My shaman tells me I have an issue with my third eye. I’m lying face up on a padded table in a sage-smoked back room of a tiny house in Echo Park, one of the few places in Los Angeles not crawling with actor types. The gentrifying population here is distinctly pseudo-bohemian and definitely crystal curious. I squint my eyes open just enough to see him waving an eagle feather above my brow. I stifle a sage-soaked cough.
I’ve recently touched down in California, land of reinvention for both face and body, arguably ground zero of the New Age movement, and I’m chasing my own archetypal American dream. Weeks before, in Vancouver, my life had unspooled in a series of unfortunate events. I had been in the city for less than a year, after importing my life (and my boyfriend) from Toronto for the millennial woman’s holy grail: a fancy-ass fashion job at a rapidly growing global brand with a fancy-ass paycheque. I had the dream—creative and financial freedom; my career goals ticked off by the age of 32; and a man who loved me so blindly that he agreed to move all of his shit from the house we owned in downtown Toronto to a new city and a rental. But ambition has its price, and those fat paycheques don’t come free. It didn’t take long before I woke up to reality: the corporate world didn’t sit well with me, and its long, demanding nights were chipping away at my self-esteem—and my relationship.
I’d come home from work at 10 p.m. at the earliest, for reasons that are not even good enough to remember now, to find my partner holed up at home and lonely, finding company in Netflix and cans of Lonetree cider. My obsession with office politics consumed me, and the resulting negativity quickly spilled into our relationship. Kisses turned into fights, sex turned into silence, evenings in bed became focused on our phones (I was answering emails) instead of on each other. He went back to Toronto in April, after just six months in Vancouver, and by late August it all ended.
After that, I became really good at muffling my screams with pillows. The shower became a sanctuary, simply because it was the only place where water fell harder than my tears (the walls in my loft were thin, and I respected the neighbours). For weeks, I dreaded waking up, burrowing myself under covers and away from reality, because sleep and darkness were much more comforting than dealing with the insurmountable unhappiness that light brought. Often, I found comfort in a glass (OK, three) of wine at the end of the day, a small, satisfying numbness.
I wish I had a better reason for leaving Vancouver, for leaving my job, that I had reached some sort of enlightened epiphany about how women can’t have it all, that there’s more to life than work, that self-discovery is the ultimate payoff. But the truth is, I woke up one morning and refused to cry. I was just so sick of the unhappiness. F-ck the darkness, I thought. I wanted to chase the sun instead.
I ended up in L.A. for the laziest but most serendipitous reason: a supportive friend, who had just gone through a divorce, had a spare room. I had a suitcase, a general idea of where things were in her Silver Lake neighbourhood and nothing but time to take Pop Physique fitness classes and “find myself.” Los Angeles has always been a hotbed for the alternative, from the sexy Source Family cult to the less-sexy Scientology Celebrity Centre to the affirmation-giving Café Gratitude (an eatery that offers up a spiritual experience alongside an organic menu), right down to the moon-charged energy crystals I once found in an Uber en route to West Hollywood. And with mysticism having a moment (think gem-infused beauty products, aura photography, the current popularity of sound baths), I figured that to find myself again, I might need a spiritual awakening too.
That’s how I end up in Echo Park at the House of Intuition, a beacon for New Age believers. It’s a metaphysical shop that dedicates itself to “helping people achieve healing, transformation, empowerment and personal growth.” It also sells nice-smelling incense, hand-picked crystals and bath bombs in packaging that urges you to “contemplate intent.” It’s here that I meet Nabeel Asfar, the resident shaman, for one of the House’s signature healings.
Nabeel is maybe in his late 30s, with warm eyes and open body language. When he speaks, it’s with a delicately mellow West Coast accent that puts me at ease, all calm and low and accessibly wise. I like him immediately. “I have a lot of people who just come to get their cleanse on,” he tells me when I ask why modern-day westerners seek shamans. “Sometimes people come in with emotional issues, whether it’s depression or PTSD. But usually I get people who come in for spiritual reasons, motivation in their love lives, their productivity, their intimacy issues. A lot of those are blockages we can work with.” He sits me down in a small room and asks for my story. I tell him about the move, the heartbreak. I tell him that I wonder if I’m in L.A. for the right reasons or if I’m just running away. “What I’m seeing here is that your overactive third eye is causing all the other chakras to be out of whack,” he says shortly after he lays out my Tarot cards. Huh?
“Your third eye is the sixth chakra, located in the forehead between the eyebrows,” Nabeel explains patiently. “It governs our mental and intellectual processes. When it’s functioning perfectly, there is no anxiety about the future. When it’s blocked, the sense of future becomes difficult to grasp, and it becomes confusing and vague. When it’s overactive, it creates all this noise and anxiety.” This sounds familiar.
