You serve yourself from a half dozen homemade Vietnamese dishes then stack the plate on top of the bowl and carry the teetering tower to a low sitting table.
You have to be so careful to avoid dropping it.
Then you sit and smell the food for a few minutes until the chant starts before eating.
You pray to remind yourself the food is just a tool to achieve enlightenment, you thank the cook, farmers, and things.
You ask to be given strength, peace of mind.
All the while the smell of the food wafts toward you and you’re so hungry because there are only two meals a day
(Though not as hungry as I expected, I was just so happy to be about to eat but content, not distracted by hunger at all).
Then you eat.
I started meditation after a year of living in Việt Nam.
A few friends had recommended the practice.
I did about six months of daily meditation using Headspace before a friend recommended a 10-day meditation retreat in Hồ Chí Minh City.
This particular retreat was at a monastery in District 2.
Each day of the retreat went according to the exact same schedule.
Wake up at 3:30AM (!)
Meditate for an hour until the head monk begins a short teaching.
Chant for a half hour while the sun comes up.
3 hours of meditation.
Lunch then nap.
3 more hours of meditation.
Another short lesson from the monk.
Chanting while the sun goes down.
2 hours more of meditation.
A longer teaching.
Fall asleep at 9:30pm.
All in all, around 9 hours of daily meditation with very few things to think about in between.
Your meals are prepared for you (and you eat them quickly).
The teachings aren’t very intense at all, more like a break to rest your legs and back.
It was so boring the first two days.
Even though I had some idea of how to deal with it from my practice until that point, I looked ahead to the schedule and the long stretch of time and I just felt I couldn’t handle it.
I was on the verge of quitting on day 3, but, for some reason, my mind drifted back to the meals instead.
“Oh, I’m fine.
At least I love the food.”
I just sort of let go, telling myself that I would try one last time to concentrate during meditation that night.
And it worked!
I concentrated for the entire hour or so.
And felt so good afterward.
It was something I had never really done.
It was exciting.
The next day I was able to sit in concentration for over 7 hours.
Just like that; everything had changed.
The next few days presented new challenges.
I still need to work on flexibility in my legs to sit for a long time.
Whenever I sat for more than 5 hours, I would have to sleep a few extra hours the next day.
But, overall, I was improving each day, pushing past my limit each time.
All of this was embedded in Vietnamese culture as I was the only foreigner out of about 30 people there (besides the head monk who was from Myanmar and taught in English).
You’re not supposed to talk during the retreat, but some people would whisper questions from time to time.
It was interesting to see how the Vietnamese behaved during the event.
Some really valued making offerings (like incense and flowers).
Some were more focused on the chanting.
Some of the younger men there would chatter, smoke and play pranks on each other.
Some of the participants appeared to have mental health issues, and the environment seemed good for them (though hard to tell for sure).
It was 2/3s women, of all ages.
The older ones looked really healthy, could sit up straight for hours and had kind and bright faces.
When talking to the head monk was allowed, most of the questions revolved around the more magical aspects of the nimitta, or balls of light that you perceive as you develop concentration.
I think they are just hallucinations from eye receptors.
The head monk would always answer the same way, instructing participants to focus on the breath and ignore them.
I recommend trying mediation to anyone spending time in Việt Nam.
I was surprised to find it was right for me, and maybe you will, too.
You can get started online (try Headspace or Peace Revolution) or pick up a book (there are so many).
Meditation can be an entryway into aspects of Vietnamese history and culture that you wouldn’t otherwise encounter.
The Vietnamese director of the company I work with lent me The Teachings of Bodhidharma as soon as I told him I was interested in meditation.
Oh, and if you advance far enough, you will finally understand how people can be so serene on their motorbikes amidst the Sài Gòn traffic.