I count to five.
Then I count to ten.
Every so often I open my eyes and turn around mildly concerned that a stray tourist was making their way through the woods behind me, but it’s just a breeze rustling over the fallen leaves and branches that have littered around the small clearing. I was safe on this side of the lake, no access other than from the lake itself, my kayak safely wedged against a small rock, the water too still to carry it away.
Each time I turn with my safety reconfirmed to face again across the long expanse of water in front of me. The sun still hanging in the sky, hesitating to set. Perched on a large grey boulder, whose cuboid faces were roughly the size of a car bonnet, a perfect size for a person to comfortably sit.
I only spent about 15 minutes there. More like ten. Perched on a large rock resting on the water’s edge, I’d got briefly hooked on the little game I’d created of trying to focus on my breath, counting out to five or ten and back again, doing little keepie-uppies in my head, although I had no idea if what I was doing was ‘working’.
I’d no idea what I was even doing, other than sitting.
Eventually I’d had enough. Despite the elongated trajectory of the sunset there were only so many hours in the day. I figured I’d about an hour of light left, maybe a small bit more. I wanted to go out for another swim and I was getting kind of bored there anyway, just sitting around in a lakeside jungle paradise.
Not much going on.
I opened my eyes one more time and my mind went blank.
A serene lady of indeterminate age sat on a podium at the front of the hall, gave the barest of instructions and guidance on our practices as per the strict precepts of the course, and sat under a cover of vast swaddling which covered her whole body, revealing nothing of her body’s true form. The hall, always shaded by shut curtains, meant her features were equally shaded, though her presence was more than the sum of what was given away by the lights and markers of the physical world.
I decided I wanted to pick up where I’d left off on the lake. A first day at a masochistic ten-day retreat had redefined not only my idea of the meaning of the word ‘boredom’, but the effects boredom could have on the body.
Half a dozen of us were called forth to her presence at a time to sit cross-legged at the front of the hall. “Let us pray” she invited us, a faintly voiced invitation delivered in English rather than in her native tongue, which like that of my fellow pray-ers, was Japanese. We closed our eyes.
A complete stillness of mind in an instant. All pains removed, retreating through labyrinths from indiscriminate extremities and caverns of the body, but a sense that there had never been aches or pains at all.
The disembodied instructions from the speakers implored: “…remain very attentive; very aware.”
“Sit very still.”
A Link to the Past
I could have stayed on the rock forever, though the golden tortoise-like crawl of the late autumn sun was reaching its final visible destination over the shoulders of the conical mountains opposite, and although my internal clock had stopped for the first time in as long as I could remember in the absence of healthy or unhealthy distractions, I had to begin my long slow journey back to the lake’s shore.
I returned to my elongated plastic orange chair and paddled towards the centre of the lake.
My whole body overcome with a feeling that my whole life in Vietnam, this country I’d spent three years carving out a home-away-from-home for myself, and which I was to leave forever in a matter of weeks, had led me to sit right here.
Overcome by a calmness I’ve rarely felt in my whole life, and a feeling that everything was just perfect in the here and now. Everything that came before, everything that would come. Each thought a squash ball bouncing around an empty hall.
The steady dripping of a tap.
All echoes reflecting.
A black hole.
And from the big bang an immense soft power emerges, capable of creating new ones, new thoughts, ideas, dreams, reconsiderations of old ones in every direction, ahead and behind. The whole world past and future a blank canvas to be repainted, a vast forest to be explored, a flat lake.
The End of the Journey
The first day sitting below the lady raised in soft swaddling offered a glimpse back into the world as seen from the rock. The final day returned me wholly to the world as seen from the lake. A posture so often seen in movies, or you believe you have, of crossed knees cradling with upturned palms cradling pinched fingertips like candles was physical agony. The difficulty of sitting alone without any tethers to the real world, in the form of gadget or potion or person, was transmuted to a physical pain of forcing the body into stillness.
Nine days spent learning how to sit. As much a physical thing as a mental, as much a mental thing as a physical. Newton’s Third Law of Motion, or The Creation of Adam.
On the final day I sat freely and unencumbered by pain, my mind equally relaxed, this time able to steer the wayward wheel of conscious projections, as on the lake, though equally accepting of where it would lead.
Life returned to normality thereafter but there’s hope that having glimpsed these worlds one will make steps towards returning to them a regular part of their lives. Alas, as with failing to follow my own resolution on the lake that I would practice sitting like that forever, and I inevitably failed to follow the teacher’s instructions to continue to practice for an hour a day.
Progress has returned since then, slowly and haphazardly, and maybe indirectly for the most part, steadily in its own way.
The Fog of War
The fog of war hung low over Ba Bể Lake for too long of the morning. Even though I’d yet to explore the national park, having arrived after twilight the previous evening, I was in no rush to leave to travel around it. For three days thus I’d been on a mission to reveal great swathes of this part of the Earth’s geography to the universe within, and despite returning each night to a new bed satisfied in what I’d learned about both, each morning brought hesitance to continue.
The early hours of the day brought little glory to the picture in front of me, the steep mountains that form a gorge around the lake shielding it from the eye of the nascent sun. I sat on the wooden balcony overlooking rice paddies in the middle-third of my view, the bottom tip of the lake in the far distance, the morning bustle and commerce of Pác Ngòi village under my feet. I drank Vietnamese coffee, ate pancakes, smoked cigarettes and wrote in my notebook. I was content.
By mid-morning the sun had ascended the gorge’s summit to burn off the mist, the grey and white replaced by colours slowly seeping back into the growing catalogue of photos on my phone. I had to leave. Forced again another day to go travelling.
Life a constant push and pull between the things we must do and the things we think we’d rather do; between our greatest dreams and desires and ambitions and what we think we want, and the things we’d rather do.
Trudging along the narrow country bóithrín that hugs the lake’s perimeter, a cheaply purchased North Face backpack bulging with notebooks and pens, an electronic reader with enough storage to store more books than you could read in 1,000 lifetimes, a portable speaker, a phone with cheap data connection to every song every recorded in history, tissues and keys and cheap cans of slowly warming Vietnamese lager that I’d purchased from one of the dusty ochre shops in a lakeside village, ignoring offers from local entrepreneurs to rent a kayak to take out on the lake.
I was on a Quixotic mission to find a small undisturbed patch of grass beside the lake where I could gaze upon its marvels in the sun, and enjoy my backpack full of gadgets and goodies and all the things I enjoyed frequently at home, where I normally sat.
Somewhere I could relax. Three miles in and I still hadn’t reached any sort of adequate place fit for the purpose I’d envisaged, as like most pieces of Vietnamese countryside, everywhere decent was occupied by a house or a rice paddy. Perhaps my expectations were too high. The midday sun burned my shoulders, as did the weight of my backpack and its contents.
It slowly dawned on me to return home, and defeated by my failure to find peace on the edge of the lake, much less explore the place, I wearily accepted the latest offer to rent a kayak from my guesthouse host. He must have detected a certain familiar look on my face, a weary backpacker from a place he’d never heard of with a bag full of gadgets looking for somewhere to sit and rest for a while.
Even if I’d found the spot of my dreams, I still wouldn’t have been happy. The truth is, I’d never really known how to
just sit, at least without a notebook and pens, gadgets with every book ever written or every song recorded, cups of coffee or cans of beer.
Until just a couple of hours later, all worldly belongings abandoned at the side of the lake what seemed like a lifetime ago, I gently paddled my kayak towards an inlet, my unclothed back being warmed by the still-hanging sun, a large rock whose face was about the size of a car bonnet.
I’d found somewhere to sit.