Aug 2, 2015

Heaven and Hell

I ran on Friday for the first time in months. Estelle from France asked if anyone wanted to join her for a jog and I, feeling so healthy and optimistic from all that meditation, said yes. There’s a beautiful lake in the middle of Khon Kaen that’s surrounded by a path, a very low barrier to running.

Amy from England came along and the three of us completed the first 5km lap without stopping. But that would be it for me. My quads were already hurting and once we reached our point of departure I excused myself to go buy ice and a coffee in a place with comfortable chairs. Hours later and sufficiently rehydrated, I joined the rest of the Mindfulness Project volunteers for an evening of dancing and whisky, rare luxuries unendorsed by the project and not great for recovering muscles either.

I was out until 2am. At 9am I woke up and swallowed a breakfast of ibuprofen and water, then climbed into a tuk-tuk headed for the monastery. There’s a Thai massage school there—the best in Khon Kaen—and a dozen of us volunteers had 2-hour appointments booked for 10am. I arrived on time, changed into a starchy and oversized set of massage clothes, and set down on my massage mat carefully, putting down one leg first and rolling my body over it, finally shifting the weight off of my arms as I laid back flat.

After several relaxing minutes of eavesdropping on conversations in Thai I had no chance of understanding, my masseuse arrived to greet me. He was a large Thai man, large even by American standards, and his arms and legs had the bursting-at-the-veins appearance of someone who’d just left the gym. Oh good, I thought, someone who can really loosen me up.

His first press into my legs, an inch above the knees, shot a seething spike of pain through my entire body. I convulsed. My back arched and my pelvis lifted so high that I must have graced my man-seuse’s chest with my waist. I had completely forgotten how sensitive quads are after a run, especially after months of delicately excusing myself from each opportunity to go for a jog.

If massage was soccer, Thai massage would be rugby. Physical contact and the infliction of pain upon the opponent isn’t just allowed, it’s encouraged, it’s required to win!

I had 1 hour and 58 minutes left to enjoy my massage. Or rather to survive it. I couldn’t give up. Could I?

No. In the last week I’d meditated in silence for three hours at a time. I’d been bitten by every mosquito in southeast Asia. I’d slept with only a yoga mat and a horrible sunburn between me and the floor. I’d woken up at 5am every day, scrambling to sweep away my mosquito net in a lightless room. I’d showered in only two buckets of rainwater, focusing on the important bits.

After all of this, would getting a massage be my undoing? Would getting a massage be the thing that makes me call my airline and beg for a spot on the first flight home from Bangkok?

No. That would be so lame. I came here to learn something, not give up at the first or hundredth moment of discomfort. I came here to learn to meditate. Isn’t this a good time to practice? Don’t I really need meditation right now?

Back on the mat, the masseuse flipped me over and starting working on my back. I bit through my teeth as his palms pushed my lower vertebrae down, squeezing my stomach into an upside-down pyramid. My five senses were replaced with just one, a ceaseless accumulator of pain, a frantic injection of white noise into my eyes and ears. My back was the mortar and his knee was the pestle.

Meditation. Mindfulness. Where are you now?

Mindfulness begins with the breath. Right? Right. So I started to breathe. In and out. In and out. In and out. The masseuse moved from my legs to my arms, much less sore, and a glimmer of relief peaked out from behind the wall of pain. Breathe. In and out. I started counting. 1 inhale, 2 exhale, 3 inhale, 4 exhale… all the way to 10. Then I started over. Again and again.

The remaining 90 minutes of the massage had me swinging between heaven and hell. One moment I was sure I had unlocked the key to the universe of pain management, only for the moment to bring me to the verge of tears. But thanks largely to meditation—to breathing and counting—I made it through the full two hours, completely exhausted and soaked in sweat.

The moral of the story is don’t get a Thai massage when your muscles are sore, it’s a really bad idea.

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