From the outside, the small, wood-shingled Cave Store on Coast Road in La Jolla, California, looks like just another beach town souvenir shop. It has the typical seaside gifts and trinkets: magnets, bracelets, shingles with beach quotes, t-shirts, shells, and other ephemera.
I wandered into the store after taking a walk along Coast Walk, a trail up on the cliffs that offers stunning views of the Pacific ocean below.
What sets this store apart from other such shops is the stairs in the front corner of the store. A stairway leads down through a tunnel, dug in 1902, to one of La Jolla’s seven sea caves. This cave, known as Sunny Jim’s Cave, is the only sea cave in California accessible by land.
You can go down the stairs to see the cave for $5.
I had heard about the cave, and thought it might be a cool thing to explore, but I started to feel constrained by the time.
A group was coming up from the cave as I browsed the store. One girl was breathing heavily after climbing up the steps.
I turned to her and asked about the cave and what the view was. She described it without much detail.
Then I asked,
Is it worth it to go down?
Have you ever heard yourself ask something and immediately questioned why would I ask that?
This was one of those moments for me.
I know better. I knew it wasn’t only about what I’d find at the bottom of the stairs. It was about the adventure of going down.
The juice is in the journey.
Plus, I’m all about going into the depths. Last year I completed a coach training program called Sacred Depths Coach Training — for coaches who go into the deep work. I speak often about my year of personal excavation. I’ve been living without a home for 6 months, giving myself an adventure that has prompted new levels of growth and courage.
Was I really going to walk away from an opportunity to walk through a tunnel to get to a sea cave? Why was I even debating this?
I paid my $5 and headed down into the well of darkness.
The Slippery Stairs Down
A sign at the entrance to the cave warns that there are 145 steps to go down.
I did not confirm the step count (big win for me there!).
A separate warning about the steps being slippery is spot on. The tunnel is also narrow and the ceiling is uneven and low. It’s what you’d expect when you learn that it was dug by hand by two Chinese men with shovels and picks.
It has a definite Shawshank vibe (but without crawling through sewage).
The Light At the End of the Tunnel
At the bottom of the stairs is a landing inside the cave, with a unique view of the ocean.
It reminded me of the scene in Goonies where they emerge from the cave.
As the waves roll in, the water rushes into the cave and splashes the rocks. I stood there, looking out into the sea through the cave opening.
In the journey of personal excavation into our own darkness, this is the moment we dream about: the light at the end of the tunnel.
You think, I have arrived.
But then you realize, it’s not over.
The Light At the End of the Tunnel Isn’t The End
The landing is not the destination. It’s only the half-way point. There’s no exit through the cave; no boat waiting to take you out into the ocean.
To exit, you must walk back up the stairs.
On my way down, I passed a family as they were heading up the stairs. I overheard a little girl tell her mom, I’m scared.
My thought: she’s scared now? She already did the hard part of going down.
Don’t underestimate kids. They have access to wisdom on a subconscious level.
The journey back up through the tunnel is scary for a different reason. This is where your fitness and stamina are put to the test. I’m not talking about the stairs, per se. (Although I did overhear one adult say there should be a rest stop with drinks.) The strength to climb the stairs is one of holding onto that light you just saw as you head back into the darkness of the tunnel.
If you’re on a spiritual journey or a student of personal development, you’re probably familiar with this scenario. You go off to an event, you do the work, you raise your consciousness. And then you head back into your old environment where the familiar forces try to bring you back into the dark.
The Challenge of Enlightenment
The journey into the darkness is not just about getting to the place where we see the light; we’ve got to bring that light back with us, through the tunnels, so that we can illuminate and elevate others.
The challenge is not to receive enlightenment; its to retain enlightenment even when surrounded by the forces that want to drag you down.
This is why everyone talks about the power of peer groups.
The climb back is always tough. If you’re not in good shape, you’ll lose connection with your light on the way back up. It won’t feel worth the effort.
On the other hand, when you can retain your light even as you climb back through the darkness, you emerge with the ability to spread that light to others. You can offer the gift of enlightenment, setting the stage for transformation.
And this is always worth it.