I Take Refuge in The Sanctuary

sanctuarynightSo, what is life at the Sanctuary like, I hear you ask. Well, it is interesting. And relaxing. Sooooo relaxing. Its secluded island location means that there are no roads and therefore no traffic nearby. The only sounds are those of the waves lapping against the shore interspersed with the symphony of bugs and birds that are performing 24/7.

Those privileged souls who stay long-term are walking around in bare-feet, their tanned legs long and toned. Everybody seems to have two things I don’t: A MacBook Air and a tattoo (or five). They lounge around the tree-house like restaurant drinking wheatgrass. Naturally, my first instinct is to eavesdrop and figure out who’s who – where these people are from and what they do. I overhear conversations, many with Australian accents about ‘slinky swarmies’, about friends who have died of overdoses, about the energy channels, the perineum. I even heard one very beautiful woman say after checking her online businesses, “I have to figure out how I’m going to spend all my money!”

On the boat ride over, I met a woman from New York who is studying architecture in Oxford. She saved me from some creepy old guy who hit on me by suggesting we could share a bungalow. We hung out a lot over the next few days talking – she about the man who she moved to the U.K. for and who had recently broken up with her, about her life working for the summer in Malaysia, about the future. Me about my life in Korea, my life generally and the future, which didn’t seem to exist in that blissed-out place.

My new friend seemed to be very spiritual, and into Yoga, Buddhism, astrology, aromatherapy. I could get onboard with some of it, but her extensive knowledge of planets and moons was going too far for me. Still, I believe I am healthily curious and open-minded, so when she suggested we go to a workshop about EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), I said, ‘OK, I’ll tag along. I’m sure my hammock would be happy to have some time to itself.’

Including the teacher, there were five of us (a petite yet aggressive Russian woman, and of course, the creepy old guy). The teacher was a voluptuous woman, tanned and glowing, like there was a candle burning inside of her. She fit the new age hippie stereotype, dressed in bell bottoms, wearing a tiara and having a made up name (Nika One). I was polite and attentive as she spoke about what we would be doing. She had a sing-song voice and spoke beautiful, educated English with a hard-to-pick accent (I found out later it’s part Russian, part Nepalese, part American). Then we started the work of tapping meridian points and chanting phrases related to each of our issues.

statueI found it boring and repetitive. I had made up my mind that this was flaky psuedo-science and a waste of my time. I was trying to plot my exit as I was sure my hammock missed me. I wanted to drink chai tea in the tea temple and read a book. I was yawning and rolling my eyes (not at the same time). Then, the teacher started talking about the fallacies of the western scientific paradigm. And the matrix. I’m thinking, ‘Who are you to talk about science? Is that what they teach you at Rainbow School?’ I can’t wait for this to be over. Eventually, we stop tapping and chanting and it’s time for a meditation. I’m hot and thirsty by this point. And tired too. We lie down and she guides us through it with her soothing voice. Except that it turns out to be some kind of hypnosis as we all fall into a weird sleep-like state. I can’t recall most of what she said, but I wasn’t sleeping or dreaming either. She tells us this is good because it means our subconscious brain is listening.

I’m grateful for the session to be over so I can go about the rest of my day. Before we leave, the teacher passes around a pamphlet about other workshops she is giving, as well as a brief bio. Four words jump out at me: PhD. Neuroscience. Stanford. Neurosurgeon. It turns out, I have been in the presence of a freakin’ genius! My brain can’t quite process the impression I have made of this person versus the reality. We hug goodbye and I trot off to rehydrate and of course, to Google this incredible woman.

According to the blurb on her book, The Human Journey, which showcases her artwork and poems related to her experience, Nika One is:

A fellow traveler who has surrendered the ‘past life’ of a neuroscientist, a mathematician and surgeon after an intense transformation, a genuine Dark Night of the Soul. Everything I knew myself to be has shattered before my eyes as I have faced death through a severe illness. I watched in stunned paralysis as my life burned before my eyes, feeling unable to stop the fire….mesmerized, numb…. I have fought it. I have found the futility of the fight. I have surrendered, finally. From the great Clearing of Surrender has come my greatest gift and access to the Light.

I have read about these experiences in all kinds of spiritual literature. But I never thought they were real. I mean, how many people ever experience this? There was Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke of insight which sounds similar, but I never met her in the flesh. Now I have met someone who has undergone this kind of conversion. Now it seems more real to me.

Incidentally, Nika spent a lot of time traveling around Asia after her conversion. She even did a stint teaching in Korea and has written about this online. I hope to republish some of her thoughts here because her observations of Korean society are so astute. It’s good to know that although she “unidentified” with her degrees, her professional identity, her incredible cognitive and intellectual capabilities remain intact.

So while the Sanctuary was a lovely experience from a vacation point of view, I think that my life has become more enriched from the people I met there. Which is probably always the case.





