At the end of September – a while ago, now, because in blog world time passes faster than Earth world, or something like that – I sat my first Vipassana. You might know Vipassana as a ten day meditation where you cannot speak, communicate, lock eyes with anyone, read, write, or contact the outside world. In addition, you eat only two meals a day, and wake up at 4 am to meditate.
I lovingly deemed it voluntary meditation prison, and so it was.
While the silence and simplicity of the experience are already, well, high barriers for entry and enjoyment–and those Dickinson-ian ‘corridors of the mind’ are pretty intense (what, you mean, you don’t want to re-live every painful/cringe/embarrassing moment of your life? or remember the interior design of each bedroom of every childhood sleepover you’ve ever had?)–what was most surprising for me, and perhaps, most difficult, was the sheer physical pain.
Namely, how much of it there was.
Yes, there is the straining pain of sitting upright, for ten hours a day, for ten days straight.
But there is a pain that is much more, and deeper than that, also.
I remember my skepticism the first few times I heard a yoga teacher say that emotions are stored in the body. It sounds like such a yoga teacher thing to say. I’ve come a long way since then, in understanding both the world and myself (one and the same, really), and this Vipassana showed me how much emotions are really connected to/expressed through the body.
After a few days of meditation, my right sitting bone started bothering me. I don’t have an injury that I am aware of, but for as long as I can remember, have experienced more clicks and cracks in the right hip than the left . It started getting more intense–no matter which leg was crossed in front, or how many pillows I propped under me, the pain was there, and it was persistent.
One day, the sensation grew so strong that, for a second, I thought the bone was going to burst through my skin. Really. That crescendo of pain – pain so loud it washed the world white, then white hot – was a blank surface for a subsequent flood of memories. Every memory, that I remembered or didn’t want to remember, that had caused me pain, washed back over me. It surfaced that what I was feeling was not just physical, nor the ego’s association with the pain.
My right sitting bone was, and is, the place I hold onto trauma.
The seminal book by Bessel van der Kolk , The Body Keeps The Score, comes to mind – a brutal but essential read. His message is, largely, what the title suggests. Our body holds on to the pain. Like a little lock, or a blockage of chi, or a sinew, almost, our contractions become captured in the body.
It’s not just a yoga teacher thing.
During my Vipassana, I experienced the way my body keeps the score – in an intertwining of physical and mental and emotional, of trauma and memory and flesh.
It came to me clear as day yet difficult to place. It came to me in feeling, as tears streamed down my face in the quiet of the meditation hall.
It is an ancient raveling up of mine, a knot of some kind. One that has so far stymied intellectualization, one that I will continue to be unraveling and releasing for some time.
To continue on the thread of intellectualization, if I may – you cannot read or write during a Vipassana. I thought this would bother me more than it did. I have always been an observer, a self-narrator, a stories-creator: as Ursula K. Le Guin said, words are my matter.
One afternoon, I got the burning urge to write, out of fear for forgetting some of the things I was experiencing, more than anything, and began scheming the ways I could get my hands on pen and paper. At that desperate moment, a spare toilet paper roll and a Sharpie started to look like the fucking holy grail.
I resisted, and in the end, could remember everything I wanted to – back to Dickinson’s corridors, well, isn’t the mind amazing, and terrifying, in that way?
Even when I wasn’t dreaming about breaking the rules by scribbling on toilet paper, as I walked around the beautiful woodsy grounds of the Vipassana centre, I found myself writing and composing and crafting, at length – and when I tried to stop the stream of narration, I started to count my steps:
1, 2, 3, 4… around the bend
1, 2, 3, 4… by the flowers
1, 2, 3, 4… up the hill
One day I realized that the constant need for commentary and quantification simply put me at odds with the boundless,
the boundless potential
the boundless blurred
seams of my breath.
A memory – when my mother visited me in my new home for the first time. We went out to the Heide Museum for a day. Walking around the grounds, looking at the modern sculptures next to beautiful big white trees, I explained with glee that people here call them ghost gums.
She wasn’t impressed.
I didn’t get it until recently, but as she said, in other words, having a name or a label was a bit limiting for the expansiveness of a tree. By naming it, people changed it, made it less interesting.
One of my professors once said, in passing, how this city and many of the things I love about it – parks and public transport and bike paths and universities – would and do appear outright post-apocalyptic to the Indigenous people of this land (of which sovereignty has never been ceded, of which we call Australia).
Sometimes, when walking around what is often called Melbourne, which I eventually learned is in actuality called Naarm by the Indigenous tribes of this area, I remind myself that Anglicization adorns the destruction of a natural environment, and entire societies. A socially acceptable, Instagrammable, highly livable, post-apocalyptic playground of erased culture and languages, immeasurable harm to individuals and families.
And so – I must watch what I call things, what I trust in a name. Because words can be destructive in their banality, as well as their boundlessness-defying boundaries.
When I am swept over by waves of memories – of imprinted and raveled up trauma, of physical strains and emotional pains – of things to be righted and things to reconsider and things not to say – I repeat the mantra I created for myself during those ten brutally beautiful and painful days of meditation.
A good reminder for any time, I think:
that the mind thinks it knows many things
but the center knows no pain.
With a holding & sometimes equanimous heart,
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