I lie down and am instructed to take three deep breaths. I close my eyes—it seems like the thing to do—but open them intermittently to get a sense of what’s happening. The healing starts as Nabeel burns sage, walking around me in a circle while calling out to the four directions: north, south, east, west. This shamanic practice, kind of like a prayer, is a ritual that establishes a sacred circle and signifies this time and space as something special, separate from regular time and space. (Yes, there is New Age music.) Then he scans my body with the sage, focusing specifically on the area above my brow—my third eye. This is where that eagle feather comes in, and he waves it gently across my face until I feel a small tingle just between my eyes. I keep squinting through the process, but I’m afraid he doesn’t think I’m relaxed.
Afterwards, we return to the deck of cards. He looks down. “There’s a lot of letting go that needs to happen, of a lot of different things—your old career, your old passions. Your mind can’t figure out what your life purpose is,” he points out. “That comes from the gut.” I feel relieved, almost as if he’s giving me permission to let go of what happened, to maybe feel OK, even excited about pursuing my next step, whatever that may be. Nabeel instructs me to ease my brain’s internal chatter with meditation. I’m prescribed 20 minutes a day.
It turns out I suck at meditation. My first sad attempt ends with me giving up and Googling “Jaden Smith’s girlfriend” for an hour, and my next one with me passing out during a guided YouTube tutorial. And so, I drive out to the Mojave Desert, home of fashionable mysticism and serene landscapes, in search of a chatterless mind.
I stop at the famous Integratron in Landers, Calif., a wooden dome with mathematically perfect acoustics. It sits upon a large underground aquifer and supposedly boasts “geomagnetic forces” (i.e., it’s a hub of metaphysical activity). Initially built in the 1950s by George Van Tassel, a man who lived in an actual rock and claimed that the structure’s blueprints were telepathically bestowed upon him by aliens (naturally), the spot is, according to Integratron’s website, an “electrostatic generator for the purpose of rejuvenation and time travel.” But primarily it does sound baths.
Newly popular due to the mindfulness movement, the sound bath is not just enforced nap time for alternative-minded adults who have driven to the centre of the Mojave to listen to a middle-aged man play quartz crystal bowls. It’s sound- and vibration-assisted meditation amplified by the Integratron’s flawless alien acoustics. Supposedly, the ethereal noise is keyed to the chakras, resulting in heightened relaxation for the mind and body, and a clear, meditative state. It’s held in a small room with beds, though, so….
The people swathed in surf blankets around me include a hipster couple nuzzling in the corner, an older pair scratching their palms in sync, a cool family led by a ponytailed dad. Everyone here looks so normal. I fight a brief pang of loneliness and force myself to look away from the cute hipsters, focusing on the ceiling instead. I lie down and close my eyes as our guide starts in on the bowls. The sound chimes and reverberates throughout the dome and through my body. I enter this weird state of half-sleep, when my mind shuts off, but I’m still aware of it. It seems to last hours, but it’s really only 25 minutes. I am clear and focused on the sound itself. It’s only when the guide puts on a CD (I spotted The Power of Prana on a shelf on the way in) that I remember where I am and what real time feels like in general. This is the best rest my mind has had in months, but I’m not sure where that leaves my gut.
Frustrated by my inability to meditate and seriously concerned about my third eye, I drive into the Joshua Tree Cholla Cactus Garden with my friend Hunter on my last day in the desert. If bathing in sound couldn’t check my gut, I had to resort to extreme measures: a vision quest.
Typically undertaken by pubescent boys of the Plains tribes (people indigenous to the Canadian Prairies and inland America), a vision quest is an attempt to seek answers and life guidance through fasting, torture or peyote. Seeing as how I like food, dislike pain and have no desire to try cactus-based hallucinogens, we pack a chocolate bar loaded with magic mushrooms instead. It’s early afternoon, and the tourists are keeping to the attractions and hikes closer to the entrance.
We find a spot on a deserted road in the middle of a canyon. There are two small hills on one side and large, mountainous dunes surrounding us. The sky is blue and bright. We climb one of the hills, scarf the chocolate and wait. As my body starts to tingle, I look up. The wind moving through the canyon, through the sky above us, starts to form these small clouds that dissolve and appear, dissolve and appear. “It’s like we’re in a snow globe,” I tell Hunter. It’s at this point that I realize I am very high. The cacti below sway and sing. Coupled with the sky, the picture is beautiful and surreal, and it makes me feel so small and insignificant in the best possible way. My problems melt away because, really, they just don’t matter. I’m here now, at peace with my decision to start something new, and for the first time, I can actually see it happening in California.
I think about something Nabeel told me: “Rather than sitting around and reviewing all of the emotions you’ve sat with over the past year or so, you should just wash them away. The feelings came, you acted on them, but you are holding on to them for no real reason.” It’s true: I’m small. It’s time I move on, but that means staying where I am. I’m feeling pretty good in this light, anyway.