I’ve been working on my meditation practice more lately. Something that I was introduced to through Pema Chodron’s teachings is the Tonglen practice.
I have found that this practice helps me feel more connected to the people in my life even when they’re not around, and to find my way into the heart space more easily. It has also helped me to practice letting go of attaching “good” and “bad” labels to thoughts, ideas, and emotions.
All the things that we experience bring us closer to enlightenment. There is no enlightenment without suffering. There is no lotus without the mud;
As a Youth in Development volunteer I have very few opportunities to spend time bonding with my kids in an unstructured environment. I have often found myself envious of the fact that TCCS volunteers get to spend so much time with their students, go to the same school every day, and be a reliable presence there.
I go to five different schools every week, sometimes two different schools in one day. Spreading myself so thinly makes it hard to develop meaningful connections with my students. I don’t live near any of my schools — I have had students come to visit my house once ever in the 16 months that I have been at site. It also doesn’t help that I usually do my class at the end of the day during the free hour, after which the students and teachers scurry home, leaving little to no time for unstructured play.
The camp environment, however, is a great opportunity to build that relationship. Not only is being at the camp together a wonderful shared experience, but even the logistics, traveling together, and exploring the space provide really wonderful opportunities for connection.
The first day of the Leadership Summit when we sat down to think about and write out our expectations and hopes for the camp, I made sure to say that one of mine was strengthening my relationship with the students.
The small moments for me are always the ones that feel so important and meaningful. A shared look, an expression of care or curiosity, just showing up for one another. These are the kinds of things that made me feel closer to my students, the kinds of things I rarely have the opportunity for when we spend so little time together, and when the time we do spend together is usually goal-oriented in some way.
Riding in the car, choosing snacks at 711, joking about being car sick, a student leaning over during a session to ask me if I understand what we’re doing and then explaining it to me, hearing a student say it’s more fun if we do it together, being sought out, being asked why I came to Thailand to serve as a volunteer, riding bikes together, being taught, being included, being seen, being together.
These are the moments of intimate familiarity that mean so much to me and help me feel connected and seen.
On the last day of the camp we sat down to do our action plans. One of the facilitators put a graphic on the board with nine orange bullets that had the abbreviations for the next nine months written on them. She then asked, “How much time do you have left before the volunteers go home?”
The answer was revealed by another group of students and I just sat there wondering what my kids were thinking in that moment. Did they already know that? Did they think it would be longer or shorter? How did they feel about it?
Because all I could think about was how short that amount of time sounded, and how much it was going to hurt to leave.
Nine isn’t a big number at all. We are officially out of the double digits. Some folks’ number is even smaller. Some people are undoubtedly looking forward to that day. I, however, am not one of them. Sometimes I’m not even sure how I can begin to absorb such a Truth.
At the end of the last day we did a great activity where we expressed love and care for one another as a group. Afterwards, I made the rounds to say goodbye to everyone once I realized that my counterparts were all waiting for me to wrap it up so we could leave.
As we rode away in the van it occurred to me that these camps are like a microcosm for our whole service. At the beginning it’s kind of bumbling and unclear, you have to establish boundaries and find what works for you, establish expectations and desired outcomes. Then you build relationships and unity through struggle, solving problems, and just spending time together. Some hopes are dashed cruelly upon the sharp rocks of reality, and other new opportunities arise out of unexpected places. Hopefully you accomplish something good, though the impact won’t be obvious until much later, and at the end you say goodbye and go your separate ways once again.
One day soon we will have to say goodbye to one another without knowing when the next time we will see each other will be. It won’t be “See you soon.” There won’t be the comfort of knowing that your friends are still within reach, that you’ll see them again before too long.
That is doubly, triply true for our students and Thai friends. Meeting up with a friend in the States or abroad is one thing, but I can’t even begin to calculate when I will have the opportunity to return to Thailand again. A year? 5 years? A decade?
When I think about it this way, no amount of remaining time seems long enough. The continual fluctuation I experienced when I first came here doesn’t seem to have abated so much as it has just changed form. Some days, when I feel a really strong connection with my students or my friends, I think about extending my time here beyond the perpetually-looming COS date and it seems totally possible. Other days it sounds absolutely, “No f–king way!” crazy to me.
I think a big part of my experience here has been accepting this duality, that change is the only constant, and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Stability and predictability are myths. I can begin to revel in that Truth instead of fearing it.
To be like water — ever flowing, ever adapting, never stable. To be like stone — wearing away with each drop, changing the flow by the simple fact of its existence in that space, ancient yet impermanent.