It shouldn’t be this difficult, surely. I’ve been instructed to walk down this cobblestone path for 20 minutes, slowly and in silence, focusing only on my breath and my feet hitting the ground. Which sounds easy, until you start doing it and realise your brain is slightly broken.
It’s morning one of a three-day mindfulness retreat at the luxurious Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai, set on a private stretch of beach in Hoi An, halfway up Vietnam’s coast. The program is teaching us techniques to bring more presence and clarity into our lives, and is run by six Buddhist monks and nuns from a nearby pagoda, which is the temple of the father of mindfulness, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Having practised yoga and meditation for the better part of the past decade, and being a long-time admirer of Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing, I had expected it to be a breeze. Already, it is proving to be anything but.
Instead of taking in the surrounding trees and birds as I’ve been instructed, with each step my brain leaps onto new thoughts that have nothing to do with right now. The deadlines that need to be met, the emails that need to be sent, the shirt I want to buy, the lunch I’m going to eat. The noise of these thoughts thrashing about in my head is terrifying.
Knowing I’m not the only one with a brain that whirls like a spinning top is a small comfort. The reason Four Seasons and many resorts around the world offer these sorts of programs is because an increasing number of us need to escape from the virtual reality we inhabit most of the time. What we are craving, it seems, is a return to a more essential human pace.
Soon it is time for the daily “dharma talk”, a lecture on mindfulness led by a senior monk named Positivity, inside one of the 100 breezy villas scattered throughout the resort. “We create our own reality,” he says softly, sitting cross-legged on the dark wooden floor in his chocolate-coloured robes. “Therefore, we have the ability to take any negative emotion we feel, sit with it, then simply let it pass.”He says it in just the way you might expect someone who has spent half their life in a monastery might – without a hint of irony, and as if it is the easiest thing in the world to do.
As I observe Positivity and the five serene monks and nuns fanned out in a semicircle beside him, I vow to try harder in the meditations. If I can leave Vietnam with one-1000th of the tranquillity they exude, this trip will be a success.
Everything we do, according to Positivity, is an opportunity for greater peacefulness. Washing the dishes, driving a car, taking a shower – any of these humdrum chores can become enjoyable, blissful even, if only we remain fully present as we do them. When noon rolls around, we have the opportunity to become fully present with our lunch, as we’re introduced to the notion of an eating meditation by a shaven-headed sister named Love.
“Serving yourself, you can recognise all the elements – the rain, sunshine, earth and air – as well as the work of the farmers and chefs that have come together to make this meal,” she says, pointing to the fresh, organic vegetarian food in front of her. “When you think that way, you can see the entire universe on your plate.”
For 20 long minutes, our group of nine sits around the wide wooden table, eating in silence. At first, it is intensely awkward, and it takes at least 10 minutes to focus on anything but trying not to laugh. Once the self-consciousness fades, though, focusing on the food really does enhance the dining experience. Tastes and textures become heightened – the crunch and zest of the green papaya salad, the spice of the tofu delicately wrapped in betel leaves.
The universe might not be on my plate just yet, but by paying proper attention to the food it is more enjoyable, and helps me remember to chew properly. I’m full after less food, yet completely satisfied, which for now is result enough for me.
What is most surprising is how quickly all this quiet, mindful time begins to enhance the ability to focus. The following day, lying by my villa’s private palm-fringed pool (the resort also has three lovely public beachfront pools), I watch the way the wind is moving the palm fronds for a good few minutes. Which might not sound like much, but consider that in those few minutes I would usually check emails, voicemails and the news, and probably squeeze in a quick phone call. As well, the resort offers all manner of distractions – including tennis courts, water sports such stand-up paddle boarding and kayaking, a cooking academy, rice-field cycling and more – that I am resolutely not doing.
I’m realising that we cram so many things into each day to give the illusion that we’re on top of things that we’re barely aware of what we’re doing most of the time. And none of the supposedly urgent things we hurtle through could be more urgent than this: slowing down enough to actually enjoy our lives, rather than sleepwalk through them.
Speaking of sleepwalking, the daily 90-minute spa treatments at the Heart of the Earth Spa certainly help one slip deeper into the mind-clearing state. Set inside private villas hovering over a lotus pond, they include body scrubs and wraps using Vietnamese salt and lemongrass, baths in flower-filled tubs, essential oil and hot stone massages, and sound bathing – where therapists play eight quartz crystal singing bowls to deepen the mind-body balance.
On our final morning, after more than 48 hours of filling up on meditation, dharma talks, mindful eating, yoga sessions and more, it’s time for our final session of mindful walking, the practice I have struggled with most. At sunrise, we meet the monks on the empty beach. Without a word they begin moving, slow as sloths, along the powdery sand. I take a deep breath and follow them – focusing, really focusing, on each foot as it presses into the sand.
It’s still tedious. I still have to keep reminding my brain every third or fourth step to return to now. But the point is it does return, again and again. And if it’s true the only cure for distraction is attention, and happiness can really only be found in the present moment, then that returning is actually quite something.
The writer travelled as a guest of The Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai.
Cathay Pacific flies to Da Nang via Hong Kong. The Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai can arrange a BMW transfer for the 30-minute drive to the resort.STAYING THERE
One-bedroom villas at the Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai start at $1000 per night, pool villas at $1600. The resort is a 10-minute drive from the UNESCO-listed old quarter of Hoi An, and one hour from the 1600-year-old My Son temple ruins. Go to fourseasons.com or call 1800 142 163.NEED TO KNOW
The best time to visit is February to May, when skies are sunny but it isn’t too hot. From June to August temperatures move into the 30s, and the rainy season runs from September to January.