An hour by air to the north west of Ho Chi Minh City gets you to Pleiku (“play-koo”) in the coffee growing Central Highlands. Untouristed and unloved, it has to be a contender for ugliest city in Vietnam. Razed by bomb and mortar in the American War, it was rebuilt with an eighties brutalism singularly graceless. I flew in yesterday, hours after landing at HCMC. For the next four weeks my intent is to replace some of my customary serendipity with a focus on a war that loomed large on not only my own adolescence, but that of disaffected western youth in general. For baby boomer rebel in search of cause, Vietnam was a gift. Causes seldom come any bigger.
In my next email I‘ll sketch out timeline and context to that war but for a moment will jump on in. It’s hard to overestimate the Central Highlands’ strategic significance; indeed, it was a North Vietnam Army attack on Pleiku in 1965 that triggered Rolling Thunder. I refer not to the eighties tour that saw Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and George Harrison hit the road prior to Orbison’s all too premature death, but a US military campaign comparable in scale and hubris to Napoleon’s and Hitler’s invasions of Russia. Rolling Thunder was intended to flag to the world the determination of that most reluctant of cold warriors, LBJ, to crush once and for all the Viet Cong and their comrades from Hanoi, while sticking it to Ivan good and proper.
(In Chronicles, his marvellously non–chronological autobiography, Dylan had this to say: “Looks like trouble down there in Vietnam. Might have to send in some Americans to sort things out.”)
I woke in the early hours of this, my first morning, to a sense of profound desolation. There’s always one or two such experiences on every trip and seasoned travellers take them in their stride. Though distressing and alienating – an existential doubting of rhyme or reason we persist in making ridiculously personal – there’s usually a simple cause. I didn’t have far to look. Having spent the past fifty hours in transit across eight time zones, and waited in line for bureaucrats from Heathrow to Saigon via that bustling and smog choked monument to neoliberalism, the People’s Republic of China, my body clock was slammed for six by the kind of jet-lagged fatigue that can find despair and futility in the smallest setback: a venal cabbie, unsmiling street vendor or drab hotel at the end of the road …
A modicum of self knowledge grounded in experience wins half the battle. For the other half I did a thing I once practiced never less than two hours a day but now do rarely. I meditated, using a method taught by a brilliant man who looked deep into Life before power corrupted him: a man capable of immersing at snap of fingers those who came to him as – I detest the term but am lost for a simple alternative – spiritual seekers; plunging them into that state of heightened realisation (or deepened delusion) zen buddhists call the roaring silence.
There’s no special technique; no gimmick, mantra or particular way of carrying the body. (As far as I’m aware the only point of emphasising posture is to prevent somnolence and, trust me, this was not a problem I faced last night.) I didn’t even sit up; just lay there and let it all go. That’s the liberation gospel. The baggage doesn’t have to disappear; you simply put it down. Let it be.
The aim is neither to think in a particular way nor stop thinking; rather, to cease engaging with thought (no distinction is drawn here between intellectual and emotional activity). Why? Well here’s where it gets interesting and disappointing in equal measure. Everyone I’ve met has to greater or lesser degree a superstitious relationship with their own mind. We act as though we are our minds, and our minds us. If that were true there could be no self awareness – no Knowing that we Know – and the way of meditating I’m describing would not be possible.
The discipline of allowing thoughts and feelings to rise and fall, as with a conversation in the next room we choose not to plug into, may indeed invoke that non-dual consciousness, All is One. Whatever this state means, if anything at all – and I’ve learned through bitter experience to be wary of anyone who claims to know – there’s a remarkable consistency to the way reports of it ring down the ages. From Buddha to Osho, all speak of profound and extraordinary lightness of being in which there is not and never was any problem. Meditation is not the only route to such states. My first acid trip took me there, just the once, while some experience non dual awareness spontaneously. It “visits” them. (On this last, check out Morning Glory on Leonard Cohen’s remarkable album, Dear Heather.)
My teacher was emphatic that this is the space where there never could be a problem because Nothing Ever Happened. We are, he claimed, in the non-moment before the infamous Singular Event kicked off in a gigantically expanding maelstrom of time and space, joy and suffering; a cosmically reverberating orgasm of Creation; The Coming of the Lord with a Very Big Bang. Search me for how he knew this but, credit where it’s due, he had the magic touch when it came to inducing “non dualistic consciousness”. And I never yet met anyone who, having experienced the same, found it overrated.
But this man, wise and tragically flawed, saw non dual awareness as means rather than end. What is Point, he would ask with wit, sorrowful irony or terrifying fury, in experiencing such states if we revert to type the minute we rise from the meditation cushion? He demanded that non-dual awareness have significance in the world of time, space and difference; specifically, that the experience of no relation to thought (vastly more important in his book than epiphany or transcendence) led to right relation to thought (more important still) in which we drop that superstitious identification with mind to take up our human birthright and operate – in the world of time and space, cause and effect, division and difference – as fully aware beings: victors not victims; carrying – in a world of deluded folly (and I’ll say Amen to that, if nothing else) – the torch for a better way of being in the world.
(If you’re in a good mood it’s funny the way we insist in the face of all evidence to the contrary on seeing low intelligence as the main driver of stupid acts. Every day brings fresh instances of daft doings prompted by: (a) rage, fear, lust etc; (b) cynicism and arrogant insecurity; (c) idle incuriosity; (d) a vested interest, not always conscious, in seeing things a certain way. Each can wreak havoc by itself but you have to gather them all up in the same room for the kind of award winning idiocy that dreamed up and went ahead with Rolling Thunder.)
So much for the interesting bit. The disappointing part is that my teacher – at his best quite the most brilliant man I ever met – failed to display in his own actions a consistently right relation to thought and feeling. Ditto those for whom similar claims are made but, due to the heroes and saviours in question being all conveniently dead, cannot be scrutinised. Ego and stubborn dualism inspire us all, without exception and by way of a constant drive to locate ourselves in difference – me versus not-me – to malice and folly. But an obsessive focus on difference’s close relatives, deficiency and need, also inspires our greatest achievements. That French cat was wide of the mark. What he surely meant was, “I have a problem, therefore I am”.
Then again, my French is lousy. Maybe he did say that but it got lost in the translation.
Whatever … I practiced no relationship to mind till sunrise, long after my wretched feelings had fallen away. (You can’t count on this but, often as not, when we cease to torture ourselves with the desire to feel better, the upshot is we do feel better.) Then I drifted off. Next thing I knew, a smiling cleaner was tapping at the door and my phone said ten past eleven. Stuff to do … like shower, factor fifty and hit the street for coffee and whatever this beautiful, beautiful land has to offer today. It’s a good life if you don’t weaken – and not entirely without merit if you do.