The Mindfulness Project

A Volunteer’s Experience of ‘The Mindfulness Project’ Farm Workaway

I just completed 2 weeks at the Mindfulness Project, a workaway on farm project in Thailand.

Other than the basic living conditions on the farm, and the 6:00 am yoga, I didn’t know much about the Mindfulness Project (the ‘Project’). In the end, the Project turned out to be more than what I could have asked for!

From my perspective, the Project is a sustainable farm that fosters a safe, supportive community to facilitate healing and personal growth. 

Here’s the low-down

The Project is a sustainable, healthy, and ethically-conscious community centered on personal development using scientifically-proven methods. Its objective is to create a healing system for transforming ourselves and our environment through a combination of mindfulness, meditation, yoga, natural building, organic farming, and psychology.

The Project’s approach to meditation is secular and non-denominational. Its philosophy teaches us to learn more about ourselves by turning inwards through a combination of mindfulness, meditation, and teachings on psychology. The purpose of meditation is to slow down your brain waves and get beyond the thinking, analytical mind. In doing so, we can shift ourselves from destructive thought patterns (i.e., selfishness, over-individualizations, egoism, and violence towards ourselves and others) to more constructive patterns (i.e., gratitude, compassion, honesty, authenticity). The benefits of mindfulness and meditation have been repeatedly supported through research in neuroscience.

Have no fear: The Project is open to beliefs of any shape or form. As such, volunteers at the Project come from all across the globe, and bring a diverse range of belief systems with them. Volunteers may raise questions related to their personal belief systems (i.e., Buddhism, spirituality, naturalism, Christianity, etc.), and Christian always has insightful answers. But, have no fear — these beliefs are not pushed onto anyone else. Based on my observation, overall, the Project attracts more spiritually-oriented persons. 

Home away from home

At lunch on day #1, I filled a bowl of pumpkin soup, and joined the volunteers sitting on the floor in a communal circle with lunch in their laps. After a few minutes, everyone in the circle went silent, and Christian (founder of the Project) began reciting a prayer for the meal… He recited essentially the same gratitude expression (LINK) that I say in silence before each meal (I shared my gratitude prayer in a previous post). My heart stopped. At this moment, I knew I was in the right place, I knew I was at home. 

By end of day #1, I was floored by my amazement over life at the Project. 

Is this all a dream?… For the last 3 years, I envisioned a similar way of living. But, I always dismissed these visions, thinking to myself: “Silly Ariel, nobody else would want to live this way. It’s only me… so, it’ll never happen.” I felt alone, I felt like a black sheep. But guess what?!  I’m not alone… this way of life actually exists, and it’s even more wonderful than I had imagined it! Allow me to explain: 

Our daily schedule features

  • 5:30am gong wake-ups, featuring a stunning, vibrant sunrise. 
  • Morning yoga
  • Morning meditation
  • Silent mornings, in which we don’t speak from wake-up (5:30am) until after breakfast (9:15am). During this silence period, i didn’t check my phone as well.
  • Hugs to break the morning silence (if you’re up for it!). The Project encourages hugging, in order to re-introduce human touch into our lives. As human beings we are biologically wired for connection through human touch. Unfortunately, in our society, many of us are deprived of it. Research shows that if you hug someone for more than 20 seconds, your body automatically begins releasing oxytocin, the “love hormone”. So,  hugging a great way to start the morning 🙂
  • Prayers before each meal.
  • Healthy, hearty, and delicious vegetarian meals with endless fruits and veggies. 
  • Intermittent fasting, in which we only eat 2 meals per day: breakfast (8:45am) and lunch (2:00pm). I was shocked how easy it was not to eat dinner. Under this schedule, we are fasting for 18 hours each day, and eating [as much as we want] for 6 hours. Research shows that after 5 hours of fasting, the body begins to break down glucose stored as fat in the liver, as there is no longer enough glucose to meet the body’s energy demands. Then, after 16 hours, the body begins to use free fatty acids in the body as a source of energy. Therefore, if you’re fasting for 18 hours, then your body is using fatty acids to produce energy for 2 hours. More on this in a future post 🙂 
  • Communal cooking, eating, working, and cleaning.
  • Closing circles for any volunteers departing from the Project that day. The closing circle is a meaningful and mindful way to send-off volunteers who have spent the last 10+ days connecting and growing at the Project. #grouphugs
  • Talking circles centered on gratitude, active listening, and sharing from the heart (I explain talking circles in more detail below!)
  • Evening teachings on personal development (i.e., psychology, non-violent communication with yourself and others, etc.) by Christian. He’s a teacher filled with endless wisdom, who is open & willing to share all of his knowledge and experiences, and delivers it so elegantly. 

