The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation
Credit: Courtesy Michael Finkel
Now, folded atop my royal-blue cushion in the crowded room in the small pagoda, facing the teachers, I wait. I don't quite know what to do. It's evening; there are no windows in the meditation room, but there's ambient light, gradually waning. Spiderwebs are hammocked about the ceiling. I glance at the teachers; they're motionless, eyes closed. I look at my neighbors. Eyes shut. I close my own. I listen to the birdcalls, intense beyond the pagoda's walls. There's the scent of a burning bug coil. Someone burps.

Finally, I hear a noise in the front of the room, a slight rustle. I can't help but peek. One of the teachers, the balding one, presses a button on a portable CD player. A gravelly voice flows through several wall-mounted speakers. First in Hindi, then English. It's the voice of S.N. Goenka, who is credited with Vipassana's current resurgence. Vipassana had faded from use in India a few centuries after the Buddha's death. But it thrived in Burma, where Goenka stumbled upon the technique in the 1950s. Though a successful businessman, he suffered from debilitating migraines that no mainstream doctor could alleviate. Vipassana not only ended his headaches, it infused him with a deep sense of bliss. His motto – "Be Happy!" – is stenciled on dozens of signs across the Dhamma Giri campus.

Goenka eventually abandoned his business pursuits in order to share what he'd learned. In 1969, he traveled to India and reintroduced Vipassana to the land of its origin. In a nation sharply divided by caste and religion, Vipassana welcomed people of every background. The meditation technique fanned across the subcontinent and then, driven by word of mouth, spread throughout the world. Goenka is now too old to teach in person, but his recorded instructions and videotaped lectures are used in all Vipassana centers – every course, in every country, is highly coordinated, right down to specific meditating and sleeping hours.

The voice, Goenka's voice, tells me to think about my nostrils. To focus all my attention on my respiration. On the air flowing out. Flowing in. Is it predominantly coming from my left nostril? My right? Both equally? Ponder it, says Goenka. Feel it. Concentrate.

That's all. The teacher shuts off the CD player, and the room falls silent. I sit, eyes closed, focusing on my breathing. I am, in fact, a predominantly right-nostril man. Which I find interesting. Sorta. For a few minutes.

I had steeled myself, over the weeks leading up to the trip, for an intense mental challenge. My plan was to give Vipassana a serious and thorough try, though I was aware it was unlikely to be an easy fit. I don't think anyone has ever described me as a natural-born meditator. I'm loud. I'm energetic. I'm spazzy. I crave constant stimulation. "As soon as you finish breakfast," one of my friends predicted, "your only thought will be 'What's for lunch?' " But I'd reached the age – I'm 43 – at which becoming a little more contemplative, a little less chicken-without-a-headish, might serve me well. My doctor had said as much.

In other words, I am prepared to be bored. What surprises me – what I haven't envisioned – is meditation's physical aspect. The last time I sat on the floor, without back support, for an extended period of time was probably kindergarten. Minutes into Goenka's nostril assignment, my lower back is throbbing. Also my hips. My knees. My neck. I shift position. I refold my legs. I forget about my breathing. All I can feel is the pain.

Fortunately, it's an extremely brief meditation session. Less than half an hour. Still, it's long enough to worry me. The balding teacher – Yogesh, he tells us, is his name – picks up a microphone and calmly informs us that the real meditation starts tomorrow. We're dismissed to our rooms.

We rise, file out of the pagoda, engage in a silent sandal-retrieving scrum, and scatter along the cement paths, dark now beneath a half-moon, past the central pagoda dotted with lights – all of us shuffling about as if in a zombie movie. The breeze tinkles a few chimes. The canoe-size banana leaves create a pleasing susurrus. I'm a little hungry.

I've been assigned a private room in a cluster of shoe-boxy buildings near the campus's barbed-wire-topped perimeter wall. The room has white walls, a white bed table, a white ceiling fan, and a white toilet. It's illuminated by a single flickery, low-wattage bulb. The bed is a thin mattress atop a plank of wood. It's purposely uncomfortable. According to the Vipassana Code of Discipline, which we've all vowed to follow, in addition to no dishonesty or stealing or taking of any intoxicants or engaging in any sexual activity, we also promised not to sleep in "luxurious beds." Sleep deprivation is apparently an integral part of purifying the mind. I lie on the bed. It is, indeed, not luxurious. I flip off the light. I hear the buzzing of mosquitoes, which reminds me of another rule in the Code: no killing any being. I let them buzz.

I'm tired from travel – the three-continent trip to Mumbai, the packed train north to the village of Igatpuri, the uphill walk to Dhamma Giri – and my cravings for a mind-easing book or television show or album swiftly dissipate. I drift to sleep.