A Masterclass in Sitting Still: Tibetan Tales

As soon as I sat down I knew this would be the hardest thing I had ever done. The seat was a mere 18 inches wide, hard plastic and metal covered with a thin cushion and draped in garish purple and gold. I was on the aisle, better than the center but no chance for a windowpane or edge of table to smush my face against and pass some of the hours in sleep. The train jolted to a start and I set a timer on my phone for 54 hours: the time until arrival.

Previously, I had shouldered several difficult undertakings in my travels with the promise of great reward. There had been the 35km mountain biking excursion in the alps while nursing a chest cold, the eleven hour hike in the Fjords of Norway, the two mile portage of a canoe, the four hour pre-dawn walk hopelessly lost in Paris. The list goes on though with a steady decline in vigor. All these tasks had been physically difficult, acute tests of mental fortitude, and all had been rewarded with some fantastic accomplishment, with beauty, or at least with a strong cocktail hour anecdote. All were irrefutably worth it. My long train journey to Tibet ended up no different, but for the first time, I doubted.

It was inescapable, this fate of mine, a series of unfortunate circumstances, mistakes, and plain shit luck had brought me to the dirty floor of the Guangzhou railway train station exactly one day earlier, cursing the train that had just departed, my reserved bunk with it. Only one ticket onward to Tibet could be found, the following day: $63 US dollars in exchange for 54 hours on one “hard seat”. How bad could it be? I tried to reassure myself, all the while more practical parts of my intellect answered the rhetorical. I had no real choice, not only would I lose nearly a thousand dollars in the cancellation of this trip but my pride, my determination, would not allow such a thing. I waited in line, bought the ticket, and left, bound inevitably for an all too soon return.

If you have never attempted to stay very still for a very long time let me tell you about it. It is one of the most difficult undertakings possible: it goes against our nature. Physically, your muscles begin to tense and then ache. Your back rounds, your toes tingle, your neck cramps, and your butt. Jesus christ I thought our asses were designed for such a thing! Mentally you face more ups and downs. I had an album of music, two chapters of an audiobook (which I will forever have memorized), the company of strangers whose language I barely spoke and a long book: there was I blessed. Without any stimulation the journey would have been literal torture.

With my left arm pressed firmly against a middle-aged man I settled in, resigned to this self-enacted hell. I examined my seatmates, looking for strength in our shared hardship. Three middle-aged men, a young boy barely out of school and an ayi (auntie) rounded out our cohort. If they could do it I thought, so could I.

My resolution wavered within the first hour. In addition to these shared circumstances I was on my period and I was sick. Sopping snot from beneath my nose every 30 seconds sick. By hour four I began to cry, yes in public, pathetic tears occasionally, unstoppably, leaking from my eyes. By hour five I was praying. I have never believed in any deity, no man I cannot see has ever taken me in. When I was three I demanded my mother cease lying about Santa Claus to me from my child seat in the back of our Toyota Corolla. Yet here I was hands clasped above the backpack on my knees, head bowed, begging for relief.

Just let my nose stop running, let one of my seatmates get off at the next stop and not be replaced, let time pass more quickly, anything, anything.

At some point around this time, I made a slightly hysterical choice. A choice of necessity. I thought of the reason I was coming all this way. The childhood dream that had grown into ambition and then stronger still to a deep desire. I thought of the monks whose aestheticism I so admired, the land that had birthed the Dalai Lama, the only person I could feel comfortable calling a hero, the religion that through my adolescence had grown so close to my heart that it now seems permanently entwined with my own sense of self. I focused on the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the myth of the Bodhi tree, the 7 weeks sitting that had led to enlightenment. I let this teaching lend me some small strength. I chose to see the remaining two days as an exercise in discipline, a sacrifice in the pursuit of true and lasting happiness. My back straightened and my breath moved low within me, deep and slow. I was rushing towards the land my heart had longed to know. In a way, I was going home, and it was going to be worth it.

 

By hour ten I was praying again. By this time darkness had fallen and I stared down the barrel of a long and sleepless night. Trying to snooze in the seats of an old Chinese train is no simple task. There are no armrests, no personal space. The lights remain on, although somewhat lowered. That first night I slept in fits and starts, following the patterns of the train. At one point I found myself alone on the three-person bench for 10 minutes and I thanked whoever might be listening for this brief reprieve.

Dawn seeped into the train windows as a sort of calm settled over me. My nose had mostly stopped running and though my body was in constant dull pain I was alive and drawing steadily closer to the halfway point. The hardest part was over. I knew this somehow, or perhaps I just needed to know this in order to retain my death grip on the edge of my sanity. In this soft light I thought over my whole life. People say that before you die your life runs before your eyes like a movie on the cinema screen. All the beautiful moments and the painful ones. I knew I wasn’t dying but perhaps a part of me was, and it had granted me this review.

