Thabarwa Meditation Centre
When I arrived at TheBarWa, an NGO in Myanmar, a French volunteer greeted me. He explained the rules, introduced me to fellow volunteers and gave me a blanket and bed sheets.
I walked around the monastery soaking in the atmosphere, learning what my near future would look like. While it is a facility to help the sick and infirm, all work, even the work conducted by the volunteers, is based around meditation. In fact, that’s the one caveat to volunteering here. Everyone is permitted to get free room and board, so long as they meditate at least one hour a day. I watched the monks go through their routine as fellow volunteers talked to me about what their days were like, and why they chose to volunteer here.
I was pretty surprised by the importance in which meditation is treated. I knew that this organization focused around meditation, but it is a principle tenet here. In fact, any sort of hospice or caretaking work isn’t mandatory at all. If you want to come here and meditate for at least an hour a day, you can stay for free. Though, personally, I knew I wanted to get involved. I came specifically here to face my own fears and insecurities about working with sick people. Meditating, for me, was a bonus. I chose this path in my life because of the time I allotted for myself to reflect on my thoughts. In essence, I always linked my own volunteering to aspects of meditation already, in that I was constantly asking myself what drives my actions, and why I seek out helping those in need. If not for meditation, I very well may be still at my old job, sitting behind the same old desk.
After having my orientation and signing myself up for patient washing, and watching all the monks and volunteers go about their business, I was exhausted. I settled in for the night.
I woke up the following day to help the monks get alms from the community, the lifeblood of the monastery. Every day at sunrise, all the monks wake up and collect food and money from all the townspeople. It is a very humbling experience to walk with the monks, who were barefoot as they essentially begged for food. They always go to the same part of town, so everyone is well accustomed to the ritual, and give generously. The reverence that the community has towards the monks is quite impressive. The monks essentially ask for any small offering that someone can provide, and each donor takes off their shoes as they approach to present their gift. The monks are quite deferential and docile, as if to not let the adoration feed into their ego. All the proceeds go back to the meditation center.
There’s an inside joke around here that you won’t have to worry about missing lunch if you walk with the monks. There is no lunch if the monks don’t come back. Taking part in this tradition was a unique way to learn more about Buddhism while fostering a relationship with the monks. Though the true reason I chose to volunteer was to challenge myself and face my fears head on. After we ate lunch, I chose to act on this. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I signed up for “patient washing,” but I imagined it would be an intense experience.
After I got the medical supplies necessary, I went to the patient ward where I could see dozens of patients lying on wooden boxes. The smell of feces pungently filled the air. When I looked at my patient, I was shocked to see the condition she was in. She was an old woman who had bedsores all over her body. She had soiled herself, and was just lying there, unable to help herself. I felt so bad for this poor woman, my heart sunk in my chest. When I looked over and saw four other women in a similar condition, I almost started crying. It was hard at first, to start washing someone who was suffering so much. I had never met this woman before, yet here I was, washing her as she lay in her most vulnerable state. I thought I would run away from this moment, but what I realized was that she truly had a kind spirit. She held my hand and smiled, and though we couldn’t understand each other, I knew she was appreciative of my help. I was moved by her gentle acknowledgement.
I have now experienced what it means to take care of someone who’s suffering. It was a privilege to serve her as a patient, even though I thought I would never be able to do such a thing. But now, I’m assured that I have really helped someone in need, and it’s an extraordinary feeling. Patient washing is now my everyday activity. I spent the evening reflecting on my day during a meditation session, taking to heart that I was able to make someone in pain smile today. I look forward to discovering how else I can volunteer myself to those in need.