Smitten scribes come to this valley bearing the same handy toolbox brimming with snazzy participles (nestled, carved, tucked), nifty adjectives (verdant, fecund, efflorescent), vague New Age-y precepts (centering, balancing, energy vortex) and sparkly Hollywood name-checks (John and Yoko, Channing Tatum, Emily Blunt), and think, OK, good enough, they’ve got Ojai pegged.
And maybe they do. Who am I, a nascent truth seeker making a first foray into this valley of the shadow of depth, to judge? Maybe Ojai is the one place that truly transcends all hackneyed tropes, where the populace really is as warm as the summer temperature, the vibe as chill as a winter morning, the intense spiritual aura a balm to troubled consciousness. Maybe all that’s been penned about Ojai’s charms – writers also are seemingly required to note that the valley was cinematically used as Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s 1937 film, “Lost Horizon” – not only makes for a good story but is dead-on accurate.
To find out, perhaps I would have to shed my well-worn satchel of “isms” (skepticism, cynicism, hard-nosed journalism) at the city limits and open myself to the full Ojai experience, submit to its particular set of “isms” (esotericism, utopianism, veganism), supplicate myself humbly before the altar of crystalline goodness.
I vowed to embrace what’s been called the Ojai gestalt – even though I thought “gestalt” was something you said after a person sneezed – and edify myself to the dogmatically undogmatic teachings of early 20th-century thinker Jiddu Krishnamurti, who encamped on an Ojai hillside that now houses the Pepper Tree Retreat (“an oasis for the mind”) and nonprofit center that includes a library, medicinal herb garden and meeting space for the Krishnamurti Foundation of America.
I promised to put my overheated brainpan on simmer and partake in a group meditation at the aptly named Meditation Mount, a 32-acre “sacred place in service to humanity” that affords even more mind-blowing views of the stitched citrus orchards and oak-studded hills in the valley below.
I would call upon the better angels of my nature, literally, by getting an Angel Reading from one of the area’s most renowned and respected clairvoyants (yes, their number rank in the low tens), who, channeling one’s personal guardian angels, offers insight into the big, existential questions of life and also helps one find parking spaces in crowded lots.
I pledged to lie on a padded table and experience the “laying on of hands” that is Reiki, which, like some uber-powerful USB cable, would recharge my system, clear all seven of my misaligned chakras and leave me full of energy, if empty of wallet.
I would experience, if only in my mind (or third eye), the uniquely Ojaiian “Pink Moment” – what locals call the sunset over the Topa Topa Mountains – even though January clouds enshrouded the hilltops and the forecast called for flash floods.
I would dine at Yelp-popular temples of organic, locally sourced, shade-grown, free-range veganism, The Farmer and the Cook and the aptly-named Hip Vegan Cafe. I would shop at the multitude of artisan boutiques selling wares such as “Energy Muse Jewelry” and “Voodoo” candles ranging from “Recover Lost Money” to “Jinx Remover.” I would learn about Ojai’s evolution – from a sacred Chumash Indian site to 19th-century writer/huckster/entrepreneur Charles Nordhoff’s health-spa gambit to the city’s present incarnation as soul-nurturing oasis of calm – at the history museum downtown.
And I professed to keep an open mind and let the ethereal Ojai-ness of it all envelop my senses. That last piece of advice came from Ojai native Barbara Wahl, chatting amiably in the aisles of Soul Centered: Metaphysical Shoppe & Event Center.
“People are drawn to Ojai without even realizing why,” Wahl said. “There’s a calmness in the valley. A friendliness. What I call an old energy. It’s hard to explain.”
Explanations were forthcoming from Sandy Jones, proprietor of Celestial Song Mystical Emporium and author of “Barefoot at Heart: The Alchemy of Love and the Power of Light.”
“They say that there’s a sort of vortex,” she said. “Somebody told me that this is the only valley in California – now, I don’t know if it’s true, but I feel it could be – that runs east-to-west, not north-to-south. That has to mean something.”
Don’t know. Could be. One way to find out.
I girded myself for the Ojai Experience.
The Krishnamurti Dialogues
I want to be alone.
– Greta Garbo
Yeah, Garbo stayed at the sprawling 11 acres of the Krishnamurti center – so did such diverse luminaries as Jackson Pollock, Igor Stravinsky, Jonas Salk and Aldous Huxley – and, given her famous movie line, doesn’t it serve as the perfect blurb for a retreat?
Me? I chose the D.H. Lawrence room at the Pepper Tree. And even after caretaker Anat Dagan shot down my illusions by telling me that Lawrence never slept in this actual room, with Lady Chatterley or anyone else for that matter, I still was impressed by the spartan twin bed and spare wooden writing desk. The room was right off the main salon, which had shelves lined with Krishnamurti’s writings and DVDs of his lectures. I made the mistake of asking Dagan if many of Krishnamurti adherents come to the retreat as a pilgrimage.
