I was out on past the breakers at the beach today on my body board, learning how to use my new flippers. I was in the ocean for a long time, and the following song I grew up with from the 1980’s popped into my head. I thought it seemed pertinent:
Daily meditation has been a huge part of my recovery from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I find it difficult to stay focussed when I’m feeling overwhelmed with anxiety though, so I’ve amassed a huge collection of relaxation and guided visualisation audio tracks to help me with the process.
So I was quite receptive to the idea of trying a new relaxation approach when I was contacted a few weeks ago by one of the guys behind Active Minds Global, who say that their Brainwave Entrainment audio tracks can help recovery from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. They sent me a copy of Tracks 1 and 2 from RevitaMind for evaluation: Mind Revitaliser and Neural Agility. I said I’d try them for 3 weeks and then blog about my experience.
It’s just on 3 weeks now since I started using the RevitaMind audio tracks every day. In accordance with their suggested use, I listen to the Mind Revitaliser in bed every morning as soon as I wake up before going out for my morning exercise, and I listen to Neural Agility every night in bed just before going to sleep.
The tracks sound like a pulsing beat with white noise. It’s fairly soothing, but they do recommend listening as loud as possible; so that’s what I do. I can’t say I notice much difference between the two consciously; but this stuff is all meant to work on the unconscious.
I start by just lying back and letting the sound wash over me, while imagining my nervous system being calmed by the soothing sounds. Next, I visualise myself stepping into an elevator on the tenth floor of Anxiety House. Then I imagine watching the old-fashioned floor indicator in the elevator move down slowly through the floors from 10, 9, 8, 7, 6… all the way down to the ground floor. As I do this, I take a long breath at each floor and notice my breathing getting slower and my body feeling calmer and more relaxed as the elevator descends.
When I step out onto the ground floor, I let my mind come up with whatever image it likes as I wander out of the elevator and into the scene. Sometimes it’s a jungle, difficult to penetrate. Other times it’s a beach with the ocean lapping gently against it. Occasionally it’s a desert with the hot sun beating down. Wherever it is, it’s a peaceful scene and there’s no drama there. When my mind comes back to real world concerns, I just let the thought drift past and return to my elevator-accessible tropical island, or whatever it is today.
After a short while, I’d focus my attention on the amygdale region of my brain, and imagine it calming down, or cooling down. Changing colour from a hot red to a cool blue. Bathing in cool water, for instance.
The Active Mind guys say their audio tracks are designed to calm the sympathetic nervous system, so they seem to be on the same wavelength as I am regarding what causes and perpetuates CFS. After 3 weeks of using it consistently, I seem to feel calmer than I did before. I’m listening to a total of an hour a day, so this has pretty much replaced the meditation I used to do in the local bush near my place. Some afternoons when I feel really tired I’ll go have a lie down and listen to another meditation track; I wanted to stick to the suggested schedule for at least 3 weeks and not mess with it too much.
For the first few nights, I noticed that I had trouble getting to sleep; my old friend insomnia was back. It hasn’t visited me in quite a while since I started getting up early in the morning and going outside in the sun; so I wasn’t entirely thrilled about this. Active Minds said it was normal though, and it did go away after about 4 or 5 nights. I don’t have any trouble getting to sleep again now after 3 weeks.
Aside from the initial insomnia, it was pretty plain sailing. I’m mostly better now anyway, and while using RevitaMind I’ve continued my routine of daily exercise, getting out of the house to do things I love, and hanging out with people whenever I can. So it’s a little hard to pin-point exactly how big an effect the audios are having. I would have liked to come across this sooner when I was more ill and the effect could potentially be more dramatic. Mind you, being too well to see a dramatic effect is a nice place to be, so I’m not complaining.
All in all, it seems to work and I’d recommend giving RevitaMind a try. Especially if you’re not already doing at least an hour of meditation a day, or finding it hard to focus. You need to stick with it until it becomes a habit. It’s no quick fix; but hopefully you’ve realised by now that there isn’t one out there anyway. Given that it seems to be working, I’m going to keep using them morning and night for the time being. If you give it a go, leave me a comment to say how/if it works for you.
Disclaimer: Obviously if you’ve been paying attention you’ll already know I was sent a free sample from RevitaMind for evaluation. They were pretty cool about it, suggesting I might like to blog about my experience. I found it helpful, so I did.
