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

Why I Failed a 10-day Vipassana Meditation Retreat (Part 1)

I have tried a 10-day Vipassana meditation course as taught by S.N. Goenka mid-October 2019, but only made it to the fifth day. This post is dealing with my arrival and the first four days of the retreat. You find my account of the last day and my conclusions in next part. If you are interested in why I decided to try this, have a look here.

I don’t go into much detail about the daily routine and peculiarities. So if you are looking for details about the schedule or other details, have a look at these two blog posts from people that actually made it through:

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash.

Day 0


There isn’t any dedicated Dhamma retreat center in Austria, so these retreats are held in different places all over the country. The one I am going to is held in a hotel in the Hochkar ski resort in the Austrian Alps.

It is late afternoon and the weather is cloudy. Fog crawls through the valley while I drive up to the address given by the organizers. When I reach the ski resort the deserted ski lifts and inns somehow look like an abandoned industrial area. At the indicated address a few people are milling around and a part of the building is cordoned off by barrier tape. Otherwise nothing looks out of the ordinary. Nothing hints at what will be going on here in the next few days.

I grab my bag from the trunk and walk into the reception area. Now it becomes instantly obvious that this isn’t a normal hotel. In the lobby barriers have been erected and signs indicate that the female area is to the left and the male are to the right. I read the explanations that have been put up and go get registered.


During signup I hear another attendee thank the clerk for getting the single room he asked for. This is the first time that I realize that I should have prepared better. Even in the best of circumstances I don’t fall asleep easily and sharing a room with multiple people never helps. But I already have my room number and bed and so I walk up to my room to get settled in.

In my room, I meet my roommates for the next days for the first time. They don’t seem to be particularly happy about this situation. And I get it, the thought of sharing a room with two others for 10 days is something that dampens my mood considerably. We make a bit small talk and discuss if we should open the window during the night. It is already quite cold during the night and I feel my sinuses a bit, so I ask if it’s ok to have them closed.

After that I start exploring my new home and to get a feeling for the area. Everyone looks a bit dense. Small wonder, as most of us have no idea what is to come. I get to know a few more of the attendees and find that all of them are nice guys from all walks of life.

First glimpse of what is to come

A light dinner will be served before the course starts, so I walk to the dining room at the indicated time. The dining room isn’t split into male and female areas yet, but the barriers are already erect. We have vegetable soup and chat a bit more and then the gong sounds the first time.

One of the organizers explains what will be required of us. We are expected to keep Noble Silence, so no talking, no gestures, no interaction at all. We are allowed no technology, no books and are not allowed to write. There is a separate male and female walking area in the athletic fields outside and we are allowed to walk there during recess, but we are not supposed to run or use the playground (which I find slightly amusing). After this explanation the course begins and with it the strangeness.

The strangeness

As we aren’t supposed to interact, everything feels awkward. People looking down, moving out of the way without looking at each other. In the public areas this feels strange, but I don’t mind it that much. In our private quarters it’s a completely different kind of beast. Just imagine living with a roommate or your spouse in a 25m² one-bedroom apartment. For days you don’t talk with each other, avoid each others eyes, basically just ignore each other completely. It might be just me, but it feels incredibly passive-aggressive and really unpleasant. Not a good sign to begin with.

Photo by Clement Souchet on Unsplash.


We all move to the meditation hall and the introduction by S. N. Goenka is played on the speakers. We have to repeat the official request to be taught and then the first meditation starts. Goenka chants in Pali, a chant we will hear a lot in the following days. My back starts hurting already after a few minutes of sitting still, but it is only a hint of what is yet to come. At around 22:00 we are done for the day and sent to rest with the notice that we will be woken at 5:00 instead of 4:00 the next morning, as it is already so late.

I’ll go to bed and start tossing and turning, thinking that maybe it would have been a good idea to get used to the changed sleep cycle. In the other beds, my roommates toss and turn as well, each of us alone with our thoughts. Hours later sweet sleep finds me.

Day 1

The first morning

5:00 comes way too soon (surprise!), but I jump up and get ready anyway. After only a few minutes of meditation my back already hurts, my thoughts are racing and I am desperately tired. It gets harder to sit even reasonably still with each passing minute. This can’t be just an hour, they have to be kidding. After what feels like hours the gong finally indicates breakfast.

I really need something to pick me up and the breakfast buffet actually doesn’t look too bad. I grab black tea with milk and oatmeal and sit down in front of the window. Sitting alone with your thoughts in a room full of silent people feels strange again, but by looking out of the window, I feel less trapped.

After breakfast I walk out to the walking area and move around slowly, very much concentrated on every step. My fellow meditators are weaving between each other, not interacting at all. On the other side of a cordoned-off no-man’s-land, female attendants are walking among themselves. But the way it feels they could just as well walk on Mars.

The two 45 and 90 morning meditations pass as a haze of pain, racing thoughts and shuffling from one sitting position to another. The air in the meditation hall is dry, people are coughing, and I have already started to develop a sore throat. That didn’t take long. But the second session is in our rooms, where I can lean back against the bed frame, which makes my back hurt a lot less.

