Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images.
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Cult Los Angeles

The Search for Higher Power in the City that always sleeps.

 

Los Angeles is full of students in search of teachers. The majority of Angelenos are transplants, people who moved away from somewhere. And after leaving behind their old selves in search of a transformative journey in a whole new city as far west as they could go, to act, model, make art, or just party, they naturally look for a guide in the desert. What many find instead is a host of people performing authority without deserving it — hiding their personal interest behind the seductive masks of institution, pedagogy, and the ever-present ghost of self-help.

The transplants chatter amongst themselves in middle-distance cafes about the best new yoga teacher, life coach, personal trainer, residency host, acupuncturist, and of course, guru — inevitably disappointed in search of the next real thing. And so, the entire idea of authority is demystified again and again until they wake up one day and realize that they can either move back home with nothing but a memoir of a city that doesn’t make sense outside of its own context, or stay and sham their own way into teaching the next wave of bright-eyed transplants running away from the pains of the past.

Brunch
Waking up on Saturday, I worried about my best friend, M. She had texted me the night before on her first bad mushroom trip and sounded like she was dipping pretty low. We made plans to grab brunch. I suggested our favorite third wave vegetarian spot on Sunset Blvd.

I picked the first thing I saw with avocado and M opted for a liquid lunch of the ubiquitous Green Juice. We ordered it to go.

spicy brazilian burrito – $13
plantain, mushrooms, leeks, jalapeño, black beans, spanish rice and avocado
“molé style” for $2 (*molé contains nuts*)

Go Green – $8.00
Cucumber, kale, celery and lemon.

While waiting at a table outside, M began to recount the descent of her mind into itself. I knew ego death when I heard it. She had seen herself from outside, rising and falling in time on an infernal carousel of partying, dating, and working that showed no signs of going anywhere but back around and around and around. I excused myself and checked on the food. It sat there cooled on the counter; the waitress slid the brown carton over to me without apologizing.

We found an open space in the grass by Echo Park lake and continued talking. As I bit into mushy plantain and over-salted black beans, I listened carefully to M’s story. Once it looped from the present to her parents and back again to her struggles with the freelance-creative juggle, an alarm went off on my phone and I realized I was almost late to a talk I had promised to give at a film workshop.

The Talk
We drove to the community film center in separate cars. Two friends were running a filmmaking workshop called, “Grief, Loss, & Harinezumi,” which invited students to contribute to the sub-genre of grief films using a novelty Japanese video camera. I ran in to find a handful of participants who had paid the $120 tuition to attend the four classes. There was the 85-year-old actress who had been playing “An 80 Year Old Grandmother” on network sitcoms for the last twenty years. There was the skinny hipster, all pomade and pirate grin, who hadn’t experienced a death per se, but desired to perform philosophical voice-overs. There were a pair of unrelated middle aged parents who were taking care of sick family members and wanted to memorialize them in films. And then there was the shy girl with a bob and glasses.

After screening an excerpt of my short film, I tried to explain an overview of my process. I emphasized the consideration they should give to the audience — to fight the desperate urge to unload all of their untamed despair.

The octogenarian actress shared her plan to make a film and use “the Youtubes and Vimeos” to finally fulfill her mother’s youthful dream of sharing songs with the world. The girl in the glasses adorably recounted the awkward adventure of trying to film her camera-shy grandmother who kept pushing out of frame, until she settled on her long-suffering grandfather in bed. In a kind of unbound inertia of quirky storytelling, she explained how she held the shot on his face as he unexpectedly died on camera. As she tried to explain how she was deciding whether or not she should bother her family by filming the funeral service as part of the movie, she burst into tears.

“Somebody hug her,” said the middle-aged man to no one in particular.

The transplants chatter amongst themselves in middle-distance cafes about the best new yoga teacher, life coach, personal trainer, residency host, acupuncturist, and of course, guru.

