Clean and Elegant

Clean and Elegant

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Vipassana Diaries: Food Belly

A very long gong woke us up at four a.m.  I could hear a couple of my roommates groan and roll over. I ,however, rocked the wake-up. Four a.m. in Montebello was five a.m. in Halifax. Old hat for this neurotic Ashtangi.

The sad part about jumping out of bed first is that if you end up in the hallway next to the gong, it’s horribly abrasive. Better to lie in bed until the gonging subsides.

During Vipassana, I brushed my teeth more than I ever do. Before breakfast, and after. After lunch. Post nap. Everyone else seemed to enjoy brushing their teeth too, and sharing these moments in front of the sinks was the closest we got to a conversation.

For the first couple of days we were supposed to meditate on the breath below our nostrils. When I worked at the Montessori school, I used to try and do this during my breaks. Mostly I’d be so exhausted that I would just space out and fall in and out of sleep. Other times I would try and focus on my nostrils. I realize now that instead of feeling the sensation of the breath below them, I pretty much just meditated on the word nostrils.

Nostrils, nostrils, nostrils, thinking, thinking, thinking, oh no, don’t think, back to nostrils.

Nostrils, nostrils, nostrils…

The technique of observing the respiration below your nostrils is called, “Anapana.” Anapana is supposed to loosen the roots of the impurities at the depth of your mind. Examples of impurities are anger, depression, cravings and addictions.  I think one of my deep-rooted impurities is boredom. I was extremely bored.  I remember thinking, “This is so boring,” several hundred times.

At breakfast I decided that I would take this ten-day opportunity to go on vacation from caffeine. I used to be obsessed with quitting coffee, believing that my addiction represented an internal moral defect. After many miserable self-imposed caffeine fasts, I came to the conclusion that coffee is an excellent beverage and life is way better when you drink it. Coffee helps your mood and your poops. I will consume it for the rest of my life. Still, probably I hadn’t had a caffeine free day since 2011 and all they had at Vipassana was Maxwell House instant. I figured it might be a good time to re-set my nervous system.  Plus if I was all spaced out and snoozy, the meditation process wouldn’t be so traumatic.

It was an okay strategy.

I floated through the first morning in a bored, decaffeinated daze. During anapana, we were allowed to switch our positions as often as we needed to. This was good because I had been previously terrified that I would break my knees sitting cross-legged for ten hours a day. Later I would obsess relentlessly about the most sustainable posture, but for now I remained in a spaced out sleepiness, considering the breath below my nostrils every fifteen minutes or so.
Even though I was bored, I felt calm.
Well, this will be a nice relaxing snooze fest, I thought. Then we got to lunch.
There was pasta and a lentil tomato sauce, and rice, and the vast, abundant salad bar with a million toppings and delicious tahini dressing.

It was only 11 a.m. and besides tea and fruit at 5 p.m., this would be our last meal of the day.
Don’t worry, my hard core Vipassana friend from the day before had told me. We’re used to yoga.  Here we just sit. You don’t need as much food.

But despite the lack of physical activity, I knew that with my eating disorder history, the reduced eating schedule was a bit risky. Skipping meals and losing weight is not a big deal for many people. When they get back to their normal eating routines, their body adjusts. But for me, any kind of weight loss and fucking around with eating usually causes a sketchy head trip.  Determined that I wouldn’t lose weight and/or damage my psyche, I piled my plate high, only skimping on pasta, which remains an intermittently frightening food from my past life.

As soon as I sat down, I felt like I was going to cry. The decaffeinated snooze fest was over.  Now I was deeply ashamed of all the food I had taken. It was falling off my plate. I felt certain that all the girls around me were judging my greed and mess. They all seemed skinnier than me and they weren’t overcompensating the evening’s lack of dinner with massive quantities of food. And I felt distressed by the fact that I was eating according to ideas in my head, and not really because of how hungry I felt.

All this seemed like such a superficial thing to be going through at this magical retreat where I was supposed to transform into a whole new person. While other people were probably seeing flashy balls of light or visions of their past lives, I was having adolescent food angst.

