The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation
Credit: Courtesy Michael Finkel
Dawn is just breaking, a crease of orange over the treeless mountains. It's immensely lovely, and I get all goose-bumpy – I'm proud of myself; I'm joyous. I meditated for two hours. It'll only get better, I know it. I'm going to thrive.

I stand in line for breakfast. A Dharma Server hands me an aluminum plate and spoon, and I serve myself a few scoops of oatmeal from a vat the size of a kiddie pool. I pour a cup of milk tea. I sit in a white plastic chair at a long crowded table and stare at my plate, avoiding eye contact, suppressing all social instincts. It's very uncomfortable. Then I head back to my room and toss a bucket of water over my head – there are no showers at Dhamma Giri – and return to the little pagoda.

This time the teachers are in the room with us. Yogesh flips on the CD player, and I wait expectantly for Goenka to switch from Hindi to English. When he does, it's the same thing: Concentrate on your nostrils. Nothing more. I'm in pain, and I'm restless, and I think about quitting. I do. It's just past eight in the morning of the first full day.

I try to relax and focus on my nose, but the waterfall continues. I think about home, where it's getting-the-kids-ready-for-bed hour, and I envision the whole process, the bath and the splashing, the argument over which video to watch – no, it's not a SpongeBob night – the brushing of teeth, the reading of books – Harold and the Purple Crayon, something about mermaids – the complaints about needing to pee, the Band-Aids pasted over hidden owies, a round of ?"Twinkle Twinkle." And in this way an hour passes. Then Yogesh speaks into the microphone and tells us to take a five-minute break and return to the pagoda for a two-hour session.

From the 4 am wake-up to the 9:30 pm lights-out – that's 17½ hours – we are expected, with a few rests and meal breaks, to meditate. Ideally, without moving. Of course without talking. Though there are, actually, two chances to speak. Either just after lunch or right before bed, you are permitted to ask your teacher a question. I show up at the very first opportunity, wait on my pillow, and when a Dharma Server indicates it's my turn, I walk to the front of the pagoda and sit before Yogesh. He's in his mid-sixties, I'd guess, with gentle brown eyes and long thin fingers and an air about him of utter kindness.

"My body," I tell him, "is failing me." I mention my back and knees and hips. Then I ask about the chairs. Five or six times during the course of the morning's meditations, a Dharma Server had walked to a storage area behind the main room of the pagoda and returned carrying a rudimentary chair. He'd set it up in the rear, and a student would sit in it, leaning back, supported. Wade had his camp chair. I was in severe pain, so bad I couldn't even attempt to meditate.

"May I have a chair?" I ask.

Yogesh gazes at me. So kind. "Do you have a physical ailment?" he asks. "A medical need?"

I pause. Here is my chance to make it easier on myself. I might have emptied my bank account for a chair. But I've sworn not to lie. Vipassana has a 2,500-year history of success. I should either play by the rules, I realize, or I should leave.

"No," I say.

Yogesh tells me that my body is rebelling against this new challenge. It happens, he says. It's an integral part of the process. I must work through it.

And with that, he returns me to Cushion 51.