The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation
Credit: Courtesy Michael Finkel

These are my final words: "Why a camp chair?" I speak them to a man named Wade. Wade from Minnesota. I'm in line behind him, waiting to enter the Dhamma Giri meditation center, in the quiet hill country of western India, for the official start of the 10-day course. Wade tells me that this is his second course and that he learned a valuable lesson from the first. "I'm so glad I have this," he says, indicating the small folding camp chair tucked under his arm. I utter my last question. It's never answered. One of the volunteers approaches, puts a finger to his lips, and the silence begins.

Not just silence. I have – we all have – signed a pledge to observe what's called "noble silence." This means no speaking, no gestures, no eye contact. "You must live here," we're told, "as if you're completely alone." There is also no exercise permitted, except walking. No cellphones. No computers. No radios. No pens or paper. No books, pamphlets, or magazines. Nothing at all to read. There will be only two simple vegetarian meals a day. My suitcase, with my phone and laptop, is locked away in the meditation center's office. I have just a day bag, with a couple of toiletries, a med kit, and a single change of clothes. I'm wearing sandals and sweatpants and a loose T-shirt.

The line begins to move, and I follow Wade and the rest of the men – women are in a separate area – through the ­20-acre campus: cement paths piebald with bird droppings, a couple of shady banana trees. In the center is a monumental pagoda, with a gleaming gold-painted dome perched, ­wedding-cake style, atop several white, circular tiers. The 250 or so men have been divided into four groups, and I follow mine, Group Three, down a set of stone steps to a smaller pagoda.

We remove our footwear. I pick mine up while I notice that most of the Indian students – I'm one of only a handful of Westerners – pinch their sandals between the toes of one foot, lift the pair, and park them deftly on a metal rack. Inside the pagoda is a large, roundish room with white ­cinderblock walls, empty save for neat rows of square blue pillows.

A couple of volunteers – they're officially known as Dharma Servers and are permitted to make occasional hand gestures – point to where I should sit. Cushion 51, according to the safety-pinned tag. To my left is a middle-aged man, portly, wearing slacks and a purple dress shirt and a large gold watch. To my right is a reed-thin student-­looking guy in jeans and a polo shirt and stylish, metal-framed glasses. They're both sitting cross-legged, with a straight back, so I assume the same position. We are all facing the front, where there are two raised platforms with unoccupied cushions. Soon a pair of older men, one with a mop of black hair, the other balding, walk in and sit on the raised cushions, facing us. These are our teachers. The first meditation is about to begin.

I'm deeply, heart-slammingly nervous, yet also elated. This is something I'd long wished to experience: a chance to unplug, de-stress, switch off. To halt, for a decent spell, the incessant babbling – my own and everyone else's. I'd had three children in three years: My life, morning, noon, and, goddammit, middle of the night, was overwhelmingly noisy. I was snared in the new-father vortex of fewer hours to work and more bills to pay. At my last doctor's visit, for the first time in my life, I registered alarmingly high blood pressure.

I chose the meditation style known as Vipassana for several reasons. It's wholly nondenominational. No gods are prayed to, no mantras chanted, all religious iconography is prohibited. If you typically wear, say, a crucifix, you must remove it for the duration of the course. Also, there is no need for prior meditation experience – in fact, I was told, a neophyte is the ideal student because you won't have any bad habits to avoid – which suited me perfectly, as I'd never meditated before.

Vipassana, which means "insight" in the ancient Pali language of India, has what must be history's greatest possible endorsement. The Buddha himself – born Siddhartha Gautama – used Vipassana meditation to help achieve enlightenment. This was 25 centuries ago. The technique employed by the Buddha, carefully passed down from teacher to teacher, is supposedly the one still taught today. Vipassana adherents believe so strongly in the purity of this practice that it remains untainted by economics. The price of a 10-day course, including room and board, is exactly zero. Everything is funded by donations; no one is paid to work, not even the teachers.

The goal of Vipassana is a sort of spring cleaning of the mind – a removal of all cerebral detritus, with the ultimate result being complete liberation from suffering, mental and physical alike. The draconian restrictions are in place so that virtually all distractions are removed, smoothing the way to a quiet and focused demeanor. I knew two people who'd completed Vipassana courses, and I contacted both before I went. One told me it was among the more amazing things she'd ever done. The other said it was the most phenomenal thing he'd ever experienced, including witnessing the birth of his children.

Demand for Vipassana courses, despite the 10-day commitment, is often overwhelming. Waiting lists are common. Classes are now taught in more than 70 countries, including the United States, but I wanted to travel to India – to the motherland of the Buddha, to the world's preeminent Vipassana center, to a place so far from home that I'd be deterred from quitting. Dhamma Giri, the center I wished to attend, can house more than 500 students, but getting in is like applying for college. I even had to write a brief essay, in which I pleaded that I was desperate to "capture a greater degree of calmness in myself." A few weeks later, via email, I learned I'd been accepted for a spot in the February 2012 class. So I left my wife and kids and flew to Mumbai.