On this river cruise, I expected a change of scenery and a change of pace, but not such a change of consciousness.
We glided past a pair of white swans. The wake of the boat rolled beneath them as soft as the swan’s feathers. The waves never broke the reflections of the back streaks below their golden eyes in the water. Our ripples were whispers that barely spoke against the shores of the Rhone River. My breath, too, seemed to barely break out of my chest. The quiet of the boat stilled my breath and my thoughts. My mind hovered over the water as still as a pair of swans.
Cruising down the Soane and Rhone Rivers, we passed through the Burgundy and Beaujolais wine country of France. Famous for wines since the days of the Roman Empire, it’s also famous for its grains, minerals, lavender and the exorbitant, effusive light that Van Gogh captured so well at Arles. We’d cruise at speeds governed by tides, “no wake” zones, low bridges and a series of locks.
I had heard of slow food and slow cooking. I knew that slow breathing can attract a mindful state. Usually, my wife and I tour fast and far. We’d driven the Italian E70 roadway from Bergamo to Padua in the acceleration lane. We had careened at night across the Scottish Midlands rounding turns between lakes only inches away from a rock cliff on one side and the steep cliff to the loch on the other side. We’d logged 2,000 miles in two weeks on both trips.
This cruise down the Soane and Rhone Rivers was different. We boarded north of Lyon and the brochures said we’d see castles, churches, museums, villas, valleys and vineyards. The attitude of my looking became more important than what I actually saw.
The boat held 175 passengers and crew and had three deck levels. The observation deck on top held panoramic views and I felt a change as soon as I spent time up there. I went for the views, but stayed for the sense of intimacy with water, air, time and space. We wouldn’t set the timetable on this trip—the current did. We wouldn’t determine what the view—the river would. We had to give up some certainties. I couldn’t hurry the river boat and I didn’t hurry my thoughts.
The boat meandered past villas, parks, bike paths, campgrounds, villages, chateaus, or under bridges without haste or urgency. My breath soon responded to the rhythms of the slow wind turning the leaves of the poplar and plane trees lining the riverbank. My inhales harmonized with the hypnotic churning of the motor. My exhales mirrored the wake as it fanned out across the stern and expanded across the river behind the boat. The pace of the boat seemed the perfect speed for relaxed, but attentive thoughts.
Breath and mind became partners. When both are calm companions, both focus and expand awareness. My attention focused with unaccustomed ease as late afternoon sunlight flushed the vineyards with a glowing green. Stunned into stillness with the sheer lavishness of the light, my mind held its breath.
In two days, when we reached the confluence of the Soane and Rhone rivers at Lyon, my senses seemed to converge as well. Senses mixed like a free association without the normal regard for categories. I heard the sunlight lap over the tops of willows and the red roof tiles. I saw thick blue threads of wind as it folded and unfolded itself over the steep banks of riverside villas and the blue steel hulls of river barges. I smelled the purple of the Pinot Noir grapes and heard the greens heaved over with handfuls of colour. My whole body drank in the scene.
The more relaxed and focused I became, the more joy I felt in both holding onto scenes and in letting them go. I saw families camping and boating along the riverbank. I waved and they waved back. Kids pedaled bikes along the river bank, sometimes riding clear into the water. A man in a boat with his dog, oblivious to the cruise boat and me watching. I watched him and he watched the line of his pole. I watched him until he disappeared around the river bend. Then another came into view, this time it’s a solitary farmhouse between a cornfield and a vineyard. The ancient stone walls are weathered to the colour of a cherished memory.
Scenes come and go all day and all night long. No view is permanent; every scene and every thought is a renegade, always escaping capture. Catching them is like biting off the bluest part of the Beaujolais sky. Once they go, they’re gone forever. Who knew the upper deck would be such a sanctuary, such an ashram for the instruction of mind?
Mindfulness opens up expectation. I could let great beauty pass by without regret, like an open hand releasing a lovely bird. I settled into a relaxed space. The next scene or the next event was experienced for all it’s meant to be. I made room for wonder.
Far from being a passive experience, slow travel is an opportunity for active exercise for a quiet mind. I ended the trip with my senses filled with the intensity of experiences, not the volume consumed. Slow touring invites the mind to sip, not gulp.