I’m standing in the back of a truck, bumping along the dusty dirt road, when a huge drop of water lands on my forehead. A moment later, another drop hits my arm. When I jump off the truck outside the house with the other volunteers, it is pouring. We stay in the garden, laughing and rinsing the layers of mud from our legs and arms in the stream from a drain pipe. Rain, finally.
It is Thailand’s worst draught in decades, and it is perhaps especially evident here in Isan, the north-east region of Thailand, where ninety per cent of the forests have been cut down. If deforestation continues at its current rate, there will be no forests left in Thailand in twenty-five years. This is one of the reasons why I am here, at Mindfulness Project, a community where volunteers from all over the world gather to learn about natural building, permaculture and meditation. I want to find ways to help nature instead of destroying it.
Christian and Anja, a German couple, started the project after spending a year as a monk and a nun in Thailand. We are staying in an old school and spend every morning in silence before we go to work. Some days we help a neighbour build a house out of mud and rise husks. Some days we ride to the new land that the project will move to in a few weeks, digging trenches and building showers and toilets. In the afternoons we do yoga, and every evening we sit down for a talking circle, peeling layers, looking deeper into each other and ourselves.
To my own surprise, I fall head over heels in love with mud plastering. One day, I sit on the scaffolding, covered in mud and cuts and scratches. There is a huge splinter in my toe and the air is so hot that occasional icy waves run through my body, but I don’t want to stop working. Digging my hands into the mud and smoothing it out across the wall is just another form of meditation. I lose track of time, and the idea of building my own house one day feels more real and tempting than ever.
Some days are challenging. On my first evening, Christian described meditation as looking inwards and really seeing what is there. It is difficult at first, he said, because we don’t want to see the mess. My two weeks at the project become a practice in coming to terms with my own cluttered brain. To hear the voice that tells me to give up – It’s too hot. You’re too weak. You don’t belong here. – and continue anyway.
And every morning that voice grows smaller. The mindful moments absorb it. The sound of the gong swelling through the heat at four forty. The rising sun parting the candlelit darkness as we meditate beneath the trees. A deafening choir of cicadas drowning my slowing thoughts. Cool water lapping in a watering can. The hug that breaks the silence after breakfast.
One evening, we talk about dreaming and planning. “As soon as we close our eyes, we are wanting and wishing, and when we get what we wish for, we want something else”, Christian says. “And when you actually go to the place you have dreamed of, you’re not really there, because you are busy building your next mind castle.”
Even if I have known this on some level, this idea flips my world upside down. I have always been a daydreamer. A list-maker. An inspiration hunter. My computer is filled with folders of pictures of imaginary futures. The house I want to build. The books I want to write. And I have never thought of this as something negative before.
The thought of dreaming less is painful at first. “Nobody wants to let go of their dreams, but if you do, something much bigger is waiting”, Christian says. If we limit ourselves to what we think we are capable of, or what we think we deserve, we could easily wave off opportunities that could lead us far beyond our greatest dreams. And we miss out on really living in the process.
And as the days pass, these ideas start to sink in. Back in Chiang Mai, I notice tiny shifts. I find myself slipping into daydreams, and even if I see no harm in dreaming, I am learning to bring that dream back to the present. I would rather spend my time doing what I dream of instead of dreaming my time away, postponing that imaginary life to a future I know nothing about. After all, none of us knows if we will be here tomorrow.
So instead of pouring all my inspiration into this dream of building a creative home, I am building a version of that dream now, right where I am, within myself. By clearing out clutter, making space, building new habits and looking for ways to bring the qualities of that dream into the present. How can I make this moment more magical? I ask myself. How can I make this desk more inspiring? How can I make more space for creativity today?
It is not easy, though. Back in Sweden, I catch myself slipping into old patterns all the time. I still daydream. I still procrastinate. I still worry. But when I do, I often notice it and let go. And that awareness makes all the difference.
Something has shifted. Even if my future is more uncertain than ever, there is this calm space inside of me that I don’t recognize. A home where I can rest, knowing that if I just take good care of this moment, the future is much more likely to align with – or even surpass – my imagination.