One of the instructors left the room. In the floor-staring silence, I piped up and began to offer condolences but heard the forced minor key melody in my words and suddenly understood what it was like for the countless acquaintances, cashiers, barflies, and unfortunate dates that I thoughtlessly spilled my guts to in the immediate days, no, who am I kidding, months after the loss.

We all touched a hand to her shoulders in turn. I raised my eyebrows at M. She was sitting there with an empty paper plate spotted with pupusa grease and nodded in agreement. We said farewell to the group and left the film center. M looked at me, and I wanted to finish our conversation, but she explained that she had an appointment to visit a meditation labyrinth with her roommate. I took the unspoken invitation and we drove to her house to pick him up — Alvarado to the 101 to the 110 to the 10 — and he directed us to the center.

The Labyrinth
Sitting quietly on West Adams in the neighborhood of Jefferson Park (or Sugar Hill or Little New Orleans depending on who you are or whom you ask), the street side of the property features only a driveway with a dated number-pad intercom that recalled the days when public pay phones weren’t viable CDC test sites. M told the very soothing voice on the other end that we had an appointment. The voice paused for two bars of pink noise until we heard a buzzer sound in chorus with a well-oiled chain automatically pulling the heavy gate open. We pulled forward into a brick-laid parking lot spread out in front an amazing Beaux Arts/Italian Renaissance Revival building that looked like it was color corrected, so blindingly white that the hedges lining the property glowed a pale silvery-green in the reflection.

We were greeted by Juan, a docile middle-aged man wearing the same innocuous pastel polo as the other staff members we would meet throughout our visit. He asked us to write our names on a check-in sheet and offered precisely pregnant pauses when our pens hovered over additional spaces for email and home addresses, cell and home phone numbers. I scratched my name and pretended to admire the twin granite lions that bookended the marble staircase, leaving M and the rest of the party to make their own choices.

Guided in by a studiously inoffensive woman named Mary, we learned that the estate was built between 1910 and 1914 by winery owner Secondo Guasti (was there a Primo Guasti?) who then sold it to legendary Hollywood director and choreographer Busby Berkeley. Suppressing our estate-sale-trained urges to gawk at the heavily ornamented home’s chandeliers, rugs, period furniture, and artworks, we quietly followed Mary through the lobby, past the spiral staircase, across a study, and through a back office into the backyard. The party walked on, but I stopped in the back office, transfixed by a strange portrait of an odd-looking white man with thin red hair, smiling ever-so-gently at the camera with an unmistakable glow of Los Angeles sunshine haloing his soft head in the famed beams of the magic hour. It was framed in humble wood, hung on a wall accompanied only by city religious institution licenses and a taped up memo about new office hours for 2016. Hearing Mary’s voice trail away, I ran out to catch up to the party.

I asked her what the difference was between a labyrinth and a maze. She nodded with deep understanding—she was prepared—and replied that labyrinths don’t have walls except the ones we bring to them.

She led us down a pink stone staircase bisected by a thin stream of water lined with glassy tiles to a grapevine covered trellis. We sat on sun-dappled benches in the shade, sipping mint-infused water and offered her polite attention as she expertly ran through a short presentation about the history of labyrinths that mixed elements of ancient Egyptian and Greek mythologies, Christian lore, Buddhist philosophy, and Hindu imagery. All of this was bound together by a fuzzy thread of classic California hippie thinking that all faiths should be woven into the brilliant tapestry of life. She utilized a torso-sized poster board for visual aid, ending by pointing at a sanskrit symbol at the bottom of the board with her shoe, explaining that it meant “peace.” I asked her what the difference was between a labyrinth and a maze. She nodded with deep understanding—she was prepared—and replied that labyrinths don’t have walls except the ones we bring to them. The way the path guides you to treading the same space many times over is meant to be a tool to examine those walls.

Nobody reacted audibly.

Taking that as silent affirmation, Mary then told us that the labyrinth was across the stairway, and consisted of light tiles that twisted back and forth in parallel lines until it reached a center with eight triangles and the aforementioned Sanskrit symbol. She encouraged us by saying, “Some people like to walk to each of the points. Others just like to stand in the center and consider their selves. Just do what you feel is right.” She smiled and told us there were sun hats if we got hot.

