19 min read

I Left Vipassana on Day Five

I just got back from a Vipassana silent meditation course where I was supposed to meditate 10 hours a day for 10 days, but I dropped out on the 5th day. I’m left with a bunch of mixed feelings that I'm now trying to process.
I Left Vipassana on Day Five
You can find the Russian translation of this post here.

I’d heard about Vipassana for years and always thought it was kind of the next step in my meditation journey—a bucket list thing. For some reason, I never really researched it much. It just seemed like one of those things I’d eventually do, like it was meant to be part of my path anyway.

Vipassana is a meditation technique designed to boost your concentration, awareness, and equanimity through observing your bodily sensations, cultivating of wisdom or insight into the true nature of reality. You sit in silence, observing these sensations and learning not to react to them. Over time, you’re supposed to "see things as they really are" and gain an experiential understanding of how the body and mind are interconnected. They say Buddha reached enlightenment with this very technique, or at least he taught it to his students. But that was like 2500 years ago, so idk if we can be certain.

Last year, I spent almost the whole year traveling and at some point felt ready to dive into Vipassana. So, I signed up for courses through Dhamma.org in France, the UK, and Sweden, but I got waitlisted for all of them—none of it worked out.

Then this year, my friend Arshak, who had done it before, and I found a course in Armenia. I was surprised there was even one here. I had this vague idea of what my days would look like: waking up at 4 am, meditating for 10.5 hours, eating vegetarian food, no stimulants, no phones, no reading or writing, and not even making eye contact with other students. It all sounded pretty good to me.

Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t dig into it more. For some reason, I didn’t fully grasp what 10 hours of meditation a day would actually feel like. I mean, it sounds intense, but I guess I just didn’t really acknowledge the weight of it.

We get to the center, register, hand over our phones, watches, and all our electronics, and sign a paper agreeing not to leave for the next 10 days. I don’t think much of it at first, but it turns out this is just the start of a whole set of tactics aimed at keeping you from bailing.

Then the silence kicks in, and we get our instructions. They hammer home again that leaving during the 10 days is a big no-no. They make it crystal clear: if anyone wants to bail, now’s the time.

There are only three people I’m allowed to talk to: two managers who handle logistical and technical stuff, and the assistant teacher, this old and wise guru dressed in all white. He’s the only one with any formal training; the rest of the volunteers, including the managers, are old students. To talk to him, you have to sign up for a Q&A session. He's called an assitant teacher, because THE teacher is S. N. Goenka, who has died 11 years ago, but who we hear through the audio recordings.

We get to the group meditation hall, and the whole floor is divided into these 80cm squares where each student (there are around 70-80 students) is assigned a spot to sit for the next 10 days. It feels a bit claustrophobic, and I can already tell this is going to be uncomfortable.

After a few hours of meditating, my legs are killing me. I cycle and run pretty regularly, so my muscles are tight and my legs aren’t very flexible these days. Plus, I messed up some leg muscles / joints on my right leg in the gym a week or so ago. None of this is an issue for my usual 20-30 minute meditation practice, but after meditating here for a few hours, my legs start hurting pretty bad. It never even crossed my mind that it would be an issue, but it gets brutal.

Every day at 7 pm, there’s a discourse—an audio recording from the founder of this specific Vipassana course, S.N. Goenka. On “day one,” he encourages us to stay for the entire course, saying that “it can be harmful to leave in the middle of a course.” Harmful? That’s weird, I think. And then he straight up calls people who leave early “weak-minded.” I’m like, WTF? Are you serious? I look around, trying to gauge other people’s reactions.

I notice a pattern forming—a series of tactics that seem questionable to me, aimed at discouraging people from leaving. I get that you’re supposed to get the most value by sticking it out for the whole 10 days, and I trust the intentions are good, but do they really have to resort to shaming and guilt-tripping to make it happen?

I wake up the next day with a lot of pain in my joints, and it only gets worse during the meditation sessions. This isn’t the usual back or shoulder discomfort from sitting too long, which I can usually handle. Maybe I’m being a bit of a hypochondriac, but I can’t shake the feeling that pushing through this pain might actually be unhealthy and mess something up in my legs.

Pain isn’t just a useless sensation to be endured; it’s a signal from your body that something’s wrong and needs to change. One of the key ideas of the course is equanimity—observing sensations without developing cravings or aversions, recognizing the impermanence of everything. So, basically, you’re learning not to turn pain into suffering.

