Thank God It Wasn't a Cult: Volunteering at a Spiritual Farm in Malaysia

The ecological-spiritual farm in Malaysia where we stayed.
Kicking around the cool colonial city of Georgetown (on the island of Penang in northern Malaysia), I happened across a new Workaway posting for a spiritual and ecological center only two hours away (Workaway allows you to work for free accommodation/food). Ever since completing my seven day silent retreat in Thailand I've been hungering to further my practice in the right environment and with the right practitioner.

My boyfriend Miguel and I have also decided we don't really want to make this Southeast Asia trip about seeing the sights. That makes us feel useless and eventually, bored. We want to find ways to learn new skills, use old ones, find communities, and get involved in the local scene. Plus we broke, so barter will help us travel longer.

Our first Workaway project in Penang lasted only two days and was an unqualified disaster, so we were a bit nervous. We were assisting an American expat care for her stray cats and dogs at her home. The house was impossible to keep sanitary and the woman was controlling/passive-aggressive. We woke the first morning to a dead kitten by our bed -- not the fault of anyone, it was sick as sick comes, but it didn't set the right tone for our stay.

We came to the next project nervous (cult?????) but hopeful. Our first impressions were good. We were given a private bungalow with attached washroom and it was clean and neat. There were several other volunteers from many countries and walks of life. The Indian-Malay volunteer who lived there cooked unbelievable vegan Indian food -- rich, spicy curries and marinated tofus that satisfied even my carnivore boyfriend. We could attend meditation and yoga classes. The work was fairly easy gardening and maintenance work. The grounds were lush and filled with papaya trees, palms, pineapple plants, and vegetable gardens.

Banana leaf rice with tofu curry! Yum! A traditional Malay dish.
Well folks, in an ideal world I would have had a blissful spiritual week full of re-connection with mother earth, good clean eatin', and lots of spiritual practice. Instead the following things happened:
  1. I discovered I hate gardening, or at least pulling weeds and hoeing for hours on end.
  2. I eschewed spiritual practice for endless chatting with the other volunteers. Chat chat chat. It was like the antithesis of my silent retreat!
  3. The head nun at the center told me during a seminar that my parents got cancer because of negative thinking patterns. I created a giant scene by crying, fleeing, and hiding in my bungalow the rest of the day. I was so MAD. And since I wasn't really being consistent with my spiritual practice I didn't deal with it well.
  4. I discovered, once again, that the trade off of working for accommodation creates a dynamic of anxiety and subservience, at least in my mind. Feeling I owe someone something makes me crazy.
  5. I did eat clean and my bowels are so happy I could cry.
Of course, much of this turned into a positive. I managed to stick out the week despite my anger. As Miguel said, you can't just cast off people with different opinions else you'll be casting off the world (and I tend to isolate, which I am trying to stop doing). I cleansed my body and met some amazing people and had some great conversations. I also discovered that doing work I consider beneath me creates major feelings of aversion and anxiety.

Ever since ever I've bolstered my fragile self-esteem by isolating things I considered below me. I used to be (still am) the biggest snob, though I'm trying to work through this ivory castle mentality I've built up.

Now, even though I'm jobless and houseless, most of the time I feel blessed to be doing my own thing. But still, every so often, something will come up that will trigger identity anxiety. That's not me! I'm better than that! Why the hell am I wasting my time on this bullshit?

The farm grounds. Serenity. So much gardening.
I was hoping gardening would help me work through through those issues. But instead I just felt angry. My meditation practice was not strong so I didn't really have the mechanism in place to properly digest my reaction. It's not even really about humility, it's more about equanimity i.e. not being so damn choosy and making the best of every situation.

So that means in future probably not choosing gardening projects but ones that are more up my alley. But I'd like to get to the point where if I do have to garden for a week, I'd work towards being the best damn prisoner I can be.

Workaway project at a spiritual/ecological farm in Malaysia
Silent meditation retreat on Koh Phangan, Thailand

1 comment:

desiderata said...

This place seems pretty neat and I would love to visit! Sent you an email, couldn't find the contact info on workaway!

Thank you.


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