I approached the labyrinth and watched two people walking the path. Like Mary said, it was made of light tiles that filled a darker stone square with a long, single line that spiraled back and forth without touching itself. The walkers kept their eyes on their feet and seemed very intent on not stepping off the path. Watching them, my initial dubious view dissipated as something ineffable changed in them as they walked. Maybe it was something in the way their shoulders dropped. Maybe their breathing had slowed, but they seemed calmer, and I found myself beginning the path.

I found a simple comfort in tracing the light stones, paying attention to the way I navigated the sharp turns and the slow, but steady progress I made towards the center. Because of the twisting nature of the line, it felt impossible to tell how far I had already gone. But I did notice when M and her roommate started the path. I immediately let go of the idea that they were behind me on it, and reflected that they were simply on a different part of the same line. When I reached the center, I stepped to each of the points and looked up at the sky. I thought about each of the eight people in the room at the grief workshop. I stood on the Sanskrit symbol and stared vacantly at the beginning of the path, picturing the films they would make. I began the equally long walk back out of the labyrinth, and upon exiting, felt my breath slow and shoulders settle into my arms. I sat on a bench and watched M finish her walk. Then another visitor walked up to the entrance in one of the complimentary sun hats. She was pretty and young and walked straight across the labyrinth onto the center. She stood there on the symbol, stared around for a second, shrugged, then walked back out in a straight line.

I got up, and followed the meditation luddite as she haphazardly loped back up the steps and into the house. I trailed her into the back office, but as she skirted around a corner, I jumped at a soft “Hello there” to my right. A kind-eyed man in his sixties with silver hair now sat at the previously empty desk, wearing a robin’s egg blue polo and a nametag: Steve.

“Did you enjoy the labyrinth?”

How did he know I was coming from the labyrinth?

Steve smiled sweetly.

I said that I had, and asked him if he’d seen the girl I was running after.
“Oh yes, she lives here.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize anyone lived here.”
“Well we have a lot of students that stay here for classes or workshops and love it so much that they never leave.” Another quality Steve smile hit me. My shoulders dropped. My breathing slowed, and I just wanted to smile with him. So I did.
“Hey Steve, can I ask you something?”
“Sure you can.”
“Who’s that on the wall behind you?”
“Good eye.” Steve smiled for a third time. “This man we call John-Roger. He founded this center and wrote most of the teachings we still use today.”

I told him that both of my parents had been pastors and that I’d always been drawn to places like this.  

I found a simple comfort in tracing the light stones, paying attention to the way I navigated the sharp turns and the slow, but steady progress I made towards the center.

“Heh, you’re a pastor’s kid too, huh?” The fourth Steve smile was probably the best one. “Well, we really try to find a path to our best selves here. There are some great workshops on breathwork and a screening of films about meditation coming up this week if you’d like to come back and learn more.”

The fifth Steve smile had something else behind it. A little bit of cold pain at the edges of his eyes, and it sobered me. I started to recognize the classic cult induction techniques he was using: the slow cadence, the curtainless window, the straight back, the open arch of his fingers, the mint-water, the sun hats, the white paint. It had been awhile since I had encountered this in person, but I appreciated what old Steve was selling and wanted to give him a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.

I played along as he showed me the library of books written by John-Roger. I playfully picked one up to read, overdramatically flinched when he raised his voice a little too high to tell me only members could read the sacred texts, and — I think — overplayed it by bowing from the waist and apologizing in a slight Korean accent I don’t actually have. Steve smiled through it, and this time, I could see him tonguing the back of his teeth as he held it a beat too long.

He tried to recover by offering to show me the class schedule on his computer; I found myself relieved that the game was back on. Struggling to find the schedule on the newly redesigned website, he Steve-smiled a seventh and eighth time in frustration at the screen, and I noticed the clock on the computer screen. It was past closing time and M would be waiting for me. I thanked Steve for the generous information and told him I hoped to see him soon. He shook my hand, and I walked back to the car, finding M and friends already sitting inside, ready to go. They seemed peaceful after their experiences, and M asked if the staff gave me one of their free books. I found myself Steve-smiling in response and shook my head.