I believe in this concept, and I know that working with pain is a necessary part of this practice. But I’m conflicted about which pain is okay to endure and which isn’t. It’s tough to figure out when to accept discomfort as part of the process and when it’s a sign that something is genuinely wrong. If you do any sports, especially if you’re over 30, you know this well. So anyway, I sign up for a meeting with the assistant teacher to get his guidance.

When I finally see the assistant teacher and try to explain my situation, mentioning the right knee muscle/joint inflammation, he basically interrupts me and says something like, “Yeah, it’s fine, it’s your first Vipassana, just endure the pain.” Honestly, that’s a super unsatisfying answer even if delivered with a joy and smile on his face. He doesn’t even try to understand what’s going on. For all he knows, it could’ve been something serious.

Now, to stress the above point and how disappointing the teacher’s response was, I got Peroneal Tendonitis last year on my right foot because one day I went out for a run and did three times my normal distance and maybe my shoes were a bit worn out. I started feeling pain at some point but ignored it. Got home and a few hours later realized I messed up my foot. Was toe-walking for a week and couldn’t run for two months after that. It was super annoying because things like these set you back a lot, and you lose a lot of momentum, so you start being more careful and paying more attention to the pains in your body. And now, suddenly I get here, and the teacher is like, “You’re fine, it’s all in your head.”

I have a hard time trusting the teacher. He doesn’t really listen; he just talks and interrupts without fully hearing me out. I notice the same thing happening in the group Q&A sessions. His answers often don’t address the actual question, or he misquotes Goenka. Some of his advice seems downright harmful, like telling a woman who hasn’t slept for two days due to intense, disturbing thoughts that it’s a good sign and means her meditation is working, or when a guy with horrible back pain from a hernia is told to just keep sitting through it. Two days later, the guy comes back with, “Teacher, the pain is way worse, I can’t tolerate it,” and then the teacher is like, “Okay, give him a chair.” Argh… you don’t tell someone with a hernia to just keep sitting and enduring the pain.

The guy wasn’t even sitting with the right posture—I know because his spot was right in front of me. They didn’t comment on posture at all. They just tell you to sit however is comfortable, without any guidance on proper alignment or anything. It’s frustrating because proper posture is crucial for avoiding injury, but that doesn't seem to get any attention.

So anyway, on “day two,” I tell the teacher I want to leave, and he’s like, “No, you can’t. What are you talking about? This is your first time here; you’ll be fine in two days.” Then he adds, “You leaving will be bad for the morale of others.” This triggers another WTF moment for me. Like, is it normal to get this kind of guilt trip from someone who’s supposed to be our guru here? He must realize how inappropriate that sounds because he quickly backtracks with, “Not that you need to think about other students; you should focus on your own journey.” Then he tells me to just go and maybe see him again tomorrow. So I leave, feeling even weirder about the situation.

At this point, I’m feeling kinda meh about some of the things going on here. There’s the weird Goenka chanting, the slight culty vibes, and the living conditions, which brought all the memories of my two years in the army. Shared rooms, bunk beds, shared squat toilets, and showers—except for the food. The food here is really good, no complaints there. Oh, and the nature is amazing. The center is surrounded by mountains and trees, really beautiful, but we only spend maybe an hour or so outside each day.

Goenka’s lectures, which run for like 1.5 hours a day, include reflections on the day’s meditations and explanations of various concepts. They feel kinda slow and pseudoscience-y at times for my taste, but I generally agree with the things he says. His comments like, “this wonderful technique, the wonderful Dhamma, so scientific, so non-sectarian, so rational,” definitely make me giggle. If you’re so non-sectarian, you don’t really need to point that out every five minutes.

Honestly, all of this is really minor; it just adds to my frustration of not being confident about whether it’s healthy to endure the specific pains in my legs. But yeah, I’m basically not in the “surrendered” state a student should be in to gain the most benefit from a setting like this. I take some time to think and assess.

I don’t talk to him on the third day, deciding to give it a few more days. I keep meditating and trying to be equanimous with all the sensations, including the pain, and to be fair, it does work. I’m able to meditate for a whole hour without moving at all. Instead of ignoring or “enduring” the pain, I sometimes narrowly focus on the exact sensations in the exact parts of my body that make up this pain. When you go narrow enough, you see how all the sensations constantly change and there’s no singular, constant pain, which somehow leads to the pain disappearing somehow.

I actually went a bit ahead at this stage; you’re not supposed to focus on anything but your breath. But I already have experience with both Anapana and body scanning techniques, so I just went ahead to fix the leg pains and then come back to the breath, haha. But as soon as the meditation is over, it’s hard for me to get up because all the pain comes back, and I have to be careful walking as things are stiff.