Oh well. Not every revelation can be beautiful and deep.

That night, Mr Goenka provided a seemingly endless discourse about the perils and dangers of Day One. Some people, he warned, made the enormous mistake of filling their plates two times at lunch.

“Nothing doing,” he said, waving his hands. “You can’t meditate if you eat all that.”

He said that if you usually have two plates at lunch, you should switch to three quarters of a plate. Then a quarter of your stomach would be empty which would help with meditation.

Happy Goenka
Mr. Goenka looked as though he hadn’t endured a minute of adolescent food angst in his whole life. He was serene, jolly, and pleasantly chubby. Probably he could leave half of his stomach empty without suffering very much. As for me, I decided that I wasn’t going to hold back, despite the apparent dangers. I would do my best with the no-dinner thing, and if it got to be too much, I’d turn myself in and become an evening Peanut Butter Sandwich Person. 

The End/To Be Continued…

Other News:

As fate would have it, I'm not in India yet. Air France pilots are on strike, so I'm back in Halifax for a surprise week with the Boatman.

Here we are on the flight from Ottawa to Halifax.

Me and the Boatman. Dorky and delighted
I have to admit I was  kind of relieved when I got to postpone the three-month good-bye. So far our extra time together has been dorky and delightful. Hopefully by Monday, I'll be feeling more brave. Fingers crossed that everything's sorted out by next week!

Have to give a shout out to the Air France customer service representatives. They were immensely helpful in rescheduling my flight, and even provided me with a chunk of cash to compensate for my inconvenience and reimburse my extra flight here to Halifax. I guess they heard that I had this famous blog.

In the sky, on the way back to Halifax
Twitter: @mypelvicfloor
Exuberant Bodhisattva on Facebook 
My $2 Self-Help Book: I Let Go

More from the Vipassana Diaries:

Last Practice Before Vipassana



  1. For what it's worth, food was/is a big deal for me too during sesshin (Zen meditation intensive retreat). I also have some eating disorder/exercise addiction in my history. Usually I can not eat enough not to be hungry a lot or a little all the time and I can be totally obsessed with it - planning how I will deal with it days ahead of time, not to mention all through sesshin. (We have formal meals in the meditation hall for breakfast and lunch where you practice taking "just enough" and eat all together, beginning and ending at the same time. - it was basically my idea of hell for YEARS.) Maybe you had some break through that you will describe later, but for me, it has been a long haul - not totally over yet - to stop obsessing about food during sesshin. Also, I have come to learn that everyone has some crazy thing that they get freaky over. If it isn't the food, it is the sleep or lack of sleep, or their work practice, or the zafu they use or whatever. It almost doesn't matter what it is, the fact is that something comes up one way or another. I think the key is to greet it with some kindness and try not to make a big deal about how you feel about it. You can obsess...but maybe have a sense of humour about it. At least, this is as far as I have come with it. Like I say - for whatever that is worth!!

    1. Thanks for this, Robyn! In the end, I became a night time peanut butter sandwich person.  If I ever get over my jet lag, one day I'll describe.  It interesting how my eating disorder treatment has given me certain ideas about food that sometimes prevent me from being intuitive. And over the years I've come to the conclusion that I should probably never go on a cleanse or diet or restrict my food choices much beyond being vegetarian.  But is this "the rule" forever? So far it has helped me avoid catastrophe; however, I wonder if it is fair to always assume that catastrophe is inevitably around the corner for me...  

      Anyways, food was definitely my head trip. At Vipassana, and I find any time I am changing routine. Flying to India I had similar anxieties.  Should I fast to avoid jet lag? (Answer: no. )When would my next meal be and what? Should I eat this even though it 's not going to be my meal time in India?  Or even though if I were in Halifax I'd be fast asleep? Blah blah blah. But you're right, everyone has their own special vacillation to go through. Once it becomes familiar enough, hopefully humour becomes possible, or at least some self-compassion.

      Great to hear from you Robyn! Xo.