Then & Now

thailand1It was almost on a whim that I decided to go on vacation to Thailand – an ‘ahhhh fuck it, I need a holiday!’ moment. A ‘I need to get the hell outta of Korea for a bit’ moment. So I pulled out my credit card and a few weeks later, found myself lying on a quiet beach on an island, Koh Pha Ngan in the south of the country. Even the weeks leading up to the trip made the whole thing worth it. It gave me something to look forward to and something other than my usual monotonous day-to-day life to think about.

I had been to Thailand before. Six years ago I was there for almost a month. It was a great trip – the first such trip I had taken alone in Asia and it was a desperately needed time of healing as I came out of a horrible year – my first in Korea and one that I always try to erase from my memory.

That trip was one of those rare times when the stars seem to align and things become serendipitous. I arrived with no set plans and just traveled around alone. I felt happy and present for the first time in god knows how long. I made my way down to beautiful Ko Phi Phi island for a few days. One day, in between snorkeling and attending random muslim weddings, as I was escaping from the heat in my swanky hotel room with turbo air conditioning, I began to channel surf. A documentary on one of the national channels caught my eye. I became intrigued – it was about a German expat and his Thai wife who started an organisation (Baan Gerda), similar to an orphanage, for children and adults that have been abandoned and stigmatized because of being infected with HIV/AIDS. I was moved by what I saw, so in an uncharacteristic moment of boldness, I contacted the founder, Karl, and soon enough, I was at their beautiful house in a quiet suburb of Bangkok and then we were on the road in their SUV and drove for three hours deep into the rice fields of the Thai countryside. I spent two days and one night there just hanging out, playing with the children and talking with Karl who explained to me all the complexities of the situation of the children, of the community, of the government. It was an extremely interesting and eye-opening experience.

Also, while I was there, an Australian woman showed up with a representative from her Thai publishing house to also learn about the work that was being done there. Just a week before, I had been looking at her memoir in a bookstore near one of the big temples in central Bangkok, wondering about who this crazy woman was – who dedicates their life to working for free in the ‘Bangkok Hilton’, one of the world’s most notorious prisons? Who does that?! And here she was, in the flesh. We spoke for a while and of course, promptly upon my return to Bangkok, I bought and read her story which was crazy, involving a criminal husband, smuggling people out of Burma and nearly bleeding to death.

And then, after riding elephants and hanging out with a tribe in the jungle, I came back to civilization, checked my email and found out I had been given an amazing opportunity to travel around the world as a reporter for Peace Boat. Those were exciting times.

Alas, this is now and my trip to Thailand this time was so different. This time, I had more of an agenda – I just want to chill out and be healthy. And with that in mind, I went to The Sanctuary, a really laid back kind of yoga resort/spa/camping ground/hippie-hipster playground for people on a budget. It’s hard to describe, but I first stumbled upon it online two or three years ago and thought, ‘Wow, that looks interesting! I want to go there!’ but then promptly talked myself out of it because that sabotaging voice in my head, which gets more say than it should, told me that it was too hard to get to, too expensive, and that it was morally bankrupt because how could I justify going somewhere like that where people pay to fast and cleanse when there are so many starving people in the world?

But this time, I decided to, in the spirit of Nike, ‘Just do it.’ And it was lovely. Although, knowing what I know now, I wish I had stayed longer (everybody says that). But I got what I needed and I know that it was important to take that time for myself because I’m about to get bat-shit busy with a six day work week and trying to keep up with everything else – I’ve never been good at juggling more than a few balls, so hopefully I can keep a piece of the Sanctuary within me to have a sense of balance and equanimity.

Thank god for antibiotics!

Thank god for antibiotics!

Ironically, however, as soon as I got back to Bangkok where I had planned to spend a few says doing girly things (sightseeing, shopping, spa etc), I was struck down with food poisoning. The universe certainly has a sense of humour – I was so healthy and relaxed and then boom! A day later I am writhing around on the bathroom floor of my hotel room, sweating, shivering, vomiting, trying to endure the incessant stabbing pains in my stomach, having no clue how to get to a doctor or hospital. Luckily, after some frantic searching, I found a pharmacy with a pharmacist that spoke English and that sold antibiotics. I had three days in the city, two were spent trying not to die alone in a hotel room and on the third day, finally I was able to get out and about a little bit.

I always had fond memories of the metropolis – I thought it’s shabbiness was charming. I thrived on its chaos and crowds. I loved the contrasts of the old temples and houses next to the giant modern malls. Now, however, I think Bangkok is too big, too dirty, too hot and too ugly. I was surprised that for such a tourist mecca, how few people spoke English, and how rude some people could be. Actually, I would probably be that way too if I was constantly dealing with snotty, privileged, high 22 year old European backpackers who demanded a fifty percent discount on everything. But anyway, Thailand you rule, Bangkok you suck!