of life is better. You can have fresh avocados every morning; the weather is like free Xanax; you can take meetings in the morning and be chased by a bobcat in the afternoon. Given such a bounty of natural riches, do Angelenos even need spaces of retreat? Or is city its own surreal sanctuary?
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So I asked a bunch of Angelenos what they did to escape from it all.
My friend Rains took me to the many stunning gardens of the Huntington in Pasadena, where my family and I wandered for hours getting our shinrin-yokuon. Through the Children’s Garden, the alienlike Desert Garden, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, the Japanese Garden: Each a complete universe unto itself. The Japanese Garden features the Zen Court and breathtaking bonsai collection. The miniature trees were like perfect haikus: the bald cypress, the Catlin elm, the Foemina juniper. I left transformed, although I’m not sure if after the world seemed smaller or I seemed bigger.
My friend Dehn recommended that I go downtown to visit the Last Bookstore. Downtown Los Angeles, or “DTLA,” as it is now referred to in real estate literature, is an uncanny place. Walking around, I was constantly plagued by a feeling of déjà vu, perhaps because, as Thom Anderson points out in his documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” this downtown has stood in for so many other downtowns on the silver screen that it has become a kind of everyplace.
To get downtown, I did what one normally does in a city: I took the subway. Except the subway in Los Angeles is not underground and it is, at least when I rode it, practically empty. There was a slight sense of metaphysical unease in the train car, as if everyone was looking around and wondering: Why aren’t you in a car? And what about you?
In recent years there has been a big effort to rejuvenate Downtown Los Angeles. People now live there, work there, do Pilates there. If you go, you will see actual foot traffic! Crowds of humans walking around on purpose! I took pictures of these Southern Californian pedestrians as if on a safari.
Amid this urban rejuvenation you will find the Last Bookstore, one of the world’s best. In the past, Los Angeles had developed an unfair reputation for being anti-intellectual. In reality, the city is a vibrant, artistic, literary place; perhaps it is the sprawl that makes its various beacons of culture feel like stars in a distant constellation. The list of writers who have tried to capture the city’s beguiling contradictions is long and varied: Raymond Chandler, Joan Didion, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Charles Bukowski, Eve Babitz. Their ghosts haunt the Last Bookstore.
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When you enter, you are asked to hand over your backpack. This is ostensibly to prevent shoplifting but it felt more symbolic, as though you must leave any remnant of the outside world behind. As soon as you pass through the front door, it is as if you have entered a different era, before the death of our collective attention. The Last Bookstore is truly a refuge, books form walls and windows, archways, tumble off shelves. The place feels like a living, breathing being, with various catacombs and vaults and catwalks that disobey the laws of gravity. I spent all afternoon there, stumbling upon books that I never knew I was missing.
Even if Los Angeles crumbled around it — burned up in the wildfires, collapsed in an earthquake, dried up in a drought, was entombed in a mudslide — the Last Bookstore would still remain. When my backpack was finally returned to me upon my exit, it took a moment to adjust to the idea that I would need such a bag again, that there was still a place outside where backpacks were useful.
Not all places of retreat need be solitary or introspective. Some people recharge their life force surrounded by the cultural vibrancy of others. While not exactly a spiritual sanctuary, perhaps there is no better symbol of the new DTLA than the resurgent Grand Central Market, which is the most exciting food court I have been to, buzzing with the electricity of a thousand cuisines. A plethora of scrumptious concoctions meant to be held and devoured in the hands: sake-poached octopus tostadas, a half-dozen sweet oysters from Puget Sound, crying tiger steak with chili sauce and sticky rice, a fancy-pants PB&J called the “red eye” made from espresso peanut butter and dark chocolate raspberry jam. Is there a horror film where a man eats and eats in a food court without rest until he eventually explodes?
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Across town, far from the urban stage set of downtown, you will find two beautiful, divergent sites of reflection and retreat in the Pacific Palisades.
The Self-Realization Lake Shrine, perched in a little hollow at the terminus of Sunset Boulevard just above the Pacific Ocean, is the bizarre, transportive sanctuary dreamed up by Paramahansa Yogananda and opened in 1950. Like many places in Los Angeles, the origin story of the Lake Shrine is the stuff of Hollywood movies. The man-made lake was owned for a time in the 1940s by the superintendent of construction for 20th Century Fox, who turned it into a strange film set, importing a two-story Mississippi houseboat and building a replica of a Dutch windmill. Because obviously this is what one does when one owns a lake in Los Angeles.
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The property was in turn sold to an oil executive who planned on turning the lake into a resort. Except then he began having this recurring dream in which he had transformed the site into a Church of All Religions. The oil executive looked up “Church of All Religions” in the phone book (this was back when people looked in phone books) and found Yogananda, who somehow already knew he would be calling. Yogananda accepted the property and constructed a temple, a meditation garden and a peace memorial to Mahatma Gandhi.
I visited the Lake Shrine on a cold, misty day, reminiscent of San Francisco. The houseboat is still there. The windmill has been transformed into a meditation chapel. Somehow they fit perfectly within this hodgepodge of serene spirituality. It is a collage of eclectic yet entangled visions and in this way it feels very “LA.”