Now I notice another thing: most of the new students aren’t even meditating half the time. They’re just sitting there, looking at the clock on the wall behind us, waiting for it to end because they’re in so much physical discomfort or maybe just bored and dealing with mental chatter, idk. To be fair, the “old students” (the ones who have been through this before) are much better at handling it. They seem more focused and less fidgety.

So now I start to question the efficiency of the course since I’m really only meditating about a third of the time. I feel like I’m wasting so much time that I could’ve used way more efficiently. The rest of the time, I’m just dreading it and waiting for it to be over. Wouldn’t it be better if I could meditate the whole time without being totally derailed by my leg problem and physical inflexibility? Maybe it worked for Goenka’s early students if they were like yogis or something, but it doesn’t seem to make sense as a one-size-fits-all approach, especially for newbies who have to jump from 10 minutes a day of meditation to 10 hours.

Why can’t we just practice in shorter chunks and maybe limit it to a few hours a day, at least to begin with? Going from 30 minutes a day to 10 hours is like deciding to run a marathon every day for 10 days when you usually jog a few miles. Of course, you’re going to be miserable and injured! It seems so inefficient to me, sitting through hours of pain and distraction for a few minutes of actual quality meditation. What’s the reasoning here? This intensive approach feels counterproductive, as it turns the experience into an endurance test rather than a meditative practice.

They do offer chairs if you can’t handle the floor, but idk, a chair doesn’t seem to be the answer either. They gave me a basic chair, but it was even harder to sit on it for some reason. The chair made me sleepy, plus it wasn’t that comfortable, and my knee would still hurt. I ended up putting a couple of cushions under my feet to raise my knee a bit and somehow manage the pain, but later I went back to the cross-legged position. At least there I was able to get some quality meditation.

Just for context, it was surprisingly easy for me to focus and meditate without mind chatter before the pain in my legs would make it hard to sit. The initial moments of meditation were quite focused, and I was good at being equanimous with other discomforts like back pain and shoulder tension. However, as the physical discomfort in my legs grew, maintaining that focus became challenging.

So at this point, I have two main issues: One, is it even healthy to sit with this level of pain for so long? Could I be damaging my joints? The teacher’s vague “you’ll be fine” answers aren’t very reassuring. And two, isn’t it a huge waste of time if at least half of the room is just watching the clock, unable to meditate because they’re in agony? Intuitively, it seems like I would go way deeper if I weren’t so physically uncomfortable the whole time. But I don’t really have anyone to ask. The managers are there for logistical stuff, and the assistant teacher is unhelpful.

It’s Q&A time again, and one woman, who sounds distressed, asks why Goenka said quitting is so “dangerous.” The assistant teacher compares it to stopping brain surgery midway through and leaving someone’s brain exposed. Again, I’m like, WTF, dude? Do you really have to make that kind of unnecessary and exaggerated analogy in a situation where the person is already in distress?

You need to understand, we’re not at a party where everyone’s wearing a mask and not really affected by anything. These meditation practices and the super thought-out structure and environment are designed to get you into a psychologically vulnerable place, which is definitely necessary for doing any meaningful self-work. But I feel like the language both Goenka and the assistant teacher use isn’t very empathetic. It has huge “Whiplash” / tough love vibes to me, which to some is probably good, but I don’t know… I feel like it may not always fit the audience. In such a vulnerable state, a more compassionate approach might be more appropriate and effective.

Diligently. Seriously. Ardently. Patiently and Persistently. Goenka uses these words to describe the attitude he wants you to bring to the meditation. Hearing these words repeatedly might give one the impression that meditation is a grave task, demanding extraordinary effort. Personally, these aren’t the words that come to mind when I think of a mind free from agitation. Nor do they seem to align with what selflessness would feel like.

When you consciously apply effort, you tend to feel more self-aware. Think of times when you’ve felt self-conscious—maybe during public speaking, fretting over social media, or criticizing yourself for your flaws. These moments are far from effortless. Now, think of times when you’ve felt less burdened by a sense of self—perhaps after great sex, a walk in nature, playing a musical instrument you’re good at, being in the flow. These experiences feel a bit more like what the absence of effort would be.

You can tell a lot of the people asking questions are genuinely looking up to the assistant teacher, who, to be fair, is this charming guru with a smiley face and a joyful vibe to him.

I go up to the teacher with a question again, and this time I ask, “Teacher, let’s say I had practiced yoga for a year before coming here, so it was way more comfortable for me to sit without all the pain. Wouldn’t I be able to go way deeper in my practice?” I’m trying to imply that if I didn’t have these intense pains and could concentrate more, I would be able to gain more benefit from the practice. But again, the teacher just gives me his usual, “This is your first Vipassana, you’ll be fine in a few days.” So I leave without getting any real answers, feeling unheard once again.

