Both exhausted and exhilarated from the steep climb I sat near the peak of Mount Shasta with my best friend Loren looking out over the world. The snow we had been traversing was frozen over in a sheet of ice, making each step a struggle, stomping our crampons into it to keep from sliding back down the mountain side was hard work. My legs burned from the effort and my lungs ached from the altitude. It was 1980 and I was twenty years old. The journey to northern California to make this climb was the culmination of an obsession I had been harboring for quite some time. It was my only goal in life.
I had heard about this mystical mountain from a coworker, Mike I think his name was, while working at a small landscaping outfit the mid 1970’s. I was 15 years old at the time. Mike told me how it was sacred to the Native Americans who had lived around it for millennia and how in more recent times it was shrouded in myth and mystery with stories of abundant UFO sightings and connections to the lost continent of Lemuria. His stories set my imagination on fire.
Mike’s father lived close to Mount Shasta in the early 1970’s and had many stories of bizarre happenings on the mountain. One evening he had seen some strange lights on it and decided to ride up the road to the abandoned ski resort to see what was going on. As he was nearing the place where he thought he had seen the lights his jeep died and wouldn’t restart. Putting it in neutral he rolled backwards, popped the clutch and the engine sprang to life. He once again started up the mountain and once again, in the same place, the engine quit. He tried this several times with the same result. Thinking the whole thing pretty odd and that something unusual was going on, he decided it might be best to head back down. He never solved the mystery of the lights.
Of course, Mike may have been having great fun with the gullible “kid” as the guys all referred to me. I was very interested at the time in what was then referred to as the occult and Mike had turned me on to Carlos Castaneda’s books. They were amazing and created a yearning to find a spiritual guide of my own. I spoke with Mike about the books whenever I had a chance, which wasn’t often as he was hesitant to talk about this kind of thing whenever the other guys were around. It was all a part of my search for knowledge and a true understanding of the wonderous nature of the world.
The stories of Mount Shasta and the many photos I was able to collect had me hooked. I wanted to experience all of these mystical and mysterious things for myself. In those days there was no internet to do research, so I sent letters to the Chamber of Commerce and searched the library and magazines for any piece of information I could find. Several maps hung on my wall which I would eventually use to plan my ascent. Mount Shasta became an obsession and in the short sightedness of youth it became my only goal in life.
Silently I sat there with Loren on that incredible mountain for what seemed an eternity, looking out over the amazing world before me. Taking it all in I was awe struck, the moment was overwhelming. The deep blue of the clear sky brought clarity to the distant snow-covered Lassen Peak. The valley below was green and full of life. It was all so humbling, causing me to feel quite small, while at the same time vibrantly alive and a part of it. Despite the exhilaration I felt by simply being there the silence and calm, both on the mountain and in my heart, was inescapable bringing me to a place of quiet inner peace. The conversation in my head was overwhelmed and completely shut down. It was a total experience of the world with its energy flowing through and around me.
Softly from the silence came an inner voice with a simple question, “What’s next?” was all it asked. With that little question an epiphany came upon me: I had not considered life beyond that moment. You may laugh but here I was, twenty years old, sitting on top of the mountain that had been haunting me for years and suddenly feeling very anxious about my future. The brash confidence I had been living on faltered. Like an unexpected snowball to the face this lack of direction left me stunned. I had to do something with my life and it was time to get started.
Though I arrived home with a new drive and determination to find a way forward and make a life for myself I also came away from that cross-country adventure with some very mixed feelings. Yes, I had kind of done what I had set out to do, though not completely. It was an incredible adventure and I had some great stories from the road, but I came home sooner than I planned. It didn’t feel complete. Where were the mystical and magical things that I set out to experience? Where was the spiritual guide who was to answer all of my questions and set me on the right path and guide me through all the trials of life?
It was many years after my time on Mount Shasta that I found the spiritual friend that I had been looking for. He was a Tibetan refuge who had been living in India as an exile since 1959 and had come to America to teach. His name was Geshe Tsulga and was a considered to be a high lama (the word lama actually means spiritual guide) and one of the last to be trained in Tibet before the Chinese occupation. He very quickly became my teacher and a very dear friend with whom I traveled all over India, having many adventures along the way. Through Geshe Tsulga I came to understand that in life we have many teachers and, if we are paying attention, we will find them in some pretty unexpected places. Friends, stranger and enemies each offer us an opportunity to learn from and to grow if we take the time to hear them.
With all of the wonderful teachers, books and exploration, it has taken me many years to internalize even a small portion of what I have been taught, often times without recognizing the lesson. I have finally come to understand something that I had completely missed and is probably one of the most important things to realize: silence is our greatest teacher.
When we learn to take the moment between one thought and the next, expand it and be with it completely; to settle into this calm and quiet place within and be at peace, we find that our heart opens to the many unseen life forces around us. The Creator, God or Gods, the Buddha, Dakinis, angels, spiritual guides or even the spirits of loved one lost, we come to know their presence and feel them reaching out to us and that we can hear them. We discover from the silence that we are not alone that there is something greater than our self, loving, encouraging and guiding us to a higher self.
A lot of time has passed since that fleeting moment of peace on Mount Shasta. I needed the time and all of life’s lessons that come with it before I could begin to understand what it was that I had experienced. The mystical, magical moment I had been searching for and thought I didn’t find truly happened after all. It happened in that quiet moment between thoughts when I opened myself to the world and the world answered with a simple question setting me on a new path.
William C. Judge 2018