Has anyone tried The Chrysalis Effect Programme? Beneath the rather cheesy Internet marketing spin, what they’re offering sounds pretty consistent with adrenal fatigue and the ideas in the Gupta Programme. They seem to get the mind/body connection thing and the importance of emotional support in dealing with this illness.
I’ve been using the free meditation download they offer, and I quite like it. I figure anything that reduces stress is good for this illness whatever the underlying cause turns out to be. I could relate to a lot of what they say in their Essentials Guide which you get for free when you register on the site. I am a A Type driven person, and many of my friends with CFS are (or at least, were before they fell ill) too. They take a holistic approach and are offering a support community, which is probably particularly helpful if you don’t know anyone else who is suffering from CFS, has recovered or really understands what we go through. I don’t know if it’s worth 19 pounds a month, but I’ve spent a lot more than that on my recovery so far. It’s probably worth at least having a look at what they’re offering.
That said, I sure hope they have a sense of humour! After you enter your email address, watch their video.
Then have a look at this hilarous parody:
After all, laughter is the best stress relief…
I spent the last 2 months staying at my sister’s holiday house at Hawks Nest, about 3 hours drive north of where I normally live in Sydney. The plan was to get away and relax. I ended up working quite a lot, and having a lot of headaches. When I rested for long enough, the headaches went away. Hardly surprising really. But then my restlessness would kick in and I’d just want to go and do something. I got a lot done but I realize that as a writer, the more you write the more you realize that you have more to say. It never ends. On the plus side the income from my websites is slowly increasing, which lessens my sense of financial stress. It’s still not nearly enough to live on and only growing slowly. Some days I feel depressed about this but there’s not much else I can really do right now.
Anyway, I spent much of my time either relaxing at the house, writing content for my blogs, or working down at the local library which had free internet access and was open Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I don’t work Saturdays. They dolled out the internet access in 2 hour blocks, and eventually I realized that if I only worked 2 hours maximum per day, I didn’t get headaches but did have a sense of moving forward. After work each day I went and either lay on the beach or sat by the lake and just relaxed. It was beautifully peaceful and quiet up there, far away from the crazy city life I normally live. I didn’t really feel very lonely. A few friends came and visited which was great, and I had heaps of books to read and DVDs to watch to occupy my time. I was a mixed blessing that the wireless internet adaptor I’d bought didn’t work well enough at the house for me to work from home; kinda forced me to take a bit of a break on Tuesday and Thursdays when the library was closed.
While I was away I finally got around to doing some Internet research into Adrenal Fatigue. A girl in my acting class last year said she suffered from it, and it immediately sounded very familiar. I stumbled upon the Wikipedia article on Neurasthenia, a.k.a. Nervous Exhaustion, which also matches my symptoms very closely. Sounds pretty consistent with Ashok Gupta’s hypothesis and many of the suggestions in the Gupta program match the advice given in Dr Lam’s article on Adrenal Fatigue. I’m going to be following this advice more closely; especially the bits about diet, going to bed earlier, and taking B-group vitamin supplements. I feel nervous a lot of the time, find it hard to relax and always feel like there’s a lot of stuff to do, which all fits the pattern.
I’ve also been continuing my morning Yoga, breathwork and meditation almost every day; except a few times when I’ve woken up with a really bad headache or just felt too cranky to bother. But they’re in the minority. It seems to be gradually calming my nervous system and I’m not feeling so resistant to doing it. I feel a little less jumpy and shaky. The weather at home is warmer now, so I do it out in the backyard behind my block of units in the sun. I start off with Surya Namaskara (salute to the sun) which is a bit silly to do it in my living room where there is no sun. First time I ventured into the backyard to do it, I worried about the neighbours in the other units thinking I looked ridiculous… downward facing dog and all; but I’m getting over my fear of what other people think.
The other obvious thing about nervous exhaustion is that the cure involves large amounts of rest. That means doing nothing, which I struggle with so I’ve borrowed a heap of guided meditation CDs from the local library to help with that. Meditainment Stress Relief and The Stress First Aid Kit are my favourites so far.
My other exciting news is I’ve won two Toastmasters humorous speech contests lately, meaning I progress to the next level. I’d love to be a comedian one day when my health is back, and I’ve been studying everything I can get my hands on about comedy. Besides, laughter is a great stress relief. I hope you’ve had a laugh today!
