I lay awake on a thin cot at the Dhamma Suvvathi Vipassana Meditation center in a remote village a few miles from the Nepal border. The electricity generators have just switched off, killing the sweet breeze from my overhead fan. As beads of sweat roll off all sides of my body onto my unluxurious bed, I notice sensations of throbbing heat and prickly irritation on the left side of my face. My heart sinks as I realize I have just begun my first ten-day silent meditation retreat with a terrible case of sunburn.
Sticky with sweat, pangs of guilt and self-pity, I slither out from underneath my mosquito net. Fidgeting with my headlamp, I make my way barefoot to the men’s toilet area. My gaze is downcast as instructed on signs throughout the center. I startle several lizards that had been exploring one of the washbasins as I tilt my gaze up into the mirror to inspect damage wrought by the Indian sun. The image reflected before me is gruesome. I am shocked by the deep redness of the left side of my face and notice several dozen tiny white blisters forming on the side of my nose, cheeks and forehead. This is the worst sunburn I have had in my entire fair-skinned sun-loving life. It is probably the worst sunburn in all of my lifetimes. I feel guilt along with a sense of wonder at the irony of my careless behavior that precedes the start of a self-nurturing retreat based on mindfulness.
The next morning I wake to the sound of the 4:00AM bell that signal the first 2 hour meditation sitting of our retreat. I walk to the large Dhamma hall and join the fifteen meditators on my course. All are North Indian except for a German man who I remember wrote “full-time seeker,” under the space for occupation on the center’s sign in sheet. Males and females sit on separate sides of the hall so their energies won’t distract each other.
We are instructed to remain motionless and focus on the sensations that arise and pass away in the area between our nostrils and upper lip. I find it difficult, feeling my face throbbing with hot pain along with protests from knees and hips that have avoided sitting cross legged since kindergarten. A half hour passes as my attention bounces between banal musings, such as what breakfast is like at a nonprofit spiritual center in the Indian countryside, to my growing worry about the pain in my face. I battle waves of weariness brought on travel, our early start and this concentration practice that seems to induce sleep. The fatigue ripples through my head, neck and arms. I wonder how I thought I could meditate for ten days straight. Why do I always bite off considerably more than I can comfortably chew?
Minutes tick by and the sounds of intermittent Pali chanting calm me, aiding my real and imagined sense of closeness to this ancient tradition and man’s timeless pursuit of illumination. Slowly the small patch of skin under my nose becomes my sole focus. I become able to feel the sensations of my breath brushing along the hair and skin that covers the space between my nose and upper lip. The richness and variation of the sensations present there continue to grow and diminish in a continual process of change.
Moments later I feel like my body is sliding through space spinning on a horizontal axis located somewhere in my sinuses. Dizziness nearly overtakes me as I become more aware of sensations of spinning vibrations within me. Suddenly, the small area grows larger. I feel as if I am zooming in on a Google map of my body. The whole of my being seems completely contained within this small rectangular piece of tissue. I am the area above my upper lip. I begin to hear a long unbroken ringing in my ears and feel like I could be dreaming.
A few minutes, hours or days later, a jolt of pure anxious energy shoots up my torso and out through my limbs causing my pelvis to rock forward. I bobble left and right on my meditation cushion and reel in after-shock. Before I have a chance to register this full body blast, I notice that the tone of the bell signaling the end of the morning sitting. The hot pain in my face quickly re-enters my consciousness. I become aware of heavy and complete numbness in both of my legs. Over the next three or four minutes I gingerly work to get the feeling back into my lower body. As I struggle to stand my knee, ankle and toe joints crack in a chorus of adjustments.
I arrive at the Men’s canteen and load up my silver tin plate with a delicious breakfast of chapatti, dhal, bananas, and chai-tea. I feel a sudden burst of lightness and joy at the sight of this delicious looking food. Seconds later I wonder how much it will hurt my face to eat it. As I walk to a chair I notice every sound in the room and the surrounding grasslands, all of which seem amplified and unusually clear.
The table in the canteen runs along the perimeter of the room, allowing each meditator to sit directly facing a wall. Avoiding eye contact and the sight of the other meditators allows me to keep my awareness and concentration as we eat together in silence. I quickly grow annoyed at the munching sounds coming from a mustached man in white robes sitting to my right. A small gob of rice and dhal hangs from the bush of hair above his upper lip.
After eating I wash my plate and take a quick glance in the mirror. My abdomen throbs with an ice horror before I mentally register my self-image. Blisters cover the entire left side of my face. I notice hardened mucus coming from one of my nostrils and worry moves through my armpits, down my sides into my core. I begin to wonder if the growing rash on my face is in fact sunburn.
Later that afternoon, after braving 6 more hours of nose concentration, I break noble silence and ask my assistant teacher what he thinks about my throbbing, ghoulish looking face. He thinks that the burn is one of the worst he has seen by the Indian sun and calls a doctor to the center.
The doctor arrives on a motorbike in the evening just after the electric generators have been shut off and the hot buggy night settles into silence. He shines a flashlight on my face then mutters a few sentences in Hindi followed by one English word. “Parasite.” My head spins as I wonder briefly what South Asian life form has made a home out of the skin of my face.
“It is most likely a flying ant,” a meditation course volunteer offers hopefully… Upon hearing this my chin dips in towards my clavicle as the muscles in my face contract, suppressing a revolting contraction at the top of my stomach. The rancid, metallic smell of bile wafts through my narrowing esophagus. My anxiety increases sensorially as if millions of tiny helium balloons are slowly expanding in the cavities of my body’s inner topography. They cause my flesh and organs to tighten and ascend slightly as if in anticipation of energetic lift-off.
A few tense moments of Hindi dialogue are the soundtrack to a rising swell of disgust and self-pity. “After injections, and the tablets you should experience a full recovery.” Suddenly, like the sudden downpour of drought-ending rain storm, liquid relief drains down through my central nervous system, fluids softening the anxious tension that had accumulated. I enjoy a deep sigh as I realize that the worst of my meditation retreats 110 hours of silent contemplative sitting are behind me.