The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation
Credit: Courtesy Michael Finkel
My head has been stuffed inside an enormous drum. And now someone's pounding on it. Or, rather, no. My head is right here. I'm still in bed. But the booming is real. It's a gong, an incredible gong, rolling like thunder through the night. I glance at my watch: 4 am, on the nose. Wake-up time.

I stand. My back – from the meditation, from the bed – gives me a cranky greeting. I flip on the light. Son of a bitch. I'm bitten to all hell, my chest and arms and shoulders a crazy domino game of red dots. I splash cold water on my face and walk back to the Group Three pagoda.

I'm looking forward to learning the next step, beyond contemplating my nostrils. But no teachers arrive, just students. There are no further instructions. And I can't ask anyone what I'm supposed to do. So I sit, striving to keep my mind free of distractions. I detect the tide of my respiration flowing over my upper lip – cooler entering my nose, warmer exiting. Still favoring my right nostril.

A line from The Big Lebowski jumps to mind. You want a toe? I can get you a toe. Then a song refrain. A dozen of them, as if I've pressed scan on my car radio. This is Ground Control to Major Tom. Snippets of sitcom dialogue, a phrase from a Richard Brautigan poem, famous opening lines – A screaming comes across the sky – old phone numbers. I try to decide whether I prefer chunky peanut butter over creamy. Chunky, I conclude. Commercial jingles, yearbook quotes, I got the horse right here the name is Paul Revere, math equations, crossword-puzzle clues, Hotel-Motel Holiday Inn, anything, everything, a deluge of internal prattle.

This doesn't bother me. Before coming, we had been instructed to discard any mantras we might have used in the past – not a problem, as I've always been mantra-free – but I actually have brought with me something of one. Really more of a slogan. It is this: "waterfall, river, lake." I find myself repeating it, frequently, as I try to meditate. "Waterfall, river, lake. Waterfall, river, lake."

The phrase comes from an article on meditation a friend had mailed me. It said that in the process of achieving an essential element of successful meditation, stilling one's mind, it is inevitable there will first be a wild flow of random thoughts – a waterfall – which will gradually ease – a river – and then finally cease – a lake. I liked this notion, and I made a plan for myself: three days of waterfall, three days of river, three days of lake. If I made it that far, the 10th day could be whatever it wanted. So this first day's waterfall feels fine, all part of my plan.

Unplanned is the continued torment of my lower back. I spot Wade, a few pillows in front of me. Wade from Minnesota. The man with the camp chair. It's one of those simple seats, just two cushions that form a right angle. He's sitting on one cushion and provided back support by the other. Glorious back support. Now I understand. But there's nothing I can do. An hour passes. It's impossible not to stare at my watch.

After 90 minutes, the sound of chanting emerges from speakers hung across campus. It's Goenka. He's singing, I think, in Pali. No one in my pagoda moves. The chanting continues for half an hour, and then everyone stands. The session is over. I've survived.