Why I Failed a 10-day Vipassana Meditation Retreat (Part 2)

In the previous post I described my experience of my attempt at a 10-day Vipassana meditation course as taught by S.N. Goenka, up to the point that made me quit. This post is dealing with me getting out prematurely on the fifth day and my experience with doing so. I learned a lot about myself and about what I could do to be more successful. If you think about doing one of these courses, I am sure you will find something worthwhile in here.

If you are interested why I went to the course in the first place, have a look here.

If you are just here for the conclusions, these are the CliffsNotes for day 1-4:

  • the first days were incredibly painful for me as sitting and meditating gave me massive back pain
  • I had a lot of trouble sleeping and this made me suffer even more. Not due to lack of sleep, but due to the endless nights without any good way to cope with it

The last day

I feel relieved, but torn. Free, but sad.

I can’t take this anymore

I start morning meditation as usual and it is hard. Really hard. This time it just feels too hard. The endless days before. The endless days still to come. Interspersed with endless, sleepless nights feeling sick and tired. My mind racing to the past to the future. After just half an hour I can’t take it anymore. This is where I break.

I can take the bland food, the imagined passive-aggressive behavior, the lack of privacy. Despite all, I can take the endless hours of meditation with crippling pain or the lack of sleep. Even the endless nights alone with my thoughts, I can take. What I can’t do is this altogether. I just can’t take all of these endless days if there isn’t even the hope of sweet relief by sleep, if only for a few hours.

Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash.

Having come to this conclusion at last, I lie down on my bed lost in thoughts. Imagining what I will do now. How I will get out of this. Building up my own expectation of getting out of here. Fearing what everyone I have to talk to will say, will think. Pushing away the thought that I have failed. Telling myself that I pushed as hard as I could, but bad preparation on my part (not getting seen to my back pain in the past, not adapting to the changed sleep cycle or asking for a single or at least smaller dorm room) and external influences. But also closing the door of continuing for myself – sweet relief, but also incredibly frustrating. I push down the frustration. For now. Until it is time for breakfast. It feels endless. Much longer than any other stretch of time up to now.

The way out

I go through my morning routine basically unchanged, but catch one of the servers in the corridor and tell him that I want to quit. He is very compassionate, but let’s me know that I have to talk to a teacher. He will arrange it for me right now. I let him know that I will wait for the supposed time at 13:00 – with all said and done, I can cope with the days, just not the nights.

I force myself to eat and through the morning sessions. The meditation doesn’t feel much different than any other day. Only if thoughts pop up they are about what is to come in the next few hours, not days, as it was before. Intermingled with scanning my body and the pain is hoping and fearing what will come, when it is time to talk to the teachers.

At the allocated time I go to the meditation hall and join the line of others who want to speak with the teachers. It looks like the saddest waiting room ever to me. Maybe like the waiting room of a funeral parlour, if anything like that exists.

Talking to the teachers

Then it is my turn and I go in and sit down in front of the teachers and tell them that I can’t go on. All the eloquent things I planned to say go out of the window and I am close to tears when I talk to them. They are very compassionate and ask if there is anything they can do to make this bearable to me, so I can go on. Less meditation, meditation as help during the night, anything more-or-less.

It is then and there that I realize the real mistake I made by not asking for help earlier – before I closed any door to go back in my mind by building up my hopes and expectations. Now, though, I just can’t go on. I just can’t take this hit to my own build-up hopes. Not anymore. I would just break down (or at least break down crying completely … damn you stupid gender norms that I can’t help applying to myself).

I tell them that I can’t stay and they are very kind about it. That it is sad that I have to go after getting through such a large part of the course, but also that it, of course, is my decision. They tell me that I have to wait for the next group session, as not to disturb the others. I can stay in my room or take walks and someone will come and give me my things then and see me off.

Waiting for two hours, waiting forever

So off I go to take walks and look out of the window at the world outside, craving to be there already and for all of this to end, but at the same time not wanting to quit. Not wanting to fail. But not being able to go on now. Just this thought brings tears to my eyes. These two hours – again – feel endless.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash.

At some point a server – the one I talked to in the morning – comes to me and we talk a bit. He is very kind and compassionate and talks with me about his experiences and that of others. That this is actually only his second course and that he was pulled in as a server only at the beginning, so he really understands how I feel. Also that I can at any point, before I really walk out, just decide to stay with no hard feelings. I tell him that this feels like failure to me and he answers that he believes that someone who decides to come here and goes through days of this isn’t a failure, but on the best way forward. After some time he gets me my things, sees me off and that’s that.

Grappling with myself

I get out, put my things in my car and just sit for a moment. It is an amazing autumn day, the sun shines and the sky is cloudless, so I decide to hike up the small mountain next to the hotel. To come down and get a bit of perspective. To deal with all of the emotions I am dealing with right now and to get enough of a grip on myself for a safe drive home.

