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Mocha Musings: A short drive to a world away

It was almost two years ago exactly that I got in my car and drove south toward the city of Mount Shasta to visit the Shasta Abbey. I’d been there briefly once before and felt a calling to return. The setting, with its spectacular views of the wild majesty of Mount Shasta is, to me, unequaled in spiritual beauty. The Abbey itself, a Buddhist monastery in the Serene Reflection Meditation (Soto Zen) Tradition, provides a space where one can find healing, a sense of peace, or simply a few days of calm in a world that can often seem chaotic and overwhelming.

Funnily enough, I ended up at the Shasta Abbey the first time quite by accident. I’d never even heard of it, though I’d already lived in Ashland for a few years. A girlfriend wanted to go and I went along, I thought, more to help and accompany her than anything else. As life would have it, it was a profound experience in a way I could not have foreseen.

It is difficult to put into words (perhaps because so much of what is deeply important on a spiritual level is not meant to be put into words), but somehow, during the weekend, things began to shift for me. Was it the structured activities, meditation, and total unplugging from electronics, text messages, email, and phones? Was it the lack of noise and the relief of silence, which is encouraged even while not meditating, broken only by the sound of a gong or tinkling bell, a lowered whisper, or the rustling of a long robe of a monk passing by? Was it the simplicity of the tasty meals, prepared with care and intention by the monks and guests and served with grateful prayer? Or the Dharma talks, led by the reverends and monks in which they discussed not only Zen teachings but also broader issues regarding our everyday lives outside such a retreat setting?

To my surprise, during one Dharma talk, deep feelings of grief around my late husband emerged — quite spontaneously — after I asked a question. A short discussion ensued, with others in the group joining in. The two Buddhist reverends leading the talk were wise and sympathetic; their answers giving me much to think about. Afterwards, I was struck by how several participants thanked me for expressing my innermost feelings and how much it had also helped them. I’d like to take credit for doing something brave, but the truth is, it just happened. And that is what can occur at such retreats. The next day, I realized that I was free from feelings I’d still been struggling with. I do not know quite how it happened, or why, but I am grateful.

This second visit had no such “aha” moment, though it did give me clarity on some issues and left me with the same sense of embrace and of feeling renewed. When I walked across the dirt parking lot toward the entrance gate, I felt as if I were leaving the hi-tech world behind. No headlines or laptop screen to demand my attention or to upset, no chores to do, no errands to run. Just time to “be.” To sit outside on a wooden bench while gazing at the blue sky and clouds surrounding the peak of Mount Shasta, and breathing in the sweet pine-scented air. Even if just for a couple of days.

Upon my return home, I reflected on how deeply important, how sublime, it felt to be “held” by wise, compassionate people trained not only in the ways of the mind and heart, but also in the ways of the world. How safe it felt to be with people who have only one’s best interest at heart, asking nothing in return (in fact, this Abbey is by donation only). I was also left with an awareness of certain mixed feelings dropping away, feelings that I no longer needed to carry with me. In this age where many of us live so distant from our families and friends (a far cry from the farm villages of old or even tight-knit, big-city neighborhoods), this kind of trained and loving support, here from strangers, is a rare and beautiful thing.

And it’s less than a two-hour drive away.

Author, TV presenter and world traveler Susanne Severeid is an Ashland resident who enjoys making time for the important things in life — including mocha. Read more of her columns at bit.ly/adtssmm. For more, go to www.susannesevereid.com. Email her at susannewebsite@olypen.com.

Photo courtesy of shastaabbey.orgJukai Procession at the Stupa at the Shasta Abbey.
Photo by Beatrice Angela JacobsSusanne Severeid