“I said I want to smash my brain and put it back together”

Jody Ettenberg, author of The Travel Food Guide, talks about her vipassana experience. It was difficult for her to imagine what awaits her, and now she shares her impressions and lessons learned in the article.

I signed up for a Vipassana course in a moment of desperation. For a year I was tormented by insomnia, and without proper rest, panic attacks began to attack. I also suffered from chronic pain due to a childhood accident that caused broken ribs and a back injury.

I chose a course that I took in New Zealand. I already had trendy meditation classes behind me, but I associated vipassana with discipline and hard work. Fear overcame the prospect of being in a circle of people with positive thinking.

Vipassana is different from traditional chanting meditation. Whether you’re sitting uncomfortably, in pain, your arms and legs are numb, or your brain is begging to be released, you need to focus on the physical sensations. After 10 days of training, you begin to stop responding to the vicissitudes of life.

Derived from Buddhism, modern courses are secular in nature. When my friends asked me why I was willing to go to solitary confinement, I said that I wanted to smash my brain and put it back together. I joked that my “hard drive” needed to be defragmented.

On the first day at 4 in the morning, a bell rang at my door, reminding me to wake up, despite the darkness. I felt anger building up in me – that was the first step in developing equanimity. I had to get out of bed and get ready for meditation. The goal of the first day was to focus on breathing. The brain was only supposed to be aware that you were breathing. It was difficult for me to concentrate because of the constant burning in my back.

On the first day, tired of the pain and panic, I took the opportunity to talk to the teacher. Looking at me serenely, he asked how long I had meditated before. I was so desperate that I was ready to quit the race. The teacher explained that my mistake was focusing on pain, because of which the latter increased.

From the meditation hall we climbed out into the bright New Zealand sun. The teacher suggested that I use a wooden L-shaped device to support my back during class. He didn’t say anything about whether I was meditating correctly, but his message was clear: I was fighting against myself, not against anyone else.

After the first three days of breathwork, we were introduced to vipassana. The instruction was given to be aware of sensations, even pain. We have trained minds to create a barrier against blind reaction. The simplest example is if your leg is numb, your brain may worry if you can stand up. At this time, you should concentrate on the neck and ignore the leg, reminding yourself that the pain is transient, like everything else.

On the fourth day came the “hours of strong determination.” Three times a day we were not allowed to move. Does your leg hurt? It’s a pity. Is your nose itchy? You can’t touch him. For an hour you sit and scan your body. If something hurts somewhere, we simply do not pay attention to it. At this stage, many participants left the course. I told myself that it was only 10 days.

When you take a Vipassana course, you accept the five conditions: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sex, no intoxicants. Don’t write, don’t speak, don’t make eye contact, don’t communicate. Research shows that the blind or deaf have heightened abilities in other senses. When the brain is deprived of one incoming source, it rewires itself to heighten other senses. This phenomenon is called “cross-modal neuroplasty”. On the course, I felt it – I could not speak or write, and my brain worked to its fullest.

For the rest of the week, while the others sat on the grass enjoying the sun between sessions, I remained in my cell. It was fun to watch the brain work. I used to hear that premature anxiety is always useless, because what you are afraid of will never happen. I was afraid of spiders…

By the sixth day, I was already tired from the pain, sleepless nights and constant thoughts. Other participants talked about vivid childhood memories or sexual fantasies. I had a terrible desire to run around the meditation hall and scream.

On the eighth day, for the first time, I was able to spend an “hour of strong determination” without moving. When the gong rang, I was wet with sweat.

By the end of the course, students often notice that during meditation they feel a strong flow of energy through the body. I was not like that. But the most important thing happened – I was able to escape from the painful sensations.

It was a victory!

Lessons learned

My result may have been small, but important. I started sleeping again. As soon as pen and paper became available to me, I wrote down the conclusions that came to me.

1. Our common obsession with finding happiness is not a reason for meditation. Modern neuroscience may say otherwise, but you don’t need to meditate to be happy. Staying stable when life goes awry is the best way out.

2. Many of the complexities of our lives come from the assumptions we make and how we react to them. In 10 days you understand how much the brain distorts reality. Often it is anger or fear, and we cherish it in our minds. We think that feelings are objective, but they are colored by our knowledge and dissatisfaction.

3. You need to work on yourself. The first days of vipassana you destroy yourself, and it is very difficult. But 10 days of disciplined practice is sure to bring change.

4. Perfectionism can be dangerous. There is no perfection, and there is no objective assessment of what is considered “right”. The course made me understand that if you have a value system that allows you to make honest decisions, it’s already good.

5. Learning to stop reacting is a way to deal with pain. For me, this lesson was especially important. I wouldn’t have come to that conclusion without the course because I’m too stubborn. Now I understand that by monitoring my pain, I exacerbated it tremendously. Sometimes we hold on to what we fear and what we hate.

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