Imagine a 10 day silent meditation with no phones, no eye contact...and no dinner. Vipassana Philippines was one of the greatest challenges of my life.
Words & Photos By Nathan Allen
I was on Siargao island, one of the Philippines' epic surf spots. A tall, weathered traveler sat across from me at a roadside eatery. As is so much easier when you're traveling solo, I struck up a conversation with him.
I learned he was from Montreal...and had come to the Philippines for an ancient meditation course called Vipassana. I had heard about this "silent retreat" before, and I plied him for more information. It was intriguing.
I learned that volunteers run Vipassana Philippines. It's donation based, and therefor doesn't cost anything to attend. This model helps keep the experience consistent and pure. Aside from this, he was very hesitant to share details about the experience. It was too intimate and personal, and besides, he pointed out that each person's path will be unique.
After researching it a bit more, I fired off an email to the woman organizing the Vipassana Manila chapter. I was in luck - there were still a few openings.
Can I Even Handle Vipassana?
However, was I SURE I was ready to commit to this? She was asking the same question. People call this a "Silent Retreat", but "retreat" might not be the best word for it. This ain't no "Eat Pray Love"...it's hardcore work. Buddha actually started the Vipassana technique thousands of years ago.
It is completely secular and non religious... practiced by people of all faiths. With Vipassana, students become more in tune with their bodies. One of the ultimate goals is to eliminate suffering.
Healing Old Wounds
Well, I wouldn't exactly say I was suffering. However, I had recently made the news in the Philippines. This was because a small province declared me "persona non grata" in their region.
Strange but true - Yes, this actually happened
However, I received a LOT of support from Filipinos who knew they weren’t getting the full story. They were right. For me, the hardest part was keeping the truth inside until I left the country. I didn’t feel safe. I did this for about a year while I continued promoting tourism.
Well it took a toll on me. I worried that if I didn’t do something about it, I might end up resenting a country and culture that I loved. Perhaps a Vipassana Philippines course would do the trick.
Aside from all that, as a writer and explorer, I was just curious about the experience in general. I love pushing my mind and body to the limits….I always have.
So, in the sweltering summer, our group met in Manila and boarded a bus for Cavite, about 45 minutes south. We were dropped off on the side of the road, then loaded into “tricycles” - which are a bit like “tuk tuks” in Thailand.
Enter The Vipassana Philippines "Compound"
While Quezon is considered the "Manila area", this location was actually quite rural. The best word to describe the place we arrived is a “compound”. When they swung the giant gate open and let us in, I half expected it to slam shut and see armed, masked men jump out of the bushes to capture us.
I wasn’t ready to make another appearance in the media – this time as a kidnap for ransom victim.
OK, also...the "jungle" part – it's a bit of a stretch, These are the tropics, but this location's not exactly a jungle. The Vipassana Philippines property actually appeared a bit sparse, open and dry. With the exception of the large Indian mango trees that provided shade, it actually reminded me of the California countryside.
Our group joined another in a simple "meeting hall"...basically a pole frame with giant tarps stretched over it. We were encouraged to meet and communicate as much as possible before “noble silence” commenced.
These Vipassana students had come from all over the world…the U.S., Canada, Russia, Spain, Taiwan, China, and Africa. I would say about 25% were Filipinos.
Signing a Waiver - The Shape of Things To Come
We signed waivers and surrendered our phones. This was getting real. They screen students pretty carefully, and it almost seemed like they were trying to convince us not to take the course. This is because the Vipassana experience can be quite intense.
This kind of silent retreat can shock the system more than people realize. Most people have never gone days without Internet, or just being able to read, write, or speak. People with a history of mental disorders might find the deafening silence to be too much.
As even I would find out, being alone with your thoughts (and with nothing to do) can become torture eventually. There is no escape.
Once you commit to a Vipassana course (10 days is already the short version!), they try very hard to keep you from giving up on it. They firmly believe that in order to truly reap the benefits, one must complete all the meditation steps in the 11 day period.
Waking Up Before Sunrise
I’m not exactly a morning person, and my mental state declines rapidly when I get hungry. Perhaps I have low blood sugar? Anyway, I learned we would be waking up at 4AM each morning. All meals at the silent retreat are vegetarian, but there is no dinner served. Ever. They're not just trying to torture you, it's actually a strategic part of the program.
We were to sleep in a large trailer, on simple cots separated by thin curtains. There is no breeze through the room, and only some of the cots have fans overhead. I chose mine a bit late, and was lucky to find a cot with a fan that reached me at least some of the time.
Men and women are kept apart…except during the actual course instruction, when they share opposite sides of the room.
Let The Silent Meditation Begin
Our daily Vipassana meditation would take place in what seemed like an oversized metal shipping container. It had one small wall fan on each end.