Update: Here’s something I think a lot of practitioners get wrong. After reading this post, many people have told me, “pain and discomfort are necessary components of this practice.” I agree that some pain and discomfort are inevitable, no matter how well-prepared you are physically, and it’s part of the process. But your body should be as ready as possible before diving in. This is actually the whole point of Hatha Yoga (known in the mainstream simply as "yoga"). Hatha Yoga has historically been viewed as a preparatory stage for higher forms of yoga—like Raja, Bhakti, Kundalini, and others. The primary goal is to create a stable, healthy body and mind, free from distractions caused by physical discomfort. Physical yoga itself isn’t the end goal; it prepares you for deeper spiritual work. The asanas are designed to open the body and make sitting for long periods easier. So, while mainstream yoga often focuses on flexibility as the end goal, the real purpose is to ensure your body isn’t a barrier to your spiritual practice. The more prepared you are physically and the less pain and discomfort you experience, the deeper and more subtle you can get in your Vipassana experience.

We’re at day 4 now, which is when the actual Vipassana practice starts. The three days before that, we were practicing Anapana, a breath awareness exercise that helps prepare you for Vipassana. But Vipassana starts in the afternoon, and before that, we still have several hours of Anapana. An hour before Vipassana begins—and Vipassana is a two-hour meditation—we have another meditation session. I manage to sit the whole hour without moving a single millimeter and have a really good experience being equanimous with my pain. But then, when we start the Vipassana session, just 20 minutes in, I can’t handle the pain anymore. I get angry, open my eyes, and start looking around. Again, half of the room is just chilling there, waiting for it to be over.

And so, after the meditation, I go straight up to the manager: “Okay, I’ve decided I want to leave. This is not working out for me.” He’s like, “Well, you can’t just leave. You have to talk to the teacher, and the teacher is only available at 9 p.m. for the Q&A.” The course is setup in a way where it's logistically hard to leave. And not only that, but because there’s so much implication that quitters are weak-minded, imagine having to go to a Q&A and announce or ask permission to leave in front of all the other participants (and this is not just my experience, see this). It feels like some kind of weird tactic to make you stay. If I were in my 20s, I probably wouldn’t have left. It would’ve been too big of a blow to my ego. But this time, I almost want to leave as a rebellion and be an example for others who may have wanted out but couldn’t because of all this stigma.

The second manager finds out that I want to leave, and he literally tells me, “If you leave, you’ll suffer forever, and you will always regret it.” He says things like, “You’re gonna think your whole life, ‘Why didn’t I stay those five days?’” I’m like, WTF dude? That’s a pretty heavy trip to lay on someone who’s already struggling with the situation. It feels like another weird guilt trip, and it doesn’t sit right with me at all.

To be clear, all of these people seem genuinely well-intentioned, and I don’t question their motives at all. I’m just not really into the whole vibe.

By this point, I’ve had enough of the weirdness and I’m so ready to bail. With all the pressure to stay, it kind of turns into a game of rebellion in my head. Everyone else is all focused on sticking it out to the end, but I’m like, “How can I make the biggest scene while leaving?” I know I’ll have to deal with a bunch of “Oh, weak-minded Vahe couldn’t hack it” comments when I'm back and people find out I left Vipassana halfway through and to be perfectly honest, part of the motivation behind this writing is to redeem myself.

I wait for the 9 p.m. Q&A. I go up to the teacher and, with a proud and loud voice, say, “Dear teacher, I quit. I love what you guys are doing here, but I decided to go home. My legs want me to go back to a 30-minute-a-day practice.”

The teacher starts again with his “you’re making the wrong decision” spiel and guilt-tripping me about how this would affect the other people (without correcting himself this time). But I’m like, “No, teacher, I’ve already made up my mind. There’s no way to convince me to stay.”

And he’s like, “Well, okay, we’ll talk tomorrow at noon.” I’m like, “No, teacher, I am leaving.”

So we start some kind of weird negotiation on what time we need to meet the next morning to get the final “approval,” and we agree on 7 a.m. Just to be clear, there’s no tension in this conversation; we’re almost laughing through it.

Interestingly, the last two days, I actually had a very joyful mood and a smile on my face the whole time, despite the pains, which was kind of weird and unusual. I still don’t know what it was—might have been some kind of side effect. But I talked to a friend yesterday who also had a Vipassana experience, and he said he had a similar reaction the whole time. It’s really interesting because most of the other people I saw there seemed extremely contemplative and serious.

