This tucked-away LA oasis is a place for quiet contemplation
I’m very much aware of my feet. The quiet lift of the heel, the bend of the knee, the extension of the toes and the clackety tap of shoe against ground. Following the serpentine path of the stone labyrinth, I take one step in front of the other, watching and listening to my feet. Tap, pause, tap, pause, tap. In between there’s a kind of wet silence. A misting of sound — birds stirring branches, the burble of water, a light breeze tumbling through the air.
Walking is intrinsic to our design. I’ve been doing it since I was a little over a year old. But this is somehow different. It’s intentional and unintentional. I’m bobbing and weaving between precise concentration and moments of complete spinning out, of controlling my mind and letting it roam free. Thoughts are summoned and dismissed. “Am I doing this right?” I find myself in self-doubt. I square my shoulders. I’m having to remind myself the simplest of things. Stand up tall. Put one foot in front of the other. Don’t sway from the narrow path. I stare at the travertine marble tiles as though my eyes are tethered to them, and another wave of self-doubt washes over me. Walking a stone labyrinth has that kind of effect.
The labyrinth has been around for some 4,000 years, appearing on everything from prehistoric rock art and ancient Greek coins to temple carvings in India. Unlike a maze, a labyrinth’s anatomy is unicursal (meaning, a singular line). It only has one path that twists and winds to the center and one way out. You don’t have to worry about hitting a dead end. You can’t take a wrong turn without realizing it. A labyrinth plays no tricks on you. This particular labyrinth is nestled in the Peace Awareness Labyrinth and Gardens — a gorgeous, sprawling property tucked away in the middle of Los Angeles. I’m here with Kim Watkinson, manager of the visitors program, who graciously agreed to give me a tour of the place. We’re walking the labyrinth together, though this must be her thousandths time.
It takes close to 10 minutes to get to the center’s six-petalled rose and another 10 minutes back, though there’s no “right” amount of time to spend here. “I’ve done the labyrinth many, many times,” Kim says with soft-spoken sincerity. “But there are times when I will get the thought, ‘Am I doing this right? Am I doing this right? For me, the [labyrinth] can be very reflective of what’s going on in my life … As I said, and I’ve said it to many visitors, just keep trusting it, and put one foot in front of the other. Instead of following the yellow brick road, follow the white tiles. And as you see, we’ve made it.” This mirrors my experience almost exactly, even though it’s my first time. Walking the labyrinth can often lead to insights about your state of mind. It is often a reflection of how you feel and of where you are in life. A journey into yourself.
But it’s not just the labyrinth here that’s designed for self-reflection. Everything here — from the ornate villa to the Asian-style gardens — serves as a sanctuary for contemplation. As we exit the labyrinth, Kim and I meander slowly toward the Italian Renaissance mansion, also known as the Guasti Villa. The history of the property starts with Secundo Guasti, a serious-looking man with a thick, heroic moustache, who came from Asti, Italy to the United States by way of Mexico in the early 1900s. As Kim tells me, he had a few grape seeds in his pocket and barely anything else.
After trying his luck in Northern California, he meandered down to Los Angeles, where he snagged a job working at a restaurant on Olvera Street. Long story short, he married the restaurant’s owner’s daughter Louisa and scrounged up enough (with the help of investors) to buy 6,000 acres of wasteland in Ontario and transform it into a thriving vineyard. The Italian Vineyard Company, as he called it, was the largest in the world at the time. There’s no doubt that Guasti — a patron of the arts, a wine baron who even had the town named after him, an ambitious man who brought many Italian immigrants to his vineyard in California — loved and missed his home. And so, his vision for a mansion plot of land on West Adams Boulevard was born.
We’re starting to get our daily ration of thick heat and harsh sunlight, which is full in my eyes as I walk up the wide staircase to the beautiful veranda at the back of the house, scanning the ornate columns and dramatic friezes. It’s fascinating to think that Guasti and Louisa called in artisans from Europe to complete this house, bringing in a trove of imported art and Italian marble. Though pandemic safety prevents us from going inside, I know the interiors of the Guasti mansion are just as impressive. Think: Soaring ceilings boasting elaborate frescoes and decorative panels. Curved staircases and meandering corridors. Marble pillars and elaborate wooden balustrades. The front of the residence is also breathtaking. An imposing, symmetrical facade showcases ornate cast-iron balcony railings. Marble lions guard the entrance. It’s clear Guasti and Louisa spared no expense.
