Three days into a weeklong Vipassana retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, just north of San Francisco, California, I notice myself itching, unbearably. I’m not the only person distracted by the desire to scratch. Someone else leaves a handwritten note on the staff bulletin board confessing discomfort. The senior teacher responds by devoting an entire dharma session to “the itch,” the gist of which amounts to the following: observe the body’s suffering and let it go. The aching knee, the tickle in the back of the throat—just sensory experiences. Name, but refrain from scratching at all costs.
It’s my first extended retreat, and I’m determined to adhere to at least some guidelines. To establish distance from our didactic minds, the resident “yogis” have been instructed to avoid reading or writing. Neither activity is considered to be a direct or embodied experience. I stage a quiet resistance in my dorm room, meandering back to my sleeping quarters during walking meditations to scribble down questions, realizations, and disagreements in my bedside journal. Lax in following some directives, I decide that the imposition of a few rules may be of benefit.
When red, itchy patches bloom across my torso, I think it’s a food allergy. The retreat center’s daily menu of nuts, grains, and vegetarian fare is largely foreign to my meat-based diet. I grow vigilant of ticks, noticing the warnings posted around the compound that feature magnified photos of the bloodsuckers and enlarged images of bite sites. I visit the medical dispensary and try to communicate the nature of my physical distress to a staff member, without breaking silence. “It’s okay to talk,” she says. Resolved to start tucking my pant legs into my socks, I borrow a tube of skin cream and some tabs of Benadryl to help alleviate the itching.
These over-the-counter remedies fail to improve my condition, leaving scalding hot showers several times a day as my only source of relief. I am methodical each time I squeegee the stall’s wet walls, dislodge loose hair from the drain, and hang up the floor mat over the glass door to dry, thinking of the woman tasked with bathroom cleaning. I hear her crying late at night to her cellmate about her misery and aversion to cleaning toilets and mopping floors. The women on our floor lack mindfulness in their hygiene habits, ignoring posted protocols. I begin to appreciate having signed up for dish duty.
In a moment of extreme self-loathing and guilt inspired by snapping up one of the few single rooms in the dormitory, I had put my name on the dishwashing list. I envisioned a leisurely washing of dishes, realizing too late that I’d be cleaning up after an entire community of more than 50 people. Dishwashing proves to be a huge challenge. I lack the physical strength to carry plastic tubs weighed down with scalding hot water and dishes, or to shuttle racks loaded with heavy glassware between kitchen and dining room. I will be lucky to make it through the week without shattering a dish.
My mind struggles with restlessness on the cushion, and I begin to consider my relationship to language and how it impacts my experience. Is there a difference between saying “I itch,” or “I am itchy”? If itchiness is not a permanent state of being, what language best describes the transient nature of experience? And yet, I itch all the time.
By the fourth day, I finger a possible culprit—an old item of clothing that I picked up at a thrift store before the retreat. The cotton dress emits a strong soapy fragrance capable of causing an allergic reaction. I launder the dress in my sink and stop wearing the garment.
Sitting helps me manage the discomfort, until visceral memories of previous itching outbreaks flood my consciousness. I remember when my body erupted in hives every time one particularly toxic sexual partner approached me. I re-experience the allergic rash that I developed as a result of taking penicillin as a kid. Along with these impressions arise feelings of shame around itching: my mother’s reproaches that scratching causes permanent scarring, ugliness; and my father’s admonishments that my mother gave me the gift of a perfect body at birth. Don’t ruin it.
Reliving childhood trauma seems like a legitimate explanation for my acute symptoms, but my mind continues to attach to other explanations: infested bedding at the retreat center, or perhaps a brush with poison oak. As the itching spreads to my hands, arms, and groin area, I pinpoint a memory of a similar pattern.
During my freshman year in college, I traveled during spring break to rural Florida to plant trees with a nonprofit group called the Nature Conservancy. When I returned to school after a week in the outback, my body broke out in an overpowering rash. A coworker diagnosed the issue. As a former Peace Corps worker in Haiti, she had experienced comparable misery when she contracted parasitic mites. Their patterns—of burrowing beneath the skin to lay their eggs—mimicked my affliction. Her treatment advice involved hot baths and cauterizing each bite site with a lighter. I regarded the dark round scars covering her arms before promptly making an appointment to see a doctor at the school clinic. As the familiar itch of scabies came back to me, I grew sure of the source of my discomfort.
After seven days on silent retreat, I return to civilization and immediately see a specialist. The healthcare worker takes one look at the marks dotting large surfaces of my backside and confirms scabies. The diagnosis comes as great relief and validation that my mind had not run amok during the week of solitude. Too often, I’ve focused on the truth of suffering, instead of the possibility that the cessation of suffering is possible. The most worthwhile lesson from the retreat was not the directive to refrain from scratching, but rather the commitment to embody compassion toward my own self. Rereading my journal entries from the retreat, my mind catches on this footnote: “Don’t ever let the mind abandon the body.”
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