I’m on my home from work, puttering down Ba Thang Hai at a pace that could be generously described as ‘glacial’. An ocean of madness swirls around me — motorbikes spilling over onto sidewalks, buses careening wildly across lanes with no regard for human life, taxis blaring their horns in a cacophonous symphony of ugly noise. In front of me a pack of teenagers balance precariously on silver bicycles, four abreast, chattering mindlessly as they swerve slowly down the street, completely oblivious to the world around them.
By the time I pull into my alley, I am almost catatonic with rage. My mind is buzzing from all the injustices of my 30-minute commute. Each incident is catalogued and filed away with its own bitter little narrative:
— The fat woman in pyjamas who turned blindly into my path is a thoughtless, moronic cow
— The grimy old man riding the skeleton of a decrepit Honda Cub with no headlights or turn signals is a lazy cheapskate who endangers the lives of others just to save a couple dong
— The young guy in the Land Cruiser speeding recklessly down the wrong lane is the worst kind of homicidal maniac — a filthy rich one
I’m a little surprised at the ferocity of my hatred for these people. Even now, when I’m sitting safely on my couch with a whiskey ginger in hand, I cannot stop my mental narratives. I begin to project imagined offenses onto them — the fat woman ignores her crying children while she watches her soaps. The grimy old man is a purse-snatcher in his spare time. The Land Cruiser’s driver cuts the tails off kittens for fun.
These thoughts are a little too raw, a little too visceral — I need a distraction. So I log onto Facebook, finding solace in cute pet pictures, marriage proposals and ice bucket challenges. It’s just a temporary fix, but I need it right now. I’d rather be numb than angry.
Social Media Salve
At some point during my descent into the social media wormhole, I see that a friend has shared This is Water; a speech by the late author David Foster Wallace. I love Wallace — this will make the perfect diversion.
20 minutes later, I am staring at the computer, my eyes scanning the same sentences again and again:
“If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred…”
Wallace’s words make perfect sense: I can choose how to interpret the actions of those around me. I can imagine that the guy blowing through a red light is an impatient jerk, or that he is racing to the hospital for the birth of his first child. The problem is that Explanation #1 seems so much more reasonable. It’s my habit to assign negative motivations to people’s actions because… well, it’s my habit. I don’t know why I do it.
What I do know is this — I want it to stop. I’m tired of floating through life here with anger and annoyance as my default emotions. I’m terrified of becoming one of the sour old expats whom I ridiculed so self-righteously when I first arrived in Saigon. I don’t want to look back on my time here with bitterness and regret.
Potholes on the Path to Enlightenment
For a moment I’m quite pleased with myself for having such noble, compassionate thoughts. But then an insidious little voice inside my head chimes in: “Sure, Niko, it’s great to imagine yourself becoming a kinder, gentler person. That’s super of you. But how are you actually going to do it?”
I’m stumped. Should I count to ten before screaming obscenities at the slow-moving bicyclists in front of me? Should I visualise a peaceful island beach when I’m nearly T-boned by a reckless taxi driver? I’ve tried these methods before. They’re useless, like using dreamcatchers to treat cancer. I don’t need flowery thoughts and empty mantras. I need something that works.
Like meditation. Of course! I need to start meditating again. Monks meditate. Monks are peaceful. Monks are happy. I want to be like them (minus the shaved head). The only problem is — where can I go to meditate?
When I lived in the US, I practiced meditation at a local centre several times a week. Upon moving to Vietnam, my practice gradually petered out — without the guidance of my teacher and support of fellow meditators, it was hard to stay motivated. Practising halfheartedly, alone in my tiny apartment, I slipped back into familiar habits and patterns of thought.
There are hundreds of pagodas in Saigon, of course, and thousands of monks — but how many of them speak English? How many of them can explain the principles and techniques of meditation in a clear, informative way? In search of this elusive information, I turn to the wisest guru of them all — Google.
Soon I find what I am looking for — ‘Vipassana Vietnam’. The organisation practises a form of insight meditation taught by the late SN Goenka, a non-sectarian teacher from Myanmar. Its technique is simple — seated in the traditional cross-legged posture, the practitioner directs his attention to his breathing, eventually honing in on a small region between the nostrils and upper lip. By focusing so intently, the mind ceases its agitations and achieves a peaceful ease — imagine your grandma happily knitting a scarf for hours. It feels good to focus. Everybody knows that. It’s just really, really easy to forget.
I contact the centre, and a helpful assistant named Anh Huynh puts me in contact with two teachers, Klaus and Nadia Helwig. A Franco-German couple who were introduced to Vipassana while living in Japan over 30 years ago, they seem like the perfect people to answer my questions.
A Difference of Degrees
Several days later, we speak via Skype (Klaus and Nadia had just finished leading a meditation retreat in France). I tell them about the struggles of everyday life in Saigon. I describe the frustration of my daily commute — how dozens of times each day, I am confronted with the thoughtless, selfish actions of others. Klaus nods patiently — a seasoned nomad himself, he knows what I am talking about. “There is a fundamental difference between Asian and western cultures. In the west, we are considerate, but we are not tolerant. We hold the door open for the person behind us, then become angry when they don’t say ‘thank you’. Asian cultures are not so considerate — the people who cut you off in traffic, for example. But they are tolerant — how often does somebody scream at you when you cut them off?”
I have to admit that he has a point. But still… these people are putting my life, and the lives of others, at serious risk. In this case, my anger seems entirely rational and justified. How am I supposed to not feel angry toward reckless motorists?
Nadia answers, “Of course you become angry. In fact, you cannot choose to not become angry. It is a blind mental reaction. When you practice Vipassana, however, you learn not to suppress the anger but to observe what happens in your body when you become angry. You notice the tightness, the agitation, the discomfort. You observe them objectively. Eventually, you learn to stop the momentum of your anger before it consumes you.”
It sounds lovely. But part of me is skeptical — how is focusing on the breath supposed to stop me from becoming angry? In some meditative traditions, practitioners conjure fantastical images with their minds and chant hypnotic mantras. I can see how that might work — replace the negative thoughts with positive ones. Simply paying attention to your breath, on the other hand, seems deviously simple. I want them to convince me that the Goenka method of Vipassana is best. How are their techniques superior to others? Why are they right, and everybody else wrong?
Klaus chuckles, and instantly I realise I’ve asked a stupid question. Still, he proceeds gently. “We are not missionaries… we do not evangelise. You cannot convince people that meditation is right for them. If they are interested, they will come of their own will. If not, no words of mine will change their minds.”
For a moment I am silent. Nadia chimes in. “For many years, people learned of our courses only through word-of-mouth. We have no billboards, no flyers — it was only recently that we even set up a website. We do not seek converts or customers. People come when they are ready. Sometimes they do not even know what they are ready for… they just know they are ready for a change.”
It’s getting late, so I thank them and log off Skype. Nadia’s words are still echoing in my head as I pull up their website and register for a ten-day silent meditation course in October. I’ve never done one before — I have no idea what to expect.
But I know that I’m ready for a change. And now, finally, I know where to begin.
Vipassana Vietnam offers ten-day meditation courses in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. All courses are offered free of charge — beginners are welcome. For more information, visit vn.dhamma.org