Here’s our daily schedule (PHOTO)

To top it all off

  • You’re doing all of these activities in the middle of nature.
  • It’s an alcohol-free, drug-free community. 
  • You’re surrounded by a diverse group of like-minded people!
  • Nights full of bright stars in the dark, cloudy skies. 
  • Only using natural products (i.e., soap, shampoo, mosquito repellent), which we make on the farm. 
  • On Saturdays (Buddha day), Christian invites us to join him at his monastery for a morning chanting with the monks, and then hosts a 3-hour Q&A session and guided meditation. 
  • We hosted English activities at a local village school. The village kids rarely get the opportunity to interact with English speakers, so we acted as a reminder of the importance of learning English.
  • The following day, we hosted these children at the Project the following day! Boy, did we put on a show for them!… My role: “King Poo, King of the Poo Castle.” Since the children understand extremely minimal English, our acting involved little verbal communication, and more facial expressions, tone of voice, and body movements instead. I haven’t practiced my improv skills in a few months, so I had a blast! 

Talking circle

Each day, 2 questions are asked in the circle. 

The first question is always: “What was your favorite part of your day?”

Research indicates that 80% of our thoughts are negative. Think about how easily we delve on the negative situations from our day, and we rarely give attention to the positive ones. By reflecting on what we’re grateful for each day, we’re re-wiring our neural patterns and training our minds to focus more on the positive… because what’s the point of continuously thinking negatively?

The second question is an insightful/ meaningful question, which changes each day.

In the circle, we are lifting our masks, and given the opportunity to be our authentic selves with no reservations… and it’s beautiful to witness how people flourish in that type of environment. It’s inspiring to hear the things people are truly struggling with in life. We see people on the outside, but aren’t aware of the stories that burden them on the inside. As we learned the process to healing from shame of our secrets, several people (including myself) revealed their deepest, darkest secrets, some of which had never been uttered before. It was a blessing to witness how open & vulnerable we were in the circle, and in turn, how we received healing through expressing in the circle.

Au naturale

A handful of volunteers decided to go entirely ‘au naturale’ at the Project. It’s easy to do in a place where mirrors are non-existent (more on this in a later post!). It felt freeing and refreshing to be surrounded by people who are unconcerned with physical appearances.

A few volunteers also experimented with the natural “No poo, only water” method (i.e., no shampooing your hair). I jumped on that train too! I’m currently in the uncomfortable-greasy-dandruffy stage, but we’ll see where it goes from here!

Hugging culture

As I explained above, hugging is very much integrated into life at the Project.  It’s a huge part of what the volunteers enjoy doing here. I always thought of myself as a “hugger,” but after experiencing hugging at the Project, I think not!

I’ll confess, I’m not into the random ‘hugging for no apparent reason,’ so I chose not to conform to this hugging trend. I accept that, at this moment, I’m only a hugger after having a meaningful conversation with someone, or if I feel deeply connected to the person. Maybe one day I’ll be more open towards it, but now is not my time 🙂

The Project’s Facilities

Although the facilities are basic, most volunteers seem to find them sufficient and enjoy the full experience of living on the farm

Volunteers sleep in the dorm “room,” which accommodates over 30 volunteers. Each of us gets a thick sleeping mat, a mosquito net, and any space we claim within the grid of mats to keep your belongings! 

The project is in the process of completing its newest addition to the farm, new toilets and showers! The new toilet and shower natural building earned its artful name, “The Poo Castle” due to its resemblance to a castle (i.e., a moat around the caste, a draw bridge, a throne, etc. are in the plans!).

The showers (natural bucket showers 😊) in the Poo Castle are already available for use! For toilets, there are 2 indoor toilets with bum guns (and toilet paper 😉) on the farm.

At this time of year (December), the mosquito situation wasn’t unbearable, and the little spider critters & baby scorpions weren’t too present either. Praise!

I’ll confess that the first time I slept in a hostel after living at the Project for 13 days, I didn’t have as much appreciation for the comforts of urban life as I expected to have (i.e., having an actual mattress on a bed, taking a normal & hot shower, etc.). I think my appreciation for having my own personal space again trumped my gratefulness for the material comforts. It was a relief to have a break from the constant interaction with the group of 40 volunteers. Or, maybe, I just genuinely enjoy those bucket showers!

