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ZEN L.A.

Her destiny in the hills

Stressed out by the Hollywood life, Tara Guber built her own spiritual refuge high above it all in Bel-Air, a place where even the velvet pillows are stitched with 'om.'

May 22, 2003|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

Lynda Guber's days sizzled with stress. Her husband, Peter, ran Sony Pictures. Everyone wanted favors. She had to change her life. Her first step: "I decided I would drop everything that didn't serve my dharma."

When a yogi anointed her with the name of a Buddhist goddess, Tara, she took it as her own. Empowered by this beloved and compassionate deity, Tara Guber began to move down the spiritual path that led to the creation of her personal refuge, "a place to get away to serve the spirit."

Today, her shrine to high-end Zen, with its sweeping mountain-to-city-to-sea views, its separate gated entrance on a far-flung corner of the 13-acre Guber estate, is the meeting place for her coterie of practitioners of yoga and Zen meditation. This is not the Picasso-adorned Great House, one of six homes on the compound that Sony built. This is the Yoga House, the house that Tara built. Here, even the velvet floor pillows are stitched with "Om."

"I wanted to create a sacred space," Guber says in her still heavy Brooklyn accent. "I didn't create the Yoga House. It created itself. Just like destiny. You don't do destiny. It does you."

As you shed your shoes and step barefoot through the heavy oak door of the Yoga House, your eyes are drawn up to the Art Nouveau script just under the beams, welcoming, in Sanskrit, "Namaste." I bow to the divine in you.

Yet at the edge of the peaceful cliff-top garden, 300 slate steps lead you down a steep, wooded hill to the Hotel Bel-Air. "So we can get room service. Latte and herbal tea," Guber explains. "You see how spirituality and the material come together?"

And much farther down the mountainside, at a charter school in South L.A., Guber has founded a yoga and meditation program for children -- something the Yoga Journal has termed "om schooling." Her Yoga House has become the forward base to expand this program -- the goal, Guber says, that "drives my soul and my spirit."

"I'm OK with all I have," she says. "To me, it's a gift from the universe."

'THE ZEN FACTOR'

Eastern philosophies and religious practices are deeply rooted here, says California State Librarian Kevin Starr. In two upcoming volumes of his series on "Americans and the California Dream," he has included chapters on what he calls "Zen California" -- Eastern influences he traces through the photography of Ansel Adams, the stories of John Steinbeck, the Beat poets and even the California bungalow style of architecture. He sees more contemporary echoes in the ecology movement and the marginalization of smoking.

"California is not merely susceptible to Asian influences, California is Asia," says Starr. "You can't decode California today without taking into account the Zen factor."

Yet Starr acknowledges that the pop culture appropriation of Zen, a Far Eastern Buddhist practice that emphasizes simplicity and meditation, has devolved into a self-help philosophy, a lifestyle brand or simply a verbal shorthand for a feeling of peace and tranquillity.

In Los Angeles, the mainstreaming of Zen has created a world of Zen landscapers, Zen decorators, Zen spas, Zen meditation platforms. Real estate ads read like religious quests, offering "Zen-like" homes with "Zen" gardens. Last week on the Fine Living cable channel, a show hosted by a self-described Toluca Lake yogi named Regina Leeds taught viewers "The Zen of Organizing."

Critics of the trend suggest that, like New Age creeds, Zen has simply provided its less sincere practitioners with another cover for rampant narcissism. But in Hollywood, where white-hot status anxiety is fueled by the ever-shifting hierarchies of who's up and who's down, is there any mystery to the appeal of Zen simplicity or the calming power of yoga and meditation?

"I think that people who work in Hollywood come from a place of boundaries -- not enough for everyone, fear-based 'I have to look great all the time,' 'I have to say the right thing,' " Guber says. "There's pressure and stress and nervousness and basically an attitude of 'I'm not good enough' one day and 'I'm better' the next. So the flow and flux creates havoc on your emotional being."

'DEEP CONCEPT'

Like Guber's spiritual journey, its physical manifestation did not come together overnight. She says her husband wasn't initially crazy about the idea. Her decorator wouldn't go there with her. She chose a tiny spit of land far from the other houses on the estate, which towers over the Beverly Hills like a medieval Italian castle town, and screened off the entrance with bamboo. "I told the workmen, 'This is sacred,' and when they built it, they had that at heart," she says. The Yoga House, five years in the making, opened two years ago.

"I was in line with my destiny," Guber says. "And when you're in line with destiny, every move you make is served by the collective unconscious.

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