I volunteered this summer at the Mindfulness Project, living and working in a small forest village in northern Thailand. Every day was a new adventure and every expectation I had going in was exceeded. I arrived skeptical but left convinced, or at least hopeful, that the solution for many of our greatest social and environmental challenges lies at the intersection of mindfulness, community, and sustainability; the conscious betterment of ourselves, our relationships, and our environment.
This appreciation could not have come without the simple act of slowing down. The pace of the Mindfulness Project is like a café conversation with an old friend, utterly relaxed but passionate, calm but never for lack of intensity. At this pace the tight interconnection between the self, others, and the earth becomes clearer. The pace is set by the project’s schedule, which by my standards begins very, very early.
The gong strikes at 4:50am. A few light sleepers start stirring immediately but I sprawl flatly in protest, any burgeoning lucidity consumed by the utter disbelief that it is already time to wake up. This is a futile boycott; in ten minutes the gong will strike again. By then our mosquito nets and sleeping pads must be cleared away to make room for yoga.
Yoga starts at 5:15am. If rain is anticipated or already falling we roll the mats out inside using the space reclaimed from the swept up beds. If it’s dry we take the mats outside into the front yard. In either case there’s just barely enough space to accommodate all of the volunteers, so it gets cozy. I’m always worried I’m going to kick someone.
Outdoor yoga takes on a beautiful, ethereal quality but it is also much harder. The ground is muddy and rocky and the thin rubber mats don’t provide much cover. The morning dew clams up the soles of the hands and feet; combined with sweat this reduces traction to zero. But that’s all just fine, really. The mosquitos, flies, gnats, and candy bar-sized millipedes are the real challenges, constantly out-bidding and out-biting each other in the war for my concentration. "Mosquitos are your teachers" says Christian, creator of the Mindfulness Project and our teacher, and as always he is right. These distractions are the real tests, even though I might be tempted to call them extra credit.
Daybreak is appropriately timed for the sun salutations we are slowly breathing in and out of. Our practice lasts a little over an hour and ends in shavasana, the pose where you just lay there corpse-like, at this moment my favorite pose. After a few minutes of rest we rise into the seated half lotus position for meditation. Some days we’ll practice the traditional Buddhist loving kindness meditation, other days it’s counting breaths or vipassana. Vipassana is the labeling and releasing of thoughts that bubble up from our overactive river of unconsciousness. It presents an opportunity to observe our thoughts, beyond just thinking them, and one thing I have observed is that I can be very grumpy in the morning.
After meditation comes karma yoga — an opportunity for volunteers to tidy up the place. Calling it chores would make it sound boring, so we don't. There are many areas one can gain karma by attending to, including the kitchen, bathrooms, yard, and common areas. I usually head for the yard, picking up fallen leaves and delivering them to the compost heap. I contemplate the circle of life and death and life and find this all to be soothing.
Breakfast is served at 7:30am. People are hungry, the last full meal was at noon the previous day. Breakfast is healthy and delicious, heaps of dragonfruit and bananas and pineapple ladled onto a sticky porridge that bolsters volunteers with extra energy. Once the food is ready we head into the kitchen and load up our plates. No one eats until we have together raised and acknowledged our food. An invocation is spoken, beseeching us not to eat for beautification or pure pleasure, but to gain the strength to help those who are less fortunate.
We eat in silence. In fact, no one has said anything all morning. Noble silence has been in effect. It starts with the gong and runs through breakfast. I find being half-awake much easier without the pressure of making conversation. Another benefit of silence is a greater appreciation of the sounds of nature and the forest, particularly serene at this hour, only birds and animals imposing into to the ambient quiet.
Noble silence is broken by a heart (and body) warming ritual. Everyone sitting in the breakfast circle is assigned a number. Two copies of each number are given out randomly to two different people. When Christian or one of the long term volunteers says "Go!" everybody jumps up and hugs the person who was given the same number. These are warm embraces, sometimes a minute or longer, that continue until whispered good mornings grow into energetic exchanges more suitable to arm’s length. Like distance, silence makes the heart grow fonder — any morning grumpiness I’ve been clinging to is hereby dissolved.
