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Dhamma – Part 7

Day eight – Meltdown

[In case you missed it, here areย Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, ย Part 5 and Part 6!]

As with the previous seven days, I began day eight with a smile on my face and a bounce in my step. Most meditation sessions began with audio by Goenka giving us instructions on what to remember while meditating, along with some chanting in Burmese (I think). Usually this preamble lasted about 5-10 minutes, and then we would meditate. At the end of the meditation period, usually more chanting would be played. This morning, at the beginning of the 9-11 session, Goenka’s preamble was excruciatingly long. I listened patiently, but was mildly annoyed as he talked more slowly than normal and repeated himself an inordinate amount of times. This morning’s preamble was about 40 minutes long! After it was finished, I headed off to meditate in my room and the day continued.

After lunch, I decided to spend the 1.5 hour meditation period in the hall. By day eight, I now had a ritual that started from the moment I walked into the hall. I ambled over to my space, and did a few stretches of legs, arms, back. Then I settled myself in what I now think of as my ‘nest.’ And it was definitely a nest! I had a meditation pillow that I sat on, and a pillow under each knee for support. Once I was comfortably supported by pillows, I would wrap a blanket around my legs to secure my nest. Depending on the temperature in the room, I would either don or remove my sweater. I almost always wore my scarf. Some others had a more sparse nest than I did, and managed with only one pillow. There were others who built a nest out of almost a dozen pillows, and sat high above the rest of us. I found it interesting to see the rituals of others as we settled in to meditate.

The day seemed to be passing quite nicely, and before I knew it it was time for the late afternoon 2hr meditation session in the hall. I had been working diligently in the past 2 days and had been spending almost all meditation sessions in the hall. Often I would sit for an entire 1.5 or 2 hour session without moving, as well as the 1 hour group sessions. It was tiring, but I wanted to make the most of my ten days here. I was happy because it was almost tea time, and I was looking forward to a walk around the grounds.

Temperature falling
Despite the cold, my inner temperature was rising!!

I stretched, ย settled into my nest, wrapped myself up and began to meditate. The audio came on. Quickly, I realized it was the same audio from this morning that had been long and repetitive. I noticed subtle differences in the audio, so wondered if it was going to be different. It was not! With growing agitation, I listened to Goenka repeat himself over and over. As the same words came again and again, I bubbled with anger – why does he have to repeat himself so much? He could probably do this in half the time! I felt my blood pressure shoot up, and my temperature rise. I was so angry! I sat patiently (angrily) in position, refusing to move. This only spurred my mood. By the end of Goenka’s preamble, I was shaking with anger, perspiration was standing out on my forehead, and I was grinding my teeth! At the moment Goenka said “you may continue to meditate here, or in your residences,” I was off like a shot.

I threw on my boots, grabbed my coat and was out the door, stomping my way back to my room. Inside my mind I was cursing and boiling with anger. Did he do that on purpose?? The thought crossed my mind. I fled to my residence and to my room. I threw myself onto my bed and buried my head in my pillow. I laid there cursing silently in my mind, on the verge of tears. I had reached my meltdown point!

The residence
Photo of the residence I stomped back to. It's night in this picture, though...

Apparently, everyone reaches a point where emotions, anger, and general badness bubble to the surface. I realize now that this repetitive speech by Goenka was simply the thing that flipped the switch – and everything inside me came rushing forward, clamoring to escape.The previous day, someone had had a meltdown in the hall. She was crying uncontrollably, and when the teachers tried to help her out of the room, I heard her cry “I can’t move my legs!” I felt so bad for that lady. Eventually, she calmed down enough to head to her room. Being silent for ten days and looking only deep into yourself can be a trying experience ๐Ÿ˜‰

I laid in my bed, still hot with anger, crying. I remember realizing that it was tea time and that I should probably go, and then thought in my head I don’t want any F#*King TEA! I don’t want any F#*King fruit! I don’t want to talk to anyone! Eventually, when my emotions had settled a bit, I decided to try and eat something and have some tea. I had group meditation to attend, after all. I hustled to the dining hall, tears still running down my face. As I walked I remember still being very angry. Stupid snowflake! I thought. Stupid bootprints in the snow! I grumbled in my head. I managed to grab a quick tea and a banana before they had been cleared away. I sat alone, as everyone had already left the dining hall.

bootprints in the snow
"Stupid snowflake! Stupid boot prints!"

