Mt. Shasta Diaries: Please Remove Your Shoes

Photo by Magdalena Otterstedt on Unsplash

I’ve been camping on the side of Mt. Shasta, about 7,500 feet up the mountain for the last several days, and will be here for a few more. One of my campsite neighbors told me about a barefoot hike he went on. He recounted the recharging experience of having “skin-to-skin” contact with the planet itself, without the barriers of rubber, cotton, wood and linoleum. As we take in nature’s beauty with our eyes, my new friend tells me how he’s taking in the earth’s energy through his body, his feet being the access point. He recounted the joy of being grounded and channeling the earth’s electricity, and the pain of walking on jagged rocks, a pain that was worth the gifts he received in doing so.

Anyone who’s been to Mt. Shasta, and the surrounding regions could tell you, this place is not like other national park or natural space they may have visited. This place is special, and there are many theories as to why that is. I’ve been hiking since the age of 8, and I’ve never been so filled with awe and wonder, as when I’m exploring this part of California. I, along with many other people and tourist guidebooks, would even describe it as sacred.

No Shoes, No Service

The barefoot movement has always eluded me. They say we are our strongest and most structurally integral when we are walking around and running barefoot. Some will spend a pretty penny to don foot-forming shoes that give them the barefoot experience, without the accidental hepatitis.

At the same time, I come from a culture where taking off ones shoes is a sign of respect for a place that is considered sacred. I’ve never equated being barefoot with physical activity, but more of a symbol of either being at home, or being in a sacred place…  or a foot spa. Moses is asked to take off his sandals when he approaches the burning bush atop Mt. Sinai. The reason being, as told to him by the talking tree, is that he is on “holy ground”. 

And sometimes the more sacred a place is, the more restrictions are inflicted upon you. No shoes! No talking! No legs crossed! No swearing! No farting! No coffee! No laughter!  No touching! And sometimes the restrictions are necessary to remind people that they’re not just in an ordinary place, and to keep the place preserved for generations to come. But sometimes, they end up separating the individual from being able to have a personal experience. It’s a tough balance to keep sometimes.

Even on Mt. Shasta there is often tension between spiritual tourists who want to experience the lands more intimately, and preservationists and indigenous people who want to keep the surrounding nature completely untouched by humans, even by their own butts: [See video: Protecting Panther Meadows on YouTube]

Demystifying Sacred

We hear the word sacred and immediately we think of religions places and monuments. These places are special to many. And the more “sacred” a place is, usually access to such a place becomes more difficult. Many are welcoming, some are awe inspiring, while others are places where many people involved will remind you of how unworthy you are to be there. Sacred sites can be hard to get to, require a “work” in order to receive the gift. You could say my entire life has been peppered with pilgrimages to sacred sites from Brooklyn to Bagamoyo, from Palestine to Peru. 

I recall my visit to the monastery of St. Antony of Egypt, near the Red Sea across Sinai. Up a moonlit mountain we were surrounded by the awe and wonder of the wilderness and the vast emptiness around us. The sound of jackals vocalizing in the distance. The deafening silence made my inner thoughts inappropriately loud (and at times loudly inappropriate). And the humble cave where Antony made his home, and stone which he used as a pillow were markers of a man whose character was stronger than the mountain he lived upon.

Antony left an inheritance and an abundance of riches, to serve mankind and live in solitude. He is known as the first of the monastics. This place and experience defined for me what the word sacred could mean. Not just the cave itself but the surrounding wilderness, untamed and unkempt. And I remember feeling that awe and wonder which compelled me to remove my own shoes when I entered that cave. 

Nothing’s Sacred

I often recall my visit to the windmill of the late H.H. Kyrollos VI, a sacred site where the man himself would retreat and commune with the divine. At the entrance of this sacred site, a pile of shoes, and the strong aroma of fungus, very different than your run-of-the-mill maitake tempura. But what smelled even worse, was the energy of this place.

