What is health? What is suffering? Why do we suffer? How do we heal? These are some of the questions that a small group of inquisitive travelers and I recently explored during a three-week journey through Northern Thailand.

The premise underlying our Adventures in Healing was that by immersing ourselves in an unfamiliar culture–one whose customs differ greatly from our own–our conditioned beliefs would be challenged, our unconscious habits would be revealed, and our faulty assumptions would be exposed. We hoped that as our old mental constructs began to collapse and dissolve, a fresh, raw, clear state of mind would emerge. This mind would be capable of perceiving the human condition more honestly and completely, and would thereby be better equipped to understand the integrated nature of health and healing on a personal, community, and environmental level, and to make more conscious, empowered lifestyle choices.

Although our group was relatively small, we represented a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives: 23 to 57 years old; of Asian, Indian, African, Caribbean, and European descent; male, female, gay, straight, single, and married; massage therapists, nannies, actors, music producers, and social activists; peacemakers, devil’s advocates, comedians, introverts, pessimists, and optimists. Our colorful little group proved to be the ideal microcosm for testing out opinions and theories, letting go of old patterns and prejudice, gaining insight, and generally having great fun in the “land of smiles”.

Our journey began with a four-day silent meditation and yoga retreat at the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice (IWP) in the rural village of Baan Mai. Ouyporn, a Thai woman and a native of Baan Mai, facilitated candid discussions on the Buddhist perspective on suffering, and the importance of cultivating “the true medicine of the universe” (the four divine states of mind – loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and non-judgment), and led walking meditations through the rice paddies.

A woman from Australia and I led a daily yoga practice to help prepare our bodies for sitting meditation, and several local women prepared delicious home-cooked vegetarian meals that we enjoyed in silence in an open-aired sala.

From Baan Mai, we traveled north to Mae Taeng and spent a few days living on an organic farm called Pun Pun, which operates as a seed-saving center and conducts earthen-building workshops.

We learned to make adobe bricks, plasters, and paints, to prepare natural soap and shampoo, to plant kale and chilies, and to cook traditional Thai dishes including homemade tofu and soy milk.
From Pun Pun, we traveled south to Chiang Mai and spent a week studying Thai Yoga Massage with esteemed teacher Cherchai Chumpoopong. This gave us an opportunity to integrate and cultivate our yoga, meditation, and massage techniques, which elevated our practice to a whole new level.

Our evenings were spent sampling the rich collection of massage treatments, restaurants, and markets throughout the city.
Our last weekend was spent volunteering with abused elephants at the Elephant Nature Park, a jungle sanctuary north of Chiang Mai. We fed, bathed, walked, and fell in love with the elephants, and were inspired by stories of how they had overcome tremendous physical and emotional pain.

The lessons that we learned about ourselves and the world that we live in were profound. In the end, resistance gave way to surrender; enduring boundaries dissolved; hearts expanded; burdens lifted; and we all felt a little freer, lighter, and more motivated to continue our journey toward cultivating “the true medicine of the universe.”