It was almost 6:00, and I didn’t want to be late for group meditation. I speed-walked to the meditation hall, still angry and steaming. I sat down in my nest, and settled myself for an hour. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it. Not only that, but in a few minutes, I would have to listen to more audio of Goenka – whose voice I did NOT want to hear any more! I sat on my pillow patiently, waiting for the audio to start. Tears were still streaming down my face. I was trying to be as quiet as possible, so as not to disturb the other meditators.

Tears silently continued to stream down my face as Goenka began to speak, and then to chant. The audio was mercifully short. When it finished, silence fell – and my tears stopped! It was like walking into a cool room on a hot day. I began to meditate – and had one of the best meditation sessions!

At the end of the hour, there was a short break. I opted to stay in the hall. I stood at a window, a smile trying to find its way back after the deluge of tears. As I looked out, I watched an older lady walking. She stooped and picked up some snow. I watched her ball it up tightly and carry it along the path. Then she crouched, as if in attack, and hurled the snowball at a tree! The smile that was trying to find its way back JUMPED onto my lips, and I had to stifle a laugh! People are so funny! This was how Snowball got her nickname ๐Ÿ™‚

I managed to make it through the rest of the evening – the video, and the following meditation. I was still agitated as I went to bed, but the storm had passed. Only two more days, I thought to myself as I lay in bed and drifted off to sleep.

Dhamma – Part 5

Day 5 and 6 – Cyril and Yoda

[Don’t miss Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and my personal favourite: Part 4!]

After all the excitement of day 4, I was exhausted. I slept so well that night! When the gong sounded the next morning, I was up and at ’em with a smile on my face. I just couldn’t shake the smile that seemed to have taken up permanent residence there. I found my cheeks hurting after a while, but it felt good.

Day 5 and 6 kind of blurred together for me. Now that I was practicing Vipassana, things were changing rapidly. I all of a sudden had a million questions. My mind was racing. I determinedly sat through meditations and craved the time of day that Goenka would come on the video and give us some more understanding of what we were doing, where we were going. I spent my free time thinking, walking, thinking, walking. I did a lot of thinking about myself, about going back to real life, about practical applications of Vipassana. As I grasped more and more of the theory, my smile widened. I was beginning to truly understand more things about myself and about the world.

During these days, I created more paths, more lookout points, and explored more terrain. One day while walking out to the ‘lookout point’ I had created a few days back, I noticed something I had probably passed by several times without seeing. As I passed a tree on the path to the ravine, I looked up at it. Something caught my eye.

Cyril the Cicada Shell
Cyril the Cicada Shell

At first I was taken by surprise! I wondered what a bug this size was doing outside in such cold weather!? But then I realized, it was a cicada shell! How many times had I passed this tree without even realizing that this was here? It was a perfect replica of a cicada bug that probably sang its heart out in August and September. I named him Cyril the Cicada Skin. Every time I walked by the tree after that, I’d say a mental “hello” to Cyril.

Yoda GoenkaOne night I had a kind of epiphany while watching Goenka’s discourse video. I was learning so much from this man – and almost all of it was common sense wisdom that I had either not thought of before, or had not thought of it in the way that he imparted this wisdom. I was sitting there, watching the video and giggling periodically at Goenka’s accent, or use of the English language, or his jokes – and I realized: Goenka is just a BROWN YODA! He’s so cute, and small, and squatty, just like Yoda. He is always giving us wisdom in a very patient manner. And he even says some things backwards like Yoda too! It gave me great pleasure when I made this association ๐Ÿ™‚

What was I learning from all this meditation, all these videos, all this time to think and have introspection? A few simple things that together explain everything we have to deal with in life. One: Everything changes. Two: All misery comes from either craving or attachment to things, or aversion to things. It all sounds simple at first – I know. Believe me, when I first heard these things, I was saying in my head “Yeah – so what?” But after 6 days of meditating, thinking, asking questions, and learning – I began to understand the philosophy behind these things, and why meditation and understanding can bring you great benefits in life and basically help you to BE HAPPY!

