By Susan Munro
To go from volunteer to resident is to tread a familiar path here at New Life. To spend time here, in the peaceful surrounds of hillside and lake, in an atmosphere of growth and beauty, it is easy to become aware of our patterns and issues. We are soon confronted with ourselves. Our community, like all such places, is a mirror, and here we find an especially clear one. This is because in a world where we are continuously atomised from each other, living in such close proximity to our fellow humans, and in such a spirit of honesty, feelings and attitudes arise which may have been long-buried. Sometimes, volunteers make the change on their first visit, sometimes the desire to return as a resident dawns slowly, after the volunteer has left. For me, I knew I wanted to undertake the residency programme within the first few minutes of my arrival, though limited time and monetary resources were against me – I was an unemployed student at the time, and so I had my whole trip planned out, down to the penny (which I promptly overspent, but that’s a tale for another time). I just couldn’t swing it. I was often mistaken for a resident though, rather than an ebullient traveller/volunteer, high on Thailand’s natural beauty, great food and ubiquitous sunshine.
Nevertheless, my initial visit was full of revelations about myself, realisations that I had really just scratched the surface of my own self-development. My reactions to communal living surprised me – as an established leftie doomed to grow up in a conservative backwater town, I always dreamt about upping sticks and moving to a more enlightened community, where instead of blindly conforming to old traditions because that’s just what you do, you were encouraged to push boundaries, expand your horizons and share the results. Instead of bottling up all my wacky ideas, I would be free to express them. It’s fair to say this is not what happened. I appeared to develop some kind of situational agoraphobia, spending much of my time in my room, watching TV programmes and sleeping. It was right in the middle of the high season, and the craziness of the dining room was too much for me. Once, when hemmed in at Christmas dinner, my phone slipped out of my grasp, smashing to smitherines on the concrete floor, my hands slick with anxiety-sweat. There were a few times I slept through dinner because I just couldn’t face all of the people there, people that came with questions, and conditions. Even worse, people who I admired and respected – if you lack self-confidence, it is often harder to be authentic in front of such people. I was worried people thought I was strange. My security instinct kicked in: was it better to be a superior freak in a boring town, then a inferior oddity in a creative, embracing community?
Still, I wanted to come back. At my farewell speech, I announced, meekly, that I would come back as a resident. I left feeling ready to head to my next adventure, but somewhat deflated. I’d dipped a toe in the pool and had avoided being dragged into the deep end. But I’d also never gone swimming.
A couple of years and several countries later, I finally saw my way to return. I’d gotten myself gainfully employed in a role that enabled me to work online, settling anywhere I saw fit. I decided it was high time to make my way back to Chiang Rai. As I mounted the stairs at the centre, I felt, more with every step like I’d never left. While quite a few very good changes had been made (comfier beds, hot water – much obliged!) it was still the same place I loved, full of compassion and respect. This time it was the rainy season and the energy was noticeably less manic. There were fewer visitors, workshops and short-term guests, and more long-term volunteers and residents, making for a peaceful, yet welcoming environment. I felt like I could sit down at any table and fit in with people. I still spent a lot of time in my room, but attending workshops and life coaching helped me crack the doorway open a bit and place a wedge in there. Inside this metaphorical door was self-understanding, realisation, and confidence in my own inner machinery. I felt like I could breathe deeper here; as if the air contained wisdom I could not find in my daily life. I had insightful conversations with a number of people, and experienced the warmest hugs and kindest remarks. I felt heard, I felt seen, and best of all, if I was having a crap day I felt I could actually vent about it instead of keeping it in, slowly pressure-cooking my insides as a result.
As my experience here is coming to an end I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to speak to me, to sympathise with me, to share their own stories and experiences and make me feel less alone. I’d also like to thank everyone for their honesty, which came not just from the head but from the heart. Your emotional expression has moved me, made me feel human again after a long darkness. This is truly a special community and I hope to return soon to continue my work. Thank you again and warmest hugs.
Susan is a writer, traveller and digital nomad. She blogs about her travels, mindfulness and creativity over at The Salient Script.