After his death, the Guasti family sold the house to Busby Berkeley, a famed Hollywood director and choreographer. The house changed hands a few times, at one point becoming a home for physicians in the 1950s. Residential wings were added, the house evolving with every change of ownership. Finally, in 1974, it found its destiny with the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA), and with its founder, John-Roger.
Founded in California, the MSIA is a New Age, nondenominational church that focuses on human potential, helping its students and members connect inwardly through prayer and active meditation — or as John-Roger called them, spiritual exercises. (He passed away in 2014, and now John Morton serves as MSIA’s spiritual director.) When the MSIA settled on the Guasti villa as its headquarters learning center, it was, at the time, in rough shape. MSIA volunteers, who studied and worked at the center, restored the building into its former glory.
That’s when the labyrinth came, built based on the 13th-century labyrinth found at the Chartres Cathedral in France, often regarded as one of the most well-known and frequented stone labyrinths in the world. This property is where, pre-pandemic, the MSIA would host a slew of meditation sessions, sound baths and personal growth workshops. Paul Kaye, MSIA president who’s also a master meditation teacher and a sound journey artist, was particularly popular with his sound bath sessions. People would come, sit, walk, meditate. It doesn’t matter what religious background you come from, this place is a serene counterpoint to the city’s bustle — and to the noise of life itself.
The creation of the meditation gardens, where we’re headed next, is also thanks to the MSIA. We walk down the stone staircase into an unexpected oasis. It’s a carefully organized yet naturalistic environment, a planned peace with a touch of untrammeled wilderness. Every twig and leaf well tended. A cool respite from the sun. Kim and I walk down the paths, past one water feature after the other, past the bright explosion of azaleas, beyond the lily pond and the Japanese maple. It’s a mindful, slow walk. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we dwell in silence. Everything on this path — from the alley of bamboo trees to the lush ferns — extolls the merits of quiet and meditation. Raked light pours in drizzles through gaps in the canopy, changing from clear to amber in the afternoon. The sound of water burbling follows us wherever we go. Leaves rustle.
The experience is close to what they call shinrin-yoku in Japan, or forest bathing, which is simply the practice of walking among trees, listening to the sounds and spending time really soaking it all in. It’s so effective, in fact, that shinrin-yoku was often employed as preventative medicine in the 1980s — given its ability to dampen stress and lower blood pressure. French composer Pierre Schaeffer once said that sound is the one true vocabulary of nature. I find that to be so true.
Sound is an important part of this place’s rhythm. It’s a part of its DNA. Though I’ve never attended a sound bath here (I have elsewhere when I was doing research as a wellness columnist), after my visit, I end up watching several videos of Paul Kaye’s sessions and even attending a live meditation event on Zoom. When he taps the singing bowls, the trill of shocked metal reverberates in your head, ringing in your skull and down to your heels, striking the ground before disappearing into the air. “Each one of us is a musical being,” he says during the session. “We exude music, and we exude vibration. This body of ours is an instrument. As soon as you use your voice, you are using your instrument.”
Regardless of religious background, I’m a firm believer of the healing qualities of sound for mental health and wellness. That’s why I find myself drawn to the labyrinth and gardens. (Of course, as a historic architecture enthusiast and someone who decries the loss of beautiful old buildings, I’m also grateful the Guasti Villa itself is here and standing tall.) Being at the Peace Awareness Labyrinth and Gardens feels very close to traveling. Not in the way that gives you a cool story to tell your friends over dinner, but how it does a little something to your soul, by way of eyes and ears. How it keeps you in the moment. I’ll come here again for the silent gifts. To escape sound, to chase it.
Want to experience the peace? The Peace Awareness Labyrinth and Gardens has now reopened to registered visitors on Fridays and Sundays. Drop-ins are not allowed. MSIA also hosts free events via Zoom on Mondays and Thursdays.