Back to Spain

Spain will always hold a special place in my heart from my treasured days on the Camino de Santiago in 2012 and 2016. Having spent weeks in the country, it’s unusual that I’m more comfortable following a yellow arrow through the mountains than navigating the streets of Madrid or Barcelona. While the primary purpose of my visit was attending the European Neuroendocrine Tumor Society’s (ENETs) annual conference, this trip wasn’t without fun and yellow arrows.

In December, the Carcinoid Cancer Foundation and the International Neuroendocrine Cancer Alliance invited me to the ENETs meeting in Barcelona. It was quite an honor given the few number of patients invited to this meeting attended by 1,500 medical professionals.

As I was sharing this with one of my best friends, Lara, she told me by pure coincidence she would also be in Spain at the same time for a wedding. So, we coordinated our travel plans to spend some time together.

Lara has been a mainstay in life since she moved across the street from me in 3rd grade. Initially bonding over our love of New Kids on the Block and Beverly Hills 90210, I’m happy to say that our tastes have improved and our friendship has grown into more of a sisterhood. In fact, we were born two days a part. We have seen each other through so many bookmarks and chapters. It’s wonderful to have not just a friend and sister, but someone who has bore witness to your life as we have for each other. Lara is now living in London and while we talk often, it had been over a year since we’ve seen one another.

Her college friend who was getting married, graciously invited me to her wedding.  It  was, hands down, the nicest wedding I’ll ever attend. The Spanish women resembled royalty with their stylish dresses and elaborate hats. The bride was stunning and pulled off a dress that was both modern and timeless. The reception was at the Casino of Madrid, a gorgeous venue containing art, sparkly chandeliers and dramatic staircases. The festivities began at 1pm, but I was contending with cancer and jet lag, so I happily took a taxi home at 11pm while Lara partied until 4am.

After the wedding festivities, we walked around Madrid talking and snapping pictures, followed by laying in bed and snacking to Frankie and Grace on Netflix. Monday morning, we both flew to Barcelona for more of the same. Our trip highlight was going inside Sagrada Familia. It’s difficult to express, but the interior is a dream – the stained glass, the light, the colors, the simple and intricate angles, curves and coves. I don’t say this lightly, but Gaudi was a genius.

After a couple of days running around the city, it was time for Lara to get back to London and the ENETs conference began.

The first day I attended was interesting. Meeting some of the doctors, patients and organizations I’ve only known through the internet was awesome. The downside to the meeting – perhaps it was a bit too much information. Let me share an example. Walking through the exhibit area containing case posters, I crossed a situation similar to mine. Okay, the 34-year-old male was diagnosed, he had this surgery, this treatment, that treatment, was doing well, oh, and then he died. I did the math and based on his path, I died a couple of years ago. So, I was able to talk myself off the ledge, but it was a little disheartening.

However, the second day and the highlight of the conference was meeting a patient I’ve dubbed, my tumor twin. Being a rare case of NETs (1 in 10 million), I’ve never met another person like me and it took travelling to the european continent for it to finally happen. And, I’m happy to report that not only is he alive, 12 years post diagnosis, but very well. He and I ate lunch together where he shared the stops along his path and the lifestyle activities he’s adopted. It meant the world to me and spotlighted the realization that I should focus on the thriving person in front of me rather than poster guy….may he rest in peace.

dsc06427

Montseratt

Once ENETs ended, I had one last free day on Saturday before flying home on Sunday. Having fulfilled my Barcelona bucket list, I opted to head out of the city to Montseratt, a monastery in the mountains most famous for its black Madonna statue and children’s choir. Another conference attendee joined me and it was a gorgeous and fun day outside the city. I did the math and thanks to my time on the Camino de Santiago, this was my fourth monastery in Spain. In fact, the grounds were riddled with yellow arrows and Camino signs because this is a stop on the Catalan Camino de Santiago.

After a long day in the mountains and the city that night, I was content, spent and grateful for another adventure in Spain.

 

Advertisements

Final Thoughts on Vipassana

I vividly remember Days 7-9 of my Vipassana course thinking and feeling it would never end, yet, here it is over a month later and the course already feels like another lifetime ago. Since returning I have fielded countless questions about the experience and I’m not sure I’ve ever be able to accurately put it into words.