So I walk up and sit down at a cross I was looking at so many times while being in there. I look down at the compound, my home for 5 days. The place I had to deal with so much pain, and emotion, and which I now left behind earlier as expected. I feel relieved, but torn. Free, but sad. After a few minutes I continue up towards the peak.

People pass me on the way up and it feels strange to greet someone, to talk. I sit up there and take in the view. The sun is already low and paints the whole reach of the mountain chains in the background orange. While I was in there fall has come to these woods and the green is sprinkled with yellow and red and brown. I just sit and watch, feeling the wind and the sun on my skin.

Walking down

At some point, someone else walks up. We exchange a few words and after a few minutes I leave to walk down again. This being much less exhausting than going up, my mind is racing, emotions well up at times. I am everything but present in the moment. The path is easy, but still I stumble a few times. This helps me to catch myself thinking and I try to be mindful – not the Vipassana way, but general mindfulness, as I have trained before. I feel the path under my feet, I look at the area around me, I feel the sensations in me. All without judging, all without attachment. If my mind drifts off I recognize the thought and move back to just observing.

Feeling estranged

The path I have chosen down passes by the compound, the walking area in full view. It is just after dinner time and I see my previous fellow students walking in there. Looking out, just as I have so many times.

Photo by Brunel Johnson on Unsplash.

From this distance everyone looks like toy figures, just as the people in the valley basin did when I was chewing my lunch looking out. Still, on the male side I recognize some of them – by their clothing, by their habits, by their movement patterns. “Just a few short minutes ago I was one of you. What will you think about me when you see me gone?”, I think. I have only known them briefly, but at the same time I have grown somehow close to all of my fellows, despite all of the artificial distance that is imposed. Easily I can imagine myself walking down there. But already I feel the distance, between the ones that stayed and me, growing.

Just a few short minutes ago I was one of you. What will you think about me when you find me gone?

This scene will play over and over for five more days for the people who find a way to push through. I so wish I was one of them. I’m so relieved to be out looking in.

Letting go

It is already getting dark and after a few minutes I walk on. Trying to be mindful of walking.

It doesn’t take long to get back to my car in front of the dining room windows, but too far away to really recognize anyone inside. I look up and see myself sitting there looking down an me. I feel dislocated, like being in two different places at the same time. Then the feeling passes and I get in my car. I put on some music, start the engine and leave.


I thought a lot about the course and how it went down for me in the last few days. A lot about leaving and the feeling of failure I had to come to grips with. Also a lot about what to take away from it and, maybe, how to approach it or something similar at a later point. There are quite a few thoughts and lessons I got out of it.

What will change me

If you don’t try you just fail by default.

Considering how I feel about the whole experience the thing that is the most striking to me is this: despite the pain and suffering from the course itself and also me giving up, it was still a worthwhile experience. I am glad I tried it and for everything it did to me. Trying and failing at something that is really hard is still so much better than simply not doing it at all. As corny as this phrase might sound, I have never felt the truth of it as intimately as now. If you don’t try you just fail by default.

Faith isn’t anything I am all to interested in, but the second most important lesson I learned alignes nicely with the actual message of Buddhism. Your ego makes your life miserable. I, ultimately, failed because I thought I have to man up and push through the pain and suffering by myself. But this just isn’t the case. Yes, it would have been hard in any case, but had I just asked for help the organizers would have helped me to get through. This way, well, I just didn’t.

Two additional nuggets I found are that it can be incredibly exhilarating to push through your pain and out on the other side. And it is just plain amazing what is possible if you just do it. I wouldn’t have imagined that I manage to do 9 hours of meditation a day without a lot of preparation, or sit multiple hours a day perfectly still. It is just incredible what is possible.

All of these lessons were hard earned and will – hopefully – be a step for me towards a better self.

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash.

How to succeed

I also learned a few things I would do better, should I decide to try something like this again.

What I struggled a lot with – especially in the first days – was the question “Why am I here?”. As with all things in life, it is easier to get through rough patches if you know your why.

I wasn’t really there to learn Vipassana as a way to enlightenment. I don’t care for religion of any kind and I already have a daily meditation practice (I very much prefer Zen-like meditation over this particular style). So why did I signed up for this retreat? It burns down to a single thing: to learn more about myself. I was in there to get out of my comfort zone, to see how I would cope with media detox. And if, as a side effect, my meditation skills improved, all the better. I conveniently overlooked that what you are going to do here is mainly a crazy amount of meditation. Everything else is just window dressing. Which makes perfectly sense as learning Vipassana meditation as a way to enlightenment is the whole point of the course. If you are in it for anything else it won’t make life easier for you.

Another thing that definitely would have improved my experience is to adapt my sleeping schedule beforehand, instead of going cold turkey during the course with all the surrounding issues.

That was as faithful an account of my experience as I could muster. For me doing something that challenging and out of the ordinary was definitely a valuable undertaking and, while I am not sure if I will ever do a Vipassana retreat again, it definitely won’t be the last time I will challenge myself.

Let me leave you with this:

The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.

Chinese proverb