Myanmar Part 1: Life in a Monastery

                                                 The monks collecting their morning alms

The clocks ticks. It ticks, ticks, ticks, going by ever so slowly and quickly all at once, all in the same instance. We have no control over it, no say over it, and certainly no power to stop it, wishing with all of our might, with every bit of strength and concentration we have, to find a way to slow time down, even for just a moment. Time reminds us, constantly nags us, that we are in fact impermanent creatures, creatures that are ever changing and ever transforming, creatures that are morphing and evolving at every given second. 
Just think, what were you doing at this exact moment yesterday, two days ago, one week ago. So much has happened between now and then. While in the moment, it may have seemed like time was at a standstill, however in hindsight, it’s almost as if the past is played on fast forward, going by so quickly, that it’s almost incomprehensible that we are sitting in the moment that we are, having experienced so much.
In order to make the most of the very little, infinitesimal time we have, we must strive to be as mindful as possible within each and every moment, speaking with intention, with forethought, with sincerity, honesty and love. 
I have never learned more about mindfulness than I have in the past three weeks exploring Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. I have never learned to be more in the moment, to adopt a peace of mind that my mind, and quite frankly, my life, has never known. I turned the wifi off, put the phone down, and let myself take a trip back in time; to a time where the only thing that mattered were the people surrounding you and the love within your heart.
To give you some quick backstory, due to a very unstable political situation, many tourists were not inclined or encouraged to visit Myanmar prior to 2012. The government was run by the military and many areas in the country were considered restricted areas and tourists were not permitted to enter into such areas. Then, in 2012, sanctions were lifted and tourism was encouraged and promoted throughout the country, especially when the  League for Democracy came to power in Myanmar during the historic general election of November 2015.
Now, consider the impact of that. A country that has very rarely seen Westerners, let alone tourists of any kind, has just five years ago opened it’s doors to outsiders. And while the backpacking community has gotten a hold of this remarkable country, many areas are practically “tourist-free”. Being a blonde, western girl, I often received stares from the locals, and many times the locals would come up to me and take photos of me and with me. Of course I didn’t mind, as I was taking photos of them as well, with them wearing their traditional warpaint known as Thanaka and the men wearing skirts known as Longyi.  So, we were even 🙂
I did my best to see as much of the country in the three week period that I had. I knew that it would be remarkable, impactful experience, but I truly had no idea what was in store for me, how much I would change, how much I would learn, how much my eyes would be pried open to all that there is, all that there could be, in a country running on tradition, hope, and optimism. 
I began my journey in Yangon, located in southern Myanmar. I had found a workaway opportunity which was to volunteer at a monastery/meditation center, and I knew immediately upon finding the opportunity that I absolutely needed to incorporate it into my trip. I had no clue what it was that I would really be doing, where I would be staying, or how long I would be there for, however, I had an address, and that was all I needed.
A common rhetoric of Myanmar was how remarkable, open and sincere the people were; how they embraced those that were different than them, and not only embraced them but brought them into their homes, into their lives, without asking or expecting for anything in return. My experience was absolutely no exception to this and was seen within the first hour of being in Myanmar, when upon asking for directions to the local bus stop, a young girl not only pointed me onto the right bus but also paid for my bus ticket. A small gesture that set the pace for my entire trip. On countless occasions I was invited into homes of locals for tea, coffee, lunch and company, just because I happened to be walking past.
The monastery, called Thabarwa about an hour outside of Yangon,  was everything I expected and so much more. For one week, I lived amongst monks and nuns, the sick and the disabled, the helpless and the weary. You could volunteer as much or as little as you wished…the experience and what you got out of it was entirely up to you.
Daily activities were set up for the more than 3,000 residents of the monastery, including gym class, art class, acupuncture, teaching at the local village school, and bathing and washing the patients.  You chose the activities you wanted to attend, or, you could also simply walk around the center and talk with the patients or offer them wheelchair rides, which many of them graciously and eagerly accepted. If the patients chose not to partake in such activities, or if no one came around to visit the patients, the patients would most likely remain in their beds (which was actually far from the beds you and I know…being basically a four post wooden board with a basic blanket if they were lucky) for hours or days at a time.

Some residents sleeping in their beds

The center was started by a Buddhist monk who felt that mediation was the most important component to life; that everything else would fall into place if meditation was diligently practiced. The monk knew that if people were struggling to meet their basic needs such as food, shelter and access to water, it would leave little time for meditation. Therefore, he created a center where shelter, food and access to water was provided, thus making room for people to practice meditation.
And meditate we did. Meditation began as early as 4am and classes were offered the entire day. My personal favorite was the Burmese mediation at 5 am which comprised of mostly nuns and residents of the center and was done entirely in Burmese.

Afternoon Meditation

Living conditions can be described as minimal at best. I had to share a room with five others, shared a bathroom that would occasionally be out of running water where we then had to go to the public bathhouse and wash ourselves while wearing a longyi or towel (you weren’t allowed to strip down into your birthday suite for bathing). Food was always rice with side dishes, and many times we ate food that was collected during the morning alms rounds (this is where monks walk the streets collecting food donated from local villagers). Absolutely no alcohol was permitted or offered at the center, however cigarettes and Burmese cigars were allowed.
Now, how to describe my experience. How to capture what I saw, the emotions that i felt, the love that I had for each and every patient, monk, nun, volunteer whom I encountered. How to fully encapsulate the happiness I felt in the smallest of moments….from helping wash rice in the morning, to walking barefoot with the monks in the morning collecting alms,  to teaching English and learning Burmese from the center’s tailor, to hugging and playing with the orphan boys, the boys whom always seemed to find themselves getting into trouble, the boys whom slept under parked trucks and with borrowed blankets, to laughing and drinking tea with the other volunteers, talking about the lives we were hopefully impacting, the difference we were making, both at the center and in ourselves.

The center’s tailor and my Burmese teacher!


                                        Orphan Boys sleeping under trucks


Orphan Boys with one of the stray puppies

Taking the ladies back to their beds after afternoon tea


                                                                                Washing Rice

                                                                                          Art Class

We have ONE LIFE to live, ONE LIFE to make a difference, ONE LIFE to make someone else smile, ONE LIFE to put our needs aside and instead focus on those around us, on their happiness, on their worries and needs, on their dreams. It is only through selfless acts and good deeds that we can even begin to understand that THIS is in fact how life should be lived. We need to care about each other, watch out for one another and ensure that all of our basic needs are being met, because if we are not looking out for one another, who will? It is our responsibility and ours alone to be compassionate towards ALL of those around us, regardless of age, sex, gender, religion, nationality, occupation.

The laughter and life of the center, Miss Josephine

Our fancy cars, our big cars, our expensive and luxurious nights out mean essentially nothing in the scheme of life. How can someone who is living on a wooden board, amongst hundreds of other people some of whom are sick and dying, someone who most likely is incapable of moving from their spot for days at a time, someone who is living in unbearable heat surrounded by constant mosquito and rodents, exhibit more contentedness, more love and happiness than those of us that seem to “have it all”? 
Myanmar is incredible and the Thabarwa center is life changing. I am honored to have had the experience that I had there, as I have let go and shed the skin of the person I once was, only to adopt and transform into the best possible version of myself.

Mr. Johnny wearing the traditional Myanmar facepaint, Thanaka

While at the center, in a time of having seemingly nothing, in a time of seeing life seemlingly at its worst, I, actually, had it all. 
Onward! xoxo

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