10 Days of Silence, in Search of Enlightenment
"I'm going to a silent retreat," I tell my friends, looking for some kind of commiseration—but they respond unsurprised, as if expecting this self-intervention was bound to happen someday.
When I tell them it’s a 10-day thing, they become a bit more sympathetic. “I’ll probably sneak out at midnight, look for a sari-sari store and buy some Tanduay,” I joke. Ten days of silence is like suffering to someone like me, who is more accustomed to late nights, noise, and social media histrionics. But I willingly surrender anyway: I signed up through the Vipassana Meditation website, and a week later, was approved a slot at the Dhamma Phala center—a Buddhist boot camp of sorts, as I would soon learn.
They e-mailed me the Code of Discipline: a four-page document that tells you what to expect, and what is expected of you. There will be no talking, no contact with the outside world, no writing in journals, music, or reading material. Only a vegetarian breakfast and lunch will be served, and then tea and a fruit for dinner. The daily schedule begins with a 4 a.m. wake up call, followed by hours-long of intermittent meditations, two long breaks, and then lights off at 10 p.m. You are expected to stay for the entire 10 days; if you’re not ready for the commitment, don’t bother, they sort of say. And that’s when it hit me that this was no joke.
The silent part of meditation is easy peasy. It’s when the reality of things dawn on you that’s hard—it becomes a battle with yourself.
Vipassana teaches oneself how to rid of mental impurities via self-observation; that, by carefully observing your natural breath, you get to experience interconnectedness of mind and body, and achieve balance, liberation and bliss. The man credited for its modern-day resurgence is S.N. Goenka. He’s a believer because, once upon a time, he suffered from splitting migraines, and no contemporary doctor could fi nd a cure. He took a Vipassana course, and not only did it heal his headache, but he claims it saved him from the miseries of material pursuits.
Goenka is no longer with us, though, so Vipassana centers utilize audio and videotapes of his teachings instead, and are held in similar residential-type sites. It is also completely free, no catch. There are centers all over the world, funded by donations from students who complete the course. Waiting lists to get in could take as long as four months. In the Philippines, there is only one center, in Dasmariñas, Cavite. And maybe because locals turn a blind eye to anything unfamiliar outside of Church teaching, there were slots available when I signed up on short notice.
* * *
When I arrive at the Dhamma Phala, I don’t really know what to expect. I roll up to an empty lot with a few white refurbished container vans scattered between mango trees. A stone path leads me to an open tent, where I find foreigners casually conversing with each other. It’s as if I’ve walked into some hipster hostel instead of a retreat house. They name-drop Siargao and Puerto Princesa like seasoned backpackers, introducing themselves to everyone in the room with a friendly smile. There are retreatants from Brazil, the United States, and China, clad in soft native pants, wrists fi lled with charms, and lugging around their giant rucksacks as if on a great Asian adventure. The few Filipinos present are outnumbered, and we all kind of cluster together. A man with long dreads from Siquijor says this is his second 10-day course; the first was taken four years ago, with his American ex-girlfriend. “Just get past the first three days,” he advises, “then it gets easier.” The 21-year-old girl across me says she is here on the advice of her doctor, “Because… I’m depressed,” she says shyly, and can’t take meds because her liver needs to recover from an overdose of two handfuls of over-the-counter medication from a suicide attempt last December.
After the hellos are exchanged, and everyone gets settled in, we have our umpteenth briefing about the house rules, then the women are segregated from the men, separated to the other side of the lot where we have our own female bathroom, dormitory, and dining hall.
“I feel like we’re in kindergarten,” whispers a German girl in front of me, as we’re in line to get assigned our meditation cushions.
“I know, I feel like we’re sheep being herded,” I respond. This is the last thing I say out loud.
The assistant teachers, tasked to monitor and care for us, have now asked us to observe “noble silence”: no talking, making eye contact, or touching any of the other participants. The social chattering of the late afternoon dissipates.
We are to imagine as if we are completely alone—and in unfamiliar territory surrounded by strangers, it’s not so hard for me to do. We file into the meditation hall, a bare room dotted with royal blue cushions. There are about 40 of us participants, both male and female, and I am assigned cushion number 12 in the women’s side.
We are introduced to some breathing techniques, and then sent off to bed by 10 p.m.
The next morning, the gong rings at 4 a.m. I hear some of the other girls (mostly experienced students who are doing this 10-day retreat for the second or third time) scurry out of the dormitory. We are given the choice to meditate in the hall or in our own beds from 4 to 6 a.m.—so I pull the blanket over my head and sleep in until breakfast.
Two hours later, at 6:30, the gong rings again. I finally get up and walk groggily to the dining hall. For a strictly vegetarian menu—and one you didn’t pay for—the food is easily satisfying and surprisingly tasty. But eating here is a competitive sport: the first to get in line for food wins; the last one has to settle for whatever is left over. There’s no room for courtesies or pleasantries during mealtime. We’re there on a mission, masticating food for sustenance, devoid of emotion.