Before I had come here to this 10-day meditation I had already been on the scent of some of these ideas and philosophies, but spending time silently by myself enabled me to cultivate these ideas. Absorbing the wisdom and practicing the meditation enabled me to gain so much more insight. A lot of things about life in general (and some things specific to me) came into perspective for me. Things seemed a lot clearer.

I still had a million questions, and my mind was going a mile a minute – but I kept telling myself that I still had 4 days of learning – of experiencing – to go. After day 6, I was at the point where I was teetering between being happy that I had made it through 6 days, and still wondering how I was going to do this for 4 more days.

[Check out Part 6!]

Dhamma – Part 3

The story of my journey began in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. I suppose now would be a good time to give just a little background on what Vipassana is, and what all these funny words (like Dhamma) mean.

Vipassana loosely means ‘to see things as they are.’ The longer version is that vipassana is a meditation technique that helps you to become master over your own mind by giving you insight into the impermanent nature of the mind and body. Did you have to read that sentence more than once? (I did!) Basically, vipassana is a meditation technique that helps you to live a happy life free of negativity!

Dhamma is a more difficult word to define, simply because it could mean a few different things. From what I understand, dhamma is wisdom or teachings from an enlightened person that bring you to enlightenment. It can also be taken to mean ‘law of nature.’

To recap – I went on a 10-day silent meditation course to learn the technique of vipassana meditation as well as dhamma (lessons) from S.N. Goenka. Vipassana meditation AND dhamma are both required for the technique to really begin giving you benefits in your life. It’s not easy to cultivate and get established in the technique of vipassana, and it’s definitely difficult to grasp not only the concepts of dhamma, but how to apply them in practical life. This is one of the reasons I recommend people take this course. I think it would be very difficult to understand and fully absorb everything simply by reading it in a book or by hearing about it from someone. The 10-day course fully immerses you and allows you time to practice and understand. Not only that – but once you are done, everything changes ๐Ÿ™‚

Day 2 and 3 – Nicknames and whale songs

Day 2 and 3 sort of blurred together for me. There were no distinct events special to either day, but some interesting events occurred ๐Ÿ™‚

During these two days, I began to ‘associate’ with my course-mates. During the course, we are not allowed to speak to fellow meditators, nor are we allowed gestures, writing notes, or even smiling and nodding in passing. This creates a very odd social environment. I didn’t really know anyone’s names – not that I was able to socialize with them – but because of human nature, I began giving people names. They didn’t all get named on day two and three. Some of the nick names developed over time and were based on observations of these people.

Sherpa pants
Sherpa pants!!

The first nickname was my roommate. One day we were taking our boots off in the lobby of the residence and I saw the boots she was wearing. They quite literally looked like moon boots, only black, and had “MOON BOOT” written across the back of them. From then on, I referred to my roommate in my head as *Moonboot* ๐Ÿ™‚ Upon seeing one of the other girls, I immediately pegged her as “mini sherpa.” She had the tiniest frame (hence mini), she wore these really cool pants (like in Aladdin – puffy!) and had a big mess of curly hair covered with a large winter hat. Mini sherpa was given this name, because she reminded me of a sherpa hiking through the mountains. The third nickname that I generated actually occurred on day zero. A woman with dark hair, olive skin walked (pranced) into the dining hall on day zero wearing large sunglasses, a blonde streak in her dark hair, a parka tightly hugging her frame, with fancy boots, and her face was made up to the nines. Therefore, I had no choice but to dub her “Versace.” More nicknames arose, but didn’t come until I made observations of different people and the names began to stick in my mind.

With regards to the course – day two and day three were definitely difficult. Each day the anapana meditation we were doing had modifications, so at least that kept me from going insane. I found that the more I practiced, the longer I could relax my mind by only observing my breath. By day three, I think I could calmly observe my breath for over two minutes before my thoughts ran by and stole my awareness and I began thinking in the old habit pattern… When I get home I have to remember to do this, this, and this; Oh, that time she yelled at me was terrible (followed by a mental review of the incident); I can’t wait to get my new laptop (followed by plans for both the old computer and the new one). It’s easy to get lost in your own thoughts of the past and the future, and forget where you are… here. I think this is part of what the anapana meditation was teaching us.

