Deb Linehan is a life coach at the New Life Foundation, a mindfulness-based recovery program in Chiang Rai, Thailand, which is a 3-hour bus ride north of Chiang Mai.
So what’s your travel story?
Before coming to Thailand, I hadn’t traveled a lot in life at all. In my 20s and then again in my 30s, I went on a trip to Europe, a place that was fairly safe and easy to get around.
I’m 46 now. When I turned 45, I got hit with the travel bug. It was like “it’s now or never.” I’m single, with no kids never been married. (That’s not a sad thing for me; my life has gone exactly the way I’ve wanted it to.) And I was at a point in my life where I didn’t have anything holding me back—no mortgage, no student loan debt. So I was able to cut the cord and just go.
I didn’t have the resources to just fly around and travel. I needed to figure out how to support myself while seeing different parts of the world. I’m in the beginning stages of figuring that out.
I’m a life coach. Right now I work with people in addiction recovery. The New Life Foundation is a community in Chiang Rai for people in recovery—from grief, burnout, depression, anxiety, as well as addiction. It’s a place where people come to further their mindfulness practice. I have a lot of autonomy. I’m able to work within a team and independently, which is really awesome.
I live at the Foundation, so my room and board is taken care of. I get a small stipend. So I’m basically breaking even. But it’s so freeing compared to how I was living in the States. I was living behind the eight ball, always trying to make ends meet. This is such a beautiful opportunity. I can just live here. For the first time in my life I’m not worrying about money.
It’s been wonderful to be a part of the community here and think about what the future has in store.
What were you doing before you moved to Thailand?
I had been working in the corporate world; then I created a bridge that enable me to move into coaching. Now I’m a CCAR addiction recovery coach. I also do Danielle Laporte’s Desire Map. I do a lot of work taking people through the desire map methodology.
I also got training for hospice and palliative care at the New York Zen Center. I did my clinical at Lenox Hill Hospital. As a chaplain intern, I worked one-on-one with people in all kinds of conditions—people with a broken toe, or a broken heart, people who were actively dying. I saw the whole spectrum.
Having done hospice work—seeing day in and day out how quickly it’s over—it feels more dangerous to not catapult yourself into whatever it is you want to do.
I’ve been in addiction recovery myself for six years, so addiction recovery is near and dear to my heart. My work with hospice care is connected to addiction recovery work because I view active addition as dying. In so many ways addiction is like death; it’s a slow suicide. It’s a very scary place. But I keep thinking of that scene in Monty Python: “I’m not dead yet!”
When I’m working with someone in recovery, I see what’s possible. I see that spark in someone that’s still there. I’m able to hold the space and help them fan the flames and be with them as they deal all the things that caused their addiction.
So I did my training, but I didn’t know what was next. I was really scared. I was trying to force it, trying to get back to that place of safety and knowing what was next. My education teaches me, “It’s all going to become clear.” (I have t-shirts that say “Don’t freak out!”) Still, it was hard to just chill out.
I was talking to one of my teachers, a Zen priest at the Center. I told him, “I don’t know what’s next and I have to figure it out!” As Zen priests do, he just sat there and held the space for me to talk about it. Of course, he wouldn’t tell me what to do.
One of my teachers had run a retreat here at the Foundation. One friend had been here as a coach. Another friend had been a resident here. So I always had it in the back of my mind. My coach said why don’t you send them an email? So I did and they happened to looking for a coach at the time. So everything fell into place from there.
What’s daily life like for you in Chiang Rai? What are some of the things you like best about being there?
It’s beautiful here, very rural, with gardens and sustainable agriculture. It’s quiet, with butterflies and ducks and cows and lakes. We eat a lot of the food we grow here.
My weekday life is pretty regimented, because it follows the therapeutic community’s schedule:
- The gong goes off at 6 a.m. At 6:30, there’s yoga, mindful walk or meditation.
- Breakfast is at 7:30 in the dining hall.
- At 8:30, we hold our community meeting in a big open-air space with a roof, when we welcome new people and say goodbye to those who are leaving. We do little bit of meditation together.
