Sunday 2nd December
Yesterday we left Diana’s Dog Resort to spend our last few hours together at a hotel near the Airport. Ah how poignant I hear you cry. Hardly!!! Daz’s right arm is now incredibly swollen, very painful and currently totally dysfunctional from Mocha’s bite (the extremely emotionally disturbed dog at Diana’s). He also looks really rough (like shit actually) and just wants to sleep but he’s having hot and cold flushes and he can’t get comfortable with his painful arm so sleep is hard to come by. At 3am he’s up and off for his flight to Cambodia whilst I try to get more sleep before my flight to Khon Kaen.
At 9.30am I’ve actually managed to book in for my flight. I’m already impressed that I’ve managed to get this far because this is the first time I’ve had to do anything on my own since January 2015. It sounds pathetic but actually it’s pretty scary!
I was more independent in the Army. Now I’m totally reliant on Daz because we’ve been together constantly for the last 4 years. What makes it worse is that I’m off to “The Mindfulness Project” in Khon Kaen, a community of ‘’hippies”.
The Mindfulness Project is a radical new approach to a holistic life style. It adopts proven methods in the fields of meditation, yoga, psychology, Permaculture, natural building, arts and combines them into a healing system to transform ourselves and the environment.
This amazing system has been scientifically researched by the University of Murcia, Spain and has shown amazing results! Sounds good huh? Well let’s see.
This is a totally new experience for me and so beyond my comfort zone that it is almost impossible to describe. And the problem with stepping out of my comfort zone, well it’s extremely uncomfortable. I’m already worried and on edge, and I’m not even there yet. I’m also doing it without Daz because he would rather stick hot needles in his eyes than indulge in such a “hippy, freaky, navel gazing exercise”. I’ve also had to make special preparations because at the retreat only natural washing products are allowed (but I guess I should be grateful that the hippy volunteers actually wash!) and in a few days time we’re off on a pilgrimage so I’ve had to borrow a rucksack and other stuff from Diana.
At the airport it’s time for breakfast. I feel like a condemned man waiting for his last meal. Wow surely I should be embracing this new opportunity not feeling like the sword of Damacles is hanging over my head! Ummm if it were my last meal what would I have???? Subways it is then!!!
From the airport at Khon Kaen I catch a bus to the central bus station then grab a Songtaeu, which drops me on the main road by the turning to the Project.
All that’s left is a 5km walk with my 18kg pack. I’m just preparing for the off when a guy, Taylor, from the project offers me a lift on his moped. Excellent.
At the project there must be around 35 volunteers many of whom greet me over the next few hours. Some want to hug – arghhhhhhh. All this hugging is offputting and all these names, I’m never going to remember who everyone is! Most are heading to the cafe for the afternoon so I have time to organise my bedspace – at last a reprieve. At 6pm there’s the talking circle. We all sit in a circle and our teacher, Christian, asks 2 questions. What was your happiest moment of the day and what do you love about yourself? So that’s fun – speaking in front of 35 strangers. So everyday we will have a talking circle and there will always be 2 questions. The first is always ‘’what was the best/happiest moment of your day”, a trick to start focussing your mind on the positives and stop the relentless negative commentary in your head and the second, well I guess the 2nd question is usually designed to uncover those anxieties locked within.
After the talking circle there’s guided meditation. This is my first ever meditation session and for this session we’re paired off and have to stare into each other’s eyes, and then beyond the eyes into their soul/Heart. The session lasts about 40:minutes and is so tough and discomforting for me but I want to try and do this shit and give my partner a committed experience. So I try my damnest to follow Christian’s instructions and after all I’ve followed orders for the majority of my life so basically I just do what comes easily whilst trying to push aside feelings of embarrassment and stupidity. After this exercise we hug (and it’s a bloody long hug) and my partner seems moved by our session and I’m happy that it seemed to go well. All hugs here are very long. Apparently a 12 second hug induces the release of feel good pheromones. Really? Currently a short hug feels wrong and a really long hug just feels as wrong but for considerably longer. By 8.30pm we’re done and I can escape to bed.
Monday 3rd December
Today starts at 5.30am when the gong is struck. Yoga starts at 6am and is followed by meditation. So this is my first yoga session and my first solitary but guided meditation.
It’s followed by more hugging. Arghhhhh. All of this is conducted in silence. We’re not allowed to talk until after breakfast. After breakfast work starts. There’s either gardening, kitchen chores or helping to build Poo Castle. Poo Castle is the new shower and toilet block with a collection tank underneath.