Another interesting thing that I noticed starting on day two and three were the strange things that happened during the evening group sitting. Because no one was having dinner, by the time the 8pm meditation hour rolled around, most people were feeling hungry. When we were all in that final meditation – there was a whale-song symphony of churning stomachs and growling tummies. More than a couple of times, I imagined that I was deep under the sea, surrounded by creatures calling to each other under the water. There are definitely some strange things that happen in your mind when you’re silent for so long!

Whales in our tummies

Before I knew it, day three was over. What an accomplishment! Yet in my mind, I was still thinking There are still SEVEN days left… how am I going to make it?! Little did I know that day four was going to be a pivotal day in my 10-day experience.

Dhamma – Part 2

Day 1 – Getting into the Dhamma groove

(Here’s a link toย Part 1 in case you missed it!)

4:02 am **GONG**

My feet hit the floor even before I knew I was awake. I think it was more fear of missing something or being disrespectful than an actual feeling of wanting to get up. I quickly readied myself for the 2-hour morning meditation session before breakfast.

The grounds before dawn
Walking for a little woke me up!

Since I knew I was going to be tired, I had decided the night before that I was going to walk outside in the cold for a few minutes before entering the meditation hall so that I had time to wake up. I was afraid that if I was sitting cozily on my cushion that I’d fall asleep and then TERRIBLE things would happen… (of course this is all in my mind!)

After 10 minutes of looping around the womens’ side of the grounds, I felt I was ready to face the day – and begin my 11 hours of meditation slated for the day (and every day). Quickly, I settled on my cushion and assumed the position. I was not alone – a few others had come in before me. I closed my eyes and tried to calm my mind and begin focusing on my breath. You’d be surprised how incredibly difficult it is to clear your mind and simply focus on your breath. Idle thoughts keep flying in one side of your brain and out the other, leading to remembering something from long ago in the past, which reminds you of something you forgot to do three days ago, and then you feel bad… the mind is a messy place!

As the remaining students filter in, the CD begins, and we receive our morning dose of musical chanting and soft words reminding us of the technique we are to be using today, and words of encouragement. I’m slowly beginning to get used to Goenka’s accent. I almost understand all of the words he is saying in English now!

More meditation?I sat for as long as I could in a cross-legged position, then changed to have my knees folded up at my chest with my arms around them. Then back to cross-legged, and so on. If an itch arose, I scratched it. If I had to cough or sniff I just joined the symphony of bodily functions occurring every other moment in the meditation hall. I have no idea how I got through that first hour and a half… In the last 30 minutes of the morning sitting, more chanting in Burmese is played. I have no idea what is really being said, but apparently they are simply words of good-will and encouragement and love, to try and help us along. Goenka finishes with “Take rest, take rest,” and slowly we rise up, joints creaking and cracking, stretching and yawning, and stumble to the Dining Hall for breakfast.

Breakfast, I will learn, will be the same each day. Oatmeal, hot prunes in juice, granola with nuts, bran cereal, yoghurt, toast with butter, jam, or peanut butter, tea, coffee, and jars of sunflower seeds, raisins, flax seed, and sesame that we can combine in a variety of ways. I have been encouraged to eat the prunes at every sitting, as meditation often blocks up certain areas of the body, while unblocking our emotions and our mind ๐Ÿ˜‰ I sleepily choose my meal, make some tea, and find a seat. It’s odd eating together with so many people but not being able to talk. I listen to the clink of the plates and the chewing crowd.

Lunch was an amazing vegetarian dish, accompanied by the staple salad. Again, I had tea. Part of me grumbled that I wasn’t going to have dinner – but I would soon get used to this schedule.

One thing I remember distinctly from Day 1 was repeatedly checking the schedule to make sure I knew when to be in the meditation hall. I was terrified of missing a sitting and not hearing some important piece of wisdom imparted via audio from our teacher, Goenka.

