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Find Solace at These Meditative Escapes

Serra Retreat

The concept of “meditation” gets a bad rap.

Some people scoff at the idea of closing their eyes and imagining themselves running through a field. They think they’ll have to chant or cram their legs into an unnatural pretzel shape.

After all, despite the stereotype, not all Southern Californians are yogis.

But – particularly in times of trouble or stress – getting in touch with your higher self can do some good. Fortunately, you don’t have to subscribe to “new age” beliefs, join a church or temple, or even take a class to accomplish that. Sometimes visiting a garden or a lake can be enough.

If repetition and predictability rile you up, and breaks from the norm settle you down, here are five great retreats where you can take a few minutes to walk, think, and just breathe.

You can find peace and beauty in the most unexpected places, which can bring you solace in the most unexpected ways.

1. Serra Retreat, Malibu

These days, even escaping to the beach can be a bit much. Between the shopping, the ladies who lunch, and the winetasting, Malibu is no longer a place to get away from it all, as it was in the days when movie stars discovered the stretch of then-deserted coastline. That was before the Malibu Colony – and before everybody found out about Malibu, and the PCH brought ’em all there. But way back in the 1920s, all that was there was a sprawling rancho operated by May Rindge of Malibu Potteries fame. The main showcase for her Malibu tile is the Adamson House off the PCH next to Malibu Lagoon, but May never lived there. (It was built as a residence for her daughter.) The former estate actually continues across the PCH and up the hill at what’s now known as Serra Retreat, after being sold to Franciscan friars in 1942. Named after the founder of the California missions, Junípero Serra, this private retreat’s grounds are open to the public during the week until 4:30 p.m. Overlooking both the Pacific Ocean and Malibu Creek, it’s secluded from the sounds of the surf and the sport fishing pier. Although there are some icons of Catholicism in the statuary, there’s also a non-sectarian labyrinth to walk – and lots of salvaged Malibu tile to admire – for visitors, regardless of their faith (or lack thereof). Give yourself at least an hour up there to enjoy the scenery, far away from the “scene” of Malibu down below.

Serra Retreat (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Serra Retreat (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Peace Awareness Labyrinth & GardensWest Adams, L.A.

In West Adams, there’s a mansion built in the Italian Renaissance Beaux-Arts style for wine magnate Secundo Guasti between 1910 and 1913. Busby Berkeley bought and moved into the villa in 1937. But it's what's behind the mansion, through the wrought iron and glass doors, that’s the big draw for anyone in search of peace. This is where you’ll find the Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens, on the grounds of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness headquarters and the Peace Theological Seminary, which has occupied the villa since purchasing it in 1974. A reflecting pool leads down to a golden sand path and, to its right, the labyrinth. Made of hand-cut travertine marble, it was modeled after the one at Chartres Cathedral in France (circa 1220). It's not a "maze," per se (like those you see cut out of shrubbery in England) – mostly because you can't get lost in it. Forty feet across with a circuitous path totaling about 0.3 miles long, there’s only one place to start and one place to end: at the "HU" symbol, an ancient Sanskrit name for God. Once you hit the center of the labyrinth, you follow the same path back. The biggest challenge is not taking it too quickly, blowing your way through it to get it over with. Once you complete the labyrinth walk, pass a fountain down to the Meditation Garden, where light streams between leaves, in a quiet, hidden setting with a koi pond, a turtle, flowers, and plenty of shady, peaceful seating. First-time visitors are treated to a free tour of the villa, though advance registration is required.

