As Alana’s eyes locked with mine I resisted the natural urge to avoid her gaze. Already an outline of light had appeared around her slight frame, and as we stared into each other’s faces a nebulous mist seemed to float between us and in my peripheral vision. Her face was unchanging yet seemed to communicate with mine through the slightest blink, flicker or twitch of a lip. I felt that every emotion I was experiencing must be painted on my still features and that she read and understood them, answering me with hers.
I was in a white room, sitting on a red cushion on a polished wooden floor, in a circle with ten beautiful people. How I had come to be here seemed like a dream, or something that only happens in films. I was visiting Los Angeles, my favourite city, in its baking late June heat. People tend to either love or hate LA. To many, it is synonymous with traffic jams, freeways, oppressive heatwaves and endless concrete. To me, the most iconic memory of it is driving down long, straight boulevards lined with towering palm trees with the sun blazing, the windows down and Pink Floyd on the stereo.
This is a city where anyone can find what they’re looking for: its communities and amenities range from hippies to academics, from circus to coding, from Beverley Hills shopping to delicious ethnic food and from movie studios to West Hollywood gay clubs. In no other place that I know can I drive 30 minutes into a mountain range right in the middle of the city and trek for hours, taking in panoramic cityscapes. This was my second visit, and I’ve always stayed at Santa Monica, where the beach is long, wide and golden and where a community of exercise enthusiasts, gymnasts, yogis and acrobats come to train every afternoon. You meet the same people there numerous days a week, and come to know them by their first names. Palm trees and multicoloured sunsets characterise the evenings, and despite the car culture I adore exploring its diverse and sprawling neighbourhoods.
I had tried to catch up with a travel buddy while visiting, but he was away in New York at the time. Instead, he put me in touch with Leah, a friend of his, saying that she lived just down the beach in Venice and that she would love to show me round. When I reached out to contact her, she was amazingly friendly and welcoming and even invited me to her house at first, but later suggested that we go to a nearby event instead. The event was called Cosmic Alchemy Experience, and was happening in the evening at a community space called the Love Dome in Venice. I had no idea what to expect, but I went along with an open mind. Venice has long had a reputation as the hippy part of LA, and Leah arrived to meet me wearing orange tie-dyed flared trousers, her red hair hanging wet at her sides.
The organiser, Alana, was late, and we waited outside with three or four others – friendly, talkative people who look you in the eye when they speak and listen intently when you speak back, and who hug you when they say hello. In conversation I came to understand that the event was a meditation workshop of sorts. I had no experience with anything like this, but here I felt very open to it, especially around such welcoming people. When Alana arrived, we went inside and placed cushions in a circle on the floor. The white walls bore huge red letters spelling out LOVE on one side, and thick red curtains hung at the windows. Alana was dressed in tie-died leggings and a delicate halter top, and her soft hair framing her face made her look like she had walked straight out of the 1970s. She was assisted by Kirsty, her “soul sister”, who wore a floaty, floral smock and shorts. Everyone in the room, male and female, was effortlessly beautiful and aged in their 20s and 30s.
As we sat cross-legged on our cushions in the circle, Alana explained that this would be an open-eye meditation, and that its aim was to “see” the energy in the room. I easily suspended my usual cynicism about mystical energy of any kind, and felt comfortable, uncoerced and more than willing to go along with it. Alana talked about “perceiving the energetic reality overlapping with the experienced reality”. Trippy. We were to focus on either her or Kirsty’s left eye, depending on which side of the room we sat on.
We began with some deep breaths, fast enough to produce a slight light-headedness that probably helped with the exercise. She then guided us through visualising a warm light in our cores, expanding out to a bubble around us, and sending a column of energy out of the tops of our heads and up into the universe, and down through the floor to the centre of the earth in order to feel a sense of connectedness with everything. Over the next 45 minutes, during which Alana and Kirsty locked eyes with each person in turn for five minutes or more, I started to see beautiful light and shadow patterns. I understood that this was the reaction of my eyes and brain to focusing on one point for so long, and not a mystical energy or aura, but it was heady and lovely. At first it seemed that there was a bright outline surrounding Alana and the letters on the wall, and then the amorphous haze filled the room and colours were obscured and shapes changed. When Alana locked eyes with me it intensified, and I saw in her face ethereal shadows, gold light and subtle expression as she stared at me.
Afterwards, all ten of us discussed our experiences, all of which seemed to be positive. People described going deep, seeing auras and trance-like states. One beautiful, blonde man wearing a flamingo-coloured vest and surf shorts described his feelings as being somewhere between an orgasm and an acid trip, and Alana smiled and responded “Far out”. The experience was hippy-dippy in the extreme, and while I don’t believe that anything I was seeing was “spiritual” or any of the other things that were said, it was very pleasant and the people were very welcoming.
Time seemed to run away, and it had gotten dark outside. When I stepped outside the door into the balmy night, the palm trees on the horizon were barely visible against the quickly disappearing remnants of sunlight. The air was still warm and seemed to wrap me in a blanket as I walked to my car in my light summer dress with a thin film of sweat under the hair hanging on my neck. I had a new kind of love for LA already: the place where I can find experiences that are so far outside my normal realm and are yet so enjoyable. Although I have no interest in spirituality or mysticism this beautiful encounter had drawn me in entirely and I had found my own meaning in it. It occurred to me that this is why we travel. Experiencing things that we don’t experience at home is one of the best reasons for seeing the world.