This is a story of my experience back in October 2014 in Chiang Rai Thailand, one of the very first destinations of my so called worldly travels. It took me a while to write this up, because I was rarely connected, and had little time to sit down and reflect while travelling from border to border on a motorbike, as well as trekking the Himalayas over the past few weeks. However, the real reason is because I really wanted to take my time to share this story with as much detail as possible because it was one of the best experiences I’ve had so far on the journey, perhaps ever in my life, and I didn’t want no electricity load shedding in Nepal to disturb my flow. So here it goes.
We traveled from Singapore by bus to get to Hatyai, the first city of Thailand after crossing the border of Malaysia. This was where we met that happy old lady if you remember, but not much else was happening so we quickly hopped on the train for Bangkok. The train ride was 14 hrs, plenty of time to just ponder at the beauty of the scenery and let time drift by, absorbing the serenity of the moment and travel essence into our bloodstream. A quick nap on the bunk bed, and before you know it, you’re woken up by the bustling street noises of Thailand’s capital city.
Bangkok city, walking through the MRT (Metro) with a backpack amongst a crowd of city people felt awkward. I’m now that guy, a backpacker that you sometimes see walking around the city center with a map looking lost. Luckily for us though, a couple of local friends came down to meet us, took us around town, drove us through the painstaking traffic to some cool spots to unwind, get drunk, and enjoy what Bangkok had to offer.
We spent a couple of days being a very standard tourist in the streets of Kaosang, the floating market, catching the fireflies, and eating ice creams etc. Everything was great, the friends took good care of us, gave us a place to stay and we had an awesome time, but Bangkok was a little too much for the mood that I was in. I felt like I needed to be alone, do my own things instead of following the crowd. I wanted to leave as soon as possible, and that’s exactly what we did the morning after, wishing farewell to my friends and travel companions who all went our separate ways.
Chiang Rai, a city less traveled by visitors, was home to an organisation that I had stumbled across on the internet during the preparation phase. It’s an organisation called the New Life Foundation, a community based non-profit organisation that aims to ‘cultivate a lifestyle that fosters inner growth‘. In short, it is a mindful recovery centre, that integrates various religious, spiritual, and scientific healing techniques such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, reiki, art therapy, enneagram, bio-dancing, life coaching, retreats, as well as activities that I’ve grown to like such as sustainable agriculture, earth buildings, natural living and permaculture. This foundation welcomes residents to live on site, offering a rich learning space for them to work on issues such as stress, burnouts, anxiety or addiction problems, and welcomes visitors and volunteers to help out in the community, for they too can work on self improvement and personal development while volunteering.
Initially, I was a little turned off by the word ‘recovery centre’, because I automatically assumed it will be filled with druggies, criminals, psychos and hippies. Also, it sounded a little too commercialized to my liking. However, after watching this short video of what it’s like at New Life, I was immediately moved, and sold.
I reserved my spot to volunteer for 2 weeks, thinking that it would be a good place to unwind and chill before I hit the unbeaten roads of S.E.A. Little did I know, that this 2 weeks would become one of the best 2 weeks of my life.
The Road To Get There
Getting to the New Life Foundation was one of the most challenging and fun experiences I’ve had on this trip. I didn’t have 3G on my phone, Google maps failed to load, and all I had was an address written in Thai. Luckily I remembered the one instruction, which was to either 1) take a direct tuk tuk/Taxi for 600฿ ($20), OR 2) hop on a bus in the city for 20฿ ($0.50), and ‘head towards the border of Laos and alight when you see a wooden signage on the right after 20~25 minutes, and walk 2km‘.
I chose the bus, of course. I showed the address to a random guy at the bus terminal and sign languaged my way to the right platform. There it stood a small red bus, shabby and scrappy with broken doors and curtains hanging out the window. The bus was packed with locals, and I can feel a hundred eyeballs staring at me as I stepped in with my backpack. I felt like an idiot and I clearly didn’t blend in well. It’s the same feeling you have when you enter a wrong meeting room by accident, the only difference is that you don’t leave, instead you pretend like you actually belong.
I didn’t know if I’m on the right bus let alone know where to get off, but I felt safe, only because it was 12pm, still bright and sunny, plenty of time to figure something out if things didn’t go as planned. A guy next to me was constantly picking his nose and the bus kept stalling every two minutes. Sometimes you just have to laugh to keep the spirits up, instead of burying yourself with worries.
My stopwatch was already on the 25th minute but I saw no signage on the right, then suddenly the bus stopped and the driver walked over to me and pointed out the door. I assumed he knew where I was going, and I just trusted him, whatever, off I went.