The most prominent personal insight I pulled from the experience is that I have an imbalance of pride and humility. If you guessed that pride is dominant, then you are correct. A spotlight shown on this when I asked myself why I stayed when I was miserable and the best answer is that I didn’t want people to think less of me because I didn’t follow through. This was highlighted again when I was given a meditation chair on Day 9 and my instincts were to refuse it. Why? Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than being pitied.  However, during one of my many walks in the woods, it hit me. What I have failed to see these past few years is most people are offering me compassion, which I translated into pity. There is a difference.

4141-Haruki-Murakami-Quote-Pain-is-inevitable-Suffering-is-optionalI love to suffer. I would rather suffer alone in pain and discomfort than look weak. It goes against every cell in my body. BUT, I need to remember it takes more strength to ask for help, be vulnerable and weak than it does to suffer, in pain, silently.

That being said, I learned I struggle with other’s emotions and reactions. I often sugar coat my health situation because I don’t want pity, but also because I can’t handle other’s crying, being upset, hurt or angry at my expense. I’m not sure there’s anything specific I can do to make this urge go away, other than continuing to strive to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. I can not control others reactions, but I geeze, I really want to.

 

Now, some lessons for the general good.

You can pretty much do anything (within the laws of nature) with patience, persistence and practice. When I told people I was going on to spend 10-days meditating in silence without my iPhone, a typical response was, “I could never do that.” And I’m here to say, yes you could, if you wanted to and I totally get that not everyone wants to.

Let it go. Let it go. Let it go. 99.9% of people I know have experienced a trauma in their life. And of that 99.9%, most of us (myself included), strive to not relive those bad experiences and push them deep down inside our brain. We all know this is not a good coping mechanism. In fact, I’m here to tell you it can be downright dangerous. In my case, I do believe stress and trauma contributed to cancer. Before the course, I received a call from a staff member at the Center who wanted to talk about my application. One of the things she said is that all those traumas are going to come to the surface and she was right. What I realized is the only way for the traumas to get out is through the surface. If you truly want to be free, you will let them come to the surface, deal with them and then, let them go.

The internet is the devil. I knew that social media and the news caused me anxiety and a 10-day Vipassana course was an excellent detox. So much that I’ve continued to limit my exposure and let me just say, OMG – living in the bubble is so nice. I have no idea what is going on in the world and I love it. While I agree there are many important issues to fight for at the moment, I’ve decided the best thing I can do is make sure I am happy, which makes me more kind to others and (hopefully) in turn makes those people pay the kindness forward and so on.

 

Other FAQs

Isn’t it boring? More than I could describe. You think you know boredom, but without talking, technology, books or journals, this was a whole other level.

Why 10 days? I’m sure I could’ve found a shorter meditation program, but it wouldn’t have been the same. If you read my last blog, I was having fun for the first half of the course. It wasn’t until the last half that I settled in and the hard, rewarding work began.

No talking, really? Noble silence means no talking, eye contact, gestures or communication of any sort. The quiet is necessary to focus. I realized this after silence broke and I tried (unsuccessfully) to meditate. You may talk to the teacher and course manager, which I did a few times.

What were the discourses like? Every evening there was a philosophic teaching video featuring the late teacher, SN Goenka, the Burmese man who brought Vipassana meditation to the western world. Some of the concepts really connected with me (impermanence, compassion, love, acceptance), but others, not so much. Specifically when he talked about craving and aversion. Naturally, I thought of cancer and questioned…when I was really sick from cancer, was I just suppose to not have aversion to my situation and not crave feeling better? Every video is concluded with a wish for all beings to be happy – is that not craving? Basically, take a seat, Goenka.

Is the food good? Breakfast and lunch were excellent vegetarian dishes that included tacos, pastas, soups, salads, etc. “Dinner” was only fruit and tea. I learned the first day that a full belly and meditation do not work well together. Those with health conditions can arrange for dinner, but I decided to try the holistic plan and was fine.

How much does this cost? The course is free and runs on donations from students who have completed the entire 10 days. I did give them a financial donation and a shipment of squatty potties to help future students with the digestive slowdown many of us experienced as a result of sitting for 11+ hours each day.