No light on the horizon

After seemingly endless hours it is 11:00 and the lunch gong rings through the corridors. Me and my roommates get up – ignoring each other – and go to the dining hall. The food is some kind of vegan curry with pasta. It is tasteless and bland – not bad food, but definitely not something I will look forward to. This is the first real taste of the struggle to come – I enjoy food and this could have been a glimmer of hope in otherwise desolate days. But I grab a cup of black tea with milk and move on anyway.

After lunch I go to the walking area again. Moving feels good, despite the biting wind and grey sky. I alternate where and how I walk and concentrate very much on all of the sensation I experience. Feeling every step through my shoes, feeling the cold wind in my face.

Why did I do this to me?

At 13:00 I go back to my room to start the first meditation session of the afternoon. My two roommates obviously prefer meditating in the meditation hall, which suits me perfectly well. The first 45 minutes I feel fine, but in the second half I have increasing problems to concentrate.

In the second session the real struggle begins. Basically from the start I have intense back pain. I try to meditate anyway. When I can’t stand the pain anymore I shuffle my body a little bit and continue. Rinse and repeat for an hour.

After a short break it is back to the hall and on with 1,5h of meditation. Now I am really fed up with the whole thing. My thoughts start racing even more, circling and circling. Why did I get myself into this? I actually don’t care for Vipassana meditation. Why am I doing this? I can’t stand this anymore. There isn’t even anything to look forward to – dinner is fucking fruit I can’t really eat (I am fructose intolerant) and tea. There is literally nothing to look forward to in the next 9 days. I have to get out of here. There is no real reason but idle curiosity I am in this in the first place. WHY THE HELL DID I DO THAT TO MYSELF???

But these feelings pass. I tell myself I can go. I am here out of my own free will and I can leave whenever I want. Nothing but myself is holding me here. Also, just eat the damn fruit. What is the worst thing that could happen. Somehow this makes it better. Not good, but bearable for the remaining half hour. I doubt I managed to practice at all in this session, but so be it.

A little bit of redemption

Dinner time comes and I grab two bananas and milk with hot water. It isn’t much, but this and walking outside helps to improve my mood a bit. It’s still not good, but at least good enough to help me through the next session.

Afterwards, we sit in the meditation hall for the first lecture by S. N. Goenka and it is surprisingly interesting. Goenka obviously knows what we are going through (who would have thought) and his witty and sympathetic way helps me to keep going despite my back hurting horribly after a whole day of sitting.

After another short session of meditation it is off to bed. Let the horror begin. Even worse than last night I toss and I turn. I listen to the others struggling endlessly, then snoring and talking in their sleep. After an eternity I finally fall asleep.

Day 2

As on all of the following days the gong rings at 4:00, I jump out of bed, get ready, and at 4:30 start meditating in my room. I struggle to concentrate for lack of sleep, but keep going, try and try.

I have found the conviction that I can do it and that all will pass. Just one step after another, just one minute of meditation after another. Just one restless night after another.

After breakfast, my mood is definitely improved and I meditate in some state of equanimity and sometimes even joy. A few times this morning I experience some interesting hallucinations, like the feeling of keeling over while sitting perfectly still (I’ve actually experienced this before). Or endlessly spinning around myself without ever getting dizzy.

During the morning and lunch I brace myself for the struggle during the afternoon sessions. It is hard work to meditate for 4,5 hours with minimal interludes and I WILL struggle, that much I can be sure of.

I still don’t enjoy the rest of the day, but I find a little joy in black tea with milk and – due to the incredibly warm and sunny day – in stretching out in the sun. The afternoon and evening pass in pain, but it is bearable. I have found the conviction that I can do it and that all will pass. Just one step after another, just one minute of meditation after another. Just one restless night after another.

Photo by Xan Griffin on Unsplash.

Day 3


Just as every day up to now, morning meditation sucks. I can barely keep myself upright and struggle to concentrate massively. I promise myself a hot shower before breakfast and keep going. Little pleasures.

The rest of the morning is actually ok – I just keep going, accepting the pain. Just another minute, just another session.

Lunch break brings some relief. It is a nice and sunny Saturday afternoon and people have come to the area for hiking. While chewing on my food I watch the world outside of my little bubble. Just like the women on the other side of the row of blankets that divide the dining hall, the world outside feels detached, surreal even.

After lunch I go out again and lie down in the sun. I look at the mountain peaks, at the people walking up and down chatting. At the same time wanting to be out there and not.

Why do they hate me?

Equanimity is gone though instantly after lunch when I move back to my room for meditation. One of the servers – the people ringing the gongs and who are also responsible for supporting us – stops me in the hall and asks me if it would be ok to open the windows during the night, as one of my roommates requested this. A completely reasonable and harmless request and I relent, despite my worries about my sinuses. But afterwards, somehow, the emotional load of the whole situation – the immense pain, sleeplessness, living together with seemingly passive-aggressive roommates in this tiny area – comes crashing down on me.

