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Memories of Vietnam - Intention Then and Now

Sometimes I sit watching a sunset and let my mind wander through the maze of human experiences which led me to the work I do as a couples counselor and workshop leader. The path took me through several relationships and some serendipitous turns. One of the most important "turns" was a decision to go teach in Viet Nam at the height of the war in 1968-9.

I was fortunate to have experiences there at age 24 that indelibly imprinted my mind with the dramatic power of intention. While teaching English at the Buddhist University in Saigon, a round of incoming mortar shells shook the buildings and shattered windows. Gunfire and yelling ensued. The electricity went out, and pandemonium erupted inside and out of my darkened classroom. I was young, inexperienced and untested. I had a lot to learn about teaching and even more to learn about intention. Years later, those experiences in Viet Nam enrich my couples therapy practice as I work with clients to help them unscramble and then focus their intentions.

My own ability to honor intention was tested on many occasions that year. The University shelling occurred a few weeks after I arrived in Viet Nam. I had been informed that guerrilla soldiers from the Vietnamese Communist Army infiltrated many English classes because they, too, wanted to learn the language. Although the majority of my students were Buddhist monks or nuns, a quarter were young males, some who were serious students and some who were trying to avoid the draft. Reportedly some were also clandestine "enemy" soldiers.

When the room went dark, some of the young men began loud, disruptive behavior, even throwing books and chairs. I felt overwhelmed with panic and could not move or speak. Time stood still. I wanted to run--somewhere--to make my way to the door and get out of the classroom. The shelling seemed to be stopping, but outside, intermittent gunshot sounded and screams were punctuated with loud, barking dogs. There were dangers inside and outside that room. The extremely limited range of other choices forced me to reach for the best in myself--it was done in desperation. A small, quiet voice within began grounding me. I reached way down and found a courage I had yet to meet in myself. I stood my ground and found my voice.

I asked the students to repeat after me as I continued the lesson I had been teaching when the mortars hit. The university hallways were in chaos, and not one student repeated after me. Again I spoke. Again no one responded. Matters were completely out of control with the "mob" element in my classroom. Then I breathed deeply, and heard the voice of intention inside me clearly say, "I came here to teach. I did not come here for war. I will teach until they drag me from this room."

The very energy of the room changed when I totally aligned my intention. Love over fear. I spoke softly, and the two nuns repeated after me this time. Others joined us. Soon everyone in the room was concentrating on learning English. Things gradually settled down inside and outside in the street. When the lights came on 20 minutes later, we didn't miss a beat. I walked around overturned chairs and over books on the floor. After the bell rang, students quietly put the room back in order and bowed to me as they left the room silently. I have thought about that night many times in the last 30 years. It was a dramatic example of going through a wall of fear by clearly aligning intention and behavior....fueled by the sure knowledge that there was no where to run. This experience has been such a powerful influence on who I am as a person, and as a counselor for couples and families.

Shortly after the shelling incident I met a young monk in my classes who confronted himself and his fears head on. Life presented him with a severe test and I ultimately got to play a part with him in an unfolding drama.

So many students wanted to study with an American, that the University strictly limited each of my English conversation classes to 50 students. Teaching over 20 hours each week meant little opportunity for me to get to know individual students. As this young monk entered my classroom on that particular day, it dawned on me that he had already attended a previous session of this class that morning. I was now curious and it showed on my face. He was aware that I had suddenly realized he was attending all my classes. I sensed him becoming shy and attempting to melt into anonymity.

When class ended, the young monk asked to speak to me privately. We found an isolated study alcove and sat across from each other. Intensity blazed in his eyes. He haltingly apologized for his broken English, and then blurted out, "I want learn English now. Please, you teach me. Don't make I stop coming all classes!" Calling on my meager Vietnamese and French to supplement the English, I was able to reassure him that he could attend all my classes, regardless of the class size restrictions. He relaxed and began telling me about his life in the Buddhist temple where his parents had left him at age five.

