The first story of my first Vipassana–physical transformation

Inuksuk atop Athabasca Falls in the Canadian Rockies (July 2011)

When my mother shared her physical transformation story of dissolving a troublesome nodule in her neck in her second 10-day Vipassana in 2014, it made me curious about this body of work available in open source. I was inspired to try one day. Eventually, I got to my first 10-day Vipassana in April 2018. I got a lot from it and physical transformation is just one. This post, purposefully written in present tense, shares my experience.

Day 7 afternoon

I decide that when the silence breaks in the late morning of Day 10, my first phone call will be to my friend Bhakti Naik and not my family. To ask her what is wrong with me.

Bhakti is an orthopedist who knows and understands me well. I will describe the massive inflammation inside my body in specific detail. I will describe exactly where it is; how this inflammation is headquarters to a network of shooting pains between parts of my body; how this pain impacts the cadence of my heartbeats and breathing; the thought patterns and postures that affect the pain; and the precise location of other smaller inflammations that seem to feed from it.

She will tell me what my ailment is and how bad it is. I fear the worst.

Day 8 evening

The inflammation headquarters start to dissolve. It feels like a pool of hardened mucus that is liquifying. I vividly feel the pus dripping under my skin. My head feels lighter. My limbs loosen up. The urine I pass in the break after that one-hour meditation session has a horrible smell that my over-sensitized senses cannot escape. My body is able to hold the posture of sleeping straight on my back through the night without feeling the twitch to change.

Day 9

My body is finally able to hold the cross-legged position for a full hour of meditation without fighting pains I must let go off to focus on my meditation. Through the day, the remaining inflammation left in the headquarters gets nuked.

Let’s start from the beginning.

The eve of Day 0

I wake up many times in the middle of the night to sit cross-legged and close my eyes. This is a dry run for what I will have to do for 13.5 hours a day for 10 straight days. I do not last for more than a few minutes without hunching or resting on my hands or breaking the posture to deal with the resulting pains. I remember it being this way since my teens. How was I going to get through this!

The challenge of being silent does not bother me, neither does hunger, isolation nor discomforts of a modest accommodation. The fear of physical pain seems the biggest barrier to make it through 10 days of Vipassana successfully. I decide to request back support at check in.

Day 0 afternoon

At the check in counter, I request back support. The volunteer takes a close look at me and talks me out of it. “You can always ask the teacher for it if you decide you still need it”, he says.

Day 2 afternoon

I writhe in pain, in my back and legs, as I try to focus on the sensations in my nostrils while breathing in and out. The pain is causing the same sniffling in my breathing that happens right after crying.

Me (to teacher): This is really painful. I want back support.

Teacher: You can get it, but I would not recommend it.

Me: But why? This is intolerable now. I am not able to focus on my meditation.

Teacher: You will see on Day 3 or 4.

Me: Is the pain going to go away?

Teacher: The pain will remain. The suffering will go away.

I walk back to my spot, wriggle on the two mini pillows under my butt, adjust to what I consider the perfect position, and close my eyes to continue following instructions.

Day 3 afternoon

I start feeling three types of sensations in my body for the first time in my life.

  1. The wave. Like tides in the ocean that seem to sway the body in smooth oscillations. I get self conscious and open my eyes to see if anyone is watching me sway. The waves are still there but the amplitude seems too small to notice externally.
  2. The current. Like a flicker that cuts horizontally across the body. Like the wave, it is soothing and seems to show up in different parts of my body. Seems to show up inside any part that I choose to observe.
  3. The pulse. Like the one in the veins of your wrist when you put your fingers on it. Except this is inside the body. Anywhere I observe. The frequency of the pulse seems different from the heartbeat’s, or breathing. The pulse is versatile. It can be local to one small or large area, or horizontal like the current. The pulse is now my best friend.

Later in the day, the teacher introduces the technique of Vipassana. The meditation switches from Anapana to Vipassana. The teacher talks about these sensations. Different people get it at different times, he says. Some don’t. And it’s okay.

Day 4

Vipassana involves observing the body from the inside one part at a time. I start observing as instructed. The pulse traverses with me.

I discover knots that are generating pain in the body. I can observe the pain as violent emissions of current, originating at specific points that seem inflamed. Pain looks like electric shocks that originate at the knot and emit out to other parts of the body. The pulse is overpowered by these shocks while trying to cross those knots.

Then I discover dormant parts where the pulse is lost and there is no sensation at all.

Now the magic begins!

As the pulse goes repeatedly past the knots, it starts overpowering them. The knots start to untie. Inflammations start to dissolve.

Similarly, as the pulse goes repeatedly past dormant parts, it starts awakening them. Dormant parts start to shrink. All parts start experiencing the pulse.

I name this healing pulse the life-force.

Over the next two days, I nuke multiple knots in my back, and awaken my dormant core and shoulders.

