Continuing on from Part I…
Kanpur, India — December, 2015
On the first morning, I awoke to darkness, fog and the resounding sound of ringing bells throughout the courtyard. It was 4am sharp and the teacher’s assistants were marching through the residence hall giving everyone a flavor of what to expect for the next ten days. It quickly became apparent that they wouldn’t stop ringing their bells and banging on doors until everyone’s lights were on and we were all up and moving. Pulling my head off my pillow was a challenge every morning, but the first morning was particularly hard. December brings quite a chill to Kanpur and even if my rucksack blanket brought little in the way of comfort, the warmth was enough to keep me cocooned in the bed for a few extra minutes after switching on my light.
As I walked out of my quarters towards the meditation hall, I observed my surroundings. The shadowy mist covered everything in site except the shapes of buildings and trees. The ghostly silhouettes of other meditators, still half asleep and floating through the fog, created an eery zombie-like effect. I entered the golden peaked structure for the day’s first sitting meditation. The room was dim with only a few lights illuminating the space and had the essence of mosquito coils that were burning in the entryway. On the floor were several rows of worn meditation pads, which looked like beaten down sofa cushions. The room was divided down the middle; the left side for the men and the right side for the women. There were people of all ages, though the men outnumbered the women by about 35 to 12. I observed as, one-by-one, each person ahead of me was directed to their seats, where they would sit down, find a comfortable cross-legged position, and wrap themselves in burlap blankets. When it was my turn, one of the teacher’s assistants gestured to me, avoiding eye contact, and led me to my place. I sat down and looked up at the front of the room. The teacher was a sickly looking man, who appeared to be in his 70’s or 80’s. He was perched up on a raised platform facing the room, his cane sticking out from the heavy blankets laid over his shoulders. With what seemed like great struggle, he cleared his throat and began to speak, first in Hindi then in very broken English. I made sense of what I could from his brief explanation, took a deep breath and closed my eyes to start my exploration.
The first three days were dedicated solely to sharpening focus, trying to slow down the conveyor belt of endless thoughts that is the human mind. While sitting on the cushion Indian style, the practice was to simply concentrate on the sensations in and around my nose as I breathed. Was it cold, warm, itchy, dry, tingly? I was to simply note the sensations, maintain my breath and keep focused. Easy enough, I thought. I was fully aware of how my mind would jump from thought to thought, but I quickly found out how ceaseless it could actually be. I’d get one or two breaths in and I’d already be onto something else. Breathe in…. I wonder how the Rangers are doing. Breathe in, breathe out…. If there was a catastrophic event while I was stuck in here, would I even know about it? Breathe in… holy shit, my knee, my back, they’re on fire! On and on, the conveyor belt rolled, taking my concentration away from the practice and onto the next thought.
Aside from the simple frustrations of a wandering mind, the first three days were clouded by two other miserable factors. First, I was dealing with yet another bout of travelers’ diarrhea, which made sitting for long periods of time a serious challenge. Second, I was having the worst cycle of cluster headaches in recent memory. Cluster headaches have plagued me since college and can only be described as complete and utter torture. Women who suffer from them claim they can be worse than child birth. Each morning at the same time, the headaches would hit me quickly and with brute force. Excruciating pain would pulsate behind my right eye and reverberate down my face and neck. I would squirm, wince, and be overcome by nausea, but had no choice but to deal with it. Amidst the pain and suffering, time crawled by. At times, I would count down seconds until the sessions would end. I also started to realize that my body did not like sitting cross-legged. As the hours wore on, the aching in my knees, hips, and back intensified.
Hunger was another factor in the beginning. While I would look forward to the meals, they consisted of very basic vegetarian fare that would leave me craving something more. On the third day, after finishing my breakfast of curried stew with rice and a chapati (flat bread), I found myself staring at my empty metal plate when a horrible realization hit me. While I felt like I had already been at the meditation center for a lifetime, it was actually only the third day. I still have 78 hours of meditation left, that’s basically two full work weeks, I thought. That’s too much. All of the sudden, I felt trapped. My chest tightened and I found myself tumbling down a little vortex that told me I needed to get out of there. I shouldn’t be here. I was overcome with an immense feeling of anxiety that put me on the verge of another panic attack. Oh fuck, it’s happening again.
I stood up abruptly, put my hands on the table and took a deep breath. I quickly walked over to the kitchen area, washed my plate and walked out the door. For the next several minutes, I walked around the complex in silence trying to calm myself down. I breathed deeply, trying desperately to employ every and any technique that I had learned in my limited yoga experience. Eventually making my way back to my dorm room, I rested my head on my pillow and counted upwards in my head, taking deep breaths and desperately fighting the anxiety. As I continued to count, I drifted into a liberating sleep.
Upon waking up to yet another sounding of the bells, the anxiety had released its chokehold. Lying there on my sleeping pad, I felt a sense of relief knowing that I had made it through a pivotal moment. I picked up my head, rubbed my eyes and made my way back to the meditation hall for 8 more hours of that days meditation.
While it wasn’t any easier, I no longer felt rushed. Sure, apart of me wondered if I was wasting my time and if this whole experience will actually teach me anything, but I started to fully grasp the idea that this was in fact my own journey. Nobody was going to do this for me so I needed to put in the work and effort. It was time to “start again,” as the teacher kept saying.
While still feeling frustrated, confused and exhausted at times, day 4 brought welcome news that we would advance the practice and start focusing on full body sensations. While I hadn’t come close to mastering the first three days, I felt like I’d go crazy if I had to keep doing the same thing. The instruction was simple; starting at my head, I was to focus on the sensations at each part of my body. Once I became aware and acknowledged a sensation, I could move on to the next part. Top of my head, tingles… forehead, a light itch… eyes, perhaps a tired sensation… nose, cold… All the way down to my toes. If sensations, itches, pains, or cramps popped up elsewhere, simply acknowledge them, not react, and get back to the body scan. It proved to be far more difficult than expected. I kept losing focus before I even got to my forehead. I kept trying and kept failing. After a full day of getting nowhere near a full head to toe body scan, I felt defeated. Meanwhile the pain elsewhere in my body intensified. My mid back was screaming and my back and hips were locking up. After my pivotal day three, I once again found myself in familiar territory. What the fuck am I doing here?
On day 5, I felt like I finally needed some clarity and direction. Each day from 12–12:30, the old teacher made himself available to answer any questions, which also meant I could break noble silence, albeit for a short moment. My question was simple, how the heck can I stay focused long enough to finish a full body scan? His explanation was equally simple and he told me I was forgetting one of the principles, which was to forgive myself, not get angry and just start again. There was no such thing as perfection and I shouldn’t be striving for it. If my mind drifted by the time I got down to my forehead, that was okay because that’s what the mind does. Instead of restarting all the way at the top of my head, I can start again at my forehead and continue on. It was simple, but something I wasn’t accustomed to and therefore was driving myself crazy seeking the perfect practice.
He finished with simple words; “It’s a silly mind, a naughty mind. Be happy.” Those words, while short and sweet, lifted the frustrations and carried me through the rest of the day and multiple full body scans.
The next morning, on the 6th day, I finally felt it… A shift…
Stay tuned for Part III!