Four miniature Buddhas vibrated on the dashboard as my cab made its way through the Chiang Rai country-side. The entire car was upholstered with a pattern of swirling gold and hot pink leaves, giving the impression it had been borrowed from Enlightened Barbie.
Outside the glowing interior, we passed rice fields, markets, and farms. As usual, I was easily entertained. I played an overly-enthusiastic version of I Spy Things Not Seen on a DC Cab Ride: Man with cow! Mountains. Family on a scooter! Palmtreeplamtreeplamtreepalmtree. Man with goat!
I was finally on the road to the New Life Foundation, my first volunteer stint in Thailand. They are a recovery center that uses a program based on mindfulness to assist people who are struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. Volunteers come and work during the week and then can take advantage of classes, life coaching, the steam room, the pool … for only $300 a month. It’s a sort of help-others/help-yourself combo pack.
After a few minutes down a one-way road, we finally turned onto a long gravel drive-way … and there I was. What was once just a fleeting Google search result about some remote place half-way across the world, was now my reality for the next month. I checked-in, unpacked my bags, and started to explore.
The grounds are made up of an office, two long buildings with fifty single bedrooms (everyone has their own room, if you discount the ants and geckos), a main dining hall, a pool, and two meditation/yoga spaces.
Despite the fact that many residents are in the middle of pretty raw stuff (some only a few weeks sober), the atmosphere is open and accepting. Within hours I felt at ease and within a week I felt at home.
Our schedule is fairly consistent. We wake up at 6am for yoga class. Outside, it is equal parts light and dark behind the surrounding mountains. We listen to both crickets and birds as we move through an hour of breathing and poses.
After class, we have a silent breakfast to encourage us to be present to that moment. Given how amazing the pancakes are, I have very little trouble focusing my attention on my food. They also serve homemade bread and milk from the farm’s cows, along with eggs from a flock of ducks kept by the lake.
There is a morning meeting and then we being our “working meditation.” Most of the tasks are agriculture-based, so think weeding, planting, composting, insert more words I don’t know because I’m clueless about anything farm-related.
Each person is assigned to a task based on the needs of the foundation. On my first day, as they decided what I would do, I was excited about volunteering but wasn’t sure how I felt about plowing something. But then, I thought, This is why I came here. To grow! It will be good for me to get dirty and sweaty and work hard! Bring on the farm-related activities! Then they asked if I would be willing to help with marketing in the office. I said “Thanks, but no th- … well. Ok. I’ll get my laptop.”
After the the morning session, there is lunch and then an afternoon working meditation for the volunteers. Another yoga and meditation class is offered in the evening, and everyone reconvenes at 6:30 for dinner. Wash, rinse, repeat – Monday through Friday.
I’ve been here two weeks now and while things aren’t exactly an adventure, I’m really enjoying myself. It doesn’t feel like working or volunteering, so much as just living in a community… a community where everyone talks and thinks about their problems. A lot. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time analyzing my life.
But it’s probably a good idea to start a trip like this with some mindfulness and quiet. Though I will undoubtedly screw up any progress as soon as I get back into the real world. But until then, I’ll just sip some more fresh ginger root tea and stare off at the mountains feeling all profound about myself.