Day 6

The pain in my right leg has amplified. Pains seem to follow the pattern of flaring up with high frequency and amplitude before dissolving to oblivion. The right knee should behave similarly. It does not.

The pain seems to move from knee to ankle, and then back to the knee. It isolates to the area right under the outer side of the knee cap. In my attempt to unleash the life-force on it, the pain gets worse. It refuses to dissolve. Then again, it doesn’t look like an inflamed knot either.

The instruction specifically says not to spend more than a few minutes at the pain points and move on to continue observing. Second guessing the instruction has not helped. I choose to follow. This results in a new revelation.

The pain seems to now move between the knee and groin, instead of the knee and ankle. The right groin reveals itself as the headquarters of inflammation. This certainly feels like an inflamed knot. A massive one.

I am shocked to observe that the pain has now vanished from the knee. What was my focus for the last two days was a waste. A decoy.

This is confusing.

The newly found inflammation under the groin seems nasty. It beams out shockwaves to the knee and ankle. It seems to connect with earlier nuked knots in the upper hip and upper back too, trying to reinstate them. The heartbeat and breathing fumble each time it sends out the shockwaves. This center of pain seems to be controlling my body. It controls my posture, my breathing, my actions, and my thought processes.

I attempt groin stretches that night. It makes no difference to the pain. This is deeper than a muscular pain and somewhere between the pelvic area and lower hip bone. I try to reach it like in a deep tissue massage. I try multiple angles. I can’t reach it. This is quite confusing.

Day 7

I have done enough to observe the pain in detail, and not much to dissolve it. I am convinced this will not dissolve during this 10-day Vipassana. I decide that when the silence breaks in the late morning of Day 10, my first phone call will be to Bhakti and not my family. To ask her what is wrong with me. I fear the worst.

Day 8

So far, we were observing the body one part at a time, also one side at a time. Left toes, then left ankle, then left calf, then left knee, then left thigh, then left pelvis and so on.

Now the instruction says continue one part at a time, but both sides simultaneously. This means observe both left and right toes, then ankles, then calfs, then knees, then thighs, then pelvis, etc. when making your way up, and similarly on the way down.

The results are profound. The pains in the right are now appearing as acutely in the left, like a mirror image. From being non-existent while traversing the left to being as acute as the right, within minutes.

Am observing both knees now. Both seem heated with pain. Now the pain is evaporating. The knees seem to be lifting themselves up, just as the steam in a cooker pushes the lid up intermittently to get out. And it does. The knees feel cool now. Noticeably cooler and relaxed. All this happens within seconds. This is unreal.

I move upwards towards the pelvis. The inflammation seems to be concentrated on the right, but the pain seems to be equalizing between left and right. It’s the like the right groin is saying to the left, “hey can you help?” and the left says, “sure, thanks for asking!”. The body seeks balance. I simply had to ask.

It seems, when my brain is dealing with problems, it seems to apply asymmetric and unnatural strain to some parts. This slowly inflames those parts and makes the other parts (that should naturally contribute) dormant.

Balancing and equalizing continues. When I focus on the inflammation in the right pelvis only, the pain increases. When I focus on the right and left together, the pain starts to evaporate outward. Like pouring water on a flame.

The inflammation headquarters start to dissolve.

Day 10

I call my wife, then parents, sister, in-laws, and colleagues.

I call Bhakti. She says I have (correction: had) sacroiliac joint dysfunction. It is the joint where the sacrum (lower spine) connects to the ilium (pelvic bone).

The brain sends signals through the spinal cord. The exiting nerves in the sacrum are responsible for signaling the lower back, pelvis and legs all the way down to the toes.

She is surprised that I isolated it down to the pelvic region, and has never heard a patient say that. Patients describing pains in lower back, knee or ankle are usually candidates for this condition. In my case, these are stress induced and impact the right side of my body because I am right-handed. She says I should be prepared for it to recur.

1 week later

My posture and gait have changed for the better. I noticeably feel more balanced. My heartbeat and breathing is smooth. My sleep is noticeably more peaceful. I can sit cross-legged on the floor for over an hour at one stretch.

8 months later

I have the following observations at the time of writing this blog. I can see that when solving a problem at hand, my brain applies strain to my right limbs, as if to set them in action to solve the problem immediately. Anytime I find myself fighting or resisting a thought, the circuit to operate my right limbs gets activated while the left gets ignored.

I can observe how this predisposition is slowly creating inflammations at the key connectors in the right side of my body, especially the parts whose job is to perform external action (like the limbs). When I become mindful of this behavior, I take a pause to observe the left counterpart of the right organ under strain. I feel a sudden rush of blood inside that equalizes the pain and there is immediate relief. However, the ability to stay mindful diminishes every day without regular meditation. Bhakti’s warning is turning out to be prescient.

The inflammation that dissolved in my Vipassana was accumulated over a lifetime due to this predisposition. I feel grateful to be aware of this, and have access to a method that lets me correct it.