I wandered the path of the lake, stumbling upon people in various states of contemplation. Two enlightened swans floated by. I wondered if they were paid actors.
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Just down Sunset Boulevard is an entirely different kind of refuge, the home of legendary modernist designers Charles and Ray Eames. This is the couple who reimagined space and time for us in their brilliant short film “Powers of Ten,” the couple who revolutionized the way we sit, play, look. Constructed in 1949 out of huge sheets of glass and prefabricated sections of steel, their house, like their work, is at once intensely utilitarian and intensely daring. Joyous, even. The Eameses lived there for the duration of their lives.
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The house is actually two rectangular cubes of glass, quietly set into the hillside. The open, modular floor plans are filled with the delectable detritus of a lifetime of thinking and designing: African masks, bright Afghan textiles, little prototypes for toys never built. It is the ur-text, what every midcentury modern space before and since aspires to be. Crucially, the attention of the house is not focused on itself but on its serene surroundings, a little wild meadow surrounded by a grove of eucalyptus trees, the ocean just visible beyond.
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This was their retreat, their “shock absorber,” as they termed it, from the outside world. But it was also a place of work. One of the cubes functioned as their studio, a space of collaboration and experimentation where their colleagues would come and get messy. And it is this duality that I am most drawn to: that a private space of contemplation can also be a place of intense activation. A retreat is not so much a retreat but a re-turn, a re-think, a re-view, in its literal sense. All my best ideas come when I have stepped away from my office, when I am in the shower or running or shinrin-yoku-ing and have a chance to view my work from a new angle. I have learned to keep little notebooks in strange places. Every car in Los Angeles should come equipped with a Dictaphone in the glovebox.
The most profound retreat from the city remains actually retreating from the city. So when the weekend rolled round we made like the locals and fled the City of Angels for the temptations of the high desert. You have to drive a couple of hours to escape the metro area’s spread, which percolates into the surrounding valleys like an ever-growing amoeba, but when you finally do, the Mojave Desert swallows you whole.
The desert landscape plays strange tricks on your mind; like a Rorschach test, its deceptive minimalism brings whatever ails you into focus. A group of 19th-century Mormon settlers, upon first spotting a Yucca brevifolia, termed it a “Joshua tree” because they believed it resembled the biblical Joshua, hands raised in prayer. Years later, a small band from Ireland would name an album after the same plant because they believed it represented the broken, beautiful 1980s America about which they sang.
If the high desert is a hot spot for seekers of transcendence, then the hot spot within the hot spot is the Integratron, a 38-foot-tall wooden cupola in the tiny village of Landers, built in the 1970s by George Van Tassel, an aircraft mechanic and UFO conspiracy theorist, at the confluence of several powerful geomagnetic fault lines. The dome is constructed completely out of Douglas fir, without the use of a single nail. During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, when much of Landers collapsed, the Integratron didn’t budge an inch. Or so the story goes. In the desert, there is a casual distance between story and truth.
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Van Tassel, who claimed he had once been abducted by Venusians, built the Integratron as a kind of time machine. He had plans to construct a multiple wave oscillator that would utilize a high voltage Tesla coil to rejuvenate biological tissue. Twenty-minute intervals inside the dome would allegedly add years to one’s life. Unfortunately, Van Tassel was never able to test his machine as he died of a heart attack just before its opening in 1978. The machine’s plans then mysteriously disappeared.
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Today the Integratron is owned by three sisters originally from Long Island. For the past 15 years, they have been performing sound baths in the “acoustically perfect” dome using a series of quartz singing bowls that are precisely tuned to the body’s seven chakras. Apparently Angelenos’ chakras are way out of whack; these sound baths are booked months in advance.
As you prepare for your sound bath, there is a little courtyard where you can lounge, dream, pant.
When it was finally my turn, I entered the Integratron alongside my fellow sound bathers — hipsters, Mormons, surfers, aliens, a pro basketball player — and lay down on my mat, ears turned heavenward.
The sound hit me like a tsunami. For a moment I couldn’t breath. I wondered if I would have to leave. You don’t often encounter sound that pure, that encompassing. It was loud, but not necessarily in the volume-sense we normally consider. It was not turned up to 11. Rather, it was voluminous — all around, inhabiting every pore, burrowing its ways into my bones.
Gradually I relaxed, accepting this sonic intrusion. Then, welcoming it. The bath lasts about 25 minutes; only a dozen or so extended notes are played on the bowls during this time. After it was all done, when I finally managed to extricate myself from the dome’s embrace, I had trouble walking a straight line. My chakras had not been bathed; they had been power washed.
As I was leaving, I overheard a couple arguing about whether they could make it back to the city in time for their favorite yoga class. The traffic would be “fierce,” said the man. I wanted to tell him about the labyrinth, about festina lente, about the Dictaphone in his glovebox. I couldn’t find the words.
“How do you feel?” a woman in a cowboy hat asked me, spotting my chakral wobble.
“I feel like I’m in a movie,” I said.
“Amen,” she said.