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, make eye contact, read or write. I lovingly deemed it voluntary meditation prison, and so it was.
While the silence, simplicity, and Dickinson’s ‘corridors of the mind’ are pretty intense already, the physical aspect was most surprising and interesting to me.
I remember my skepticism the first few times I heard a yoga teacher say that emotions are stored in the body. I’ve come a long way since then, in my understanding both of the world and of myself. The seminal book by Bessel van der Kolk , The Body Keeps The Score, comes to mind – a brutal but essential read. My experience at Vipassana cemented the things I’ve learned about the body and trauma, in a way that yoga had not yet in my life. As you sit – and I mean really sit, not a five minutes here and there, or in a candelit yin class – some scary stuff comes up.
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 always had more clicks and cracks in the right hip than the left. I also noticed a ‘contraction’ in my right side body for the month or so before my Vipassana. No matter which leg was crossed in front, or how many pillows I propped under me, the pain was there, and it was persistent.
The sensation grew so strong that, for a second, I thought the bone was going to burst through my skin. That crescendo of pain – pain so loud it washed the world white, then white hot – a blank surface for the subsequent flood of memories. 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 held, and hold, my trauma.
I was experiencing the way my body keeps the score – in an intertwining of physical and mental and emotional, of trauma and memory and flesh. 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. 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.
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. One afternoon, however, I got the burning urge to write, out of fear for forgetting more than anything, and began scheming the ways I could get my hands on pen and paper.
I resisted, and in the end, could remember everything I wanted to – isn’t the mind amazing, and terrifying, in that way? I have always been an observer, a self-narrator, a stories-creator: as Ursula K. Le Guin said, words are my matter. Walking around the beautiful woodsy grounds of the Vipassana centre, I found myself writing and composing and crafting, at length, in my head – 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. Looking at the 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 she said, in other words, that the name 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 appear outright post-apocalyptic to the Indigenous people of this land (that we call Australia).
Sometimes, when I am walking around what I call Melbourne, which I eventually learned is and was called Naarm, I remind myself that Anglicization adorns the destruction of a natural environment, entire societies, cultures, languages, immeasurable harm to individuals and families… that 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 not to say – I repeat the mantra I created for myself during those ten 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.