The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation
Credit: Courtesy Michael Finkel
The moon grows full and begins deflating. My aches start to fade. I'd like to say the meditation gets easier, but it doesn't. Not a single minute feels like it has less than 60 seconds. I time myself on my wristwatch to see how long I can sit without moving. My record is 27 minutes. I keep up the illicit relationship with my neighbor – a wink, a grimace, a smirk, a sigh.

One night, also in defiance of the rules, I read the label on my deodorant. And my hand sanitizer. And my toothpaste. Then I break into my first-aid kit, looking for other things to read. I see the bottle of painkillers: prescription-strength hydrocodone. I can't help myself – I swallow a few pills and zone out for a couple of pleasant hours.

A few times, when I'm supposed to be meditating in my cell, I wander about campus, avoiding the Dharma Servers – the Dharma Police, I rename them. I observe, in a nearby field, a group of boys playing a game of pickup cricket. I dance, by myself, to the faint licks of an unseen stereo. OK, I admit it – it's more than a few times. I come across other truants; a couple of guys chatting, one man speaking on a cellphone. I watch the distant cliffs morph from tan to purple to black as the sun slides away.

I come up with a theory: People who are really good at meditation, who can truly suppress every thought, probably didn't have many thoughts in the first place. They're stupid. I like this theory. It makes me feel better. Who the hell wants to be a Buddha anyway? It's not a bit of fun; there are no girls. I'd rather be Derek Jeter.

The final meditation is a one-hour group session. My head's still a waterfall, strong as ever, so I envision the drive from my home in Montana to the entrance of Yellowstone National Park – a trip that takes almost exactly an hour – and I visualize every bit of scenery along the way. I picture myself filling up my car with gas, buying a Diet Dr Pepper, swerving to avoid a deer, stopping to snap a photo of a bighorn sheep.

When it's over, our vow of silence is still in effect. We're not permitted to speak until we're past the grand pagoda. We walk along the paths, students from the other groups spilling out of their pagodas. I fall into stride with a young Indian man, and I sense both of us speeding up, aching to reach the finish line.

I tend to measure my travels not by what I see but by how intensely I feel. And on this scale, I realize in my last moments of silence, my time at Dhamma Giri qualifies as the most profound trip of my life. Even weeks later, long after I've resumed the rhythms of normal existence, I can see that the 10 days have altered me. The stream of petty, kid-centric stresses that used to keep me perpetually riled – the third glass of spilled apple juice; the cellphone dropped into the toilet – now seem precisely what they are: not that big a deal. And even when I'm faced with a couple of truly big deals, like a death in my family and an emergency-room visit with my son, I feel this calm and clear-headed understanding of the vicissitudes of life.

Goenka says that it's essential to keep meditating, two hours per day. I don't even bother trying. None of my friends has noted any diminishment in my capacity to chatter. But the truth is I actually do feel a little bit enlightened, more deeply connected to the world. I feel like I have a greater understanding, and acceptance, of who I am, my foibles and strengths.

I communicate with a few of the other students and discover that they, as well, struggled greatly. One guy admits that he also cried. Another, an Indian student, tells me that to pass the time, he gave almost everyone a nickname: I was "Steve Jobs" because I'm Caucasian and balding and wear circular glasses. Fifteen people, I learn, quit the course, most in the first couple of days.

But overall, I think of the three-word review I give to the young man I'm walking next to when we conclude our silence. It remains my most honest and unalloyed assessment. The instant I was able, I turn to him, and he turns to me. Both of us are grinning radiantly. And I speak my first words: "That fucking sucked."