If I had nowhere to go in the world, I would come to Ojai. I would sit under an orange tree; it would be shade for me from the sun, and I could live on the fruit.
The tranquil town of Ojai — pronounced Oh-Hi — is home to around 8,000 souls but has been a mecca for spirituality for much of the past century and is seen by many as a cradle for a new human consciousness.
It is here that spiritual luminaries like J Krishnamurti discovered a landscape and an unmistakeable energy where they could stop the busyness of day-to-day life and go into retreat, emerging refreshed with an ability to see life anew.
Perhaps Ojai’s most famous resident, Krishnamurti spent considerable time in this peaceful valley between 1922 and 1986, welcoming visitors from around the world who were drawn by his penetrating inquiries into the fundamental questions of life.
Among them were writer and satirist Aldous Huxley, screen legend Greta Garbo, Theosophist and women’s rights activist Annie Besant, comic actor Charlie Chaplin, quantum physicist David Bohm, novelist D H Lawrence and pop group The Beatles.
After days of being battered by the passage of speeding cars, pickups, trucks and motorhomes as I hiked north along the coast from LA, it felt like stepping through a peace portal when Findhorn trustee Roger Collis guided me on what he descibed jokingly as a magical mystery tour of centres of light in the coastal resort of Santa Barbara and it’s much smaller inland cousin.
Years ago I fell in love with Santa Barbara when I visited at the wheel of a red sports car in my days as the editor of a motoring magazine, but this time it was the spirituality and nature-based appeal of the area that reached out to me. Santa Barbara is synonymous with the Pacific Ocean and Ojai with the Earth and sky.
Roger and his wife Katherine, who married at Findhorn in 1971 and helped gift the Traigh Bhan retreat house on the Isle of Iona to the community, have lived in the idyllic region for many years.
Roger insists: “You can recognise a presence of energy and a field of intelligence that is far more expansive than the physical area. It is a radiant energy that links with other energies around the planet, creating a web of light and vitality that is birthing a new consciousness in co-operation with the intelligence of Gaia.”
Our tour starts at the Café Luna coffee shop in the suburb of Summerland, which was originally settled by Spiritualists, and includes the serene Vedanta Temple of Swami Vivekanada, reflecting a stream of consciousness from East to West and a following of the teachings of Ramakrishna.
At the La Casa de Maria retreat and conference centre we meet up with Roger’s wife Katherine, who is the newly appointed director of the Center for Spiritual Renewal.
It is described as a place where people of all faiths can search for truth, engage in dialogue, experience personal growth, embrace the sacred and participate in the creation of a just and peaceful world.
Again and again Findhorn comes up in conversation and it is no surprise to discover that many of the centres in the area had been visited by co-founders Peter and Eileen Caddy, Dorothy Maclean and other Findhorn ambassadors.
Roger and Katherine first gave a talk on Findhorn at the Krotona Institute of Theosophy in 1971 and more than four decades later the Findhorn Foundation is reaching out to a wider network with the Network of Light Gathering planned for May.
Highpoints of my tour are many and varied and include a stroll around the gardens of Meditation Mount, where Roger was the director until recently, also sitting in the peace garden and witnessing a magnifient sunset over the Ojai Valley which is unusual in the United States in running East-West.
It’s mission is to foster practices that awaken connection with the inner self, others and the natural world, while always listening and speaking from the heart. As well as hosting adult inspiration programmes and retreats, it reaches out to LA inner city schools and often gives youngsters their first immersion in open-hearted, nature-based sharings.
“Imagine kids from the inner city sitting in a circle under the stars and passing the talking piece around and having the courage to share things they've never shared before. It’s transformative,” Roger says.
Students say that sharing their stories, be they of an incident of violence, an injury, deep-rooted fears or even a first kiss, make a huge difference in their lives and build strong bonds as they come to know and trust each other.
Cultures worldwide, and notably those of Native Americans, have long used listening and talking circles and modernised versions developed at the Ojai Foundation have reached thousands of young people through 600 trained teachers in more than 60 schools.
I meet former professional Las Vegas body builder-turned-gardener Suzette Maurice, who speaks passionately of honouring the sacredness of the land and working in co-operation with the elemental beings.
Her life has been utterly transformed and she recalls throwing all her sporting trophies in the trash. “When I heard about Ojai it was if somebody had slipped a magic carpet underneath me.”
I’m reminded of a quote by physicist Albert Einstein who observed: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious…”
Often when chatting to people I realise that Findhorn still has that magic and mystique, many wistfully expressing a desire to make a pilgrimage to the community that celebrates 50 years on November 17 as a force for positive change in the world. Just by expressing that wish I feel they are somehow plugging into the global Network of Light.