The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation
Credit: Courtesy Michael Finkel
For three and three-quarter days, our assignment remains the same: Think about your nose. The purpose, we're told, is to hone our powers of perception until every microsensation is felt, every prickle of sweat, every wisp of air, every tingle and tickle and quiver and itch.

It works. My senses, all of them, grow incredibly sharp. When I step on a twig, it sounds like a firecracker. A sneeze is nearly deafening. I sit, during a break, in front of a bush, and I note that every leaf is a slightly different shade of green. I watch a leaf-cutter ant at work, and I move a little closer, and it's true – I can actually hear it gnawing.

This, however, is also true: Pondering your schnoz is insanely dull. I'm not even sure how I get through it. Minute by minute, one session after another. My back does not get better. I am stuck at waterfall with no sign of impending river. Every time I pass a "Be Happy!" sign, I have to stop myself from ripping it down.

Then, late in the afternoon of the fourth day, Yogesh makes an announcement: We have finished contemplating the mysteries of our nasal passages. We are ready to learn advanced Vipassana. Even by this point, I have little idea what Yogesh means. My friends who'd gone previously told me it was better not to know much in advance, to allow things to unfold naturally, to be free from expectations.

We listen to a long recording from Goenka. Vipassana meditation, in essence, is like taking what we'd learned about the area around our nose – that there are continual sensations, some subtle, some blatant – and applying it to our entire body. Starting with our head and traveling to our toes, we're to mentally pass over every inch of our body, detecting these sensations at each spot. We must not react – don't be pleased by a transcendent tingle or feel ruffled by an off-putting itch – but instead remain steadfastly equanimous, secure in the knowledge that all sensations are temporary, that everything will change.

I confess that I'm a little disappointed. That's it? I had hoped for something more, I don't know, explosive. But I see the students who've been here before; I watch them meditate – stock still, an astonishing blissfulness about them. I think about Yogesh, ever serene, ever peaceful. My moods, in general, tend to swing widely – extreme joy when things go well, acute distress when they don't. Goenka says it's an unhealthy way to live. It's essential, he teaches, to remain poised under all circumstances. Just be aware, keep balanced. I resolve to give it a try.

There are moments, brief and rare, when I succeed, when I'm on my cushion, and up and down my body I perceive myriad sensations, a full-body tingle. I've dissolved like an Alka-Seltzer tablet into the soup of the universe, a state Goenka calls "free flow." It's wonderful, though Goenka also warns us not to crave this feeling. Always, he says, be satisfied with what's happening right now.

I find this difficult. Mostly because what's happening is that I'm miserable. The day we're introduced to Vipassana, we are also assigned individual meditation cells – some in the grand wedding-cake pagoda; others, mine included, in a large but less grand pagoda. Rather than always meditating as a group, we're now expected to spend seven hours a day alone in a tiny, narrow room with a tiled floor and white plaster walls and a dim light. At least here, without teachers monitoring our posture, I can stretch out, head against the door, feet touching the far wall, easing the pain in my back. I feel as though I'm lying in my own grave. But even without the pain, I simply cannot meditate successfully for more than a few minutes. My head is still too noisy; my flow isn't free.

Every group session begins with the same words from Goenka: "Start with a calm and clear mind." Then he goes on to give further advice. But I can't even get to step one. Everyone else in the room, it seems to me, is floating gleefully on a crystalline lake. I realize I can quit; I'm not being held here against my will. But there's a part of me that believes a breakthrough is imminent. I'm a bull-headed man. I know how to endure. I once ran 100 miles in a single day (in 23 hours and 48 minutes, to be precise). I'm absurdly competitive – I can even turn something as airy-fairy as a meditation course into a kind of sporting event. And if all these other people are still here, no way am I leaving. This isn't dangerous. I'm not climbing some 8,000-meter peak or crawling through a war zone. All I have to do is sit. Simplest thing in the world. So I soldier on.

But something happens to me. Something bad. It might be bearable to suppress my natural extroversion – to shut me up completely. Or you can corral my need to run or bike or swim or climb – to immobilize me completely. But the combination of the two is deadly. I have actually climbed an 8,000-meter peak; I have crawled through war zones. And let me tell you: Both of those are way easier than Vipassana. This coddled and calm environment generates in me a frightening rage. I begin to hate my fellow students. I hate the teachers. I hate the Dharma Servers. I hate Goenka. I hate the food and my bed and my cushion and my cell. I hate Vipassana. I hate myself.

I feel bored and angry and trapped and claustrophobic. Lonely, too, far lonelier than if I'd actually been alone. My brain seems like a centrifuge, continuously spinning. As the days pass, I feel less calm. The waterfall only intensifies. By the time the gong pounds to start the fifth day, there's a Niagara busying in my head.

And then, sitting down for the predawn session, I make eye contact with the man on the cushion next to me. The portly one. There are protocols about what to do when this sort of thing happens. You should immediately look away. But instead – it's an involuntary action – I nod my head in greeting. I break one of the rules. And my cushion-neighbor, startlingly, smiles back. Yes. A genuine human interaction. It lasts maybe three seconds but fills me with an unaccountable euphoria. Later that morning, we do it again. It feels lifesaving.

Then, on the zombie shuffle to lunch, I spot a rusty key on the path. I grab it. I'd developed a habit, over the days, of picking up random bits of junk – a scrap of string, a couple of screws, a safety pin, a paper clip. I don't know why. All I do is pile them on my bed table. But in my room that evening, more crazed than ever by the lack of distractions, I fish the key out of my pocket. I grip it like a pencil. I take my Nalgene bottle. I make a scratch on the bottle's side. Then another.

I spend half the night, headlamp on, in a fit of pent-up angst, scratching an entire letter, a cri de coeur, on the side of the bottle. Probably a thousand words long. It's like one of those manifestos psycho-killers occasionally produce. Most of it, fortunately, is unintelligible, though what I can make out is deeply paranoid. I wonder if I'm being brainwashed, if the food is poisoned, if I'd really be allowed to quit.

During a group meditation the next day, I imagine I'm suffocating – I am suffocating! – and my legs begin to thrash about on my cushion, and I pinch my cheeks, fiercely, as if trying to wake myself from a nightmare, and sweat pours from me, and I can think only of hopping to my feet and sprinting away. Forget my belongings; just make an escape. When the meditation session ends, Yogesh makes eye contact with me and motions for me to come forward. As everyone else files out of the pagoda, I walk to him. I sit. I believe I've been so undisciplined that he's going to kick me out of the center for disturbing the real meditators. I hope he's going to kick me out.

He looks me directly in the eyes. "Michael," he says. Softly, compassionately. Using my whole name – everyone calls me "Mike" – like my mother always did. "Michael, what's wrong?"

I try to answer, but my mental scaffolding collapses. I break. Tears flow down my cheeks. Yogesh continues to look at me. And when I squeeze myself back together, he smiles.

"This is wonderful, Michael. Truly. So much is coming to the surface. This is powerful. I think you are getting more out of this course than anyone else."

To my amazement, I feel better. Five minutes ago, I was planning to run off. Now I think that I am, indeed, receiving a greater benefit than any of those motionless meditators. I might even be winning the course.