I was literally in the middle of nowhere. I see no signs of people, no cars, no life, no sound except a couple of chirping birds. I walked along what seemed like an endless road in Thailand’s blistering heat, and just when I was imagining the possibility of dying of dehydration, an SUV approached from behind. My instincts told me to stick out my thumb and desperately waved my hands. That was my first experience at hitchhiking, and it worked, smooth just like in the movies
The woman driver spoke minimum English but her smile was contagious, she immediately knew where the foundation was after I showed her the address that was written in Thai. She seemed so happy to see a foreigner and kept asking me questions which I understood none. Yet I tagged along with a big smile and nodded to everything she said.
It was only after we got off the car and greeted a couple of villagers when I figured out that she wanted to show me around. She even offered me to try this organic chicken satay with sticky rice and watch a local MuayThai boxing match. She paid for everything and refused to take my share, she was just really nice, and happy to see a foreigner I guess. After a couple of rounds around the village, we got back on the car and within minutes we were at the entrance of New Life Foundation.
THE NEW LIFE FOUNDATION
Peaceful, is the right word to describe how I felt as I entered the foundation, Colourful flowers decorated the front gate, warm sunshine reflected off the lotus pond, birds singing in the background, and I can see a few foreigners in the garden sweeping the floor, plucking flowers etc. The receptionist greeted me with a smile ‘welcome to new life’, and I was immediately shown my room. “dinner is at 6pm, breakfast is at 7am, followed by a meeting at 8am. See you there :)”
After taking a nice hot shower in my en suite bathroom (everyone has a private room here), I headed to the dining hall for dinner. There were about 20 people there, young and old, various races and various sexes, queuing up at the buffet table. What was weird was that it was dead silent, no one spoke a word, not even eye contact. I didn’t know what was going on, but whatever, I just followed what others were doing and scooped some vegetarian dishes onto my plate, picked a table, sat and ate. Then I noticed a piece of paper on the table that said ‘Prayers before every meal’.
I guess that’s what everyone was doing here, being mindful and aware of yourself and others, showing appreciation and gratitude to the food that were being served. After you’re done eating, you wash your own dishes quietly, and head back to your room quietly. My initial reaction was, ‘shit, it’s freaking weird, is it gonna be this quiet for the next 2 weeks? Should I even be here? what have I gotten myself into.’ My excitement and anticipation diminishing as I slowly tucked myself into bed.
5:30AM I was woken up by a soft gentle gong coming from the distance, slowly but surely it was getting louder, and faster, but not intrusive and quite soothing to the ears. It was coming from the ‘Awakening Hall’. Each morning, as the sun gradually lit up the sky, you can either take part in meditation, yoga, taichi, or take a walk around the bush path. It was all up to you what you wanted to do. You can even sleep in, which many people did.
But who would sleep in with a view like this. I decided to participate in Yoga that was happening because the awakening hall looked absolutely beautiful. You could see the morning sun rising gently over the distant horizon, lighting up the hall in beams of golden rays and streaks of soft shadows. It was my first ever Yoga session, let alone this early in the morning and it felt fucking amazing, my body was like butter on toast, melting away under the heavenly warmth of the universe.
Breakfast was served right after yoga, again, in silence. It was quite nice this time though, maybe it was because of yoga, but I felt really content, connected within as I ate. The silence forced me to be myself without distraction or interference by the things around, and it felt good to be able to take my own sweet time to slowly awaken my senses.
8:00AM, people gathered to the Awakening Hall for the daily morning community meeting, quietly forming a circle one by one, some started meditating, some lied down, some on their knees. We just sat there, in silence waiting for something to happen. Then a skinny white man, what seemed like the leader of the community enters the hall and sits in the center, gently getting into a lotus position, and starts meditating. After a minute or two of silence the man slowly opens his eyes, and gently hits the meditation bowl as he makes eye contact with everybody around. Then softly he spoke ‘Good morning everyone’, and breaks the silence marking the start of the day.
His name is Julien, one of the founders of New Life Foundation who once fell into drug rehab and depression. He spent 8 years in a Thai monastery and recovered through it’s detox program, mindful / spiritual healing (or something along those lines), and since established this foundation to help others achieve the same through the techniques that he know works.
I was asked to introduce myself, where I’m from, why I’m here etc. It was a very ordinary speech, but they all applauded and held their hands together and greeted me with a namaste. I felt acknowledged and instantly felt welcomed by the circle. Then a lady stands up and started reading out the schedule for the day.