Later, he began collecting money from me for the poor. Our friendship was growing and he told me more about his life. One day he tried -- in three languages -- to share something important with me about who he was. The frustration was apparent as he struggled to express himself in this foreign language. I knew he wanted more from me than a mere understanding of the words he was speaking. After some time, he closed his eyes, tears streaming down his face and he quietly and passionately said, "Try understand me, I only can say in Vietnamese, TOI LA TOI! TOI LA TOI!"

Literally, he was saying, "I am I." Our eyes met. Recognition was instant. I spoke slowly, "You are saying that you are you. You must live by your own truth. You want to be free to be who you are." I did not know what the intensity was about, but great joy appeared on his face when he knew that I understood. I also did not know that he was about to become a model for me of someone standing in his own truth, beyond dogma and entrenched tradition. His next statements were dramatic. He was in trouble for infractions against Buddhist traditions. The temple's elder monks wanted him defrocked.

I was in Viet Nam because of my deeply held convictions that human beings must find other ways than war to solve human problems. We became brothers-in-arms in a different kind of war. A war in which the enemy was the unquestioning adherence to convention, culture or ideology.

Within a few days, he carried me on his motorcycle (another infraction) through the streets of Saigon to visit his temple and to meet his best friend, a young blind monk who was in as much trouble as he was. They quickly led me away from the temple through alleys and paths to a small building erected with beer cans and other recycled material. Small children were all around. They took me into the "home" and placed a baby in my arms and introduced me to the oldest of the children--a very small 14-year-old girl.

"We collect money for this family of seven children to buy rice," he said. Now I knew where my money had been going. "Their parents were killed in the middle of the night not long ago by the VC. Nobody knows why. The children were there when it happened. Blood was everywhere and their parents were dead. They are terrified and they cry at night, so we sneak back here after prayers and stay with them." I was beginning to understand.

I asked why the elder monks were threatening to defrock them for helping these children. "It is because she is a girl and she's 14 years old." He said. "We are monks. It is not appropriate for us to stay in the house...but no one else helps them. All their relatives live far away and are very poor. The only way they could help the children would be to divide them and place them with different relatives in different cities. The children absolutely refuse to separate. At first we obeyed the elders, but in the end we can not. We hear them cry at night and we cannot leave them here alone. So we come. And now the elder monks want our robes and want us to leave in shame. But I will not surrender. That would be shame."

The strength of his intention, his conviction, moved me. He had led a monk's life since he was five years old. It was all he wanted to do and to be, yet he risked that to do what his heart told him was right. In a culture where rules for the proper behavior of monks were deeply cast, he went inside his heart and chose to take on a tremendous challenge. Sometimes the heart knows it cannot listen to reasons.

The battle with the temple elders heated up. The young renegade monk learned of a European-sponsored orphanage called SOS Village outside of Saigon that took whole families of children and did not separate them. They trained mature Vietnamese single women and aunties to run a household and provided the children a real home to live in. The only obstacle was that their next of kin had to sign legal papers to get the children into the orphanage. That seemed hopeless, since no relative would sign to allow the children to leave the circle of their extended family. They, too, were following what they thought was best. Realistically, however, they could do little to help feed or care for the children. So the young monk took drastic measures and invited me to take up the arms of love with him.

He came to me. Within a short time, I found myself standing with this 21-year-old young man, still wearing a monk's robe, facing city officials in a hot, dirty and crowded social services building. With a straight face, we proclaimed that we were the children's parents and that we wanted to give them up for adoption. I was 24 years old and quite obviously an American. The official looked incredulously from me to the monk. Time seemed to stand still. We stood bravely, terrified. Then, he quietly took the small amount of money we offered under the pile of legal documents and signed and stamped what we needed. We never looked back as we ran for the motorbike. We took "our" seven children, ages 10 months to 14 years to the orphanage ourselves, not long before I left Viet Nam.

