Traveling with zen

‘One way to think of zen is this: a total state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind. Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts. “Sun is warm, grass is green.” ‘(by justanotherperson July 27 2005, abstracted from Urban Dictionary)

7:00 a.m.  I was at the start of the causeway linking the Mainland of the Northwestern coast of France with the legendary Le Mont Saint Michel – the gigantic monastery built on an island a kilometer away.

Darkness still reigned at this morning hour, winter season in its prime.  I was double-hooded with two layers of jackets protecting me from the wind blowing from across the sea.  The fabric of my hoods fluttered and rustled noisily around my ears.  I tried to feel the contact of my hands against the texture of the woolen mittens, but my hands were too numb.  It felt as if my hands and the mittens were a pair of intimate but unrelated beings.  

In spite of the overwhelming darkness, safety was no concern. It was the lowest tourist season of the year.  Visitors were incredibly scanty even during my visit the previous day in broad daylight.  It was most unlikely to see any other person around. There was no chance of getting lost, either.  Two lines of narrow dim beams were edging the causeway to signal cars and pedestrians from falling off to the sea. The beams made two strokes of gentle curves and extended into the darkness far beyond, until they reached, also dim due to the distance, a colourful outline of some architectural features made out by Christmas lights that were switched on all night.  That was my destination.

Now I started out my first step.  I felt the touch of my sole with the wood-planked causeway. Then I felt the friction of my toes with my socks and the shoes.  I took care of my breathing.  In, out.  I felt the cold air getting in from my nostrils, to my throat, through to the windpipe, to the lungs, and transmitting into warmth back in the reverse direction. I was focused. I was aware of how my body moved, and how it felt.  No other thoughts occupied my mind.

The Christmas lights and the silhouette of the monastery were getting more and more discernible. I finished my slow walk and reached the main gate of the majestic island half an hour later. The sky was still as dark as before, but my mind was clear. A thought popped up in my head: if I know my goal, just focus and do well in the now, one step at a time. I will be there. Like what I just did.

A bell chimed from the Abbey, breaking the silence.  I got an approval from the higher being.

*************

One time I met a group of travel lovers and shared each of our reasons of going out. One traveler said traveling, to him, means an escape – a break from the routine at home, from the difficulties and frustration in life. ‘Everything looks more marvellous when you see it in another country’, said another fellow traveler.  But then, she added, she realized that sometimes the things are just as marvellous at home if you open your eyes and your heart wide enough, and try to see and feel them as if for the first time.  ‘What counts is where your heart is present, not the place where you are physically present,’ she said.  

Since then, I learnt to see my city and wander around it as if I were new to my city, and trained my eyes to see everything on the streets and neighborhoods at home as if I have never seen them before. When I do not have a chance to get away, I travel at home. I continue to travel a lot to other parts of the world whenever I can, though, but with a heart slowly transformed.

And it makes all the difference.

*************

For some time, traveling, to me, was a race driven by insatiable greed. The greed to see and experience new things, the greed to visit the remotest place that no one I knew had ever visited before, the greed for knowledge and satisfying my curiosities. This greed, taking different forms, affected many ways of my travels. I looked for exotic, faraway places to visit. I investigated into esoteric questions when I immersed into new cultures. I planned my itinerary to the minute to make the best use of my time. I prepared a long ‘to-do list’ and ticked each item off when I had done it. I saw everything in front through the camera lens, not the eyes. I took great risks doing things just for the experience of them. I prided myself as a daredevil. In sum, I collected trophies in a race of my own creation.

This greed also took rein of my mood on the track. I was pissed when a well-thought-out plan turned out not as planned. I got annoyed when my itinerary was delayed due to things out of my control. I lost interests in things soon after I had seen them. I felt dissatisfied when something I had prior expectations did not come out as nice as I imagined. I had a lot of worries and anxieties. I did not travel in the ‘now’. I traveled either in the frustrating past or in the unsettling future. I was never on the spot, right where I was.

************

I first got to learn meditation when I took a trip to Myanmar a few years back, just for the sake of curiosity. I stopped practising soon after I returned home. A recent trip to Normandy of France was the first trip I made since I brought meditation back to my routine.

The first few hours of my trip already turned out not right. I landed in Lyon, and immediately missed an overnight bus starting off after midnight to Paris due to my oversight of the ticket clauses. I was drenched in the cold rain with my luggage, having nowhere to go. With me was a young Albanian college girl, who shared the same bad luck. We found out our faults, and she was obviously angry with herself for missing out the small words on the ticket. She insisted on waiting for a miracle to see another bus arrive. Knowing that no such miracle would happen, I waited with her for a while nonetheless to be her company, until I decided to retreat to a nearby train station for a place at least a little warmer, and to try to take a rest as good as I could before dawn. Once after I cosied myself in a dark corner of the station, I realised that I saw something quite familiar just now – I saw my old self in the Albanian girl. I would not have been as peaceful and calm as I were now if I had been caught up in the same scenario a few years ago. I would not have had forgiven myself so easily and so quickly for a peril of my own making. I was aware that I was even smiling to myself for getting into this weird drama and brought that smile to my nap that night. ‘After all, tomorrow is another day.’ Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’ would probably have said the same.

As with any other trips I had previously had, hiccups dotted my path in Normandy. Even in the past, I could always take these episodes as part of the fun, but behind the scene when it came to setting hands on fixing the problems, the feeling of anxiety enfolded me. I was taken by a strong will to overcome. With my slowly-transforming heart, I tried to learn to let go of that will, and to be led by the flow.

One day the screen of my phone had gone dead when I was on my way to the small town Honfleur. I planned to stay there for Christmas. Potentially it could be a disaster. I could not check on maps to locate myself and my lodging. I could not call my host. I could not find help nor information on the internet. After a few attempts to restart the phone but to no avail, I left the phone as it was during the whole journey to the town. I resorted to meditation on my seat until the end of the bus trip. The black screen miraculously brightened when I arrived in Honfleur, and the resurrection of it did save me from a crisis that immediately followed.

But the feeling of peace and of living in the now had already sowed its seed in my heart. After the crisis, I spent Christmas Eve and the following few days with my phone off, not bothering anymore if it worked or not. I stamped each footprint consciously on the cobblestone streets of Honfleur. I felt each drizzle sprinkling on my body, the warmth of sunshine encompassing me.

My body was present. My heart as well.

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