On the morning of day 6, I finally felt it, a shift.
Once again, I was awoken at 4am by the sound of bells rattling unremittingly throughout the courtyard. I opened my eyes, ran my hands over my face, and felt the same heavy feeling in my chest that I do most mornings. It’s a feeling that sits in my chest and weighs on my shoulders. It pecks at me like a nagging burden or obligation that makes facing my day that much more arduous. Most days, I just avoid it in hopes that someday it will just go away. Today was different, however. For the first time, I felt fully aware of the fact that that feeling in my chest was anxiety, plain and simple. I exist with anxiety, it’s a part of me. And I accept it.
After months of struggling to reconcile my panic attack, it was clear that it wasn’t just a freak occurrence; rather, it was a culmination of something that I had fought and suppressed for most of my life. I had been in total denial about this simple fact and it was all of the sudden clear to me that the suppression of my anxiety was a major source of my “suffering,” as the old teacher kept referring to. The clarity I felt in that moment was enlightening. As I got out of bed, I carried that epiphany into that day’s meditation, which acted as a seed for deeper and more lucid introspection. My mind was guiding me into new rabbit holes in which I could further explore truths about my existence.
Beyond anxiety, I started understanding other personal impediments that I carry with me in my life. At each turn, I became fully aware and connected with the sensations that I associate with the things I carry. They brought me back to moments in my life that I had not thought about in years, if ever.
I thought back to a moment during my early high school hockey days when I was third string goalie, not even suiting up. At the end of games, it was my job to carry the team’s sticks back to the locker room. After the final buzzer sounded, I grabbed the awkward stack of lumber and stepped onto the ice, shuffling my shoes across the rink to our locker room. I was about halfway across when the sticks started to slip out of my arms. As I struggled to hold on, my feet slipped out from under me on the ice, sending me onto my ass and the sticks flying across the ice in a loud succession of clacks. My clumsiness drew laughter from the large crowd as one of the older players skated by and said, “nice job, retard.” As I relived the moment in my mind, I relived the embarrassment that radiated up my body from the pit of my stomach to my chest as I scrambled to pick up the sticks wanting nothing more than to retreat under a rock. I realized that humiliation, or the fear of humiliation, sits awkwardly on my shoulders every day. It may show itself when I walk into a room or in the middle of the night, but it has a distinct effect on my behavior.
Later in the day, I found myself exploring a third sensation that took me a little longer to pinpoint. I thought back to a moment in my childhood when my parents were outwardly comparing the quality of US education (mine) and that of Europe’s (their friend’s kids). They kept saying how their friend’s kids speak five languages while I was about seven years old and spoke one and a half. I was too young to make any informed conclusions other than I’m not good enough or smart enough. Logical reasoning now leads me to believe that that wasn’t what my parents were saying, although I didn’t start speaking until I was three so maybe it was! I was a late bloomer in many other ways. I also thought back to the insecurity that engulfed me in high school, whether it was in the hallways, at parties, or even amongst buddies. While I had plenty of friends and played hockey, I recalled how insufficient I felt, particularly around girls, and how I constantly feared being exposed. This looming feeling led to countless awkward moments and interactions that I can think back to and still cringe at the awkwardness. I realized that inadequacy, or feelings of inadequacy, is something that I’ve carried with me for most of my life.
As I was flooded with these revelations, I started to piece together how each effected different aspects of my life; in family dynamics, friendships, relationships, work, and even the simple day-to-day tasks. Over the years, I had worked so hard to construct confidence and conviction in my life. In doing so, I ignored, avoided or suppressed all these other realities. I was lying to myself and creating a very shaky ground on which to walk.
With nothing to write or takes notes with at the meditation center, I knew I was at the mercy of my memory and was in danger of letting this awakening slip away. I had learned in college that acronyms, visualization and association can aid memorization so I started searching for something that would allow me to retain the insights into my not-so-cool self. This is how I found the fish.
Anxiety… humiliation…. inadequacy… AHI… Ahi tuna… Ahi tuna is yellowfin tuna… Within minutes, I had the image of a big yellow fin tuna, staring at me in the face. All those feelings that I had suppressed for so long had taken the tangible form of a big fish. This fucking fish, unbeknownst to me, had been tormenting me for years. I found it and accepted it as part of me. And the acceptance of this nemesis made those feelings much less intimidating.
That day, I gained an awareness of myself that never existed before. By no means were my feelings of anxiety, humiliation and inadequacy eradicated, nor was that the point. Rather, that big, slippery, cumbersome fish I had been blindly carrying on my back while navigating my life was no longer such a nuisance. The fish wasn’t going away, but instead of carrying it on my back, I had built it a wheelbarrow with which I could push it along with greater ease.
As the days rolled by, things didn’t get any easier, but they did get better. While I still struggled and counted down minutes, the effects of my practice had continued taking shape. I found myself feeling stronger physical sensations, sitting for longer periods of time, and completing full body scans without my mind drifting off. When my mind did wander, it continued going places that I hadn’t been in a very long time, or ever. Moments from my past that could have seemed totally inconsequential came back to me with clarity of their true significances.
While each hour and day brought me closer to freedom, I was valuing the unencumbered time that I had to myself. I thought about important people in my life; friends, families, ex-girlfriends. I’d occasionally bring myself to tears with total love and gratitude for those people. I thought about unresolved conflicts or moments in which I could’ve been more honest with others or myself. It became clear that the quality of my relationships outweighed so much of the bullshit I had spent my time thinking or worrying about. All the unreturned text messages, phone calls and emails from people who loved me seemed so careless, as did my tepidness for potential conflict at the expense of honesty.
I felt a new sense of balance and transparency in how I would approach the good and the bad in life moving forward. I couldn’t wait to get back out into the world. As the final day drew nearer, I felt lighter and happier. I wouldn’t say totally happy, because struggles still existed, but no doubt I felt happier.
The End of Noble Silence
As the final minutes of the final meditation ended, I was filled with excitement. The last ten days had easily been one of the most difficult, yet profound experiences of my life. I’ve always been a person who values solitude and had begun to enjoy the silence. I appreciated the time away from the outside world and getting to know myself, though I only scratched the surface. In the closing minutes of Noble Silence, the thought of talking to a bunch of strangers seemed like a major effort. I still had so much to process. Yet, a strange thing had happened throughout.
Without speaking, there were bonds created with certain people in the Vipassana with whom I had felt compassion and identification, even without speaking or making eye contact. When we were finally able to speak, I gravitated to those people, and vice versa. We had all shared such an experience and developed our own opinions of each other. One such person was a young India guy named Krishna. He was doing the Vipassana as the kick-off to his great adventure. He was leaving his hometown and family in the North of India to pursue his Bollywood dream in Mumbai. I had noticed his incredible calm and seemingly impeccable meditation. During my bouts of agony and broken practice, he was always sitting completely still and never seemed to move, which just added to my frustration that I was doing it wrong. Yet, when we finally spoke, he told me the same thing. He said that he was ready to give up at one point, but watching me inspired him to keep going.
I shared many other meaningful conversations that day, but the greatest conversations during my Vipassana had taken place with myself. In leaving Kanpur, I felt great anticipation for what lay ahead. I was honored to have been a part of the practice and equally proud that I had made it all the way through. I can’t say for sure that I had experienced “spirituality” as others would define it, but I defined my own meaning throughout my journey. Getting introduced to meditation and my ahi tuna was the first big step in my path towards mindfulness.