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.

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Another Crazy Christmas in France

I love going to my in-laws in the French Loire Valley for Christmas, which is a sacred familial time for them.

This year getting out of Nashville was a bit exhausting due to all the normal get-out-of-town craziness and preparations for my last Peptide Receptor Radionuclide Therapy (PRRT) which is scheduled for this week (January 9-12). I’ve been feeling good, but I was definitely burning the candle at both ends. Even so, I was a little surprised that my therapy clearance blood work showed my red blood cells and platelets plummeted. Sure, it’s not unusual for this to happen and there’s a good chance I even sabotaged myself.

I’d been hearing so much hoopla around the ketogenic diet, including that it is good for cancer patients since it starves cancer cells of the glucose they need to grow.  BUT, as it turns out, guess what red blood cells need to reproduce? If you guessed glucose, then you are correct. Oopsy!

Fortunately, the counts were still well above the therapy minimums and gave me a self signed permission slip to reinstated carbs, which would’ve been an epic failure (and just all together wrong) in France and Italy anyways.

Enough cancer.

Flying to Paris and arriving was a shit show but no more than usual. Travel in Europe is a physical work out, but I was happy to arrive to my beloved village of St. Cyr en Val to be greeted by droves of family. Also, it was extra fun this year since my friend from Nashville joined to experience a French Christmas.

We spent the first few days getting adjusted to the time, visiting Chateau de Chambord and locating a few Camino shells throughout Orleans, a potential stop for those walking to Santiago from Paris.

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In the hot seat!

Christmas Eve was the big event! This is when 50 of my crazy french in-laws drink oodles of champagne, sing, dance and eat platters of oysters.  This year the chaos was amplified by a photo booth, introducing them to white elephant/dirty santa and CLR….until 4am. It was really fun and I can officially say that I am completely acclimated (it only took nine years). We even ventured off to midnight mass where Father Jean-Baptiste called me to the pew for a little interview. I was throughly embarrassed, but also touched since I know he prays for my health often. Last year he blessed me and this year he expressed excitement about my trip to Rome to see his boss, Pope Francis.

The following days after Christmas Eve shenanigans were filled with gifts and visits and food and drinks and naps. I was tired and my brain hurt from french but I think it was my favorite Christmas in a long time.

On the 27th, we were off to Paris for a couple of days. Day one was spent walking around Galerie Lafayette, seeing the sights on a Bateaux Mouche, a comedy show and a long, late dinner at a tapas restaurant. My Nashville friend also had a great time with the exception of the last night where she was hit with food poisoning and spent the whole night sick. With her night reminding me of the months I spent laying on the bathroom floor I felt so bad for her having to travel all day feeling like that. Fortunately, I don’t leave home without  a couple Zofran, which helped her make it home after a looooooong hard day.

img_5268As she soldiered through, my husband and I got to experience something really special at the Paris Zoo. His cousin is the giraffe keeper and invited us for a private visit with her 15 giraffes. We got to feed and pet them and take pictures. It was incredible and it took everything I had not to steal one. With the day spent fawning over giraffes, we walked around the Champs Elysées and met an old friend for dinner. We haven’t seen him in seven years and wow a lot has happened and changed. Satisfied with a wonderful time in France, we went back to our friends tiny apartment for a long sleep before jetting off to Italy in the morning.

Cheers to many more Christmas celebrations in the Loire Valley!

See…they cray!

The Season of Grief, Gratitude & Compassion

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As featured on curetoday.com

The last few years fall has been a season of challenge for me. In 2014 I was recovering from a distal pancreatectomy and splenectomy after my pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor diagnosis. In 2015 I was recovering from a liver resection, months of chemotherapy and a serious case of PTSD. In 2016 I had a surprise surgery due to a bowel obstruction, a complication from my previous abdominal surgeries. And this year, I am undergoing an experimental treatment, but overall, doing well and grateful to not be watching leaves change through a hospital window.

I admit I tiptoed into autumn holding my breath with optimism I would exit without a traumatic event. While there are still a few days of the season left, I, personally have been spared, but others have not been so lucky, creating a new kind of trauma.

Between September and today, there were four people in my circle who died from cancer. They were all young and all women, making their deaths too close to home. One was a young mother I met in a luncheon in New York City who had a very similar case to mine. We exchanged emails regularly and I got scared when the messages stopped coming only to find my fears realized when I logged onto Facebook after a hiatus to see she had passed away. Another was Beth Caldwell, who died from neuroendocrine breast cancer. I only knew her from social media, where she was revered for changing the advocacy game. And most recently, a friend of friend, who died from pancreatic cancer.

Another one of these new angels was a fellow Cure Magazine contributor, Jen Sotham. I also never met her, but enjoyed reading her blog and being Twitter friends. I always thought she sounded pretty cool and someone I’d be friends with in real life even if we both didn’t have cancer. When I read her last blog, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, I could not help but smile and be sad at the same time because she did it – she won. She didn’t die while still living and she didn’t let the disease break her to the point of bitterness. In fact, Jen got to say goodbye, in a pretty cool way.

Unfortunately, cancer wasn’t the only grim reaper to make an appearance this fall. There was a tragic death of a friend of a friend whose family was already grieving a huge loss. Also, my husband came home one day with terrible news of a colleague that passed away, from a massive heart attack leaving a wife and two daughters. He simply left in the morning to go hunting and didn’t come back. I think of both these families and am heartbroken to think they are left replaying last, perhaps mundane, meaningless conversations and without “I love yous” or important words said. It definitely makes me ask, where is the justice?

With each death I lit a candle and sat for a quiet few minutes processing my feelings. Of course there was sadness, but more than anything there was appreciation for my own life and the people close to me. I feel gratitude for still being here, having an excellent quality of life and for the warning cancer gives.

These losses also have me treading into the holiday season with renewed compassion as I encounter angry traffic, tired crowds and over booked schedules. Knowing the chances are high that the person in front of me experienced loss and hardship this year. I find myself pausing, slowing down and truly appreciating, like never before, the intangible gifts of life, family, friends and my fellow-man. My only wish this year is the same realizations for everyone (hopefully without experiencing death and cancer). And may we all take a moment to light a candle for those empty spaces in our life and the lives of others.

For some inspiration, watch the Jen Sotham’s TEDx talk here, which she gave days before passing away:

Check out my other articles on Curetoday.com