It’s not work, it’s seva, which translates to selfless service. Calling it work would make it feel like work. There are different ways to serve and as each one is presented a collection of volunteers raises their hands. Even the most pungent assignments, like flipping the absolutely steaming Berkeley-method compost heap, attract willing recruits.
Kitchen seva is popular and regularly inspires more applicants than it can accept. The five or six kitchen volunteers that are admitted cook lunch, being granted the implied taste tests along the way. They will prepare a delicious vegetarian meal for thirty using organic ingredients from the markets in Nam Phong or Khon Kaen or, better yet, food from one of the project’s permacultural gardens. Brazilian spinach is in season and makes a fine raw green smoothie. Salads, homemade dressings, curries, veggie patties, even rice noodles from scratch may find their way to the table. A food processor, juicer, and indestructible Vitamix blender add to the diversity of tastes and textures. Dietary preferences and restrictions are carefully accommodated. Byproducts of food preparation are reused where possible (e.g. drying seeds) or composted.
Other sevas demand outdoor activity, and of these natural building is a mainstay. Natural building is a pillar of permaculture, the sustainability school of thought practiced by the project. Adobe brick and earthbag structures are examples of natural buildings made entirely from unadulterated materials. Volunteers of a previous era built an earthbag meditation dome at the Wat Pho monastery, the spiritual cradle out of which the Mindfulness Project sprouted. The dome lets in no light whatsoever. None. The pitch blackness imparts a sensory deprivation that intensifies any meditations done inside.
Mosaic is another outdoor seva option and appeals to the artistic side. The cement walls of the garden beds are aesthetically boring and therefore excellent candidates for renewal. Thousands of carefully placed blue- and white- shaded tiles ought to do the trick. Mosaic demands hours of patient repetition, but any monotony that creeps in can be easily repelled by conversation. An entire life story can fit into a morning of mosaic. I’ve seen it happen. Told mine, even.
Rooted in selflessness, seva is its own reward, but the lunch that follows is still very gratifying. The invocation is repeated before we eat, which is usually around noon.
Lunch is followed by three hours of recess. It’s very hot this time of day and everyone does something different to take his or her mind off of it. There are oscillating fans but the primary relief they provide is psychological, never pointing at you long enough to make a real difference in temperature. Laying down and trying not to think or move is one option. Running errands is another option, still hot but at least the mind is focused on something else. Most days a group assembles to pick up laundry or get iced coffee from the nearby village. I usually tag along, even if just for the walk. It’s nice to get out of the house at least once a day. As we stroll along children wave from their patios or come up to us and say hello, sà-wàt-dee in Thai, always smiling or laughing. We smile and wave back.
A talking circle rejoins everyone at 6pm. We sit in the common room on straw mats, sliding a meditation cushion or two under our butts for added comfort. Comfort is important, we’ll be seated for about three hours. Orange candles light the room. Christian offers up a few soul-stirring questions to the group then spins a talking stick on the floor. When it comes to rest it will be pointing at a special someone and that special someone gets to answer first. One question that produces particularly thoughtful answers is "What was your most beautiful moment of today?" Often cited is the kind or generous act of another human being. People share without holding back, and the group alternates manically between tears and laughter. This is ok. Generally speaking, the atmosphere of the project makes everyone feel safe. It’s ok to be vulnerable here and a lot of real healing takes place. Christian and the team of long-term volunteers — Lindsey, Alyssia, Kerri, and Heather — are brimming with kindness, acceptance, and wisdom. The example they set is contagious.
The final activity of the day is a teaching. Lessons about Buddhism are highly anticipated, even more than hands-on massage if you can believe it. Christian delivers his teachings in a casual matter-of-fact style, incorporating humorous and remarkable anecdotes from his years as a monk. He always relates the teachings back to the Western way of thinking, which helps many volunteers move new concepts from the abstract to the concrete, from theory into practice. A air of pragmatism permeates all lessons. There is no dogma here except for acknowledging and adopting what works. Theories from art, science, psychology, and any philosophy or religion are all fair game if they can pass this test.
At 10pm it’s lights out. No one protests. It’s been a long day, and to use an English expression popular in Thailand, tomorrow will be same same but different. The frequency might be a touch higher or lower, but at ten to five the gong will strike again.