There were many rules in place to ensure the “respect” of this place, but nothing to encourage respect for each other. People clamoring over each other to get a blessing. Pushing, shoving. I think I got elbowed in the jaw by someone’s grandmother, and I can say from the strength of the blow, this woman probably does Crossfit. The commotion zapped me of any good feelings, and I was left with frustration and a sore jaw. While this place was sacred to a very special man, the meaning of the word became lost, as it often does in some popularized religious sites. Whether it’s in the overall vibe of a place, or the commercialization that can also be found there.

Welcome to holy of holies… gift shop is in the back.

One of my takeaways in my early 20s, given the contrast of these different experiences, was that nothing is sacred. The most special of places could just hold some pretty bad energy, while invisible and unknown places can inspire stillness and awe. Who gets to say what is sacred anyway? 

Everything is Sacred

It wasn’t until I started finding my own spiritual path, did I begin to understand a different take on sanctity. This idea that for something to be considered sacred, is very much in the mind and heart of the person beholding the thing or place. To be sacred is to be something special, out of the ordinary, set apart. And in my own life, I’ve held and I hold many things sacred.

When I was a child there was nothing in my life more sacred than my die-cast aluminum Voltron action figure. Only certain pre-approved individuals were deemed worthy enough to play with it, and if you did, you better keep it scratch free, else you get scratched. As I get older, there were certain places that became special to me, because of the experiences I had there.

But even more than places or objects, I believe the most sacred things found on the planet, are people. We are walking temples of energy, light, ideas, and potential. We have the incredible power to create and to destroy. I heard a quote that forever solidified me in this notion, which I’ll paraphrase: “The human temple found on any street corner is far more sacred than any stone altar found in any church.”

And with that, I extend this definition to individuals, relationships, encounters, and memories. But what’s sacred to me might not be sacred to you. But something special happens though, when two or more people collectively acknowledge something as sacred.  And I believe this is what’s happening at Mount Shasta.

Whether or not Mt. Shasta is special because it is the root chakra of planet earth, or because of the collective intention of generations of people who have loved this place, remains to be seen. But I will tell you, whether its the former or the latter, something magical is happening there.

Take it off

I approached Panther Meadow this morning. I was alone in front of this great meadow of wildflowers, and streams. I recalled my friend’s story about his barefoot hike and I wanted to match my physical body with the feeling in my heart of how beautiful and serene this place is. I took of my shoes and started walking around the meadow. I felt like maybe I’ve become way too granola for my own good, but it was working for me. Maybe it was the heat of the moment, or just the heat of the hot sun, absorbed in the rocks below, but it was a very special experience feeling that energy shoot up from my feet into my body. Connecting in a very different way with  this place I’ve come to love over the years.

We’re so used to sacred places and things being untouchable. How much better is it, when you can become intimate with what’s considered sacred. Away from velvet ropes and gift shops. Like in Antony’s cave, we each got to enter alone, able to touch the walls, and the floor. The same on Mt. Shasta. Digging hands and feet into the dirt. Sleeping in a hammock on the side of the mountain. Communing and being very familiar with something so old and so special. While still respecting the restrictions posted on signs everywhere. And the challenge is how can we each experience such intimacy while still preserving? The truth is, nothing is truly preserved. To be alive and to exist risks the inevitability of change. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do our very best to maintain these places for future generations to come. And for that to happen, we need to follow a few rules. But let’s do so with humanity and respect for each other, lest you get elbowed in the face by a dead-lifting grandma. 

Final Thoughts

We get to define what’s sacred. I spent years and years in resentment, in the disappointment of losing faith in places and things that were supposed to be special. There’s a loss of innocence there. You expected so much more, only to be sent away empty handed, or less than when you had arrived. This can be applied to anything: a pilgrimage, a relationship, a piece of cheese. But something really powerful happens when we realize that we get to reclaim that innocence when we decide for ourselves what we will hold sacred, and special. Feeling a lack of magic in your life? Take stock of what’s around you, and intentionally decide what you hold sacred, and keep it near and dear to your heart. Whether it’s a place, a restaurant, a monument, or a relationship, you get to decide and that’s the point.

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