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December 1, 2018

Hooked on Vipassana: 10 Days of Silence in Kandy, Sri Lanka (Part 1)

I sit down on my cushion, legs crossed, eyelids closed, this place has become refuge over the past 10 days, but tonight it’s a struggle to focus my attention. There’s a stabbing sensation in the soft tissue where my chest meets my left armpit. My breath is shallow and heavy, like there’s a weight preventing my lungs from expanding. It’s been 10 days since I’ve had a cigarette, but I feel like I just chain smoked an entire pack in one sitting. Prickly, rising energy, an electric heat permeates my body and no matter how hard I try to focus my attention on the inhale and exhale, the sensation of physical tension and the overwhelming feeling that something just isn’t right is impossible to ignore. I remind myself that vipassana meditation is not about ignoring or escaping these feelings, it’s not about tuning out, it’s about tuning in. So I sit with it. I have no choice.

Scanning the body starting from the crown of the head, forehead, right eyeball… I can’t even make it to the left without being distracted by the unnerving realization that tomorrow I’ll be getting all of my stuff back. Cigarettes, telephone, money, laptop, all of the heavily weighted things I checked into the office upon entering the vipassana center 10 days ago will be mine again, and I don’t want any of them. As I walked into the meditation hall tonight I was apprehended by the schedule for the following day with the shocking news. I thought I had one more day of peace at my disposal. The revelation has thrown me into full panic. So much for non-attachment. This stabbing in my chest, the shallow breath and prickly feelings all over– this must be what people refer to as an anxiety attack. Whatever it is, I really, really don’t like it. Perhaps I am having an allergic reaction, maybe this is anaphylactic shock? I look down to see if anything has bit me– nope, everything looks normal.

Back to attempting to meditate.

I need to get up, I need to move, I need to get rid of this feeling. This is the old way, the way of purposefully diverting my attention away from the feelings I don’t want to feel– it’s this old way of doing things that has my body all up in arms. It’s the fear that I’ll go back to the old ways once I leave here. Out there I can grab my phone, a cigarette, a glass of wine, turn up the music, go for a run, I can reach for many, many things in order to rip myself away from that which is unpleasant.

This is not the way of vipassana, this is not what I have been working on for the last 10 days. Here and now, I am safely stuck in this meditation hall for the next three hours. And thank god for that. I guide my whirling mind to come back to the present moment, rediscover the breath, again and again and again. By the next morning the fear and anxiety has fully subsided. Now that was a wild ride, to sit through all of those uncomfortable feelings without having anything to make it go away, wow. It sucked, but it also felt incredible. I’m stronger than I thought. And the feelings– they were just sensations, despite their varying degrees, they pass. Patience. That is what I’ve learned here.

I arrived at the Dhamma Kuta vipassana meditation center nestled in the mountains outside of Kandy, Sri Lanka 10 days ago. I had no idea what to expect. The idea of doing a 10 day vipassana meditation course appealed to me for years. 10 days of complete silence with little to no eye contact with other people, 10 days of going inward and really excavating the contents of my mind with a magnifying glass to see what’s in there: Can I sit with my thoughts for 10 days? Will I like what I find? Will I like myself?

Toting a mixed bag of apprehension and curiosity, I chose to surrender and jumped in.

To Be Continued…

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Portia Leigh  |  Contribution: 305