Part of Shit and Sugar all in One Breath
Below: Written in March/April 2001 after Vipassana Meditation in Dehra Dun India
I am still trying to digest the past 10 days. I have so much spinning in my head after 10 days of sitting for 10 hours each day and thinking or trying not to think that it is really hard to try to communicate the experience to everyone.
I could not read. I could not write. I could not speak. I could not smile nor show any acknowledgement of others. There were 10 women and 25 men. We had separate eating quarters and sleeping quarters and walking areas. We entered the Dhamma Hall (meditation hall) in separate areas. The room was split by an imaginary line separating men and women. When you do Vipassana, you take 5 precepts: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, and no use of any intoxicants. That part was easy.
The first 3 days we spent 10 hours focusing on the breath, and not trying to control our unruly minds. On day 3, we began vipassana meditation where we spent 10 hours a day concentrating on our sensations, our cravings, our aversions, and our pain. We heightened awareness of our body by tapping into our sensations from our head to our fingers and toes. Through meditation, we felt blind spots and sharp sensations soften. It may not sound so bad, but for me it was hell.
At this time, vipassana meditation felt like the greatest challenge of my life, but 8 years ago when lost in the Andes on an ice climb with six loads of shit trapped in my leggings fearful for my life, one might argue that that was the hardest, most challenging experience in my life, but I can’t compare. Looking back, the harshness of my challenging experiences fades as does this very experience.
Here is a small piece of writing I did while trapped in that hell on day 7 and illicitly took out a piece of paper and wrote.
“While I was learning to meditate, I realized that I am prone to all five causes of suffering: craving, aversion, drowsiness, agitation, and doubt.
I was craving home, swimming in the ponds, running in the woods, hanging out with friends, working in restaurants, and working on my home. I planned all the work I wanted to do on my apartments. I was creating a mental list of everything I needed to do when I got home: call this repairman, apply for this scholarship, pay these bills, etc. Then I realized that this is what you meditate for, to get rid of these obsessive thoughts, and I was adding to them and making them more complicated. My head started to hurt. Then I started thinking I was getting a tumor from thinking too much.
If I was not craving a hamburger, a piece of chicken, Korean food, or an ice cream, I was having major aversion problems, wanting to avoid a pain in this knee, a pain in this ankle, a pain in my shoulder or my lower back, a pain in my jaw or an itch in my skull. I started imagining ants in my hair creating a nest which then became lice or other nauseating insects.
Less so, but when I wasn’t agitated, I was yawning, slumping over, thinking it has to have been an hour by now. I wanted to run out the door to clean my nails. I thought, “Isn’t it over yet?” anticipating the next five minute break between sittings.
I wanted to get up every five minutes to file another nail, scratch my hair, pumice my feet. I have never known body and clothes cleanliness until this week. People were cleaning out their backpacks. I washed my shoes and each and every article of clothing about five times. My nails were filed three times a day. My hair was brushed, braided, twisted into all kinds of knots. I could do nothing except a few things and I did them with dedication, determination, washing every stitch, preening and plucking and picking every nail, hair, pore on my body that needed it or not.
I did not doubt the teacher or the teachings too much but as Goenka (the teacher from the video) said on day six, “You may doubt yourself thinking, ‘well maybe this works for a lot of people, but maybe this is just not for me. Maybe this is just not the right time now.’” I had to laugh, because every day I had these thoughts multiple times allowing myself to not concentrate, to float off into another day dream, to not try harder, to give me a reason to take out a book and start reading, to write in my journal, or to do any of the things they really discouraged doing because they would interfere with the practice.”
In the beginning I looked forward to day five thinking that would be the half way point and it would be downhill from there, but when day five arrived, all I could think was, “Are you f------ kidding me? I have to go through another five days of this hell!!!” It kept getting worse.
On day seven, I had a momentary revelation during an hour of meditation. The sun was shining. In the heat, I felt a halo of coolness around me. An intense energy flowed through my head. Sharp sensations dulled and melted into one large subtle sensation running through my body. I felt a vacuum sucking every thought from my head so I could be in the moment.
I assumed, “Yes, I got it!! I can feel it!! I am reaching enlightenment! I can feel no pain!!” But that was not what Goenka was teaching. When I lost it, this wave of heaviness sank on my head. When I closed my eyes, I started to spin. During one of my two brief sessions with the meditation teacher, I asked him about this. He chuckled and replied, "You are trying too hard." Having never meditated a day in my life, I had no idea what I was supposed to feel.
I thought the last two days would get easier, but they only got worse. I shifted uncomfortably on my sit bones. I moved from cross legged to bent knee positions every few minutes. Minutes felt like hours. Sleep was strained as my body could not distinguish meditation from rest. With eyes closed, my head went into cartwheels. Sitting was an arduous task more taxing that insulating a house or digging tree holes in the hot sun. I’d prefer anything to just sitting.
On day eight, the clouds rolled in. The sun was completely gone. The rain started. Thunder came. I could not bear another hour where Goenkaji told us to sweep through the body feeling subtle sensations. I could not concentrate on the blind spots nor pay attention to the gross sharp sensations. I was done.
On day nine, I tried to bring my awareness to a blind spot that had been ever present in my upper back during the meditation. It was a place I injured back in college after a 25 mile bike ride. My friend and I decided to jump off of a 40 foot bridge into the water. He told me to watch the horizon as it was less scary. I did, but I also watched my feet and noticed I was lying flat the moment before hitting the water. The entire back side of my body was bruised. From that day onwards, I had a point of pain in my back, in the heart meridian, that radiated to my neck and head and caused migraines. Rather than becoming a drug addict to hide my pain, yoga became an essential management tool.
That moment in meditation, my awareness approached the area near my left shoulder which had been a blind spot. However, it shifted to an ache which started to ooze into my lower skull. “Oh, No!” I thought. A migraine was building. I only knew how to cure it with a good run and yoga. I was trapped with the pain. “This meditation is supposed to be healing! What the hell! This is not healing! It is making me sick!” were my immediate thoughts.
For that last hour of meditation with one easy day left on day ten, I tried to run, to get away, to free myself from this hell, this prison, even if just for the night. When I jumped one of the walls and followed the path, there was a road leading to nowhere and gates on all sides. I could push through the bushes, but there were snakes out there. I was trapped. I had to go back. Like a dog with his tail between his legs, I walked through the front gate and directly to my room.
A volunteer approached me in my room. She was advised to bring me back to the dhamma hall. I was crying. She spoke to me, “Are you ok?” Clearly, I was not.
“I feel like I’m going crazy,” I replied.
“You are not doing vipassana unless you feel that way,” she reassured me.
Little did I know how much it would affect me to have someone talk to me, to acknowledge my presence. She led me back to the dhamma hall as was her job. I was hyperventilating. I sat down, sobbing. It was inappropriate for me to be there during this silent attempt at absolute stillness. I wasn’t even close to that.
When the hour finally ended, I saw my roommate, Irene, slip into our room and then out again. She had left a glass of pink and yellow flowers from the tree out back in the small space between my bed and the window sill. They brightened the drab gray room which contained a simple cot and white sheets. I stepped outside and picked a small orange flower and lay it by her bed. I knew I would make it through.
On day ten during the last one hour meditation, I sat more peacefully. As I did one last awareness of breathing and sweeping sensation through my body, the blind spot in my upper back near the left shoulder was gone. The simple or not so simple act of breathing and awareness helped my pain. As a budding osteopath, this lesson would carry with me as long as I would remember. The rain had finally stopped as the noble silence ended and the storm went out of my head.