Author with Children at SOS Village, near Saigon. 1969

When I was preparing to leave the country after my year of teaching, he came to the house to say goodbye. He presented me with a gold pendant from the university students, which I wear almost every day even now. Obviously, he'd been out collecting money again--for a good cause. Food for hungry orphans, bribery of officials, and now gold for an American woman. We shared tears and a deep connection. He spoke English quite well by then, since he had continued to get more than his money's worth as a student by attending every English class he could. On that day, he still wore his robe---with pig-headed, grit determination---knowing he was innocent of the greater infraction.

I am certain he did many other impossible things after I left, and perhaps paid a high price for being who he was. When I went back to Vietnam in 1972, I could not find the young monk. And although I sadly cannot now remember his name, he taught me something about loving, living in integrity, and the power of aligned intention. Maybe he was defrocked. Maybe not. I continue to seek ways to help myself and others understand what it means to align with our intention to love and to be able to live with the consequences. It is clear that for him being a monk was a condition of the heart. It couldn't be used in the service of abandoning children who fell through the cracks of a society at war. I am comforted by that.

Now, day by day I work with couples who are experiencing problems they cannot yet resolve. Many of them are close to giving up by the time they come to therapy or a workshop. Their relationships may even feel like war zones to them. I can sense the level of intention each one has for working through their gridlocked differences. Sometimes I share a story with them that was told to me by a therapist whom I met in New Zealand. When her own relationship was crumbling, she traveled far in desperation to survey the three healthiest long-term committed couples she knew. She had known them all for many years and saw these couples as rock solid. They all told her basically the same thing. She summarized it like this: "The first few years were tough as hell, and the only way we made it was by 'pig-headed, grit determination!!!' It's much easier now," they said, "but it still takes the same thing--pig-headed, grit determination and sheer intention not to let the hard times defeat us." She said she took this wisdom home and aligned her intentions in her own relationship.

Without doubt there are relationships that are best ended. There are times when divorce is the right choice. Separations and divorces are complex and can't be summed up in a few sentences. After years of working as a couples counselor, however, I now believe there are many more times when the endings are a result of our lack of deep integrity and personal accountability and the lack of intention to do what it takes. This is tough counsel. It has made me look long and hard at my own divorces and endings. It has humbled me to see how many times I and most of us seem to need to learn and relearn our lessons, and then learn them yet again. Creating a successful and happy long-term relationship takes attention and intention. I remember more than one client saying, "I'll do anything to save this marriage. Anything!" Then later, after the crisis calms a bit and the real work of therapy begins, there is a powerful eruption of denial, blaming, defensiveness and resistance. It is as if the client is saying, "Not me, not this and not now." The problem is not really me. I know in theory that we generate problems out of our own "stuff"--- but not this problem, and I don't need to change or grow now. If my partner would only change...."

Usually about this time I announce that I am curious about their definition of "anything". Once in a while someone really gets it...they become quiet and ponder their own unwillingness to do even one thing differently, realizing they once said that they'd do "anything" to make their relationship work. They may even look again at their earlier desperation and begin to wonder if "anything" included selling themselves out in their relationship. Then things get even more complex. Perhaps they now begin to understand that truly, it is not about the other person very much at all.

Not all therapy facilitates this kind of journey. Modern therapy is often unwittingly willing to hear only one side of a story and then support a client (who believes it's about the other person) to end a relationship or marriage. When you leave, you are likely dragging a suitcase full of "you" with you.

It is a courageous step to go from the place of "Not me, not this, and not now," to "It's about me, it's about this, and it's about now." Not everyone reaches way down and finds the courage to confront themselves and take this step. It is much easier to quit, or to continue believing the other person is in control of what happens next. When someone sits quietly with the awareness of their own smallness or their own fear and does not avoid it, the world is never the same. For me, sitting in a room with a person who takes these challenges on is quietly, breathtakingly moving.

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