Anyway, so I leave on the fifth day.

I think some people take pride in enduring pain, but that isn’t a huge motivator for me in this situation. I get enough of that from endurance sports, lol. I know I can take the pain—this isn’t my game here. I just don’t trust that it’s the best way to spend 10 days or deepen my practice. I don’t trust the process or the teacher. It feels inefficient, like I’m wasting precious time. I worry about integrating any insights when the conditions are so extreme and unrealistic compared to daily life. It seems geared toward inducing a dramatic experience to hook people, but I’ve already had spiritual openings—that’s not what I’m after. I want to develop more moment-to-moment mindfulness in a sustainable way.

That said, I have mad respect for the volunteers. It’s amazing that they devote so much time and energy to helping others for free. All the food was prepared by volunteers, the managers, the assistant teacher, the people who clean the bathrooms—no one gets paid. Everyone’s here because they’ve gained something meaningful from this experience and want to help others. And when I try to make a donation on my way out, they won’t even take it, saying they only accept money from people who complete the course. I think that’s really admirable.

I really enjoyed speaking with Ruzanna, the woman who brought Vipassana to Armenia. She seemed like a wonderful woman. I also really liked both managers, despite the second manager’s intense messaging. I could see myself having a great time with them outside of this context.

The course undeniably makes a bunch of people rave about how life-changing it is, even if they didn’t do things properly or learn big lessons but simply made it to the end. With sensory deprivation and hours of physical and mental strain, it’s bound to feel dramatic and might even induce some spiritual experiences. As Goenka says, “You’re bound to be successful.” But I don’t know if that’s the same as real, long-term transformation.

Most of what I see is a lot of people pushing through, then zoning out because they can’t handle meditating for that long. It seems so obvious that there’s got to be a better way.

Neuroscience studies show that concentration meditation strengthens a region of the brain called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). With continual practice, the ACC grows stronger, allowing us to meditate for longer periods. When inexperienced meditators push beyond what their ACC can handle, their minds start wandering. They mentally ruminate, pick up bad meditation habits, and end up wasting this precious time (see this and this).

Maybe not statistically and for scale, but certainly an individualized approach should yield much better results. I understand and appreciate the donation/volunteering angle, but honestly, I’d be down to pay for an experience where I get a more personalized approach. Turns out some Vipassana courses do just that.

I don’t want to knock the whole thing. I’m sure it helps a lot of people make breakthroughs, and I’m so grateful to the volunteers. My issues are more with the format than the intention. I do agree with most of what Goenka says. His delivery? Not so much. But the content? Definitely.

I actually had a moment while sitting in pain, thinking, “How am I gonna do another six days of this?” But then I thought, if I only had to endure this for five more minutes, it wouldn’t be so bad. This realization was proof that the physical sensations weren’t that terrible in the moment. My mind was exaggerating that pain and turning it into suffering by stressing about the future.

I realized that if the pain is tolerable now, it’ll be tolerable tomorrow and the next day (unless it intensifies significantly, which it was doing in my case, lol). In the moment, it’s not that bad. It gets overwhelming when you think about enduring many moments like this. But really, in each moment, it’s mostly okay. Eckhart Tolle explains this well in “The Power of Now.” It’s all about staying present and not letting your mind create suffering by projecting into the future.

What Vipassana gives you is an experiential learning of this, not just an intellectual understanding. And I wholeheartedly support experiential learning.

Having said that, I think for me, the best practice is something I can weave into my daily life, not some grueling marathon. Maybe I’m too stubborn and lack the humility to go along with their way. I’m open to that possibility. But deep down, it just doesn’t feel right for me. I’m all about those small, sustainable shifts rather than big dramatic plunges (although, okay, they might be needed to shake things up once in a while). I’ve already had those intense, full-body experiences of the bigger reality (documented in a private post, ask me about it), so now I want to practice in a more gradual and organic way to get there without forcing it.

So that’s where I’m at. As you can see, I’m still a bit conflicted, still processing it, and still have a lot of questions. Please take everything I said with a grain of salt. It’s possible that if I didn’t have the intense pain in my legs, I might have had a completely different experience. This blog post might be a complete 180 from what it is right now. The internet says that most breakthroughs and value actually come after the fifth or sixth day, like on the seventh to tenth days. I wouldn’t know because I haven’t been there.

I feel a bit envious of the ones who stayed, but I also don’t really regret leaving when I did. I’m glad I tried it, but I think I’ll stick to my regular practice for now. Maybe I’ll be back there someday. For now, I’m going to restart practicing yoga to get a bit more flexibility and up my meditation game a bit.

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Me, walking out of the center.