After breakfast, we have our first group meditation. Group meditations are required attendances, and occur for an hour, three times a day. As soon as we settle in our cushions, a pudgy, white man with white hair and an open shirt enters the hall and sits at the center of the room. This is the first time I’ve seen him since we’ve arrived. He stays in a private trailer, which, I guess, helps maintain his air of mystery and authority. His name is Klaus, and he is our teacher, but he doesn’t do much teaching as we take instructions from an audio recording of Goenka played via an old iPod and blasted from speakers instead.
Goenka asks us to focus on our breath, to feel the air enter and exit our nostrils, to identify whether it is going through my right, left, or both nostrils at the same time. And then the room goes quiet.
Suddenly, I feel a warmth crawling inside, creeping slowly, hugging me in a soft embrace. And then I feel a total lightness, as if my body is a delicate piece of butter melting on a slice of toast that is the universe.
* * *
Thirty minutes later, still quiet in the room, I discover that air predominantly enters my right nostril. And immediately after that I wonder, who the hell cares? I move in my cushion with discomfort. A stabbing pain starts to pierce through my shoulders, my legs are cramped, and my neck stiffens with tension. And then I fall asleep.
I wake up instead later to the sound of Goenka’s guttural chanting (not at all necessary for the practice, but I reckon he just thinks he is a very good singer), which signifies that the session is done. We repeat the practice for the rest of the day.
* * *
The next two days become more bearable, but it's still a drag. The commands are redundant and seemingly meaningless. Focus on the sensations in the triangular area between your nose and upper lip, instructs Goneka. The sensations could be anything: a throbbing, pulsating, itching, or burning feeling. Whatever that sensation is, just focus on it, he says. And it sounds easy, but focusing on a blind spot requires more brainpower than expected. You also ideally stay put, even when blood stops flowing to your legs and it feels like they’re rotting under your weight. The objective is to awaken your senses, to be able to feel every tiny sensation occurring in your body. And because we do it so repetitively across three banal days, it works. I feel it.
“Can you feel the sensations,” Klaus asks after one of the sessions in a low, raspy voice, circling his pointed finger around his nasal area. The girls nod yes. “Can you stay put for an hour without moving,” he asks. Mixed reactions. I tell him that I keep on falling asleep—is that a meditative trance? No, just an impurity of the body, he says. I should actually stay awake the entire time. Which, to me, sounds like a pain in the ass but I make a mental note.
The days are slow; very slow. I learn to take my time eating, washing my dishes, and freshening up—but even with my unhurried pace there is a lot of time to do absolutely nothing. So I sit under a tree, I read the rules in the bulletin board again and again, I walk around the lot in circles. Inside my head, I talk to myself incessantly, narrating my every move. When there are optional meditation hours, I go and meditate in the hall, for the lack of anything better to do, and just pray that some transcendental shit will hit me eventually. It doesn’t.
Every evening, at the end of the day, we watch an hour-long video of Goenka’s discourses, explaining to us why we are doing what we are doing. Recorded in 1991, Goenka is charismatic, and these discourses are the most entertaining part of my day. He fills them with facts about meditation, some personal anecdotes, and a push of encouragement to keep calm and carry on.
Meditation is arduous, and I wonder why they never disclose this fact in the brochures. It’s physically painful and mentally taxing. This sudden realization dawns on me on the third day. I also realize that nothing about the Dhamma Phala emits tranquility: you sleep in a shared room with 20 other girls; bathe in a common bathroom with cold water and clusters of hair in the drainage; and your stomach starts to grumble by midday. There is nothing strikingly beautiful about our view, which is just concrete walls topped with broken glass.
I begin to have a deep-seated contempt for everyone around me. The other girls start to annoy me. My heavy-footed bunkmate drinks her water with a loud glug, glug, glug, and I hate her for it. I watch everyone go through their routines and feel pure disdain. Some of them start to smell like day-old arroz caldo. At night, during our tea break, I have an urge to flip the table and yell, “THIS FUCKING SUCKS!” Even Goenka in his discourse suddenly becomes annoying. I have a complete emotional breakdown that occurs completely inside my head. I tune out and start formulating plans for my escape instead. “I think I have a vaginal infection,” I rehearse telling my teacher in my head, saying it in a dozen different ways. Then I decide that the next day, during breakfast, I will leave.
* * *
The silent part of meditation is easy peasy. It’s when the reality of things dawn on you that’s hard—it becomes a battle with yourself. Can you handle the work, the complete isolation, and the harsh timetable? If you can’t, who will tell you otherwise? Maybe a video of Goenka recorded in 1991.
But this was no mindless exercise. I wonder how my 21-year-old friend is coping—but it looks like she’s doing better than me.
