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A Spiritual Lesson from a Gift Shop Clerk

Assistant editor Dan Hoffman’s trip to Big Sur taught him how to find a spiritual retreat.

Searching for spirituality in Big Sur, California.

I sat on the sunny deck of Nepenthe, a famous restaurant off of the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, California, and looked out at the blue ocean and the steep cliffs. The place was originally a cabin owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. My long-time friend Nick and his wife had brought me there for lunch, and I was having a great time–except for one small thing.

I was on vacation, but also searching for something more than relaxation. Big Sur was known as a spiritual place, and I wanted to experience that side of it. But Nick is a firm atheist; he didn’t really care, or even know about, that side of Big Sur. I usually try not to stick to an agenda when I travel, but I didn’t want to leave Big Sur without hitting some spiritual hot spots.

“I’ll go down and ask the girl from the gift shop where we can go,” I said. Beneath the restaurant was a souvenir shop with clothing, books, and various trinkets. Earlier, one the employees had complimented me when I tried on a strange hat–I thought I looked like a doofus, but I still felt flattered (though not enough to buy it).

I found the girl and asked her where might be a good place to meditate or pray. She brought a map and pointed to a few spots. “There’s the New Camaldoli Heritage, a Catholic Monastery, but you need to be on a retreat. There’s the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, but they’re closed to the public during the spring. And the Esalen Center–but you also need a reservation, and it might be expensive.”

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I’d envisioned myself in some sacred hall, beautifully designed to elevate my meditations to a higher plane, some place all the guidebooks declared essential for spiritual seekers. Now I realized I should have planned ahead.

The girl read my disappointment. “But you know, you can kinda just go and do it anywhere. Just go find a spot.”

“Well, uh, yeah–of course,” I stumbled, pretending that what she said was obvious. It was obvious, but I hadn’t been thinking that way.

The reason these retreat centers and prayer sites were built here was all around me–I was surrounded by peace, quiet and natural beauty. Why did I need to go to some specific destination?

For the rest of the trip, I decided I’d be less rigid. I could find what I was seeking anywhere–looking out the car window, stepping out of my friend’s front door, or sitting outside on his deck, staring at the wind-carved cliffs and impossibly blue sea.

When I left California after a short week, I remembered what the gift shop girl said. It was just as true back home in New York, though perhaps harder to find on the crowded subway.

The places to praise and seek and surrender to a higher power are everywhere. No guidebook needed. Only the eyes and mind to see them.

How do you find moments of spiritual retreat in your everyday routine? Share your stories with us.

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