The afternoon is a real struggle. With every minute sitting it gets worse. It blows completely out of proportion. I can’t get the whole thing out of my head. Why do they hate me? What have I ever done to them? I just want this to stop, but my thoughts turn and turn and turn with just this tiny thing. Everything hurts, I can’t sit still even for a few minutes. I can’t meditate at all and just ruminate.

A little bit of relief

Then a line from a song pops into my mind:

We’re just two lost souls, swimming in a fish bowl
Year after year
Running over the same old ground
What have we found?

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here

I find solace in this. All of us hurt. All of us struggle and the passive-aggressive behavior is just the result of this high-stress situation. Somehow this makes these thoughts stop. “Now who’d have thought that after all, something as simple as rock ‘n’ roll would save us all?”, as Frank Turner sings.

By no means this makes the rest of the day a stroll, though. Just by stretching, walking and drinking hot tea in the awfully limited breaks, I get through the afternoon. I still despise the whole setup and just want the pain to stop. Despite all of this I don’t consider to quit.

In his lecture S. N. Goennka’s mentions that everything up to now as really just a prelude to the real thing – Vipassana meditation – and tomorrow we will get to know it. This actually really excites me and makes me look forward to the next day.

Just leave already

My excitement doesn’t last long. This night is actually worse than the previous three. One of my roommates comes back to the room much later, long after lights out. While trying to sleep, I had been secretly hoping that he was about to bail and the hope of this bringing some slight relief during the following nights. At the same time I was feeling guilty about it – I don’t want anyone to fail, I just want to sleep. As if all of this wouldn’t be enough, my sore throat has now moved to the nose and I start having the sniffles.

I suffer for hours until long after midnight, just wishing for my own bed so I can suffer alone. I actually imagine getting a bad cold just so I could drop out without me feeling like I failed. At the same time having the intense need to persist and push through. Eventually I drift off, just to wake maybe two hours later. The sniffles are gone, the night is nearly as well. I drop back into sleep anyway, for a few more precious minutes anyway.

Day 4

Photo by Aliis Sinisalu on Unsplash.

Oh so bright the morning glow

The start of the day is actually ok. Yes everything hurts, but I am actually doing fine. I manage the pain by resting my back against the wall if I’m meditating in my room, which is perfectly ok. And I somehow push through the group sittings in the hall and actually manage to meditate for most of the time.

During lunch break I notice that something has changed in our schedule. The private meditation time has been reduced to 1h, followed by the normal 1h group sitting and a 2h Vipassana introduction. During this time we won’t be allowed to leave the meditation hall. This is at the same time scary and exciting!


At the start of the Vipassana introduction I am already tense and it doesn’t get better. S. N. Goenka explains that for Vipassana we are to practice Adhitthana – strong determination. We are not supposed to open our eyes, nor move our feet or hands at all for the whole duration. After the last 1h session and the 15-20 minutes of introduction we have sat up to now, my back already hurts a lot. The thought of not moving at all for more than 1,5h now is just plain insane. None-the-less, I resolve to go through with it anyway, shuffle my position one last time and start sitting completely still while Goenka starts his instructions.

The rest of the session is plainly crazy. I hurt. So much. But I push through and scan through my body, noting dispassionately every sensation I come across – painful, pleasurable or neutral – just as I am supposed to do. After some time, something incredible happens – the pain doesn’t go away, but it somehow moves to the background. It is still there when I move my attention over this body part, but if I move away it doesn’t pierce my consciousness anymore as it did before.

After more than an hour it is actually less the pain that makes me move, but some kind of vertigo. It’s incredibly hard to keep my eyes closed. I feel trapped. I start taking a few deep breaths and compromise with myself to move my hands just a bit, which helps to get me through the last few minutes. And then it is over.

I stand up and move out to the walking area. Everything seems more intense. The sun on the mountains in the distance, the colors of nature, the ground below my feet. I feel ecstatic. I feel like crying, not due to pain but because I tried something unbelievably hard and pushed through.

I’ve moved through the worst, nothing now can be harder. The next days won’t be easy, but they will be manageable. Just more of the same. I’ll just keep on going, one step after another.

If only

Already the next group meditation after dinner pops this bubble – all group sittings (3 times 1h a day) now have to be done with strong determination. Starting right now. Who would have thought…

All elation is gone, but I arrange myself and get started. I hurt, but I persist. Only shortly before the end I have to move again. It is hard, very hard. But I manage. One minute after another.

Then comes the night. And again the sniffles creeps up. Again I am lying awake, listening to the tossing and turning, and talking and snoring. Again I fall asleep after midnight. This time I wake up again at around two in the morning. All sleep is gone. And my thoughts go round and round until 4 in the morning and the wakeup gong.

These have been the first four days of the retreat. At this point my back hurt – even at night – and I was emotionally exhausted. But I still thought I’ll make it.

You can read about what made me finally cave here.