What were the other people like? The course consisted of 35 men, 35 women and a handful of people who were volunteers in the kitchen. Wait lists for each course are equally long. Approximately 20 were return students. One guy was attending for the 14th time. We had a bank CEO, sitting for the 3rd time. A Buddhist nun. Many yoga teachers. A few college students. Stay at home mothers. Retirees. A couple on their honeymoon. Immigrants from Colombia, Thailand, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Screen-shot-2011-01-19-at-2.09.13-AM1What do you do all day? Meditate, sleep, walk and eat. The daily schedule is shown to the right, but basically the day is 4am until 10pm, with many opportunities for rest and solitude. There are three, one-hour “mandatory” group meditations each day.

Can you leave? Of course and I was surprised that only six out of 70 people left before the end of the ten days. The teachers and staff really try to accommodate people and encourage them to stay the entire course.

In conclusion, I’m so glad I did it. I felt that I knew myself well, but after sitting alone for ten days, I learned some new things. I’m also happy to report that I have continued my meditation practice and think the technique will be very useful. During days 6-9, you couldn’t have paid me a million dollars to do another course and I constantly told myself, I never want to do this again. However, when I left the center I thought, I might do this again. And now that I’ve had some distance from the experience, I would do it again… but not anytime soon.

To learn more about Vipassana, click here.

Journal of My 10-Day Silent Vipassana Meditation Course

I learned of Vipassana meditation during yoga teacher training (YTT) in 2016 where I struggled to sit still and hold in the scream wanting to escape my mouth. The others in my YTT class will attest that I was the least likely of the group to take a 10-day course, so I surprised myself when I signed up.

While I continue to process the more serious lessons learned over the 10-days, I thought it would be fun to share a daily log of this often hysterical experience.

Day 0: Nervous road-trippin’. Matthew, the LSU college student, arrived at my house early for the eight-hour drive from Nashville to Jesup, Georgia. We’d been texting for a couple of weeks about our nervousness and excitement. While driving we got to know each other and shared our expectations for the coming days. He learned of the course through a friend and decided it would be a good way to kill time before leaving for a study abroad program. When we arrived at the Dhamma Patapa Center, Matthew and I said our goodbyes. Not only was there no talking, but men and women are separate throughout the course.

Day 1: Flammable meditation hall. My 10-day journey had a delightful start. I and the rest of the group looked like Walking Dead walkers who took magic mushrooms. We slowly shuffled around the property with our heads cocked to the side and stupid smiles on our faces. However, everyone made the rookie mistake of overeating at breakfast, lunch and “dinner”, which was only fruit and tea. By evening the hall was inflated with so much gas.

Day 2: Nauseous freak out. Dare I say I was having fun? I was destroying and dominating my meditations. My focus was laser sharp and I tingled at the end of every sitting. Before this, my eyes were an iPhone 2 and now they are an iPhone X. This was short-lived because by bedtime I was freaking out so much I became nauseous after the evening discourse instructed us to no longer give importance to aches and pains. The determination mediation was starting. I took an anti-nausea pill even though it violated the no intoxicants policy because I assumed vomiting all night will get me sent home.

Day 3: Premature torture. I made it through each session without moving, but the pain was intense and my mind and body had several bloody fights. “I don’t know if I can do this.” At the end of the day, I approached to the teacher who explained, “We don’t start Vipassana until tomorrow.” I misunderstood the instructions.

Day 4: Super Bowl Sunday. It was Vipassana day and everyone is traumatized after an hour of sitting without reacting to itches, sensations, aches and pains. To deal with the PTSD, I spent the late afternoon comparing Vipassana to the Super Bowl. I created a fantasy that the teacher and other staff were having a Super Bowl Party. I pictured them in the hall, sprawled out on our cushions, eating queso and chicken wings in their respective Patriots and Eagles gear.

Day 5: Miserably bored. Even though I am walking around with a perma-grin after breaking noble silence with Matthew via eye contact and a smile, the day ends bad. The evening discourse discussed how life is full of miseries. I decided, “I am miserable. Not in my outside life, but in this moment. Miserable because I am so bored. Bored to depths I could have never imagined.”

