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27 December 2011

Luang Prabang

Pink blossoms and bean pods hang from the leafless tree at the top of the hill. The golden pagoda that caught my eye from across the city sits majestically at the apex. Birds flit by in the afternoon air but I miss their tweets, drowned out by my heavy breathing. I turn over the cranks one more time on my faithful squeaky steed, before huffing to a stop, sweating everywhere. I deploy the questionable kickstand and await Erin's arrival, cooling off in the light breeze.

The multi-storied structure is captivating and unique. A stroll around the octagonal exterior reveals delicate flowers, relief carvings on doors and awnings, and expansive views of Luang Prabang. Upon entering, I am greeted by two nuns dressed in plain robes. They smile and welcome me in, asking that I write my name in their log book. I deposit my belongings along the inner wall and gaze at the paintings surrounding me.

The walls are covered with depictions of the realms of existence. Fiery hells, blank, barren expanses filled with wandering ghosts, our plane fraught with war, conflict, and starvation, limbo states, heavenly kingdoms. I walk slowly and deliberately, utilizing the technique Phra Sinlapachai taught outside of Chiang Mai: Heel up. Lifting. Moving. Lowering. Touching. Pressing. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Cognizant of each footfall and the relative positioning of my body.

Mindful steps guide me throughout the sacred space. I make my way through the lowest tier, taking in the rich displays of various realities, borne of one's karmic action forever propelling the spirit into future rebirths. I ascend to the second tier and find extensive murals portraying Buddha's life and travails on every vertical surface. Colorful displays of compassion and hardship, birth, life, and death; of pilgrims paying respects, travels and discourses. The reverence is palpable.

The older of the two nuns approaches me from behind as I am walking. She walks up and with kind disposition offers me a purple, braided bracelet. I present my left wrist and she obliges. Once the knot is firmly affixed, she gestures for a donation, and offering for her efforts. I immediately feel used, cheated of something greater. I begrudgingly hand over some money and she bows and hobbles back downstairs. I can't overcome this feeling of debasement, of a higher ideal being abused and sullied. Is it ever possible to separate the spiritual from the monetary, the mundane? I continue my walking meditation and do my best to observe my conflicted feelings.

A narrow stairwell leads up to progressively smaller chambers. The roof slants inward over my head and the aqua blue hue of the room creates an atmosphere of oceanic bubble essence. The scenes here are fewer in number and more abstract, amalgamations of geometric shapes and Buddhist symbols. The quiet is almost oppressive. Small portholes allow narrow beams of light passage inward, illuminating select spheres of artwork.

A final spiral staircase bears me skyward, into the last and smallest of the four levels. An alcove with an altar is tucked into the top spire of the temple structure. Several Buddha figures sit atop the altar in their lonely abode, with offerings scattered about the standing and seated forms. Tiny slits in the walls allow spare glimpses of the world outside. The complex panoramas from below are absent, the walls mostly void of decoration.

The space compels me. I hum, adjusting the bass in my voice until I find a resonating range that shakes the molecules all around me. I stop and absorb the fading vibrations. I repeat the exercise, approaching greater decibels each time, a smile growing on my face, my cells vibrating in unity with the air enclosing me. Fingering the bracelet on my wrist, I let go of the anger and frustration I felt. Although initially attempted to throw away this representation of the fouling of the sacred, I decide instead to wear it. Let it remind me to not be blinded by expectations. To be fluid in accepting when appearances and assumptions do not match reality. To not become too attached to this idea of "spirituality" and what that should mean, how others should act within my own framework of what is good and right.

I release the soft threads from between my fingertips and once more lose myself in universal vibrations.


It was the pizza. That cheesy, oily deliciousness smothered in greens, was the culprit. It had been so good. So satisfying. Gratifying in all its pizza-glory. Who would have thought the only Western food I've eaten in weeks would make me sick?

I lean over the toilet and empty my stomach once more. Erin is even worse off. I've been able to pull my sorry carcass out of bed and move about the bungalow, but she is fully bedridden. Moaning accompanies moving from within a tangle of sheets. I do my best to share some sympathy with her sad state. My last stomach illness had afflicted me in southern Thailand, keeping me from climbing, but this is way worse. Standing is challenging. Guts rebelling against verticality and locomotion, I push through their wrenching tightness and out the door, promising Erin I'll be back to check on her soon.

With concerted effort, I lean aggressively up the street toward L'stranger coffee shop, where I hope to ingest something nutritional and keep it down. I tote a copy of The Zahir by Paulo Coelho which I intend to utilize as an escape mechanism from the icky feelings permeating my body.

I sit in an comfy chair on their patio and order some green tea to match my green face. Food will have to wait. Whispering leaves encircle the porch, shading me from the hazy white sky. I crack open The Zahir.

He is troubled but doesn't know why. He wants to break up with her, but she accuses him of running. "... this scenario will simply keep recurring for as long as I refuse to risk everything for what I believe to be my reason for living..." (p. 21) Which for him is writing. Writing books. I hear a voice in my head saying, That's you, too. Stop waiting, making excuses, and follow your dream. You know what it is. I nod and read on.

He is struggling with a need for an individual journey of discovery, and a relationship that he is unwilling to give up on. "Esther, however, was the only woman in the world who understood one very simple thing: in order to find her, I first had to find myself." (p. 35) I find in his writings some insight and comfort toward the anxieties I am feeling about being away from the woman that I love. Seeking avidly, but unsure what I am looking for. Weighing being apart versus being together. Feeling sensitive to slight disruptions in our connections across tenuous lines, so distant. Unsure of the future.

I have been feeling anxious about Erin (my partner, Erin Fleming, not my traveling buddy) and recent conflicts in our communications. I feel clinging from both sides, longing for something neither of us can have right now. Intimacy. Unrealistic expectations. Are we too different to understand what the other is going through? What the other is thinking? "That is the Mongolian creation myth: out of two different natures love is born. In contradiction, love grows in strength. In confrontation and transformation, love is preserved." (p. 91)

I order a light breakfast of eggs, fruit and toast. I am feeling less green.

"I had forgotten that one has to continue walking the road to Santiago, to discard any unnecessary baggage, to keep only what you need in order to live each day, and to allow the energy of love to flow freely, from the outside in and from the inside out." (p. 230)

Letting go of unnecessary baggage... concepts of what should be, what could be... what love looks like and how it should be shared... if I deserve it, if I am giving enough... and to allow it to flow freely.

He explores an esoteric idea he refers to as the acomodador, or giving-up point. "This fitted in with my experience of learning archery - the only sport I enjoyed - for the teacher says that no shot can ever be repeated, and there is no point trying to learn from good or bad shots. What matters is repeating it hundreds and thousands of times, until we have freed ourselves from the idea of hitting the target and have ourselves become the arrow, the bow, the target." (p. 238)

Is this not like meditation? Repetition to purify the mind of conceptual separations? The giving-up point implies a threshold, one that can only be reached through practice and application, or some critical mass that demands release. Relinquishing preconceived notions, assumptions, expectations.

I am feeling a little less sick and a little less confused. But still an air of unease hangs about me. I close the book and put it away.

"My day was good, let night fall." (p.174) 

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