No speaking, no phones, no eye contact...and no dinner. Completing this Vipassana meditation course in the hot Manila sun was one of the greatest challenges of my life.
Words & Photos By Nathan Allen
I was in Siargao, the Philippines' rustic surf hotspot. A tall, weathered traveler sat across from me at an eatery on the side of the road. As is so much easier when you're traveling solo, I struck up a conversation with him.
He was from Montreal, I learned...and had come to the Philippines because it was one of the only locations that still had slots available for an ancient meditation course called Vipassana. I had heard about this "silent retreat" before, and I plied him for more information. I was intrigued.
He said it's run by volunteers, and didn't cost anything to attend. This is because it's donation-based, which helps keep the experience consistent and pure. Aside from this, he was very hesitant
to share details from his 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. She replied, informing me that there were still a few slots left.
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. Vipassana is an ancient technique started by the Buddha himself, thousands of years ago.
It is completely secular and non-religious...techniques that can be utilized by people from all faiths and walks of life. They are intended to help you become in tune with your body, with the ultimate goal of eliminating suffering.
Well, I wouldn't exactly say I was suffering, but I had recently been (quite unfairly) thrust into national news in the Philippines, because I was declared "persona non grata" (officially unwelcome) by a small local government unit there.
Strange but true - Yes, this actually happened
However, I received a LOT of support from Filipinos who knew they probably weren’t getting the full story. They were right. For me, the hardest part was keeping the truth bottled up until I left the country, because I didn’t feel safe. I had to do that for about a year while I continued promoting tourism there.
It took a toll on me. I was worried that if I didn’t do something about it, I might end up harbouring deep resentment for a country and a culture that I loved. I wondered if this Vipassana retreat might just do the trick.
On top of being motivated by all of this, as a writer and an explorer, I was also just curious about the whole experience. I love pushing my mind and body to the limits….I always have.
So, in the sweltering early 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, where we loaded up into “tricycles” which are a bit like “tuk tuks” in Thailand.
Enter The Vipassana "Compound"
While still considered the "Manila area", this was actually quite rural. The best word I can use 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, This is the hot-and-humid Philippines, but this location's not exactly a jungle. The 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 makeshift meeting hall...basically a pole frame with giant tarps stretched over it. We were encouraged to get to know each other, and communicate as much as possible before our “noble silence” commenced. We 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 them 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.
I’m not exactly a morning person, and my mental state deteriorates pretty quickly when I get hungry. Perhaps I have low blood sugar. Anyway, I learned we would be waking up at 4AM each
morning, and not only are all meals at the silent retreat 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 one that had a swiveling 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…with 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, by 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. I realized this was going to be difficult for me, because I knew that that night I would have no dinner, and then I wouldn’t be able to eat breakfast the following morning until after a few hours of early meditation. This would continue each and every day.
As far as I know, all Vipassana courses are led by video on a projector. There is an older Indian man named “Goenka” on the screen, and he walks you through it. 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.
I won’t go into much detail about the actual meditation itself. You can experience Vipassana 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. It’s just supposed to be calming, and 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” - this 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. This was our first awkward experience lining up together for food, and then sitting across from each other while we ate in complete silence (and
with no eye contact). The seats and tables we chose at arrival were assigned to us for the duration of the 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 very first silent retreat was off to a good start, I thought.
We were kept busy…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. Rosaries are not even allowed. Snacks, either.
You are not supposed to move too quickly...exercise is not allowed, not even a brisk walk. All energy needs to be focused on what Goenka calls "the work" at hand – the Vipassana techniques.
Zombies in the Yard
I mention “zombies” because we all end up kind of staring vacantly into space, trying to avoid looking at each other. It can be awkward because we are always in such close proximity to each other. I remember looking out the small window in the sleeping quarters and seeing all these bodies littering the yard. They just wander back and forth aimlessly, staring at the ground or at the sky. Looked like a total cliche zombie movie scene.
My Unexpected Challenge
The first 2 or 3 days Vipassana were challenging, but not for reasons you might think. My problem was that I had more or less figured out these meditation techniques on my own, many years prior to this experience. I mean, 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 really ready to move on to the next step. The problem was that most people had not learned techniques like this previously, and the course needed to progress slowly in order to not leave anybody behind. Totally understandable, but I felt like I was already going full steam ahead, and was forced 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.
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 working hard to lay their meditative foundations 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 all got used to the routine. I was surprised that not having my phone or wifi wasn't as hard as I thought...but 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...I'll never forget the plastic red chair. Our free time was spent sitting on the plastic stools at the meal tables, but there was only one plastic chair with a comfortable backrest. That chair became our coveted prize...the lucky ones were able to swipe it 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 the trees home.
Yes, any change in routine becomes a godsend during a silent retreat. For example, I never realized a bowel movement could be so welcomed and exciting.
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.
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. These people seemed damaged...jaded...broken.
As if somehow 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 let them abandon 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, I think most of us were at the end of our rope. You have no idea how painful simply sitting in one position for hours and hours can really be. What a test of patience and determination! As if to taunt us, the last series of instruction and chanting seemed to carry on forever. When "noble silence" was lifted and it was all said and done, 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 that 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. Friends were made, and contact information was exchanged.
The Truth About Vipassana Meditation in Manila
Yes, I struggled getting through this silent retreat...and I joke about how cult-like it seems from the outside...but it's no cult, and I'm so glad I stuck with it. I probably wouldn't do this Vipassana course again, but it's important to note that I do believe these techniques are useful. Most people will likely see the benefits of this course, assuming they have the determination and willpower to see it through to the end.
I believe Vipassana meditation can be very effective for those suffering from depression or addiction...or even those who simply want to "unplug" 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 want to mention that this Manila location seems to be temporary. Personally, pushing my mind and body to extremes in this location was exactly what I hoped for, but I think most other Vipassana locations are much more established (and comfortable). Hopefully soon, Manila will get a permanent location as well. It all depends on the generosity of former students and teachers.
Speaking of which, I'd like to thank the dedicated staff. Their cooking and hospitality was wonderful. One more thing...sorry if this disappoints you, but the image at the top of the page was not taken at the silent retreat. The property looks a bit like that, though. A tiny bit. Haha.
What an experience...one I'll never forget.
For the main international Website: Dhamma Vipassana
- Nathan Allen
Thanks for reading, and feel free to share!
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Flying to the Philippines can be cheaper than you might think. You can browse cheap flights HERE. - Nathan
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