“With Krishnamurti, there are no adherents or teachers; we all learn together,” she said. “But it is my belief – and that doesn’t make anyone else’s less valid – but my belief this is the most peaceful, sacred place in Ojai. You just feel it.”
I arrived too late to visit the Krishnamurti Library, but Dagan told me I was in luck, that the weekly two-hour “Krishnamurti Dialogue” would be held in the office at 7 p.m. “There’s no guarantee how it’ll go because it’s, like, dynamic,” Dagan said. “But I’m sure they’ll accept you.”
That gave me an hour to bone up on the anti-philosophic philosophy of a man, native of India, once heralded as the “World Teacher” by the Theosophical Society before renouncing all allegiance to religiosity and shedding material desires. From the 1920s to his death in 1986, he repaired to his mountaintop in Ojai – ironically, undeniably desirable real estate now – and devoted himself to his emerging philosophy that “truth is a pathless land” free of any creed other than this “emptiness” must be cultivated within.
I cracked the spine of one Krishnamurti tome found in the salon, flipped to Chapter III, “Understanding the Self,” and read this: “All human problems arise from this extraordinary complex living center which is the ‘me,’ and a man who would uncover its subtle ways has to be negatively aware, choicelessly observant.”
Oh, I would observe, all right, at this dialogue. Don’t know what I expected – maybe a room full of ascetics draped in dun-colored linen tunics, handing out paper poppies – but I was greeted warmly by 10 non-adherents around a conference table. One guy wore a San Diego Chargers hat. One woman slurped from a Nalgene bottle. Several sported bifocals. A few dressed spiffily, as if fresh from the office. One teenager rocked black high-top sneakers.
The moderator, Ivan (last names are so egocentric), passed out a passage of Krishnamurti’s concerning the problem of desire, how desire inevitably leads to dissatisfaction and spiritual rot, how such constant yearning imprisons the self and turns one’s mind into a “stagnant pool of the past.”
Whoa. Heavy stuff. And it only got heavier. Two hours later, the conversational ball was still at full serve-and-volley, my head swiveling back and forth as at a tennis match. The briefest of excerpts:
Woman fingering necklace: “How can we survive without desire. To eat. To breathe. There has to be some kind of desire.”
Ivan: “One thing David Bohm (theoretical physicist and Krishnamurti pal) said is ... ‘What we want out of desire is not the object itself but the state of consciousness that emerges in getting that object.’”
Man in glasses: “Do we know another way to live? It’s like, I desire not to desire. Isn’t that desire?”
At times, the dialogue resembled a sinsemilla-induced, college-dorm-room bull session; at other times a profound examination of the self. It finally broke up when a man in a green sweater cracked, “I desire to go home.”
In retrospect, I made two rookie mistakes before I ascended to the mountaintop for my first group meditation. I drank copious quantities of caffeine – it was dawn, after all – and failed to eat breakfast.
This led to no little amount of self-consciousness and embarrassment during the 30 minutes of what was supposed to be mind-emptying peaceful, meditative mulling. I was content in the first 10 minutes, when our leader, Ron (last names are so limiting), explained how “we send out our light and love in the service to humanity” and then led us in a “quick survey” through our body and emotional makeup to get primed for relaxation and openness and compassion.
“Calm any annoyances and upsets,” Ron said, “perhaps visualize a clear pool of deep water, calm on the surface, running free ...”
No, not that. My caffeine intake was taking an inventory of my bladder at that moment, and visualizing flowing streams wasn’t helping matters. Neither did the pop and sizzle of rain pounding on the roof. I had renounced desire the night before at Krishnamurti, but I would’ve given anything to leave the healing circle and find a bathroom, or even a bush, stat.
Then, during the 10-minute silent meditation, my stomach made itself known, and I feared its percolating gurgles would break the mellow, mind-emptying vibe. I could only hope that the rain on the roof drowned it out.
At finish, I couldn’t say those three “Omms” fast enough and drive down the mountain to the Bohemia Cafe (“Coffee, Art, Music, Enlightenment”) for a bathroom and a blueberry muffin, in that order. My hunger – who knew mindful thought burned so many calories? – didn’t abate until after a hearty, if slightly cardboard-tasting, vegan burrito at Farmer and the Cook, the city’s best healthy-dining option. Nothing like Swiss chard, fermented cabbage and cashew cheese to make you say, “Omm,” if not “Yum.”
