In California, Inner Peace Is a Booming Business
Voices calling you to ‘find your escape’ are likely seeking a buck like everyone else.
By Andy Kessler
California is weird - and full of contradictions. On the one hand, California as a country would have the world’s fifth-largest economy. On the other hand, state Senate leader Toni G. Atkins is doing her best to diminish that wealth by pushing a campaign to ban fossil fuels. Despite the drama, a 2017 WalletHub survey concludes that 12 of the 20 happiest American cities are in California. Hmmm. Maybe it’s because California is home to an endless expanse of spiritual retreats - a booming enlightenment industry.
You may know of such places, promoting harmony among mind, spirit, body and earth. They have rooms filled with crystals to tune your vibrational frequency, Himalayan-salt therapies high in negatively charged ions, and meditation mazes with a speaker blasting "Ommmm" from its center. On your way to happiness are large doses of xylophonic-oboe-harpy new-age music, root-vegetable dining, cozy chakra chambers and, of course, handwritten signs with Eckhart Tolle-like spiritualist scribblings everywhere. "You have only one life to live, but if you do it right, you’ll only need one."Insightful! And "Let go of your material possessions."Conveniently, the Ranch at Live Oak Malibu takes care of that for you. One week starts at $7,800 a person - I hope that includes bottomless cups of bearberry herbal tea.
The famous Esalen Institute, left over from the culty ’70s, offers more than 400 workshops on topics from cosmology to other shams - er, I mean "shamanic rituals."In 2013 Esalen brought in almost $18 million in revenue with margins rivaling some software companies.
Follow the money. According to Marketdata Enterprises, meditation is a more than billion-dollar business. Deepak Chopra is the meditation master and mogul, offering books, seminars, videos and several California-based "Perfect Health Retreats"where you can get instruction in primordial-sound meditation.
I heard Mr. Chopra pitch one of his more than 100 books at a conference I attended. His spiel was something about "your cosmic self."He went on about the vastness of time and space and then stopped and asked attendees, "Shall I teach you how to meditate?""Yes!"they roared. "OK, close your eyes, relax,"he said - then launched into a bunch of stuff about rotating galaxies and interstellar motion and karma. I started chuckling, because all I could think about was my favorite bathroom-stall graffito, "My karma ran over your dogma." I opened my eyes and saw a room in a trance. Then Mr. Chopra caught my eye and I thought I saw him crack a tiny smirk. Maybe that’s how he achieves his own moments of zen.
I often wonder what happiness and "mind-body synergy"really consist of. Are they just an induced endorphin rush? Hiking in Bhutan, a country known for its widespread spirituality (and vegetarianism), my wife and I had a driver who was the ultimate in calmness. He drove as if he’d face a firing squad if he went 1 kilometer an hour over the speed limit. Well, until someone cut us off - at which point he launched into what I assume was an expletive-laced tirade, with a vein on his forehead twitching, poised to explode. People who profess inner peace often are the most dangerous. Serenity now!
Bhutan is famous for its "Gross National Happiness"philosophy, something that was inscribed in the country’s constitution in 2008. Actually, Bhutanese expand their gross domestic product by selling Gross National Happiness hats and T-shirts. California must be jealous.
Which brings us back to Sen. Atkins. Last month she led a delegation on a five-day trip to Bhutan, which sounds like rough duty. They visited the country’s National Council "to learn and experience Gross National Happiness especially with regards to environmental conservation"and "take back lessons and implement"it in California. Yikes. It’s like a secret mission from Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom to turn California into a giant Dis-zen-eyland and have a unicorn replace the bear as the state (spirit) animal. Ingenious, and almost sinister really: Wreck the economy with heavy-handed policy, then change the measurement to unquantifiable happiness. I told you California was weird.
Don’t misinterpret my apprehension. I’m OK with mindfulness mania; to each his own. But isn’t it cheating if you use shortcuts, whether mind-altering drugs or wallet-lightening spiritual guides? It’s the ultimate in selfish "me time”: deep breathing, mantras, holistic wellness, personal transformation, etc.
You don’t need to pay for spirit coaches or feverish yoga yurts. I hate to break the news, but Gross National Happiness isn’t real; it’s an excuse for politicians to waste taxpayer dollars with glee. I tend to find enlightenment during treks to take-your-breath-away vistas or in the sublime chaos of loud meals with my wife and boys. That’s priceless.