Poo Castle, toilets, dorm, and showers. Almost 5* luxury!
The Poo Castle is made of mud. There are pits in which soil, rice husks and water are mixed by foot, treading in the pit. Then we fill buckets with the mud and then the walls are plastered.
Many many hours later it’s time for our introductory brief and then lunch. After lunch we gather to say farewell to 3 volunteers. Then more hugging. There have also been random hugfests throughout the day. Everywhere I look people are hugging.
The talking circle tonight is a bit different. It’s Marieta’s birthday so it’s pay Marieta a compliment or wish her something for the future and happiest moment of the day. After that there’s the teaching. I’ve had a banging headache most of the day and by the time I get to bed I’m feeling nauseous so it’s been a tough day. Also I’m feeling distinctly uncomfortable amongst this crowd. In fact this is a huge understatement. This is like my own personal hell. I reckon the average age is 25 and most are in or have just left education and of course they’re all backpacking. Most are vegetarians and fairly used to yoga and / or meditation. To me they’re like some sort of alien species, totally scary and intimidating and I feel like I’ve been dropped into this environment with absolutely no idea as to how I’m going to break through the imaginery yet very real barriers between them and me. Perhaps I should just leave but that is so weak and pathetic that of course it’s the very, very last thing I would allow.
Tuesday 4th December
Today’s 5am yoga is with Abbey and it’s physically tough. This is followed by meditation which is also physically demanding. Sitting in the cross legged Lotus position is bearable for about 30 seconds then the pain starts. After 40 minutes I’m in serious pain. The yoga and meditation are both difficult for me. In yoga I don’t know any of the positions so I’m constantly trying to see what everyone does when they’re told to transit from the Barking Dog to the Dancing Bear. Some positions are relatively easy for me whilst others are well beyond challenging – I currently have the flexibility of a breeze block and laugh inside when I see others practically fold themselves in half whilst I’m still trying to get my head anywhere vaguely close to my knees. In meditation I find it hard to concentrate. It’s highly unlikely that my meditation is following the right path for the entire session but I think I have phases where it goes well and after all this is just about practice and refining the technique . Meditation also makes me feel vaguely nauseous, whether this is physical or emotional I don’t know. Today I started to cry in meditation and it continued intermittently throughout meditation and breakfast – how embarrassing . Why am I crying – well I have absolutely no idea. However I think the crying proves to be the icebreaker and several people ask me if I’m OK and give me a hug – yes one of those really long hugs. Whilst this makes me cry more it does make me feel better and they tell me that crying here is normal. The yoga, the meditation release trapped/suppressed emotion. Well wow isn’t this just going to be a bundle of laughs. By the time work starts I’ve settled down and I help with Poo Towers collecting water and mud for the plastering.
It’s actually a great day, a vast improvement on yesterday and I’m starting to get to know some people and chat. Earlier Abbey, Jeannie and Julia helped me through the emotional phase and at Poo Castle I discover Bruce and Damien are very funny. And the talking circle is ‘’happiest moment and proudest achievement of the last 12 months.” There’s no teaching today but we watch a documentary ‘’Free the Mind” about how a deep breathing/meditation exercise affected autistic children and post Gulf war American vets with PTSD. The study was only over 7 days but the positive benefits were extreme. I’m beginning to think there might be something to this stuff.
Wednesday 5th December
Today yoga and meditation is taken by Taylor and he actually gives pointers for the total beginner – brillant. He actually gives tips on finding a comfortable or more comfortable meditation position. Both sessions are excellent but oddly today the tears start in yoga and continue into meditation. How bizarre. Oh well. I don’t question the reason for the tears, I don’t think there’s any point. I feel fine, not sad or unhappy so the tears are definitely a peculiarity. But if I cry I’ll get some hugs and I’m beginning to like the hugging. Some people in particular are really great huggers and the hug is so comforting. After meditation I help to water the fruit trees and then its breakfast. The meals here are totally vegetarian. I haven’t had tea or coffee since I’ve been here and alcohol and drugs are banned. Talk about clean living – my body doesn’t know what’s hit it!
Breakfast time. No eating until everyone is present and we’ve said Grace.
After breakfast we gather to discuss our imminent pilgrimage. Christian and the project have close associations with the local temple and monks and they are organising a Dhammayatra.
Dhamma meaning virtue, righteousness, social duty, cosmic law and order
Yatra meaning pilgrimage to holy places
The Dhammayatra we are taking part in is a pilgrimage to raise awareness for peace, nature, and the plight of the Lampatao River Basin where the walk will take place. It will call in at various monasteries over its 100km route and take 8 days. We are joining for the last 3 days only.