Peace Awareness Labyrinth (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Peace Awareness Labyrinth (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

3. Self-Realization Fellowship, Mt. Washington and Pacific Palisades

The Self-Realization Fellowship was created in 1920 to teach people how to meditate and, well, be aware of themselves. There are over a dozen of its retreat centers and temples throughout Southern California, stretching from San Diego County to Bakersfield, but there are three that are particularly welcoming to the more casual visitor. Its International Headquarters (or “Mother Center”) is perched atop a hill in Northeast L.A.’s Mount Washington community – and, while its denizens don’t take too kindly to visitors snooping around the back of the building or peering into their windows, visitors are welcome to wander the grounds (including the meditative Temple of Leaves) every day except Monday until 5 p.m. The view is spectacular, but you might also get distracted by the hilltop building itself – which is the former Mount Washington Hotel, built in 1909 at the apex of the defunct Mount Washington incline railway. On the west side of town in Pacific Palisades, you can visit the Self-Realization Fellowship’s location at Lake Shrine, where it has provided quietude and guidance in spiritual living to the masses since the 1940s. There’s a visitor’s center, a museum and gift shop, a temple, a lake (with swans), and a lakeside Meditation Garden – which, thankfully, is a zone where food and drink, smoking, cell phones, pets, and noisy children are forbidden. Meditate in the chapel inside the windmill, in the houseboat, or anywhere else you can find a quiet little spot of beauty all to yourself. And finally, to get even closer to the founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, Paramahansa Yogananda, head to Encinitas. There, you can meditate on the exact spot (in the Meditation Gardens) where the Guru conducted services on Thursdays and Sundays over the course of four years. On Sundays, you can also visit the Hermitage where he spent much of his time writing his divine teachings.

Self-Realization Fellowship (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Self-Realization Fellowship (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

4. Meditation Mount, Ojai

Founded in 1971, Meditation Mount is a public meditation center run by a non-profit that’s dedicated itself “in service to humanity.” That means it’s not just about enlightenment, but also compassion. If you follow the path at Meditation Mount, you can’t help but feel a bit meditative. As you encircle the mount on an easy, unpaved slope, you’ll view the Ojai Valley below (and the surrounding mountains) from all four directions. Walk through the Peace Portal in the International Garden of Peace, made of Douglas fir wood that was reclaimed from the Ventura-Ojai rail line. There’s no getting physically lost, though you can let your mind go. Nothing much will happen, and that’s the beauty of it: Nothing has to happen there. You can just be still. And when you’re done taking in the sights -- the carefully-pruned landscaping and the colorful flowers -- and you’ve gotten your lung's fill of mountain air, you can just leave. It’s open until sunset every day except Mondays and Tuesdays, and closes once a month when a program of music and meditation takes place on or around the full moon, starting at 7 p.m.

Meditation Mount (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Meditation Mount (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

5. Joshua Tree Retreat Center, Joshua Tree

For some people, the desert is a magical place. But to what can we credit the magic? Is it cultural? Climatic? Topographical? Geographical? Geophysical? Metaphysical? Mentalphysical? Scientists will agree that there are magnetic forces at work at various places around Joshua Tree National Park, including where the town of Joshua Tree borders Yucca Valley. That’s where English journalist Edwin John Dingle – known as Ding Le Mei, upon returning from Tibet – chose to establish his “Institute of Mentalphysics,” now home to Joshua Tree Retreat Center (the oldest and largest of its kind in the Western U.S.). Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his son Lloyd Wright designed and built the compound it atop an aquifer, an underground running river that supposedly has created a unique energetic vortex. For the Institute, Wright worked with Ding Le Mei to incorporate sacred geometry into the designs of the buildings, which are inlaid with rocks from a nearby quarry. For a nominal fee, you can spend the day at the pool and wander through the complex of structures that’s the largest collection of FLW designs in the country. The center hosts extended retreats as well, providing campsites, cottages, and other overnight accommodations. Yoga classes, spa treatments, and guided meditation are also available to help you tap into the special energy of the 17 vortexes on the sacred site.

Joshua Tree Retreat Center, Mentalphysics (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Joshua Tree Retreat Center, Mentalphysics (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

Bonus: The Integratron, Landers

For an “out of this world” experience, go get a sound bath in the acoustically-perfect, wooden, sacred dome building known as The Integratron. Inventor and UFO conspiracy theorist George Van Tassel built it on a vortex as an “electrostatic generator for the purpose of rejuvenation and time travel.” Supposedly, the meditation session (during which the sound of pure crystal bowls being played “washes” over you as you lie on the floor) helps recharge your battery. It might just transport you somewhere else, too – at least for an hour.

Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

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