As Westerners, we live in a world where a thousand times a day we are sold solutions to ease our pain. But what if suffering is meant for something? What if it has a purpose?

Not far outside of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, an intentional community called New Life Foundation is helping visitors understand the role that suffering plays in our live – and what to make of our desire to avoid it.

As many have pointed out, depression often comes from our fears of the past, and anxiety is caused by uncertainly about the future. New Life, founded on Buddhist ideas, is organized to help participants use mindfulness as a tool for staying grounded in the present.

Recently I had a chance to stay on as a volunteer visitor at New Life. The experience gave me new insight into where addiction comes from and its purpose in our lives. I also learned a lot about papayas. But let’s save that story for another day.

Craving that Can’t Be Sated

For most Americans, religion and recovery from addiction go hand in hand. In one recent study, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that nearly four in five Americans even think that faith is critical to getting clean.

Key to most faith-based “get-clean” programs is learning how to strengthen one’s relationship with a higher power of some sort. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, was often positioned early on as a faith cure for alcoholics who’d been trying to live without God. But rather than a higher power, Buddhism suggests that it’s our relationship to the things and sensations that exist in this world that are at the root of addiction.

Prayer flags wave in the afternoon sun.

Prayer flags wave in the afternoon sun.

Buddha included craving or tanha (literally,“thirst”) among the Four Noble Truths, the central doctrine of his teachings. This thirst is the true cause of dukkha, or suffering, and it arises not from a defect of personality but out of sensation itself.

The point is that so long as we are designed to feel things, we will want to feel things that are delightful and avoid feeling things that are awful.

In Buddhist philosophy, suffering arises from the mistaken notion that feeding your craving will end it. Buddha said we will never get enough of what it is that we crave. We can temporarily sate it with a slice of chocolate cake or a cocktail but it will always come back in the same or another form. To think otherwise is only more delusion.

In essence, we are all pre-programmed for addiction. Which is interesting: Christianity puts an action — original sin — at the center of the human struggle; Buddhism, by contrast, puts an attitude —  addiction — at the center.

Instead, Buddhism suggests that we use our cravings as tools. By zeroing in the times and ways we crave external things, we can begin to understand what’s happening in our minds. More importantly, we can begin to understand how we react to the world around us when things are going well… and when things are difficult.

Wat Thamkrabok, New Life Foundation and Reducing Cravings

Intended as a mindfulness-based recovery community for addicts, New Life Foundation is intimately connected to the mission of Wat Thamkrabok, a Buddhist monastery 100 kilometers north of Bangkok.

25 Witnesses to the Noble Path, Thamkrabock

25 Witnesses to the Noble Path, Thamkrabock (Photo: Maryn/flickr)

At Thamkrabok visitors can take photos of the dramatic arc of 25 heads – the “witnesses” of the Buddhist Path – set again spiked karst towers. But the monastery is best known for offering drug addicts what many consider to be the toughest detox program in the world.

For the first five days of the 28-day program at Thamkrabok, addicts drink an herbal potion that causes them to immediately vomit up the contents of their stomachs. This is followed with vows of commitment to sobriety, a program of meditation, work, and rest, and, eventually, a return back home. The idea is to purge first the body, then the mind, of toxins — so we can rest more easily.

New Life’s founder, Johan Hanson, is a Belgian businessman and former addict who detoxed at Thamkrabok. Once he cleaned up, Hanson was determined to provide a place where addicts could continue their recovery and deepen their Buddhist and mindfulness practices. Hanson recruited another Thamkrabok veteran, Julien Gryp, to be New Life’s first director. After his detox, Gryp had stayed at Thamkrabok for eight years, eventually becoming a monk there.

The Awakening Hall and Pool at New Life Foundation

The Awakening Hall and Pool at New Life Foundation

From the Vomit Yard to the Swimming Pool

The grounds at New Life Foundation sprawl over more than 200 of rolling hills in the lake-filled district just southeast of Chang Rai. Where the the property’s two wings of sleeping quarters meet, a tranquil swimming pool beckons guests in the 100-degree heat.

While you won’t find Thamkrabok’s famous vomit yard at New Life, you will find very little tolerance for breaking the rules. In fact many of the monastery’s other principles live on there – especially those activities devoted to “mental detoxification,” or the withdrawing of one’s soul from the dark reaches of addiction.

Work boots and shoes.

Work boots and shoes.

Putting Addiction to Work

Like Thamkrabok, staying at New Life revolves around the twin pillars of meditation and detoxification work. There’s even an herbal steam bath.

But where Thamkrabok walks a narrow path of Thai and Buddhist traditions, New Life adds in the kind of life coaching, workshops and body work that would fit in at any transhumanist community. While I was there, yoga, chi gong, Muay Thai boxing, Feldenkrais and 5Rhythms dance were just a few of the activities going on.

Mostly though, especially for the volunteers, there is work to do at New Life.

About 50 residents and volunteers live at New Life at a time. Twice each day, New Life volunteers work on projects related to running the community. While I was there I tended banana fields, helped set up meals, swept after cows, and weeded a plot of beans. Others volunteered their skills as photographers, yoga instructors, or members of a “green team” tasked with managing the property’s waste.

The assignment board for work meditation

The assignment board for daily work meditation

At New Life, these two-hour stints are opportunities for “work meditation” – the quiet enjoyment of performing tasks with a minimum of interruption, banter, or distraction.

With just about every conversation at New Life coming back to the concept of mindfulness, it’s no surprise that labor, too, can be transformed into practice. But what does it look like?

For me – an avowed digital freak and multi-tasker, the idea of working meditation is a big challenge. Here’s what I learned about work meditation at New Life:

  • Forget what should be – It doesn’t matter than someone else gets to feed the ducks and I’m shoveling compost. It’s not about the outcome but about the process.
  • Breathing matters — Even the most mindless of tasks require amazing physiological forces inside of us. Instead of worrying about lunch, focus on the breath while you work. In and out. In and out. How does it feel? Time flies and relaxation levels go sky high.
  • Let go of “completion” – This one’s hard. Worrying about how to get the floor perfectly clean seems totally reasonable… until you realize that someone will walk across it with dirty feet 5 seconds later. The dream of scalable solutions is false. Nearly every task worth doing will need to happen again!

The Power of Community

The final element that both Thamkrabot and New Life share is the ideal of community. Being together, sharing goals and challenges, practicing in groups, etc., makes what seems hard possible.

Bulletin boards show the power of community.

Bulletin boards show the power of community.

Knowing that others around you are going through the same burdens can made an hour-long meditation sit — or a hot day of work, a 5:30am wake up much easier, or recovery from depression – more palatable. But addiction has its own logic. I was so shocked when I found out twice during my stay that a few residents had been kicked out. In both cases residents had consumed alcohol while on a brief outings to Chiang Rai.

In the end, it was hard to say goodbye – both to New Life and to the community I found there.

socialgoodR makes some new friends amid the papayas

I’m making some new friends amid the papayas.