Balancing Selflessness and Self as a Volunteer

Collecting daily alms food from the village while volunteering at Thabarwa Meditation Center.

Learning when to give to others and when to give back to yourself.

Travel is a time to practice balancing planning with letting the universe do its thing.

We ended up in Myanmar because we needed a departing flight to enter Thailand, so we picked the cheapest one. We checked Workaway for volunteer opportunities and chose Thabarwa Centre because it was recommended by someone we knew.

A meditation centre near Yangon, Thabarwa is a refuge for nearly 3,500 sick, disabled and homeless people. Started by a monk who believed its doors should be open to everyone without discrimination, the centre offers short and long-term volunteer opportunities, where tourists can donate their time and practice "good deeds." 

Volunteering at a meditation centre sounded relaxing, or so I thought. 

Thabarwa was the opposite.

The makeshift village is constantly vibrating with activity. When human noises quiet down at night, the hundreds of dogs living at Thabarwa take up a persistent pack howl. When the dogs settle down, the roosters begin to beckon the day at the earliest promise of sunlight. 

The range of volunteer activities indicates the elevated level of need at the centre. Morning tasks included helping patients with physiotherapy exercises, changing bandages on bedsores and other wounds, and pushing patients in wheelchairs to the pagoda for prayer. Afternoon tasks included bathing patients, teaching English to children, and leading a movement exercise program for those who are bedridden.

It can be overwhelming to be immersed in a place where there is profound human need, especially when you know you cannot eradicate it.

When you volunteer abroad, you will likely encounter people who are in less than ideal situations. It can be overwhelming to be immersed in a place where there is profound human need, especially when you know you cannot eradicate it. It is important to be prepared for this without letting it dissuade you from engaging. You do not need to be an expert or commit your life to a cause to contribute something valuable.

I met Ryan, a Canadian who also heard about the centre from a friend. He came to Thabarwa to give physiotherapy to stroke patients and to help people with daily tasks that most of us take for granted, like washing ourselves and changing our own clothes. He came to Thabarwa to give a piece of himself to those in need.

In the five weeks Ryan spent at Thabarwa, his list of physiotherapy patients slowly grew until he was spending over three hours each morning rehabilitating people. This was in addition to waking up at 5 a.m. to lead an hour of guided meditation, teaching a 90-minute yoga class each afternoon, and finding time for his own yoga and meditation practice.

“It was a challenging place to live. With so many people to help, it burnt me out," said Ryan, who describes the village as controlled chaos. "I learned so much about giving to others and how to set boundaries with my energy; to always give with an open heart and to know when to give back to yourself.”

Ryan captures a sentiment worth emphasizing. Volunteering is often associated with selflessness. We are taught as kids that selfish is bad and selfless is good, but they both have value. When volunteering, don't feel guilty about taking time for yourself. You are your own lifelong companion and developing self-awareness is key.

Ten days at Thabarwa was enough time for me. Some volunteers stay a day or two and others stay for months. Wherever you are volunteering, my advice is to listen to yourself to know how long to stay. It’s important to fulfill your commitments, but as you give your time and yourself, do not lose sight of your own needs. Being kind to yourself will allow you to be more kind to others. 

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Alana Jenkins

Alana Jenkins quit her job as an Office Manager for a mental health agency in Saint Paul, Minnesota to travel and volunteer in Southeast Asia and Europe. She is volunteering through Workaway and seeking immersive local experiences.


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