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Essay on the Mind


I came to this country alone in late 1982, after spending time in communist jail for fleeing Communism. I was not the only one to be reeducated by the Communist Vietnamese after their thousands of tanks and half a million military forces invaded South Vietnam in the early months of 1975. Several hundreds of thousands of former RVN military officers and high-ranking officials listened to their order to pack food and clothing and head to what they called “one-week-long political retraining session”. The retraining ended up to be forced labor camps lasting several years for some and a dozen years plus for others, such as for my brother who was a high ranking officer in the former South Vietnamese Army.

The traumas of the war added up to the traumas of Vietnamese prison. When I was released from the prison - after my wife sold everything she had to get enough money to bribe the Communist cadres - I lost almost 80 pounds due to maltreatment and malnutrition.

Like hundred of thousands of other members of the Vietnamese intelligentsia from the South, I had made the wrong decision of staying in Vietnam after Saigon fell. We thought that after 20 years of war, our physically and mentally destroyed country needed us to reconstruct and resurrect. We thought that at last peace had returned and it was time for our wounds to heal. We all had made a big mistake. The North Vietnamese, more communist than patriot, did not need us. They put many of us in labor camps to eliminate our spirit and keep us under control. They feared the resurgence in the South and the spreading of liberal ideas to the North. They used the same terrorist tactics they had used during the war to prevent South Vietnamese people to uprise.  Poor idiots they were! What could we do? With the betrayal of our former ally, we had lost everything – courage, determination, hope, idealism. Defeated and bewildered with losing a war we could have won, demoralized, hopeless, all we had left in mind was to live in shame for the rest of our lives.

How many nights did I spend sobbing in prison? How many times did I mentally torture myself, did I regret not to try to leave the country like many others, did I blame myself of being an imbecile? I was deeply haunted by suicidal thoughts. The idea of having to spend the entire life in jail had pushed so many of my people to take their own life. There were several ways to commit suicide. The easiest one is to fake running away from jail and be shot at like an animal or to rebel and find death in torture chambers. The coward way is to die slowly of illness, malnutrition, and mental distress. For me the worst fear was to die without seeing my kids. I survived jail because of that haunting idea.

After several failed attempts to flee the country with my family by boat, I decided to escape alone by crossing the Cambodian territory to go to Thailand. The trek was too dangerous to bring my family along as Khmer Rouges and Communist Vietnamese controlled Cambodia at the time. They were an obstacle to my escape and a threat to my life. The Khmer Rouges had been nourishing an intense hatred for the Vietnamese and they would not hesitate to cut my head off if by mishap I fell into their hands - Cambodians use the expression “cap duon” meaning “decapitation”. The more lenient Vietnamese would just send me back to prison for refusing to be “re-educated”. Fleeing the country was synonym of failing to acknowledge the benefits of the Communism and still nurturing the idea of “licking the feet of the Americans”.

After 27 days of horror, hunger, and painful effort to survive, I succeeded to arrive at the Thai border. During these nightmarish days and nights, I had witnessed and brushed with death several times. On the last twenty miles or so that separated Cambodia from Thailand, there were mines everywhere. The minefields were there in an attempt to stop the Vietnamese troops from invading the small part of the territory, which was still controlled by the Cambodian forces. How many people died when stepping on these mines? Many thousands, I believe. I did not witness the explosion of these mines but I saw many dismembered corpses on my way to freedom. Several times I had to drink from a small pool of swampy water next to a corpse and that memory still haunts me sporadically in my sleep. Did I have a choice? I am still wondering. Could I not drink that water? Would I have died of thirst? The Cambodian heat was over 100 degrees in the daytime, and I was consumed by fatigue and thirst. I could not control my acts anymore. I did everything instinctively like an animal. Many times, I thought I could not get out of that open labyrinth, and find my way to the border. And many times I decided to surrender. And then miraculously my mind regained strength and pushed me to continue to live. I crawled and stood up again and again. I walked another mile to succumb thereafter. I did not eat anything for days and had not much energy left in my body. It was the same cycle of physical surrendering and mental resurgence that occurred days after days until I reached the outpost of my survival, the Thai border.