Everyone is assigned a work, or what they call ‘working meditation’, which runs 9-11am & 2-4pm in randomly selected work fields like Agriculture, Maintenance, Housekeeping, Cows, Ducks, Green/Compost, Lunch, Dinner, Earth building, etc. Plus there are various optional activities and workshops that runs outside of these hours, which are lead by anyone in the community, life coaches, volunteers as well as residents that have something to share. Workshops such as Reiki, Inner Dance, Enneagram Bio-Dance, Singing meditation, TRE, Tai Chi, Family constellation, Yoga etc. Most of them that I have never heard before. Then I realised that half the people in the community were currently taking part in the ‘Silent Retreat’ where they cannot talk for 10 days. No wonder it was dead quiet in the dining hall.
After the schedule of the day is sorted, the meeting is wrapped up with a 20 minute meditation. Then we go off to our respective work duties, or work meditation depending on how you see it, and that’s how the day begins each morning.
After a couple of hours into my first duty, I began understanding why it’s called work meditation. We do things like making earth buildings, making mud bricks, repairing broken furnitures, painting walls, plucking flowers, making compost, planting trees, sweeping floors, arranging stones and landscaping etc. They’re not as easy as you think though, requiring a lot of energy and hard work, but I found them all to be ‘Good Work‘ where you perspire ‘Good Sweat‘, and really makes you look forward to lunch even if it was vegetarian. I often landed the maintenance or earth-house building work and I found them to be especially meditative. Best of all, it’s educational, where you could be learning the composition of mud houses, to the techniques of laying tiles, to the basics of creating compost piles, to cutting wood and building things. If you stay long enough they can even put you onto the Cows and Ducks team to look after the animals that live on site that are kept for our daily supply of milk and eggs. All in all I found every job very fun and meditative, putting you into a state where you focus on the task at hand, in your own world with no distractions, which I was not really used to.
By the time we were having lunch, the retreat was already over, and the atmosphere lit up with people talking and laughing. the vibe was good, and immediately I knew that I’ve come to the right place. The morning yoga and meditation was refreshing, the work meditation was fun and satisfying, the people were noisy and funny after all, yet genuine and humble. The place is also absolutely beautiful, with lush green trees and gardens everywhere, with stone foot paths and flowers on every corner, a massive lake overlooking the rice fields, cows and the ducks chilling out by the waters. They even have a swimming pool, a steam bath, a lounge with books, guitars, also a ping pong table. It felt more like a resort really, but without the commercialised feel. The people were so friendly and funny that the place was nothing like the recovery centre that I had once imagined.
Best of all the sunrise and sunset is one of the nicest I’ve seen, and there’s plenty of shops and things to do in the village just outside the premise for you to roam around freely, to get your weekly chicken fix and mango smoothies even. I found that this place really made me let loose, yet stay focused, and I think it’s an ideal place to experience a good balance of work and play, the balance of healthy living for the body, mind and spirit. 2 weeks was definitely too short, and I realised why there are people who stay for months, even years, and most people here have returned for the second time. I’ll probably be one of them too.
So that’s the basic of what this foundation is about, and how awesome the day in the life of a volunteer is like, but the real reason why I loved this place so much was because of the special workshops and activities that happened outside of normal ‘working hours‘.
One of the workshops that I attended was called TRE which stands for Trauma/Tension Release Exercise. The other volunteers who had done this before were telling me how it makes your body shake and go into a state of trance, some say they start laughing or crying, some say it makes them jump up and down. Apparently the TRE helps to activate a release of bodily tension due to stress, past traumas, which can be physical, emotional and psychological. Apparently it’s something that we all carry to some degree, which lies deep in our body hidden deep within our consciousness.
What the hell, right? I was a little skeptic at first, thinking that nothing of my body is uncontrollable, similar to the reaction that I have towards hypnosis and stuff although I’ve never tried it before. It was a perfect opportunity to explore and give it a shot. I threw away my skepticism and invited pure curiosity to take over as I followed the exercises.
A few stretches here and there, followed by a few minutes of what looked like inverted planks, and a few other things which I just can’t remember. Then, the final instructions were to lie flat on our backs with the knees bent, slightly open, “listen to the music and let your body do its thing…”
“Don’t try to fight it, let go and just observe what’s happening in your body. If you feel like it’s getting too much and you’re drifting away, just straighten your legs and you will come back in”
What the hell.. Okay..
I probably didn’t follow the instructions perfectly but the result was evident. After a few minutes of lying on the floor, my legs, thighs, pelvis, stomach, arms and shoulders, started going crazy. The word spasm would be an understatement to describe what was going on in my body. It felt as if my muscles had a mind of it’s own as it started shaking and thumping uncontrollably. I looked to my left and I see a guy banging his hands to the floor, I look to my right and a girl is in tears. Apparently everybody reacts differently and for me, it was as if my body, especially the bottom half of my body was being electrocuted, or possessed like you see in exorcism. It was actually pretty scary, but at the same time it felt really good. Like really fucking good that I started wondering whether this sensation was similar to a female orgasm. I dunno, but what I do know is that I was still conscious, you still have control, but the more I tried to control, the less the body would shake, or the less tension/trauma was being released, as they say.