My self-doubt died that day with the dawn. My petty insecurities and secret regrets. The voice inside me that had whispered to me for the past four years, telling lies about life’s listlessness, its meaninglessness, its monotony, disappeared into the ether. I know that it will return, but to be granted this peace is a blessing I have no words to describe. In these moments I lived in the listlessness and the monotony. No, I reveled in it. As a low sun rose over the mountains of northern China I knew duality. I felt nothing and everything. It was my first truly whole experience: not a mere glimpse of such a thing but a never-ending moment in which all things possible in human experience existed. I would have wept could my dry and puffy face had taken it.

I had gone a little mad. I can see that now although a part of me still thinks that maybe this edge of madness is the closest to nirvana an unenlightened person can inhabit.

I don’t remember much of that day. Perhaps I’ve blocked it from my memory, perhaps such things are impossible to remember. I ate very little, having fasted the entirety of the previous day. One Chinese breakfast of a simple bun, some cucumber, some cabbage and vegetable mixture, and a hard-boiled egg. One cup of instant coffee. I ate this slowly, taking more than an hour, chewing each small bite to absolute pulverization. Forced mindfulness. Later a bag of mixed nuts and some dried mango. Somehow the hours passed.

I observed the other passengers of the train, walking slowly up and down the aisles, staring unabashedly into every face, familiarizing myself with this particular ecosystem. I played a few hands of cards with the men crouched, smoking between the train cars, first winning a few RMB and then losing double. In every face I found my own fatigue mirrored, none of my seemingly radical transformation. Perhaps it is not something you can see, perhaps no part of another consciousness is visible, our souls remaining hidden from each other. Perhaps they were simply used to such hardships as I had never before had to cope with and were unchanged in the face of aching bodies and wheeling minds.

Around 8 pm we reached Qinghai and the beginning of our journey across the Tibetan plateau. We changed to a sealed train, filled with extra oxygen that the environment outside now lacked. This train was much more sparse, many of the previously crowded occupants having pealed off at various major cities along our route. Without the ability to smoke the small space between the cars remained vacant. I laid out my yoga mat here and did some simple stretches, more thankful than I had ever been for the ability to touch my toes, to reach high and bend backward, for the release of each muscle as I moved slowly through a practiced routine. As a deep darkness fell I lay down on my mat, huddled under my towel with my head on my backpack and slept.

I awoke a happy 6 hours later awash in pink light. Pulling myself to my knees I could see out the windowpane above my makeshift bed. Dawn had come to the Tibetan plateau illuminating the distant mountains and passing wild horses in pastel pinks purples and blues. A chill crept up my spine that had nothing to do with the ever-rising elevation. Here in front of me was what I had been promised, what I had promised myself in those long hard hours when I had been somehow unsure as to whether I would make it although it was the only outcome possible. Here was wild, unsullied beauty, clean and sparse, unpolluted by human hands and impure hearts. Yet again I felt like crying though this time out of a great sense of joy and relief. This dawn meant my time on the train was coming to a close, one journey over while another, the journey of a lifetime eagerly awaited inception.

The hours seemed to fly by now as I alternated between sitting and standing with my nose pressed against the glass. The mountains grew taller, more imposing as we drew deeper into the Himalayas, winding through valleys dotted with animals and trees and lakes. As we finally pulled into Lhasa’s main station I felt light, barely registering the heavy baggage.

On the platform I considered doing something dramatic, throwing myself to the pavement perhaps and kissing the sacred ground beneath my feet? But after so much time consistently moving forward I found myself unable to stop, seemingly gliding forward tingling in the sleep deprivation and excitement of it all.

Even if I had been in my fittest state of body and mind the altitude in Tibet has a way of making you feel constantly breathless. Like the moment you catch the train you were running for but stretched indefinitely, no exertion required. I didn’t stop pushing forward till I’d made it through the visa check and out of the station, along the path to meet my driver and to his car parked on the street. After putting down my bags I finally paused taking in my first still image of Tibet. Though my whole struggle had been with stillness Tibet had not stopped moving around me until this moment. Staring down the long street I saw a Ferris wheel, small and candy-colored, set against a Himalayan backdrop, slowing turning round and round. My vision was interrupted by my returning driver who had turned to retrieve something from the passenger seat. He looked into my eyes as he placed a white khata around my neck saying “Welcome to Tibet”.

My timer beeped. I had arrived.

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