I just got back this evening from my retreat in the Hunter Valley. I stayed at the Youth Hostel for 3 nights while I did a bit of structural editing on the book I’ve been working on for several years.
Then I went to Path Of Love. Wow… what an amazing experience. Lots of catharsis and emotional healing work in such a short space of time. It was very different to the Vipassana Meditation Retreat I did earlier this year; I’ll write a more complete article about it once I’ve had more time for it to really integrate.
After that, I went back to the Youth Hostel for a couple of nights. Glad I did too, because I was way too tired to drive back home straight after Path Of Love… it was exhausting emotionally, physically, and probably spiritually too! The hostel was buzzing with about 20 women from a hen’s weekend, who’d taken over the kitchen and therefore decided it was easier to feed me than to get out of my way. Bring on the love I say!
This afternoon I went to a Toastmasters seminar, and practised the speech I want to use in the upcoming humorous speech competition. It’s good to see it finally coming together, on the third attempt.
I’m back to Acting class tomorrow, and working on rebuilding my blog to start building a list to market my book to. All very exciting, and a bit scary. Great Expectations.
I’m currently in Brisbane visiting my father’s family, motivated by my aunty’s 80th Birthday. Technically, it’s six months now since I began the Gupta Amygdala Retraining programme for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. So I think it’s time for a review.
I say “technically”, because I only really stuck to the programme for the first four of those six months. After that, I pretty much stopped doing the physical Stop-Stop-Stop business; although I kept doing it in my head every now and then. The other thing I had difficulty with doing was taking six months off life to just recover.
After about a month on the programme, a friend of mine with CFS recommended an acting course that he had found tremendously helpful in unlocking the emotional repression that he believed was at the core of his Chronic Fatigue. His background story was so similar to mine, and the course sounded so amazing, that I just didn’t want to wait until I’d done six months on the Gupta program before starting the classes.
Starting acting classes took all my remaining energy… and then some. I also had a couple of other stressors at the time: I was president of a Toastmasters club (what was I thinking?) where I learned to delegate primarily because I was too ill to actually do anything myself. And I was still attempting to unsuccessfully promote my first book. Which, by the way, is getting rave reviews… but few actual sales! I found the emotional rollercoaster of pushing something unsuccessfully really harsh, so I’ve pretty much sidelined it… at least for the time being.
After a few months on Gupta’s programme, I became pretty skeptical of his Amygdala Hypothesis, and particularly of the ability of the NLP business to break the stress response. I’m currently reading The Emotional Brain, by Joseph Ledoux; the neuroscientist whose work Ashok Gupta based his programme on. It’s a fascinating read, very relevant to what I want to talk about in my public speaking. I grew up in a family where emotions are so strongly suppressed that they’re pretty much taboo, and this has had a tremendously damaging effect on my psyche. So to read this book about the emotional mechanisms hard-wired into my brain is very validating. Ledoux’s key research interest is the emotion of fear specifically, so it talks a lot about the amygdala and the physiological stress response.
I can see how the stress response could become a learned conditioned response, and how the Stop-Stop-Stop technique is intended to break the association. But it’s a bit of a stretch to jump from Ledoux’s research to Gupta’s theory; I’m not sure if Ledoux would go along with it. I’d been under chronic emotional stress for some time before succumbing to CFS, but even if the stress response does become active constantly, I can’t see how this alone can produce flu-like symptoms. It would surely play havoc with my immune system though, and that could allow for a persistent infection.
My main complaint with the Gupta programme is that it’s just so goddam boring. All that Stop-Stop-Stop and meditation; frankly, I’d rather be out living my life. But then it’s really CFS that’s boring rather than the recovery programme. I seem to have fewer days stuck in bed now than I did when I started the programme, and I don’t feel overwhelmed with anxiety so much. I’m functioning well enough that I think the distraction of getting back to what I actually want to do with my life is more productive than walking around saying “Stop Stop Stop!”. Whether it’s Gupta that got me there, or the acting class, or the vitamins, or the rest, or the non-aerobic exercise, or just the sheer passage of time, or some combination of the above… I’m really not sure. I remember a few months ago I was deeply fearful of being ill indefinitely; now I’m not so worried about that. I just feel like I have a mild cold, and a bit zoned out. But that’s quite liveable, so if it never went away, I’d cope.