Day 6: Save Matthew. The 10.5 hours of daily meditation was getting to me, so I decided to give myself some PTO. I traded the 4am sitting for extra sleep and instead of meditating in my room I spent the afternoon walking in the woods and laying on the dock. This works and my spirits rebound. At “dinner”,  I see Matthew through the dining room window. He was barefoot and staring into his tea-cup for at least three minutes. I have an urge to call his devout catholic mother who feared he was being indoctrinated into a cult. “Mrs. Matthew’s mother? Hurry. Come fast. They got him.”

Day 7: Fireworks in my brain. A storm was brewing. I noticed agitation growing during the morning sitting. Then within minutes of closing my eyes in the afternoon session I was crying. A terrible event was, as the teacher says, coming to the surface and something real is happening. Inside my left ear, I felt popping and heard, what sounded like, distant fireworks. Per the instructions, I didn’t react, but observed and at the end of the hour, my face and clothes were soaked with tears.

Day 8: So much anger. I met with the teacher and asked about the pops and fireworks. She shrugged her shoulders. Great. Thanks for the insight, guidance and encouragement. My frustration with her grew when at the last sitting of the day, I hung my head low to stretch my neck and back. The Course Manager, Marie, approached me with a message, “Teacher says for you to go take rest.” With attitude and anger, I said, “No.” This was the first time I felt singled out because of cancer and I wanted no part of it.

Day 9: So much anger (Part 2). When I entered the mediation hall that morning, there was a chair holding my pillow next to my meditation cushion. With severe rage, I wanted to punt the plastic chair across the room. I stomped over, angrily return the pillow to my cushion and sat for the hour with fury and indignation. Afterwards, I walked to lunch and saw the Course Manager, Marie, coming toward me. My blood was boiling. I planned to tell her, “I didn’t ask for the God expletive mother expletive chair and I don’t expletive want it.” As her eyes grab mine, I’m stopped in my tracks. Marie has the most beautiful eyes I have ever gazed into. They are every color and shade an eye could be – blue, green, hazel and brown. I realized I have not looked into anyone’s eyes for over nine days. She says, “Stacie, that chair is there for you if you need or want it at anytime. If not, that’s okay too.” Still lost in her disarming eyes, I say, “Thank you.” Immediately, I realized their voodoo got me. I have remained equanimous. I know what I need to do. That evening, I sat in the chair out of acceptance of the compassion (and not pity) it represented and out of gratitude. When I went to bed, I noticed for the first time in days, I was not angry.

Day 10: A happy day. At 10am, noble silence ended and I was never so ready for anything in all my life. Instantly, I was met with high-pitched squeals, laughs, voices and excitement. It was overwhelming, loud, chaotic and disorienting. The rest of the day I gravitated towards smaller, more quiet groups. It was wonderful getting to know the stories of the strong, badass, women I sat in a room with for nearly 110 hours. Hearing their experiences I realized I wasn’t the only one in pain, anger, boredom and euphoria. We spent the warm, sunny afternoon reuniting with the mens group, eating, talking and laughing in the grass around the pond. It will remain one of the most treasured, memorable and happy days in the record of my life.

Day 11: Breaking out. After a final 4am wake-up gong and two-hour meditation, we were paroled from the self-imposed prison. Matthew and I partook in the symphony of squealing tires – everybody could not get out of there fast enough. He and I drove back to reality, talking and not talking the whole way. After a quick stop in Atlanta for tacos, we both agreed the outside world felt like a video game. As for Matthew, I could not have chosen a better person to spent 16 hours in a car with. Who knew I’d develop a connection with a 20-year old southern college student? Certainly not me, but I have learned that some of the most special bonds in my life have been created with those in unexpected packages. Tacos and video games aside, I could not to wait to get home to Fabien, who I longed to talk to thousands of times in the past ten days. I am so lucky to have a partner who not only encourages, but supports my crazy pursuits. I arrived home to a clean house, flowers and a thoughtful card. After retelling the day-by-day play-by-play, we went out for long-awaited wings and queso.

Stay tuned for my next blog post where I’ll hash out the insights and lessons learned.