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TRANQUILLITY BASES : Not Far From the Fast Lane, Southern California Retreats Offer Spiritual Oases for Rest and Reflection

August 28, 1988|MATTHEW SMITH | Matthew Smith is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.

"THAT INWARD eye," Wordsworth called it, "which is the bliss of solitude."

A poet understands the meaning of a personal retreat, of the occasional need to abandon civilization for a time of private

self-examination and spiritual renewal. In 20th-Century Los Angeles, virtually everyone at some time has experienced the feeling of being overwhelmed by life, when the world seems to be spinning a little too fast. Everyone, too, has felt the need to escape, to find a secluded place to be alone with one's thoughts for a few hours or days.

It is the nature of man to seek the most profound answers about the world by withdrawing from it, an instinct perhaps as old as time. Monasticism, the ultimate expression of the idea, has existed for centuries in nearly every religion, beginning with Chinese shamans at least a millennium before Christ. On a less extreme scale, many Western religions today offer their members organized retreats of a day or more, a tradition formalized in the 16th Century by St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, in his Spiritual Exercises, a 30-day program of meditation and prayer.

Spiritual renewal, of course, is hardly the exclusive province of religion. Thoreau's two-year excursion to Walden Pond "to front only the essential facts of life" is perhaps only the most famous example of a secular retreat.

For most people these days, though, spending two years in the woods is problematic. Fortunately, there are alternatives. On the following pages are just a few of the dozens of retreats scattered around Southern California. They represent the several types available and were chosen in particular for their beauty, their sense of serenity and isolation, and their emphasis on spiritual reflection. Many retreats are owned by formal religious groups but often are made available to non-members, who are invited to use them without pressure to convert. Those who seek them out come for many reasons: some to contemplate, some to heal, others merely to rest.

The retreats are psychic and emotional sanctuaries, small eddies that seem almost out of place in the swirl of modern life. They should not be confused with resorts or even vacation hideaways, however. Accommodations are often utilitarian at best--no TVs in every room, no tennis courts, no nightly entertainment. These are, instead, spas of the spirit, and they trade in a much rarer commerce: tranquillity and introspection.

SELF-REALIZATION FELLOWSHIP RETREAT

Where there is peace and meditation, there is neither anxiety nor doubt.

--St. Francis of Assisi

THE FOCAL POINT OF the Self-Realization retreat is the pristine, immaculately landscaped meditation gardens, perched along the dramatic bluffs overlooking the ocean in Encinitas, north of San Diego. While the surf crashes below, gentle streams meander through flower gardens that seem as carefully tended as bonsai, spilling into small fish ponds of noble orange and white koi .

Meditation, which the gardens are meant to inspire, is the basic teaching of the Self-Realization Fellowship, a non-sectarian religion that instructs its followers in specific techniques of meditating as a way to know God, whatever that concept means to each person. It is a way, says co-administrator Jeffrey Quillin, to "interiorize your consciousness enough that you might feel what is in every single human being, that divine spark, which is joy itself."

The 17-acre site was once a hermitage of Paramahansa Yogananda, the movement's founder, built in 1936 as a gift to the Indian yogi from a wealthy follower. Today, it is home to a monastic order of 30 monks and nuns, who walk the grounds in olive green tunics and sari-like gowns. The 20 guest rooms are arranged around a small, two-story courtyard and magnolia tree. They are furnished simply, with a bed, desk and shared baths, with a suggested donation of $40 per night.

Although the monastery welcomes everyone, most guests are members of Self-Realization, so taking part in the daily organized meditations requires some knowledge of the group's methods. Also, Quillin says, "We generally practice silence in the compound among the retreatants. So anyone can just walk outside their room and sit and think; no one's going to come and strike up a conversation. It's truly amazing the rest and rejuvenation a person gets in a couple of days of doing very little talking."

It may also help to remind people of their priorities when they leave. "A person should take a retreat every week, every day, and even every hour," Quillin says, "in the sense of, 'Wait a minute, let's get off the treadmill, let's just step back, let's look inside, let's remember what life is really about.' "

MOUNT CALVARY

Contemplation is the highest expression of man's

intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself,

fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.

--Thomas Merton

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