I’m basically backing off on Gupta now. I’m going to spend less time watching the DVD’s, reading the forums, and probably less posting to this blog. My plan was to spend 6 months recovering, and this blog’s purpose was to reach out to other sufferers seeking support to stay motivated. It mostly worked, and the 6 months is now over.
Chronic Fatigue has felt like a huge distraction for me from what I actually want to be doing with my life. It’s been like driving with the handbrake on; but the brakes have slowly been coming off lately, and now I’m keen to move forward. However, it has forced me to focus more because I could no longer do all the fun stuff I used to enjoy and had to come up with something else. I have enough energy to practise my public speaking, get to an acting class or two a week, plus some practise sessions; and get back to that autobiographical book that I put on hold when I became ill. The book is meant to be inspiring, and I couldn’t see how I could be inspiring when I was stuck in bed most of the time so I put it on hold for two years, but now I’d rather like to finish it.
Focusing on my future gives me less time to focus on feeling ill. And I don’t feel so ill now anyway… I’m hoping the trend continues. If there’s one thing Gupta got right, it’s that the psychological and emotional effects of Chronic Fatigue are enormous. They’re the thing that actually causes the suffering, and we need to pay more attention to these emotional aspects. Getting emotional support from people has been absolutely crucial for me. Sadly my emotional-brick-wall family don’t qualify, but that’s just more material for what I want to speak about down the track.
I’m considering writing a book about my experience with Chronic Fatigue. There was quite a bit of drama in the first 2 years before this blog started, and I think the story itself would help inspire other sufferers. If you think you’d buy a copy at say $10, drop me a comment and I’m sure I’ll be more motivated to put the time into writing it.
My plan now is to rebuild my home page on WordPress, and start blogging there on a more regular basis. CFS and this blog has helped me learn how to do that better. It’s an ill wind that brings no good, as they say. Then I want to get out to more speaking venues, develop a keynote speech, and get this public speaking career thing happening. Having a plan for the future definitely makes me feel more positive, and less anxious. Anxiety is one of the things I want to speak about, so perhaps CFS has taught me a valuable lesson in there somewhere that I can use.
Meanwhile, let me know how y’all are doing!
I don’t feel radically different, but I don’t seem to have the lows that I used to. I’m not feeling so desperate about being ill, or about getting better. I still feel like I have a mild cold, but it’s a mild cold that doesn’t bother me quite so much. I’m not as jittery as I used to be; I don’t drop or spill things so often. I still feel a little tense, but not so much as before. I’m more relaxed. Well, with all that meditation, I’d wanna be!
I haven’t had a headache in a few weeks, and it’s been a long time since I got out of bed, walked to the kitchen and felt like I’d been run over by a truck. So I’m getting there, slowly. I’m getting used to not filling my days with planned activities, and feeling OK about that. I feel a little anxious about where I’ll be at when 6 months rolls around. Almost all my plans for the future are contingent on getting my health back to 100%, and I’d love the nasal drip thing and the cough it causes to go away. If you met me on a good day, you’d have no idea there was anything wrong with me, and I’m hesitant to tell people what’s up until I get to know them a bit. I now consider myself “recovering from CFS” rather than “suffering from CFS”.
I haven’t been doing my Stop-Stop-Stop so much lately, but I’ve just watched Session 5 again and I want to get back on top of that. I listen to the meditation CD with Soften and Flow, and the Positive Visualisation exercise at least once a day. I’m constantly reminding myself not to take on anything new that isn’t directly related to improving my health.
I went out last night to check out venues in the city, as pre-work for one of those dating workshops where they teach you how to approach women in bars and clubs. I have a lot of female friends, and am pretty good at getting along with women, but my fear of approaching and interacting with the women I’m actually attracted to has always held me back so I’ve decided it’s time to get over it and learn the art of pick-up.