There was no going back now. I was determined to see this through. After our last dinner for 10 days, we headed to the meditation hall for the course intro and overview. After this, “noble silence” began. We could not communicate with each other in any way…be it verbally, with hand gestures, or any kind of eye contact.
I thought it would be too hot to sleep that first night, but somehow I was OK. At 4AM, a large bell (gong?) sounded. We were to report to the meditation hall right away. Waiting to eat breakfast was a challenge for me, especially considering that we were not fed dinner the previous night. We were required to meditate a few hours each morning - only then could we eat breakfast.
(By the way, if you're traveling to the Philippines, I recommend these hotel options HERE)
As far as I know, all Vipassana courses are led by video on a projector. An older Indian man named "Goenka" leads you through the meditations. When he was alive, he taught these courses in person. At this point, everything was so new to me that it was easy to stay focused. I wasn’t even particularly hungry. I was amazed.
What is Vipassana Meditation Like?
I won’t go into much detail about the actual meditation itself. You can experience Vipassana Philippines on your own if you’d like.
However, I will just say that it’s not the “spiritual” type you may have in mind. You are probably not going to enter some kind of hypnotic trance and have an out of body experience or something. (He does some light chanting in an ancient language, but it is not religious or spiritual in nature. Only to help you stay focused.)
Vipassana is basically just a series of sensory exercises that help you become aware of your body, and how it reacts to the world around you.
Ideally, it keeps you focused on the present moment, so your mind doesn’t start to wander and worry about the future or the past. Goenka says our mind is like an untrained beast, and Vipassana is a tool we can use to tame it.
Did I Just Join a Cult?
So let’s recap. Here I am in a tropical compound, in what seems like the middle of nowhere. I’m following every word and instruction…chanting “in tongues” with a room full of sweaty fanatics (for all I know). All eyes fixated on our “leader” - a mysterious man in a grainy old video.
Haha yes, to those who don’t know better, it really would seem like I had just joined a cult…and there I was, “drinking the kool aid” along with everybody else.
(continued below, but I'd be honored if you follow along with me)
Eating Vegetarian Meals - In Complete Silence
I think it was 6AM when the breakfast bell rang. We lined up for food, then sat across from each other while we ate in complete silence. Eye contact was a no no...and it was all quite awkward. We used our original seats and tables for the entire course.
The food...it was quite good! I didn’t miss eating meat at all. I had been eating heavy, oily food in Manila prior to this, so these light, healthy dishes were much appreciated. My compliments to the Vipassana Philippines chefs! My very first silent retreat was off to a good start, I thought.
Fighting The Urge To Flee
We kept busy "doing nothing"…sitting down meditating on cushions literally 10 hours each day. During our “free time”, we could walk around the property. However, most of it was off limits, with a rope tied to mark the boundary.
When we were able to speak on arrival, I heard stories of students walking too far out, and then finding the temptation to escape was just too great. They ran for it, and abandoned the course. I think that’s why they had it roped off.
You can start to go a bit mad out there…you realize just how preoccupied and busy we keep ourselves in our daily lives. When you strip away everything you use to distract yourself from things you don’t want to think about, it gets pretty real.
You have no screens of any kind, no electronics, no games, and no books. No snacks allowed. Rosaries and other religious items, either.
You shouldn't move too quickly...exercise is out of the question. Not even a brisk walk. All focus should be on the Vipassana techniques.
Zombies in the Yard
I mention “zombies” because we ended up staring vacantly into space, trying to avoid looking at each other. It was awkward because we were always so close together.
I remember looking out the small window in our room, seeing all these bodies scattered in the yard. They just wandered back and forth aimlessly, staring at the ground or the sky. Looked like a total cliche zombie movie scene.
My Unexpected Challenge
The first 2 or 3 days of Vipassana were challenging, but not for reasons you might think. My problem was that I had figured out these meditation techniques on my own, many years prior to this experience. Not exactly, but I had learned how to become more in tune with my body, and those experiences made learning these techniques much, much easier.
Less than halfway through the first day, I was quite comfortable...and ready to move on to the next step. The problem was that most people had not learned these techniques previously, and the course needed to progress slowly for their sake. Totally understandable.
However, I was already going full steam ahead. I had to repeat the same, basic exercise over...and over...and over....
After 2 or 3 days I thought for sure we would be ready for the next big step. As it turned out, we weren't. Don't get me wrong...we did move on, but to me it was basically just a another baby step. The real struggle for me was realizing then that this whole course would progress at a snail's pace, and I would spend 7 more days here like this.
My Real Test of Patience
Knowing what needed to be done (and how to do it) became a form of torture for me. I couldn't help but wonder if this was the true test of patience I was here for.
I would open my eyes and peek at all the fortunate souls meditating around me. How I envied them...they had a clearly defined goal – something to work towards. Well I guess I did, too....to make it to the end of this glacial course without going completely bonkers.