For a good 15 minutes or so, my body shook, yet my mind was still. It was a bizarre, new form of meditation and sensation that I’ve never felt before. It felt so good that I didn’t want it to go away. The facilitator told us to straighten our legs, and like magic, the shaking all stopped.
When the session was over, I felt really drained despite the fact that I was simply lying down, my head was fuzzy and heavy and felt as though I had just ran a half marathon, or just finished watching the movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘ – if you know what I mean. The facilitator told me that this is normal, and many people feel the way I do after TRE. She says that it’s the result of tension being released out of my body, which again, could be physical, emotional, or psychological. She also noted that TRE must be practised in a controlled environment, and supervised by a proper facilitator, as it can get dangerous at times if the person can’t ‘bring themselves back‘…
Inner Dance, was another session that I was lucky to participate in during my time there. It was held in what was called the ‘Forest Hall’, 5 mins walk away from the main premise. It’s an earth building in a shape of a circle hut in a forest, with clean wooden pillars holding up the bamboo roof in the inside, with softly lit candles lighting up the golden buddha statue that sits in the middle.
Here, the facilitator of told us to lie down on a yoga mat, rest our head on a pillow and get “really comfortable“. She played this music, which was quite weird, or interesting I should say. It did not have a consistent melody or beat to it, and instead it had lots of sudden off-beat distortions that was progressively getting weirder and weirder, however it wasn’t abnormal or intolerable to the ears, just not something that you would expect to hear on the weekly top charts. She then tells us to just listen, and let our thoughts go.
“Listen to how your body is reacting to the music, don’t fight it, surrender, and let it wander off and take it’s own course”
Again, I was skeptic, but knowing how much I was blown away from the TRE session, I remained curious and threw away my busy thoughts and just observed how my body ‘listened‘ to the music.
Around 30 minutes in, I didn’t notice any effect, apart from feeling a little sleepy. I knew I was dozing off, but maybe this is what I’m supposed to be doing? to let go of my thoughts, relax, isn’t it the same as falling asleep? Then, the magic happened.
My left arm started twitching, then my right, then my left shoulder, then my legs. Before I knew it my whole body started to twitch, similar to the TRE session. What was different here, and what made it so bizarre, was that I was twitching TO BEAT. Twitching to the music that had inconsistent beat… What the hell… How is this possible? I began thinking, and immediately the twitching stopped. “Oh shit! I’m probably thinking too much!”. I reminded myself to stay calm and let the body do its thing and slowly drifted back in, journeying on into the vortex of my conscious but unconscious dream. I could almost visualize the music popping up in the back of my eyelids. It was as if I could see what was coming next, and my body knew it too, and pop, shake, twitch, jerk, exactly to the beat that didn’t exist. My body was a drum kit being possessed by the wands of a conductor that I could see but not touch. Then I realised why this was called Inner Dance. It’s a dance that comes from within, not from any outside influences, not of your very own mind, not of your very own consciousness.
What a crazy fucking experience.
What’s next? Reiki.
Reiki is defined as a Japanese technique that utilises the energy force of the universe in the form of Qi (気) channeled through the palms of your hands and into one’s body, helping to promote healing, stress reduction and relaxation.
It was my first time hearing about Reiki despite being a Japanese myself, but there was a Reiki Master from Belgium working as a Life Coach at the New Life Foundation offering private Reiki sessions for anyone in the community twice a week. I had to try this, especially since I’ve always had problems on my knees from playing too much soccer. I signed up for one of the free slots, and waited anxiously for that day to come. Unfortunately it never did. The bed was broken, or missing on the day or something and the session had to be cancelled. We couldn’t move the date because I was already leaving the next day…
However, despite this anticlimactic end to my stay, I was glad to have experienced so much in this 2 weeks. It had opened up a whole new level of curiosity into the cosmos of my spirituality, energy force, fifth element, or whatever you may want to call it. Besides, I merely came here to unwind and relax, do some meditation and volunteer, but I got a hella lot more out from it than just that.
I still haven’t mentioned about half the stories because it will take another 3000 words to explain so I’ll stop right here. But if you are reading this and feel even just a little curious, Go, check out the new life foundation for yourself and the bring out the new life in you. This place will help you look inside, deep within the vibrations of your soul and heal the addiction that lies within us all – the addiction of avoidance and ignorance towards your very own being.
“Just let your body do its thing” 🙂