4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00 Lunch break
12-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room–Lights out

The hours seemed to drag on. On my breaks, in fits of boredom – I began walking the grounds. There were not many paths, but I managed to try several different combinations and permutations of directions and loops. It’s amazing the things you find to do.

After 5pm tea and a break, we re-entered the hall for our last 1-hour group sitting of the day, followed by our first video discourse and another short round of meditation. I was really looking forward to the video – I had heard this was the best part of the day. My sources were not wrong ๐Ÿ™‚

The video began once everyone was situated. On the screen appeared a squatty little Indian man with grey and white hair. He was SO CUTE! And he has a sense of humour! It’s so nice to listen to Goenka talking to us so candidly, with such simple explanations of what we are doing here. We are offered examples and stories – which helps us all feel a little bit more human at the end of a long, silent day of meditating inside our own minds. It’s nice to laugh together as a group when Goenka makes a joke here or there.

After the video, there are about 30 minutes left to meditate before bed.

Somehow, I made it through the day’s meditation schedule.

Before I know it, day 1 is over. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. But just before I drift to sleep, I realize – only 9 more days to go…

[Read more in Part 3]

Dhamma – Part 1

When I last left you, dear reader, I was preparing to leave for a 10-day meditation retreat. Now, I’m back in the ‘real’ world with a big smile on my face, but wanted to share some of the experience with you ๐Ÿ™‚

The 10-day Vipassana Meditation course that I took was held at a center in Egbert Ontario, on a beautiful little patch of land just north of Cookstown, Ontario. From 8pm on the night of Day zero until 9am on the morning of Day ten, I and approximately 90 others were meditating together in noble silence (silence of the mind and body). Yes, for ten days, I was completely silent! I won’t go into detail about the meditation technique or philosophies, because I am not a Vipassana teacher – and not even close to qualified in advising people on the technique. Please take these entries simply as an account of my personal experience ๐Ÿ™‚

Day Zero – The Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

December 29, 2010
This morning started with a leisurely pace. I woke up just after 9am, and slowly began my tasks for the morning. I had pre-packed some items the night before, so most of my work was already done. Nerves were definitely setting in though, and I was thinking to myself What am I doing? I really had no idea what the facility was going to be like, how things were going to work, or if I was going to be able to make it for ten days! I began buzzing around double-, triple-, and quadruple-checking my bags. I checked items off lists, peeked in pockets and zippers, and piled and re-piled my things in an effort to get ready.

I don’t think I could ever be ready for this experience.

Registration was from 2-4, and the drive to the meditation centre was just over an hour – so I had time to spare. To numb my mind, I started watching episodes of The Big Bang Theory (hilarious show) and eating the last few snacks and cookies that I would know for about 12 days. Did I mention that the menu was entirely vegetarian? Oh – and that we only got breakfast and lunch? Oh yes – at 5pm daily we were afforded tea. New students are allowed to have fruit as well. No dinner! Thoughts like these were periodically racing through my mind, but leave it to some mindless television to help numb the buzz.

The clock struck 1 (my mentally noted departure time) and I wasn’t moving. OK, so I was nervous… I was stalling… I was procrastinating. Finally, after some more puttering and a final (redundant) bathroom break, I began loading my two bags, two pillows, blankets, and sleeping bag in the car. We were asked to bring our own bedding, so it looked like I had packed enough for a month, but the contents of my extra luggage was mostly blankets and extra socks.

Once I was in the car and rolling, I began to feel happier. I could feel myself moving forward – mentally, physically, emotionally – toward something fantastic. I bopped and sang to songs on the radio (the last of which I would hear for far too long) and reveled in the idea of having ‘peace and quiet’ for the next while. Thinking of leaving the rush and bustle behind me for a while made me smile even wider.