I’m mostly taking the Easter weekend easy, but I have a lunch date today with a girl I’ve met on an Internet dating site. She seems really keen, and we seem to have a lot in common. She’s very active, so it’ll be interesting to see how I keep up with her. We’re off to the art gallery this afternoon, and who knows what this evening…
I went to acting practise last night, and had a good time; it always gives me a lift. There’s a girl there who I really like who has been quite friendly towards me, and I’ve been hoping to get to know her better. Last night I heard her say to one of the other guys “We’ll have to get together for coffee sometime!” Urgh. I felt really jealous. I’ve had a few minor setbacks in the romance area lately; a number of girls I’d been interested in turned out to have boyfriends, or to just seem uninterested in me. Another girl I met on the Internet has turned fickle and negative towards me (yeah, there’s a story there). Definitely triggers my whole abandonment fears. But there are plenty of other fish in the sea, right? So I stayed up late last night sending contact requests to women who sounded interesting on an online dating site. The problem for guys online is that with the usual inhibitions out of the way, women are swamped with requests from introverted guys and you end up lost in the noise. If I get any response at all, most of the time it’s a rejection… which hit’s that abandonment button square on. Gawd, I’d love to be less sensitive. Just brush it all off and move on. I felt really lonely and looked around for someone online to chat to, but there was nobody… and I was too tired to keep my eyes open anyway.
It was almost 1am by the time I got to bed, and I had a pretty good sleep. I woke up about 8:30am this morning feeling an anxious sensation in my chest. It was accompanied by the usual thoughts about the Big Three: health (when is it going to get better?), career (what am I going to do?), and relationships (when am I going to sort that out?). I listened to the meditation CD, and calmed down a bit. I wish it was possible to have an amygdalectomy and just get the bastard removed. My emotions only ever seem to cause me trouble.
I went to see an amateur production of Grease on the weekend which some friends of mine were in. It took me back to my first role, where I played Kenickie… before I got ill. I almost cried when Rizzo sang “There are worse things I could do”; I was actually moved by it. My acting teacher has been telling me to “be more affected by things”, so I guess I’m getting there. I’m still hoping that the acting course unlocks my emotional repression enough to release some of the stress I feel, allowing my body to recover faster than it would just with the Gupta programme alone. I seem to be getting more expressive during practise, and I’m really enjoying the course as it definitely gives me a lift most of the time. Just as long as I don’t wear myself out with the extra workload. I also want to try some psychodrama… I’ll let you know how that goes.
I visited my parents yesterday for the first time in a couple of months, which went OK. I’d grown a beard and shaved my head since last seeing them. My mother didn’t recognise me. Later on she asked “If you could do anything, what would you like to do?”. I think she was reaching out and trying to be helpful; but I wasn’t in the mood. Too tired to really engage, and I had a busy day yesterday which didn’t help. A pre-CFS friend from dancing rang while I was there to invite me around for Good Friday lunch. It’s nice to know I still have a few friends who keep in touch since I dropped off the planet.
I’ve just watched Session 3 of the programme, so I’m back to starting again with Stop-Stop-Stop. I hope the testimonials give me more motivation, as I’ve been kinda slack lately. I haven’t felt too bad physically though lately; mainly just tired and a bit anxious. I’m kinda at the “I can live with this; but it’s still a pain in the ass” level. I’m taking my guitar to acting class this afternoon for my activity, and doing two classes today. That should be fun!
Well I completed the 10-Day Vipassana meditation retreat at Dhamma Bhumi retreat centre on Sunday morning. It’s a beautiful setting at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, about 2 hours west of Sydney. If you want to do Vipassana, I can’t think of a more beautiful place to do it. For me, the experience was largely one of intense discomfort, suffering, and unrelenting pain which just didn’t get any better as I went along; in fact, it got worse! I’m just glad it’s over.
The retreat started on a Wednesday evening with about 60 of us. First thing they did was to separate the men from the women. Well, there’s 90% of the potential for enjoyment gone just there. We enrolled and had a brief orientation session, including the onset of “noble silence”, meaning no talking to anyone for the next 9 days.
And then the meditation began. We arose at 4am each morning, to be ready for meditation in the hall at 4:340. After about 10 minutes, my legs were aching already. I’m not used to sitting cross-legged, and all the tendons in my legs began to hurt. Thank your-chosen-deity we had breaks every hour; I couldn’t wait for them. The initial instruction was to focus on the breath through the nostrils. Not to control it or to influence it, but just to focus. I found the focusing easy, but every time I did my breathing would stop, switching onto manual control. So I had to start breathing manually. I have done quite a bit of conscious-breathing meditation in the past, and learned to breathe diaphrammatically with my vocal coach as my normal modus operandi. I have a feeling some of this may have made it more difficult for me to just observe, rather than also control my breath. I was bored after a few minutes of this, and my mind started to wander; often onto the increasing pain in my legs. Welcome to the next 10 days, as it turned out!