So we need to pack and then we have a 4 hour Songtaeu trip to the start point. The trip is really entertaining as I’m sharing with a great crowd; Bruce, Damien, Tess, Mila and Jeannie. We finally arrive around 5pm, it’s taken much longer than anticipated.
We set up camp and a few of us have a quick dip in the river and then it’s time for prayers. First there’s chanting for about an hour. Then a talk from the Pi Sal, I think he’s the Senior Monk here. After the talk our group gathers with Prat (Monk) Jok who translates the key points of the talk and tells us the programme for tomorrow. It’s very interesting that the Monks have given up all the material attachments of modern life and focus only on the moment. The Pi Sal’s talk is always about the walk, why we’re walking and how to focus on the beauty and feelings from the walk and not to start daydreaming or allow that inner voice to start its unrelenting commentary on life.
Thursday 6th December
We’re up at 4am. There’s some packing to do but there’s plenty of time to wander the area and see what’s cooking. Breakfast won’t be until about 7.30am but there’s food available before then and it’s all free. I wander around drinking coffee and snacking on various treats.
These fantastic people give up their time to support this walk. At 5am the chanting starts, then there’s the talk and our translation . Then breakfast which is just an incredible spread of food – magnificent. We finally start walking at about 8.40am. Many of the monks are walking barefoot so Christian and some of the volunteers have decided to do the same. The monks walk in silence so again some of us do the same. We’re also encouraged to meditate during the walk, focusing on each footstep, the nature and the beauty around us. To live in the moment and not worry about what is to come. During the day there are regular stops and there’s always food and drinks available. Lunch is another magnificent spread with plenty of choice.
The day is long but what a fantastic day. Many in the group have managed barefooted although poor Mila is in agony. So many local Thais have supported the walk offering up a smile, a wave, or snacks or drinks for the weary Walker. We finish at 6.20pm having walked 24km.
Then once we set up camp it’s time for chanting and the talk from the Pi Sal. We also need to wash and eat.
Friday 7th December
Today is much like yesterday but the distance is about 16km so it’s a much easier day. I’ve settled in now and I’m enjoying this incredible experience on the walk and I’m connecting with some of the volunteers.
Definitely not with everyone but I’m pleased with the progress I have made. When connections are made they are somehow on a much deeper level than usual, revealing the deeper anxieties and pain that we all shut away.
Saturday 8th December
The walk is over but we’re still up early for chanting and the talk. After breakfast there’s a closing ceremony in the river and then it’s pack up time and we’re off back to the Project.
Monday 10th December
Yesterday was a rest day giving us time for some extra sleep, laundry and a chance to visit the nearby Volunteer Cafe for a delicious smoothie, lava cake and quiche. Today I’m a little anxious because loads of people I have connected with have left or are just leaving. Jeannie, Bruce, Steve, Julia and Abbey will be gone! It’s very sad to see them leave but I need to move passed that sadness and focus on new possibilities. It actually turns out to be a great day. I work in the garden with Damien and others, cutting wood and laying mulch around all the fruit trees.
Tuesday 11th December
Today is a really shit day. I’m fine when I get up and both yoga and meditation go well but something soon after meditation triggers my emotions and I cry intermittently throughout the day. In the early days when I cried I actually felt OK but today I actually feel miserable. Eventually after a nap and an episode of Masterchef I feel steady enough to cope with the talking circle. Instead of a teaching we watch a documentary about the greatest boxing match ever – Muhammad Ali v George Foreman – The Rumble in The Jungle Explained. Ali was the underdog and yet won the match. Ali demonstrated his Warrior archetype as explained by Jung. Christian has already explained the 4 archetypes put forward by Jung; the King/Queen, The Warrior, the Magician and the Lover. It’s a great fight but watching Ali play to the audience is incredible – he’s larger than life. An inspiration.
Friday 14th December
The last 3 days have been completely full on. Wednesday morning we spent the morning at a High School in Khon Kaen. We were expecting the kids to have a basic grasp of English but soon discovered they didn’t so it was incredibly challenging trying to interact, play games and teach them some English. But we all persevered and had a great time but it was so exhausting.
Thursday we had to prepare a concrete base to the dome on the Poo Castle so there was a large group of us mixing cement.
And today the children from Khon Kaen visited us at the project and we entertained them for the morning. But I cunningly selected kitchen duties to avoid the little blighters.