Then something happens. On the morning I decide to bail, I wake up to a delicate and cool mist, the usual hearty breakfast waiting in the table, and somehow all the negativity that had boiled up inside me was gone. Goenka emphasizes that we should remain equanimous toward everything, whether pleasure or pain—and I figure that even with moods, they just come and go if you allow it. Nothing is forever. I come to terms with this, and with the fact that these people have no ill intentions toward me, so I decide to stay.
Later in the afternoon, they announce that this will be the first day of our actual Vipassana practice. The last three days were just a build-up (a very long one) to this anticipated D-day. We are asked to practice “strong determination” in our posture, meaning we can’t open our eyes, adjust our positions, or leave the room for two solid hours. I was ready though, game face on.
The session begins with Goenka’s chanting, and then he asks us to feel for the sensations in our upper lip. I feel it pulsating, quivering even when I’m completely motionless. And then he says to slowly shift that methodical focus from the upper lip to the top of our head, and to feel for the sensations there.
At first, I feel nothing.
Concentrate, he says, the sensations could be anything. So I acknowledge a breeze that grazes my head, but it’s nothing fancy. Then he asks us to shift our attention from the top of our head to our entire scalp, our scalp to our neck, neck to chest, and so on—to basically apply that ultra-focus we’ve been practicing to our entire body, bit by bit, and to feel for the sensations that arise from each of those parts.
Very gradually, with a concentration that is unwavering, I shift my attention from one limb to the next, and the sensations start to come alive.
Suddenly, I feel a warmth crawling inside, creeping slowly, hugging me in a soft embrace. And then I feel a total lightness, as if my body is a delicate piece of butter melting on a slice of toast that is the universe. Holy shit, I think, am I actually doing it?
A sensation, says Goenka, is any physical feeling not imagined or made up—it’s really happening, you just have to take notice. By focusing really hard, and staying very still, the senses become more acute, and stuff that you wouldn’t normally feel suddenly become more apparent. The past three days of attentiveness has brought me here—to this ability to feel blood bringing life to my limbs, to notice that there is a throbbing not only where your heart is, but also in your neck, at your ears, or in the pelvic bone. My body feels like a flag waving softly in the wind. The sounds of a plane flying in the distance gently knead my cheeks with tiny vibrations; and gusts of air feel like water is flowing under my skin. It feels as if the barriers of my physical being have been torn down, and I move in sync to the things around me. The numbness in my legs and my back become irrelevant to this transcendental feeling of lightness. It’s an absolute trip and I’m enthusiastically flipping out inside.
When Goenka’s instruction ends, I realize that two hours had passed, and I want to cry—what an overwhelming feeling that was, one which I can only describe as beautiful.
I want to stand up and give Klaus a hug. I feel generally lighter, like a great internal burden was taken away from me. If I were a cartoon, I would draw myself glowing. Goenka calls this feeling free-flow, the ability to allow the body to dissolve into subtle waves of energy. The next day, we practice the techniques again, and I learn how to let the free-flow move more seamlessly through me, and it’s absolutely pleasurable. I mean, it’s really cool. I could do this forever, just enjoying this floating feeling. But Goenka reminds us not to become attached to it, to remain equanimous, to accept that it is only a transient feeling.
* * *
At this point, I wonder just how much more in-depth this meditation is bound to be… Other than my now very heightened Daredevil-like senses, what kind of earth shattering realizations would I discover after 10 days? Will I fi nd the meaning of life? Or maybe my G-spot? And despite the extraordinary joys of meditation, I can’t deny that I still want a warm shower, a hug, and a chocolate chip cookie.
So on the morning of the sixth day, I approach my teacher, and as rehearsed I tell him: I’ve acquired a urinary tract infection.
The lie pours out of me more incoherently than I wanted.
“So… the point is you want to go home,” he sneers. I’m sure he’s judging me.
He knows I’m lying, and I feel bad. They sheltered me, fed me, and taught me this incredible way to score a natural high, all for free, asking for nothing in return but my dedication, and here I was giving up.
“Yeah…” I reply embarrassed, then he tells me to pack my bags at 8 a.m. while everyone is busy meditating. I mutter a “thank you,” and want to give a long speech about how cool this experience was. But he is dismissive and also a bit scary, so I just leave.
I finally make my exit after six days. I find my car in the garden growing cobwebs, and I drive out of the Dhamma Phala relieved. The world hasn’t changed much since I left and to be honest, neither did I. And though I had imagined this moment to be more transformative, I can’t help but feel that it has affected me.
Because when I get home, I do something funny: I prop myself up on a blanket in my bedroom, close my eyes, and try to meditate. (I know, right?)
But I can’t quite muffle the noise of my neighbor’s television, cars starting their engines, and village kids bickering. The world doesn’t stop so that you can take a breather—and by breather, I mean a feeling of inner peace not achievable by booking a 60-minute Swedish massage at The Spa. Being zen is totally possible, but the journey to get there is neither short nor easy. But at least it’s free.
This article originally appeared in our March 2016 issue.