Over the next few days, we tried our best to adjust to life at Vipassana Philippines. Not having wifi or my phone wasn't as difficult as I thought! Still, I'm not going to lie....I'm a writer, and I had a TON of time to sit and think out there. I had so many ideas for future goals and projects; the hardest part was not being able to simply write them down!
I considered finding a hidden spot and writing notes in the dirt...but that would technically be cheating. I began to work on mental repetition exercises, hoping I could burn these thoughts into my aging mind – and do something about them once I was back out in the real world.
There is No Escape...From Yourself
Each day dragged on...and I'll never forget the plastic red chair. On our free time, most of us sat on plastic stools at the meal tables. However, there was one plastic red chair with a comfortable backrest.
That chair became our coveted prize...the lucky ones were able to claim it early and sit under the shade of the mango tree. Even luckier if you were able to watch the pair of colorful Kingfisher birds that called those trees home.
Yes, any change in routine becomes a godsend during a silent retreat. For example, even a bowel movement becomes a welcomed and exciting event!
Students All In It Together
If there was one thing that helped me get through this experience, it was knowing that I wasn't alone. You could see the struggle in everybody's face. There is no way around it – these Vipassana courses are hard work...especially in this location. The heat and humidity are just brutal. If you're one to believe in the benefits of "sweating out the toxins", you're in luck.
You'll sweat like a beast, so drink a lot of water to stay hydrated.
Vipassana Philippines is like hot yoga...minus the yoga...and you do it all day long.
Honestly, seeing how miserable everybody looked began to take a toll on me. I began to wonder if I should really be here...if I really belonged. Many of these people seemed damaged...jaded. Broken. Was I one of them?
A Crude Symphony
As if subconsciously rebelling against our inability to make a sound, our tent cabin was a symphony of snoring, belching, and nuclear - grade flatulence each night.
As the days went on, I began to grow annoyed with people around me, and I'm sure others were feeling the same way. Familiar faces started to disappear...never to reemerge. I wondered how they convinced the staff to free them from the course...or did something sinister happen to them?? I kid, they're fine.
The Light at the End of the Mediation Tunnel
By the last day at Vipassana Philippines, I think many of us were at the end of our rope. You have no idea how painful it is to simply sit in one position for hours and hours. What a test of patience and determination!
As if to taunt us, the last series of instruction and chanting seemed to carry on forever. However, when "noble silence" finally ended, something miraculous happened.
We started talking to each other.
We shared stories about our struggles during course days, and laughed about the "bodily function orchestra" which put on free shows each night.
I imagined that when the final Vipassana bell rang, we would all avoid each other and get out of there as soon as possible. Instead, we ended up sticking around...and even bonding. The people who annoyed me the most, the ones who always seemed to be in the way, or looked the most miserable...they were the ones who laughed the hardest with me.
It was also amusing to realize they were thinking the same things about me. They weren't so unhappy, damaged, or broken after all.
The smiles returned.
We felt accomplished...we had seen battle together. After becoming fast friends, we exchanged contact information.
The Truth About Vipassana Philippines
Yes, I struggled getting through this silent retreat - and I joke about how cult like it seems from the outside. No, it's not a cult, and I'm quite glad I saw it through to the end.
I probably wouldn't do the Vipassana Philippines course again, but I do believe these techniques are useful. Most people will likely see the benefits, assuming they have the determination and willpower to push through it.
How It Helps: Benefits of Vipassana Meditation
According to students and teachers, Vipassana meditation can help ease suffering from the following conditions:
"Unplugging" With Vipassana
Vipassana meditation is also good for those who want to "unplug" from technology - and experience the world (and themselves) in an entirely new way. You'll hear many testimonials before and after the course, and there is a reason that many people keep returning year after year.
One other thing: I should mention that the Vipassana Philippines location seems to be temporary. Personally, pushing my mind and body to extremes was exactly what I hoped for, but I think most other Vipassana locations are more comfortable and established.
Hopefully Manila will get a permanent location soon. It all depends on donations by former students and teachers.
Speaking of which, I'd like to thank the dedicated staff. Their cooking and hospitality was wonderful. Also, (I'm sorry if this disappoints you) the image at the top of the page isn't from the silent retreat. The property looks a bit like that, though. A tiny bit. Haha.
What an experience...one I'll never forget.
Website: Vipassana Philippines - Silent Retreat in Quezon (Just outside Manila)
For the main international Website: Dhamma Vipassana
(Again, if you're traveling to the Philippines, I recommend these hotel options HERE)
- Nathan Allen
Thanks for reading, and feel free to share!
Goodbye, Gopro...I Finally Review the TG-4 Underwater Camera in the Philippines
If You Like This, You Might Like...