There’s also been a pizza party for Andrea’s birthday which was pretty wild despite the complete non-existence of alcohol. We’ve also had some tough talking circles. One in particular ‘’if a fairy offered you a chance to relive your jchildhood, what would you change”. Wow what a question. Since my parents have rarely had a civil word to say to each other their entire marriage, (and since my eldest brother is 57 and I guess they must have been married over 77 years!!!), rarely laugh, never hug and constantly bicker then I guess I’m spoilt for choice. Some here have had a truly horrific childhood and tonight many tears are shed.
Sunday 16th December
More fabulous people have left which I still find difficult but there are some great people here, Allegra, Lviv, Damien, Paja and many others. Hugging has become the norm now and I love it. I’m still getting up early for yoga and meditation and just trying to learn as much as I can from this experience. Yesterday we were up at 4.30am to do our chores before heading to the village monastery for meditation. First we chant, then we eat breakfast with the monks and then there’s a 2 hour teaching with Christian followed by meditation.
Christian teaches us standing and walking meditation so at least that’s a break from the Lotus position, which I still find incredibly tough after only a short period. After meditation we’re finished for the day although there is an adhoc session of acro-yoga. I join in briefly but it’s so entertaining just to watch.
Today we have a whole day off and most of the group head off to the reservoir. The remainder of us plan to relax (Paja, Damien and Kavon) but instead it turns into a super intense session with deeply probing questions. I thought talking circle with Christian was tough but this was way harder and goes on for most of the day; first at the project then over pad Thai at lunchtime in the village and then continues at the cafe over lava cake and smoothie.
In addition to the questioning Paja also uses her Oracle cards to ascertain our path in life and I actually believe in the results.
Wednesday 19th December
The last few days have been filled with the usual activities. The project closes on 21st December and most people are leaving so there’s been laundry runs to get all the project stuff washed; the mosquito nets are repaired and there’s a push to finish the Poo Castle. I help dig 2 trenches for the pipework. One to supply water to the Castle and one to remove the grey water. There’s also the very dramatic head shaving event. Allegra and Lviv have almost dreamed of cutting off their hair and where better for such a dramatic event than the project.
Some people are staying after 21st. There’s a 10 day meditation phase starting on 28th December, Vipassana Meditation. My adopted children Paja, Clem and Damien are staying for this. Why do I have 3 adopted children? Well the other day Paja realised I was the same age as her actual mother and since I’m old enough I volunteered to be her adoptive mother. So now I have 3 children, 2 French and one Czech. Today Allegra, Lviv and Will leave so another tough farewell.
Thursday 20th December
Today I leave. I’ve made it. Eighteen days survived when I didn’t think I’d make 48 hours! Not only survived but enjoyed. I’ve had such a great time here. I’ve laughed, I’ve made others laugh, I’ve cried and I’ve tried to embrace and consider the lessons I have learnt here. I feel happier and more light hearted than I can ever remember feeling before. It has been a truly incredible experience possibly life changing but I won’t know that for definite until I get back to my other life. I get up early for my last yoga and meditation session. And after breakfast there is the leaving circle. Those leaving have to sit in the centre of the circle whilst the remainder sit around them and send the leavers best wishes for the future. Clearly I’ve participated in a number of these but today I’m in the centre and it is incredibly emotional. I cry through most of it. After, there’s a huge group hug and a short reprieve but then it’s individual hug time. There are so many here that have touched me deeply, and many who have already left, and saying goodbye is heart wrenching.
I don’t know what it says about me, my past or this project that this is definitely the most emotional, heart wrenching goodbye I’ve ever experienced and after 52 years filled with so many goodbyes that’s pretty amazing or appalling depending on one’s point of view.
Finally Kavon and I are ready to go. I bang the gong before leaving and my children and several others leave their work at the Poo Castle for one final farewell. Wow this is tough.
I’m relieved when we finally drive away. In Khon Kaen we head to the monastery for a massage. Thank God I picked the 2 hour oil massage because even parts of this are so painful I consider vomiting. How Kavon is coping with a Thai Massage I have no idea.
After our massage it’s lunch and then a taxi to the airport. Kavon is flying to Bangkok whilst I have a night in an airport hotel. What luxury – a hot shower, double bed, clean sheets. It’s a collection of delicious sensations. I was going to treat myself to an episode of Masterchef but instead I settle for 13 hours of sleep.
Tomorrow I’ll fly back to Phuket and return to Diana’s Dog Hotel.