Vipassana: Musing on Pain and the Brain at a 10 day Retreat

I’ve been writing a sort of series about my experiences at my first Vipassana Retreat.  You can start at the beginning if you like…


Meaning… this too shall pass…

Monday Monday happy Monday to you all!

I’m back with a cup of tea and the Meditative Monkey to muse a while on my personal meditation practice. Today’s musings take us back to the … physical discomfort… I experienced at the retreat.

Physical discomfort… or what Goenka refers to as “solidified gross physical sensations” translated to WRACKiNG PHYSICAL PAIN for me.  And I mean those capital letters.  I was a fiery ball of pain from day 2 on I think.  To tell the truth I probably should have written about this earlier, because the memory of pain fades with time. Thank GAWD.

To give you a sense of how I felt… I’ll dip back into a letter I wrote to Lady K shortly after the retreat:

It is so much physically harder to SIT than I had ever imagined.  I was a fiery ball of pain by day 2.  They do not tell you “how to sit” because… it is meant to be an entirely personal, totally experiential, experience and so… each of us needs to find the way we need to sit.  (I figured this out as we went along – they don’t say anything about it except that each of us will have our own experience and that the strength of this technique of meditation is that it is entirely experiential).  All they say is to keep your back and neck straight – that this will help “in the long run”.  

By midway through Day 2, the only way I could sit and not DIE was to bend my knees up in front of me and to hug my legs with my arms. Sort of lock it in and HOLD.

On day three, at noon, I asked the assistant teacher if I could move to the wall.  She said I could try it and to “feel free to move back and forth between the wall and my spot.”  

For the rest of the retreat – I stuck to my spot at the rear of the hall.  My back to the wall and my legs bent in front of me, with my arms folded and resting on my thighs.  Sounds RATHER defensive – non?  Heh heh.  Makes sense, actually.  For me. 

On the few occasions I sat in my room, I managed to sit cross legged on Pippa (the purple meditation cushion Lady K bought for me)  or kneeling.  I tried it a few times in the hall and a few times in my “cell” (more on the CELL later).  But mostly, in the hall, I sat in my defensive protected posture.

I still sit that way, sometimes.  But I’ve found that I can hold my posture if I kneel with my butt resting on Pippa who nestles nicely between my ankles.

I don’t have super intense pain the way I did at the retreat.  Probably because I only sit for a couple of hours each day.  I imagine if/when I do another retreat – the pain will return.

I remember the pain.  Pain in my hips, my knees, my back.  Sometimes I would consciously sacrifice one part of the body for another.  Give the hips a rest and let the pain come to the back… and so on.

We were all in pain.

There were cushions and blankets and mats galore.  There were even back jacks.  We all tried a bazillion combinations on days 2-3-4 looking for “the right way” to sit.  The way that wouldn’t give us pain.

In the end… I went back to basics.  My mat and pippa and the wall while I was in the meditation hall and just a mat and pippa when I was in the cell.

Now I use a blanket folded up into a mat to kneel on, with Pippa between my ankles.  Unless I feel like I need my back to the wall.  Then I do that. Once in a while I even sit cross-legged… but that ole hip gives me grief.

This brings me to an interesting thing… over the course of the retreat, there was talk in the evening sessions about how the body is always changing.  That we really shouldn’t get into thinking about the pain in any wat that …labels it – “my old pain, my arthritis, my disease” or what not.  That we should just give our attention to this pain.  This pain in this body right now.

I began to have a sense that … each time I Sat… I was sitting with a different body.  I would take a moment and think “How does this body want to Sit?”  even if I had just taken a short break to leave the hall and stretch and get a sip of water. There was a very strong sense of “beginning again with this body.”  Fascinating, no?

This odd feeling continues.

But… I am veering off topic.  To return to my main line of musing… I am quite sure that this horrific pain I was in served as the window to … quieting the chattering monkey mind.

I hunkered down within myself – determined to … find my way through the pain.  To get to that place where I really really knew that this horrific pain would indeed… pass.  That the very nature of this pain and of all sensation is to … rise-intensify-and then fade away.  I became so focused on moving my awareness over/through/past the pain – that my mind chatter sort of just faded away.

I didn’t notice it for a long while – as I was still sort of talking to myself.  Saying things like… “OK – imagine that you were being tortured to give up … the location that the Raggedy Man and all your friends were hiding.  Imagine that.  Would you break? Would you?”  And the pain would grin and say, “Everybody breaks.”  But this crazy dialogue would help me.

Then I moved on to “OK – one more pass.  One more pass and you can MOVE. You can shift. Or you can get up and walk right out of here.”

I still use that one.

I am not yet at the point where I truly “know” that this body is not really ME.  I sort of believe that.  I sort of believe that there is something beyond this Body and even beyond this chattering Mind.  Something… else…. that is ME.

I can watch my body and my mind.  This is clear to me.

So then… who is the watcher?

That’s a mighty big question.

One Comment on “Vipassana: Musing on Pain and the Brain at a 10 day Retreat

  1. Pingback: My First Vipassana Retreat: Part ONE: What it IS – Why I Went – What you DO | pambustin

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