Lunch
We pulled up and all laughed about my almost-induction into the center. M’s roommate asked if it was some kind of cult, and I nodded. We all ordered big meals, somehow famished after the relatively peaceful activity.

カレー・カレーライス
curry rice curry $8.95

While waiting for the food, we decided to find out more about the place and John-Roger. Playing Wikipedia table tennis, we were able to piece together that Roger Delano Hinkins worked as a coal miner in Utah until he broke out in rashes all over his body and quit, claiming his hatred for the work was manifesting as a physical rejection of his life choices. He got a degree in Psychology at the University of Utah, then moved to Los Angeles and taught English at Rosemead High.

The turning point of his life was in 1963 when a complication in a kidney-stone operation caused him to go into a coma for nine days. When he awoke, he claimed he had met a new being living inside of him called John. He combined the two names and, like so many Los Angeles transplants before and after him, dropped his family name completely. The reborn John-Roger began to lead small gatherings at his home to share his newfound spiritual wisdoms for $3 donations. Word of mouth spread quickly about the effectiveness of his teachings, and he was soon able to quit teaching to run the practice full- time. He founded the Movement for Spiritual Inner Awareness in 1971 and soon had followers not only in Los Angeles, but across the country reading his monthly “Soul Awareness Discourses” and following his hodge-podge of appropriated teachings on audio and video cassette.

Once the operation grew too big for his Baldwin Hills home, he raised enough funds from his members to purchase the Secondo Guasti/Busby Berkeley Estate in 1974 and establish the church of the MSIA. By the 80’s, the church had held awards ceremonies to honor the likes of Desmond Tutu, Ralph Nader, Stevie Wonder, and Mother Teresa. John-Roger was able to sell his “Insight Training” seminars as packages to several corporations including weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Social Security Administration. He was referred to in the church by the title “Mystic Traveler” and became increasingly reclusive. The profiles of his members grew, most notably including Beach Boy Carl Wilson, future media mogul Arianna Huffington, and actress Sally Kirkland. His product was potent: he had simplified what he saw as the best parts of different religions into simple daily practices of meditation, an enlightenment based on vaguely focusing inwards.

His product was potent: he had simplified what he saw as the best parts of different religions into simple daily practices of meditation, an enlightenment based on vaguely focusing inwards.

But as the 80’s closed, several church members came out and publicly accused John-Roger of turning the MSIA into a cult and running it as a kind of spiritual dictator. They described his luxurious lifestyle in the main house, which he maintained by keeping the other live-in members at near-poverty level. Several young male members also came forth and alleged that Hinkins held them spiritually hostage — refusing to teach them any more — unless they performed sexual favors at his whim. The MSIA denied all of the allegations.

The group hemorrhaged members. The higher profile ones distanced themselves quietly. John-Roger stepped down as leader, and the MSIA continues to this day, a strange home in Jefferson Park, staffed by members now in their middle ages who must have been in their youths when the controversy began in the 1980’s.

I frowned at my curry thinking of Steve.
M asked me what was wrong.
I told her, and she just shook her head: “Don’t worry. The best thing is he still believes it’s all going to work out.”

The Screening
A week later, M and I attended the finale of the workshop — a screening of the students’ films alongside other films about grief made by local filmmakers. We were both strangely very happy while watching the shorts about loss and grief that, when they didn’t dive too indulgently into pathos, offered a surprising number of sweet laughs and really human moments. I kept looking for the one by the young girl that cried at the workshop. It came up nearly last, and in a delightfully quixotic sequence of feet dancing through a Los Angeles garden, to the tune of Cantonese singing, there was happiness. She had cut out all the footage of her grandfather’s death.

M smiled with me in the dark, and there we were again, somewhere in between who we ran from and who we wanted to be.