Me and my angels
I sat face-to-face with Jenny (surname: Cothran, but, really, last names are so patriarchal), owner of Angel Touch Spa, in a room with crystals wedged in each corner to “keep the place grounded.” She was about to rub a metal object dear to me – my wedding ring – and tell me all about my own personal angels. But I felt like a fraud, so I blurted out, “Do you have to be part of an organized religion, because I’m not religious?”
She smiled – and I have to admit the appropriate adverb was “beatifically.”
“No,” she said. “Me neither, on religion. Those prayers I gave you ... you can use more like affirmations than a down-on-your-knees church thing.”
She closed her eyes and fingered my gold band, rubbed it in first one palm, then the other. She spoke: “Archangel Michael, we are here today to do a reading for Sam. I ask we get clear, uninterrupted guidance and if there are any entities here that are not for our highest and best good that they are escorted from the room.”
Her eyes popped open.
“Did you have questions, Sam?”
“Who are, you know, my guardian angels?”
“They hang out in a horseshoe shape around you, just behind your shoulders and sometimes up around the head. I don’t actually see them, but I can get information on who they are. ... Angels are androgynous but they appear to humans in either male or female form because that’s all we understand. I’m getting real strongly a female (angel). She says she’s been with you the longest, since you were born. What is her name? She’s very, um, flamboyant in a way and a little on the obnoxious side. She’s telling me, ‘It’s not obnoxious; it’s my brighter side.’ I’m getting that her name is Deborah ...
“Deborah tells me like she watched over you because there was so much craziness at home ... . Now, I’m getting that one of your other guardian angels is Paul. Deborah seems so dominant he’s in the background. He’s doing this (arm wave) to get my attention. He’s more a straitlaced angel, by the book, likes things done properly. Deborah seems like, she’s all, ‘Ta-da, I’m here, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of angel.’ ”
Jenny then told my about my personal relationships (none of your business, reader, but she was wrong), about my career prospects (again, none of your business, but perhaps ... ) and predicted, “I see you someday living by the water.”
As a last bit of advice, she said: “You have to ask the angels for their help. They can hear your thoughts at all times. It doesn’t have to be big things. I call on the parking angels all the time when I go to Santa Barbara. It’s amazing. It works.”
Before I stretched out on the table for my first Reiki massage and chakra clearing, Linnea (last names are so last decade) offered reassurance in the soothing tone of a preschool teacher.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “you’re not stealing energy from me. It’s energy drawn down from the universe. Some people worry about that. I’m just the, you know ...”
“The conductive force?” I added.
She explained the Seven Chakras, those spinning, internal life-force wheels in each level of your aura that affect all aspects of your being. She pointed at the crown of the head (denoting spirituality and inner beauty), then forehead (wisdom, the famous “third eye”), throat (communication), heart (love, naturally), solar plexus (self-esteem), sacrum and lower abdomen (well being and pleasure) and pubic bone (financial and foundational independence, the “root”).
I was thinking, but not saying, Wait, my “root” determines my finances? Let’s just say I’m a little short on assets.
She added that, if I started feeling intense heat at any of these chakra points, it’s completely natural. It means the energy is flowing, is all.
I lay under a sheet to my chin, not unlike a slab in the morgue, wondering if there’s a special iTunes store category for massage therapy instrumental music. Linnea sensed my restlessness and had me take deep breaths – the third time that day I’d been told to breathe deeply. She cupped her hands on my head for nearly 10 minutes and I felt a strange medicated-shampoo tingling. She moved on to my neck, but I felt – nothing. My heart – nothing. My solar plexus – slow rising heat, like a tea kettle on simmer.
When she got to the lower abdomen, my sacral chakra, I felt no heat but a rising dread that I might experience an acute hyperemic state. By the time she ventured to the root chakra ... sorry, I dissociated.
Afterward, berobed and upright once more, I was asked if I had experienced any heat. I told Linnea of the scalp tingling (“That’s the Reiki!” she exclaimed) but not so much heat elsewhere, except on my lower chest.
“That’s interesting because I felt it really strong,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean anything. I’m very sensitive to it.”
I apologized. She shook her head.
“That’s OK because it is ... well, life is what it is. No judgment.”
My judgment: They might consider inscribing that on Ojai’s city limit sign.
- Pepper Tree Retreat: 1130 McAndrew Road; peppertreeretreat.com
- Ojai Valley Inn & Spa: 905 Country Club Road; ojairesort.com
- The Farmer and the Cook: 339 West El Roblar Drive; farmerandcook.com
- Hip Vegan Cafe: 928 East Ojai Ave.; hipvegancafe.com
- Bart’s Books: 302 West Matilija St.; bartsbooksojai.com
- Soul Centered: 311 N. Montgomery St.; soulcentered.com
- Celestial Song: 307 N. Montgomery St.; celestialsong.com