I had never believed in Buddha until the days I was in prison. Until 1975 my life was filled with easy success and simple happiness. I did not need the help of Buddha or God. Then in jail, I suddenly needed to pray. To fight worst mental sufferings, I had recourse to the only means in my possession: praying. I did not count how many nights I spent praying for my release from internment. I did not remember how many dawns I prayed Buddha to help me escape the country I had never thought I would leave. And I did not remember how long I mumbled prayers while walking unsteadily the bare paths to freedom.

How strange the human mind is and how miraculous its effect on our body! We survive the worst experiences of our life because of our mind. When we think we cannot stand the suffering anymore, when we are ready to let go, when our mental energy is at its last drop, suddenly there is a resurgence of the energy in the mind. The mind takes again control over the body and directs our line of thought. That strange and unexplainable intervention occurs to save our soul and our spirit from failing. It allows our physical energy to revive. Did we suddenly see more clearly and reason more logically? Or was it just the one last chance Buddha or God gives us to regain consciousness and fight the surrendering? I had received several last chances through prayers. Buddha took my hand and led me out of the horrific path of darkest thoughts and mental torture. I now still wonder how many more chances I will get before I exit this world and go beyond life.

The Body, the Mind, God, Predetermination, Jansenism, Buddhism, Survival, Death, the Soul, these are still the concepts I want to explore and find out the true existence and meaning. Are these truths? Is there a Mind? Is it separate from the body? Did it really control the body at the last minute? Or is it an intervention of some supra-terrestrial entity (Buddha to me, Jesus, Allah, Vishnu, or some other deity to others)? Or is it predestination?
One thing that bothers me is the fact that we do not worry about the meaning of these concepts until the moment we feel weaker and weaker. I am concerned with the fact that I only pray when I suffer. I am disturbed by the fact that I only ask for the touch of Buddha and I only believe in miracle when mentally destitute.

My experiences in America were not always the happy ones. I had suffered worst mental pains not only in Vietnam. I recently suffered two years of mental torture, of internal fight, and discouragement. My mental health declined and my personal doctor recommended me to take a break from work. I asked him if I needed a temporary or permanent break. He told me in a smile that it all depended on me. He reminded me that nothing is more important in life than health and suggested that I take a yearlong leave. I took it. This strange nice fellow, a compatriot of mine, is a dozen-year younger than me but he is intelligent and resourceful. I wondered if he believes in God, and whether he has a painful life like I have. We spoke a lot about life, human sufferings, the power of the mind, and sometimes death. He is not a psychiatrist but still listened to life my experiences with some kind of interest.

Twice in the last fifteen years, I asked him to give me therapeutical help. As depression was taking a toll on my mental strength, I asked him recently about antidepressants and he gave me Prozac, as if that was part of his professional duties, but said that I would not need it. He recommended instead that I exercise often and learn to meditate. I have not found the time to do physical exercise for the last seventeen years. I heard of the benefit of meditation through Tai Chi though.  I knew that meditation was something that I needed, and that Tai Chi would help my mind relax.

In deep meditation, I realized that I had gone through so many changes in my life. Most of these were unwanted. Changes, when unwanted, engender mental stress. I did not know the word “stress” when I was in Vietnam. The term does not exist in Vietnamese.  I did not hear of Eustress or beneficial stress either. Tai Chi provides me with the opportunity to believe in the Mind effect. I am now more relaxed, less controlled by anxiety.

I remember with horror these long days I dreaded, these mumbling of prayers. It is said that if you recite at least nine times a short prayer every day you would be relieved from the misery of your sufferings. It has not helped me but I still believe that it would eventually. It is believed that you have to recite the prayer continuously for a long time. Am I becoming superstitious? Or is it just a way of find Peace?

Peace is a remedy to stress and a way to experience our inner self. I am now a teacher in a Catholic school. I went briefly to a Catholic school when I was a boy and I still remember a prayer I learned 45 years ago. The atmosphere of a mass celebration in a church subjugates me. Buddhist temples do not give me that effect. I also recently found a reason for hope. I feel that my life is more meaningful since I have something to hope for. Hope gives us the courage to stand up and fight. It gives us the reason to continue the battle, to find that life is still worth living.

Oct 13-2000

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