Tip: If you’re considering to volunteer at the Project, but you’re hesitating due to the basic accommodations & facilities, the mosquitoes, and the crawling creatures, my advice to you: 

Go to the Project! Our minds always fabricate vivid stories of how things will be. And the mind never fails to imagine things as worse than they really are! In particular, my mind conjured up fears over the mosquitoes, scorpions, and snakes that would for sure be at this farm project! Yet, when I arrived to the Project, the mosquito situation wasn’t too bad, I only spotted a harmless baby scorpion, and no sight of snakes anywhere!

So I suggest, if you’re interested, get on over there 🙂  

The ‘Natural Building’ Experience

Each day, we spent a couple hours working on the primary project at the farm, the new toilet and showering facility (artfully named, the “Poo Castle”). It’s a structure made from natural materials, primarily mud-brick. While I was volunteering, we were on the plastering stage of the project, which entailed making mud in the mudpits each day and plastering the mud onto the walls of the Poo Castle. 

I’ve never been a guy who enjoyed construction or any sort of manual labor, but I gave it a shot… And so, I can now confirm: plaster is not my thing, especially under the hot sun. 

Getting muddy in mudpits was a blast, but the plastering wasn’t my cup of tea. I was the odd one out, since the majority of volunteers enjoyed the multi-tasking experience of plastering and engaging in meaningful conversations with each other. 

It took courage to make it known: “I’m not a fan of the plastering.” Christian encourages us to explore new things at the project, but creates the space for us to engage in whichever activities we feel comfortable. Praise to that! I naturally I found myself contributing to the community in other ways, including:

  • Being creative in the kitchen to cook up a delicious meal for 40 people,
  • Watering the mandala garden (an aspect of permaculture), and 
  • Facilitating multiple meditation sessions & workshops.

Surrounded by 40 volunteers on the Project 24/7

I believe most volunteers would agree that being surrounded by 40 other people, 24/7, and with minimal time for yourself is challenging. Yet, it’s also an insightful opportunity to observe how you act in a large group of new faces. Initially, I felt overwhelmed, I didn’t know who to speak to, how to make myself known, etc. Feeling helpless, I found myself trying to connect with all 40 volunteers, and get attention! 

After 4 days of this, I felt unsettled. I felt like I was spread thin… acquainted with many of the volunteers, but deeply connected with none of them! At this point, I was able to take a step back to observe how I had been instinctively acting in this social setting, and this gave me the opportunity to change course. For the next 11 days at the Project, the need for attention dissipated, I took my alone time when needed, and I allowed connections to happen organically (i.e., connecting with whoever I happened to get into a conversation with). All hail mindfulness! After changing course, I felt settled inside, despite being surrounded by 40 new faces. 

A Safe Space to Creatively Contribute

As I explained above in the description of the talking circle, the Projects fosters a safe environment where we can remove our masks and express our fully authentic selves. It creates a space to contribute our knowledge, ideas, and visions to this collaborative community.

After a few days of adapting to this safe and open environment of 40 people, I eventually found myself putting down my guards, giving up the act, and being my true-self. And in this state, I felt wiser, freer, and more connected to life… I flourished.

The Project’s collaborative space motivated me to explore the meditation practices I  connected with at my Meditation Teacher Training last month (which I shared in a previous post). In this space, I created and led guided meditations, chanting circles, and 3 free-form movement workshops for the volunteers (I explain the essence of free-form movement in a previous post). I had the opportunity to further explore my voice, and to discover leadership skills I wasn’t aware I had. Although I was jumping into discomfort & putting myself on the front lines here, it strangely felt so right & so natural to me. 

Introducing the Founders

Christian and his wife, Anja, are the German founders of the Project.

Christian was a monk, and Anja was a nun, at a monastery in Thailand, where they lived the monastic life for almost 1 year. It’s fascinating to learn from their deep knowledge of the inner-workings of the simplistic life in the monastery. 

Christian is an angel on earth, with his calm demeanor, innate energy, caring nature, and sense of humor. I have to give a huge shout out to his badass team of long-term volunteers for keeping Christian and the Project running smoothly. 

Ending Thoughts

Overall, I loved my time at the Mindfulness Project, a second home to me. I took huge steps on the personal growth front, and I made deep, lifelong relationships. 

I left the Project feeling more confident in my own shoes & without my mask on, particularly in the knowing that:

I am not a black sheep! 😊

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