Signs at meditation
A photo of some of the signs leading the way (taken on Day 10 when I got my camera back) ๐Ÿ™‚

I arrived in perfect time – the clock read 2:14 – not too early, not too late. Once I pulled in the driveway and up to the gate, I was directed to the women’s residence where I was to drop off my things, and then return here to drop my car off. After that – off to registration! My initial thought was How am I ever going to remember where everything is? The grounds were by no means large enough to get lost on, I quickly realized. A looping, winding road led me to my residence, where I parked briefly to unload. I was one of the first to arrive and was rooming with one other girl, so I got to pick my bed. The day was already starting to look up ๐Ÿ™‚

At registration, I handed in my iPod, my phone, and my camera. Students are not allowed technology, ways of contacting the outside, or other forms of entertainment – including books, sketch books, journals, or anything of that nature. Leaving my technology behind did not bother me. Experiencing life without these items would not be even close to one of the difficult parts of this particular journey.

After some idle chatter in the residence with the incoming women (women and men are almost completely segregated during the course), we headed to the Dining Hall at 6pm for a “light dinner” and orientation. Dinner was an amazing soup and what I would come to know as the ‘staple salad.’ย  The food was delightful, the chatter was fun, but everyone was nervous and full of questions. Orientation was simply a tape re-iterating everything we had read on the website and on our applications. Then we had a brief talk from one of the people who runs the center with a few more directions and words of encouragement.ย  We were told that at 8pm we were required to be in the Meditation Hall, when noble silence would begin and we would experience our first taste of meditation. I could feel myself tense up at the thought. My nerves settled back in.

At 7:50 – the bell was rung. I began to notice that in each residence there was a ‘bell’ which was a chunk of flat brass that was cut out. Beside the bell was a little hammer made from a small log and a large stick. As I walked to the Meditation Hall, I noticed there was also a bell hanging on a very large Maple tree. This was the main bell that could be heard across the entire meditation center.

Meditation gong
A photo of the meditation bell and hammer

I carried my little Zafu meditation pillow and my meditation blanket to the hall, along with crowds of students, both new and old.ย  With trepidation, we entered the lobby of the hall (Womens’ and Mens’ entrances were on opposite sides of the building) signs indicated that we were to take off our boots and hang our coats. “Socks only in the hall,” was plastered everywhere. As we shuffled in, we passed a shelf full of cushions. I chose a large, flat one to act as my base under my little Zafu. When we entered the hall, the lights were dim, but bright enough to see by. Our names had been printed out and each lay by a 2-foot by 2-foot square of foam with a blue slip cover on it – our home for the next 10 days! We each found our respective spot and settled in. I watched as others positioned themselves, and tried to choose a position I thought would be most comfortable. Everything was the same on the other side of the room, as men found their row and cushion, and settled in. An meter-wide aisle separated the sexes.

The lights dimmed and the teachers (one male, one female) sat at the front on raised seats – and assumed the Bhudda position. Then the terror set in. I was scared to move, sneeze, cough. Everyone else was thinking the same thing, because it was complete silence. Not a movement, a cough, or a swallow in the place! But once one person sneezed, it was like a flood gate opening. Involuntary and voluntary actions and noises fired every few moments.

I was determined not to disturb the silence. Inside my nose was a growing sensation of an impending sneeze. My left nostril seized, blocking with phlegm – just as the audio started with Goenka’s voice telling us to breathe calmly through our nostrils only. In my mind, I was chanting I will not sneeze I will not sneeze over and over again. It was working! Tears began rolling down my right cheek (on the side of the affected nostril) and my sinuses bucked likeย  a wild horse trying to throw its rider in an attempt to release the sneeze. Thankfully (when I peeked) everyone else’s eyes were closed and they were all concentrating, so they couldn’t see me struggling. Finally, my mind won over the impulse to sneeze. The tears stopped. Then I realized – I have been missing what the teacher on the CD is saying!!! I quickly brought my attention back to listening, and then calmly began to follow along, breathing calmly and naturally through my nostrils (know-st-reels, as Goenka put it in his thick Indian accent).

I’m not sure how I sat for an hour in that room. I switched my position frequently (only after noticing that others had moved as well) and fidgeted through the entire meditation. In the last 5 minutes – the CD began again with Goenka chanting in Burmese. These musical chants would become the signal to my freedom – and the end to hour-long group meditations.ย  Goenka finished his chant and uttered “Take rest, take rest” and the teachers let us know it was time for bed. I did it! Iย  meditated!

And so the journey began…

[Read on in Part 2!]

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