Day 2 I was already struggling. I was experiencing an “aversion” to my suffering, and the solution was to simply observe it objectively and not react to it. Apparently my mind has been conditioned to respond to pleasant and unpleasant experiences with craving and aversion respectively, and the path to enlightenment and freedom from suffering is to become detached from both. Well yeah, I agree that our suffering is compounded when we focus on what we have but don’t want, or on what we don’t have but do want; but I was beginning to wonder whether sitting for long hours in an uncomfortable position was really part of the answer. Plus the food was vegetarian, and although it was down the tasty end of the vego spectrum, I was hanging for a cheeseburger.
For about half the meditation sessions, we had to be together in the hall. For others, we could meditate in our rooms if we wished. I had a room to myself, and took to meditating lying down whenever I was allowed. I felt quite exhausted from the sheer mental and static physical demands of the long meditation sessions. I figured if I fell asleep while meditating lying down in my room, I needed the sleep more than I needed the meditation. I was relieved to have 10 straight days without any aerobic physical activity, and I think this reduced my flu-like symptoms quite a bit.
Day 3’s teaching sounded remarkably similar to Day 2: focus on the breath in and around the nostrils. But they told us it all again anyway. I was in pain, and generally hating it. I kept thinking “I just want to be home playing my guitar”. I moved my posture quite a bit to try to find a new comfortable position. Invariably I would find myself comfortable for only a short while. I spoke to the teacher about this. He was the only person we were allowed to talk to, and then only at set times. He said my discomfort was the result of unconscious impurities of the mind arising, and that I would be purged of these so long as I didn’t create a new aversion to it. I was more of the opinion that my discomfort was the result of sitting in uncomfortable positions for such a long time. He suggested I try a backrest, and I felt relieved: “You mean you have backrests I can use? Oh cool!”. I thought I was finally saved.
Day 4 things got a bit more interesting, as we started scanning our bodies from head to toe observing sensations. Still, that got boring pretty quickly. My usual anxiety-producing thought of “Which path am I going to take in life from here?” ran through my mind a lot, giving me occasional waves of anxiety, and adrenaline. I have a very busy mind that likes to be engaged in doing stuff. Apparently that’s just evidence that I need to meditate more. Forms of entertainment like books and movies are just distractions from dealing with the unconscious impurities in our minds, said the teacher. I could go fill my life with such distractions if I wanted, but they would never really satisfy me. The true path to enlightenment is to face my discomfort, not to distract myself from it.
Day 5’s teaching sounded remarkably similar to Day 4, but they told us again anyway. By this stage I was really bored. And in pain. And finding it harder to focus. The pain in my legs wasn’t getting any better, as I had hoped it would as they got more used to sitting in the poses my normal life never involves. I felt like getting up and yelling “This is bullshit!!” and storming out of the meditation hall, making the biggest scene possible. Probably not that respectful to the other meditators though. I started feeling really angry, and the people I feel most anger towards naturally popped into my head: my parents.
Day 6 introduced a new form of self-imposed torture: The Sitting of Strong Determination. The aim of this was to complete each 1-hour sitting without changing posture. Oh my god. When the recorded teacher’s voice introduced this, I reacted mentally with “There’s always some bloody catch, isn’t there? Now my path to enlightenment is blocked by the fact that I cannot goddam sit still when I’m bored.” Never have been able to. Just ask my mother. I really wanted to be home playing guitar. Or writing. Or doing stand-up comedy. I got through a whole hour-long sitting without changing posture, by reciting a comedy routine I’ve been thinking of doing, in my head. It was contrary to the spirit of the whole meditation thing; in fact, parts of the routine consisted of totally bagging out the whole experience. But it was the only time I sat completely still for the whole hour. Afterwards, my legs ached in “appreciation”.
I wondered whether to practice my assertiveness skills by telling everyone what I really thought of the whole thing and storming out, or my commitment skills by sticking at it. Both could use a boost, but in this case I chose to exercise the commitment skills. I can hear the voices of a couple of ex-girlfriends in my head replying “Bit bloody late for that, don’t you think Graham?”. I complained again to the teacher how uncomfortable I was despite the backrest, and he said they’d get me a chair. “Oh cool!”, I thought, “I’m saved!”
