Ton was the first resident I met on arriving at the New Life Thai Foundation. It was a fine, hot Saturday afternoon in mid-February and I taxied my way to the complex from Chiang Rai Airport following the short flight from Bangkok. After settling into the room that I would occupy for the best part of the next three weeks, I took a moment to better appraise the environs – hills, valleys, lakes and teak tree forests.
Walking around I encountered Ton near the pair of squat buildings that, in individual rooms, housed roughly half the residents and volunteers, her and myself included. Extending her hand, she told me her name. I introduced myself and said a little about my intentions with respect to the community. She had been resident there a few weeks, she explained.
All the communities that I had spent time in in the past were, in a real sense, recovery communities though they coined other terminology when it came to describing their rationale. New Life, however, specifically advertised itself as a learning community or an international recovery community for people suffering because of addiction problems, depression, stress, burnout or relationship issues. They aimed to cultivate a lifestyle fostering inner awareness and growth. Those guided along this road might then rediscover meaning or purpose in their lives.
Exercises in mindfulness or learning the art of being in the present moment were one of the keys. There were also guided and silent meditations, yoga and Tai Chi programmes and enneagram and other workshops. All the residents received regular life coaching from a team of specialists who lent a non-judgemental ear. The life coaches did not criticise but championed, encouraged and supported.
New Life occupied sixty-five acres of land, upon which was grown rice, corn, vegetables and fruit using organic farming techniques. The food for all was plentiful and healthy. I knew from past experience that farm and garden work was ideal for practising my own form of meditation and this was no less the case in the foundation’s rice paddies and vegetable plots.
Seeing her of a morning in the meditation hall, where we all gathered daily except Sunday for a meeting and short meditation to kick-start proceedings, I sometimes wondered what I could do to help Ton or the other residents, many of whom had battled, and were still in the midst of battling, serious addictions. And yet, as I often noticed in previous community settings, little appeared to distinguish the volunteers from the residents. It was never a case of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
“I never use English before … like this,” Ton told me once. I imagined this must have been only one of the adjustments she had to make in order to commence the mammoth undertaking of turning her life around. Some of the other residents and staff were Thai but English predominated. Thankfully, her one-on-one programmes were conducted in her native language. She referred one other time to the addiction that had infiltrated her life.
I always found her warm, friendly and upbeat though the glimpses I gained of her on the busy workdays were sometimes limited to that morning sighting in the meditation hall or a brief chat when I entered or left my room. Ton’s was located diagonally opposite mine and it was not uncommon for her to perch in her doorway while she smoked a cigarette or listened to music, sometimes in the company of others.
When my brief commitment wound down we parted with mutual good wishes. Just a few days before, she had announced her intention to remain at New Life for several more weeks, as a non-working resident whose days would be taken up with further life coaching and a continuation of the efforts already made toward recovery. As far as I could tell, much augured well and I looked forward to hearing how she fared in the coming weeks and months.