By Day 7 everything was a blur. Not a blur in the fast-moving sense, just a blur in the sense that I’d really rather not remember what was happening. It was quite traumatic. The chair they got me turned out to be one of those white plastic garden setting chairs with the legs cut off, so when I sat on it with my feet on the floor, my knees stuck up in the air. It was only marginally less comfortable than sitting cross-legged. In some respects, it was worse.
The teacher summoned me during the lunch break, and we had a long and partly philosophical discussion where I protested my boredom, the ongoing pain, and the fact that frankly, the idea that impurities of the mind were being purged by all this self-imposed discomfort sounded like crap to me. No wonder Buddhists are so big on suffering, when they impose so much on themselves. And I didn’t even get into what I thought about the idea of past and future lives, or the notion that the suffering therefore just goes on and on until you eventually wise up and begin meditating full-time so that one of your future lives eventually reaches enlightenment. What a load of cobblers.
Day 8 was like Day 7, only with more aches in the legs, less concentration, and greater relief at bed time. I was hoping I’d be getting into it more, rather than less, by this stage, but I was working against a short attention span that needs to see some positive results if it’s to stick at anything. If I didn’t have the motivation of breaking the adrenaline cycle to recover from my chronic fatigue symptoms, I wouldn’t have come. The teacher was of the opinion that my illness is psychosomatic, and I agree. “But this technique will not cure your illness. That’s not why you’re here.”, he said, “The technique is to purify your mind. That is what is most important.”
“Yeah, sure” I replied, “But the reality is that if it weren’t for my illness, I wouldn’t be here.”
“So are you going to stay and finish the course? We can’t lock you in you know, it’s really up to you” he said.
“Yes, I’ve stayed this long. I want to get whatever I can out of it. I’m staying”.
Day 9 we were allowed to scan our bodies for sensations in any manner or direction that we liked. Only made it marginally more interesting for about 30 seconds though. By this stage, I was really over the whole thing. Still hopeful for some sort of breakthrough or magic to happen though, and committed to seeing it through. But I was definitely counting down the meditation sessions by now.
In the final meditation for the day, I decided to give one last red-hot-go at sitting completely still and focusing on the body sensations I was experiencing. Perhaps I could still have a breakthrough at this late stage? I lasted a whole hour with only two changes in posture. My legs were in so much pain afterward that I couldn’t sleep, and felt extremely restless. Even more than normal!
On Day 10, everything changed. We still had to meditate, but we could talk to each other. Even the women, provided it was in the designated area. I’m getting over my historical tendency to try and get people to like me by avoiding offending them. When other people asked how I’d been going, I’d generally reply with “That was bullshit!. I’ve been in agony the whole time!”, which was only a very slight exaggeration. After all, there were times when I was asleep that I wasn’t uncomfortable, and meal breaks were OK. Most people found my experience amusing. Let’s face it, there’s something about another person’s pain that triggers our humor mechanism. It’s a stress relief, and I needed some stress relief. A few confided that they’d had a similar experience as me, after initially saying it was “OK” to avoid offending anyone.
The next day, by 6am it was all over. We’d been given a taste of the technique, and taken the first step on what was supposed to be a life-long path. Two hours of Vipassana a day, and at least one follow-up retreat a year, and we could become enlightened after a lifetime of working on it. My god, I don’t think so!
All the was left to do was to clean the place up, and get the train home. I debriefed with some other fellow sufferers meditators, most of whom could relate to some degree. One girl I met while sweeping out the meditation hall asked “Why didn’t you leave, if it was so bad?” Well, I wanted to see if it would get better! Turned out her experience was very similar to mine. “My legs were aching!”, she said, “But of course they were aching… I was sitting cross-legged for hours on end! And the tingling sensations people were talking about? Well of course you get tingling sensations when you cut off the blood supply by sitting still in the same position for so long!”. She was a thinker. A kindred spirit. I was glad I’d seen it through right to the end, so that I could meet people like her and debrief properly. If I’d left part-way through, I would have returned home feeling a failure thinking the problem was just me. The problem wasn’t just me… others were struggling to.
I probably wouldn’t have gone to the meditation retreat if other friends hadn’t suggested it, and Ashok hadn’t recommended it in the recovery programme. At least I can say I tried it. But I also have an interest in meditation since I know it’s useful for reducing anxiety, which I’ve had bucket loads of during my life. So I was quite happy to give a retreat a try. For me it was mostly just torture though. My biggest breakthrough was simply to get to the end and have the pain finally go away. I caught the train and a bus back home, feeling relaxed and relieved that it was all over. I came home and played my guitars until my fingers hurt so much I couldn’t play any more. I didn’t bother going to acting practise that night; I took the rest of the day off to treat myself well and do things I enjoyed. I went up to the local pub to grab a steak for dinner, and hired a DVD to watch back home. I didn’t particularly want to speak to anyone, or talk about my experience. Frankly, it was quite traumatic. It did make me appreciate my life more, and how little physical suffering I routinely endure. Most of the joy that I’ve experienced since has been based on “I’m glad that’s over!”. No matter what happens to me this week, I know it won’t feel anywhere near as bad as 10 days of torture.
Now I don’t want to put you off or anything but… Oh what the heck, look, for me, it was just plain horrible. The best part is that it was over. I did meet some cool people who I’d like to keep in touch with, and I do feel more relaxed now that it’s done. I only had minimal chronic fatigue symptoms while I was on the retreat too; very little coughing, and only a few nights of bad insomnia. I seem more relaxed since returning home too.
Philisophically, I have less respect for Buddhism now after completing this retreat, even though it’s still my preferred religion after atheism. I just don’t buy the idea that the best way to deal with suffering is to become completely detached from both pleasant and unpleasant sensations. I think a rewarding life incorporates activities that are inherently pleasurable, like socializing with people we like, having meaningful relationships, and doing things we find rewarding like playing music, reading books, learning new skills, entertainment, and dare I say it even sex! All these things have an evolutionary basis; I don’t think they are mere distractions: they’re part of the path of a meaningful life. The “art of living” espoused by the Buddhists discounts all these as craving-creating activities that just lead to suffering when they aren’t available. Yes, relationships end, people die, I won’t be able to read one day when I lose my eyesight, and arthritis will eventually render my guitar silent. Not to mention the times of sexual frustration! But in the meantime, I’m living a rich life; not just temporarily fulfilling endless suffering-creating cravings. I’ll keep doing regular guided visualization meditations, because I seem to get a benefit from them. I’ll try more Vipassana occasionally too, like when I feel really anxious; but I know the adherents will say I need daily practice to develop the skill, or it won’t work. Frankly, I’d rather get in-the-zone by playing my guitar or keyboard. That’s more meditative for me because it’s inherently engaging for me. And it’s something I can share with other people.
My advice for anyone contemplating a meditation retreat is to spend a month sitting cross-legged for as long as you possibly can at home before going. Do it while watching TV, reading, or whatever. I really think this would have helped me. The sheer discomfort I experienced prevented me from gaining any real benefit other than the relief when it was all over. I would have been more comfortable if I was more prepared physically beforehand.
On the Monday after the retreat, I got my head shaved, as part of my commitment to The World’s Greatest Shave. I had a really interesting conversation with my hairdresser, who I met right around the time I quite full-time work about 6 years ago. He has utmost respect for my desire to experience new things, and not just stick at a job I didn’t enjoy any more. He thinks I’m living the dream; and to some extent I am. I said I’d like more direction in my life, but he reminded me how lucky I was to have the opportunity to do all the things I’m doing. Which is true. On the way to acting class I bumped into one of the guys from my old workplace: the one who appeared most cynical and depressed about being there when I left. When he told me about their upcoming meetings, I felt glad I’d made the break. I had a great career there which garnered me lots of respect and satisfaction for many years… but I have no desire to go back, even when I feel 100% healthy again. Nowadays I’m more interested in relating to people than machines. I want to write a best-seller or be a rock star, or teach something worthwhile. That afternoon I felt pretty good about things. My CFS symptoms aren’t too bad, and the pain I experienced at the retreat is over. I have an overdue book report to write and a stack of email to get through, but this week is looking pretty good. I hope yours is too!
I had a really good argument with a guy at acting practise tonight. He really pissed me off, and I didn’t hold back. He was challenging me to open up, but wouldn’t open up himself. He was playing games rather than being genuine. Plus he was unnecessarily abusive. So even though he was faking, it totally worked for me because I was furious at his hypocrisy and his bullying. Expressing anger feels much better than bottling it up, I must say!
I’m away for the next 10 days on a Vipassana Meditation Retreat. It sounds very similar to the Art Of Living course that Ashok recommends. So you won’t be hearing from me for a while. I’ll let you all know how I feel after I get back.