- Then from 9:30 to 12:30, I meet with clients. (Residents have two life coaching sessions per week.)
- Lunch is at 12:30.
- In the afternoon, maybe I’ll hold a workshop or organize an activity.
- In the evenings we have all sorts of activities, like women’s group or men’s group or life story, where a member of the community gets up and tells their life story.
- Then there’s noble silence after 9:30 p.m.
Sometimes we’ll rent a songthaew and go into town. I’m sometimes on duty on the weekends, but otherwise it’s pretty flexible. Some weekends I go into Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai. Once I managed a retreat for one of our Buddhist teachers, then I took a week off in Chiang Mai.
In Chiang Mai, the older part of the city is surrounded by a moat. There are temples and touristy stuff for tourists and expats; there’s a big digital nomad community. Beautiful coffee shops, and the food is amazing. Then there’s the rest of the city beyond the moat, but that’s where I mostly hang out when I go to Chiang Mai.
There’s fairly big expat community in Chiang Rai as well. It has coffee shops and restaurants, some guest houses, a health food more — like one of everything you need. It’s not quite as charming as Chiang Mai.
Are there some things you miss?
I’m realizing that I do want some sort of landing place in the States because I have a lot of connections there. I miss family and friends more than I thought I would. The thing about missing family, though, is that with Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime, Facebook video — it’s not like being away, in a lot of ways. Communication is easy, but but the time difference makes it tricky. Plus there are times when I could call but I don’t want to disturb people who are in silence.
I also miss cooking; I don’t get to cook here because the Thai staff does most of the cooking. But we have really beautiful fresh ingredients.
What have you learned while living there?
I’ve learned to live on what’s there. Back home I was so much more of a consumer. I really leaned into the consumer thing whenever I had discomfort. So it’s helped my practice to be with discomfort and my feelings when they arrive, rather than trying to run away from them by buying something new.
Here, I have one towel and one mug that I use for cold and hot drinks. It’s empowering to learn that I don’t need so much.
It’s also enlightening to see how inexpensive some things are here. In the U.S. I was paying like $250/month for phone service. Here it’s maybe $30/month, which includes data.
What’s your social life like?
There are 50 or so residents, eight people on the life coaching team, plus other staff and volunteers. It’s a really great sociological experiment — the subgroups and subcultures, who’s drawn to whom. Our team is really strong and we have a lot of fun and we appreciate each other. We bond on a professional colleague and a friend level.
Since we all live at the center, it’s important to like the people that you work with. So its nice that we’re also friends. Friendships to a certain degree can be made with the residents. We don’t want to cross any boundaries, but there’s a friendliness. If its game night, everybody plays together. Team members are friendly and supportive.
How do you meet people outside of work?
I’m starting to form relationships outside of the community. I’ve been starting to get to know people in the greater community, who are involved in the local recovery support groups. I could use more of that.
I was hoping that would learn more Thai, but it’s pretty challenging. We do have people from the community who are here – but we don’t have the language in common. Also, a lot of the clients are from Europe or South Africa, so we speak English with them.
It’s very challenging for me to make friends with locals. The owner of the cafe that I go to recognizes me. I can say hello and thank you to the women at the store where I sometimes buy milk or soda. We recognize each other and share big smiles, but it hasn’t gotten deeper than that. I know there are people who have been here longer, who have learned more Thai who have been invited to local people’s houses for dinner having beautiful experiences sharing dinner.
How do local people react to your being a single woman?
I haven’t gotten pushback for being single. But I do have a friend who found people were taken aback that she was a single woman traveling alone on a motorcycle.
In Thailand if you have a tattoos, the stereotype is that you’re in the mafia or some kind of organized crime. I carry around a shawl so if I find myself in the company of older folks or on a bus — the bus will often get pulled over for an i.d. check — I’ll use my shawl to cover the tattoos on my shoulder.
What’s next for you?
This is a transitional community. Nobody stays here forever, including the staff and long-term volunteers. My stay here will come to an end at some point. And then there will be the next stage. I haven’t gotten the complete download on what they looks like yet!
Thought about going to Burma for a while to do a 1- to 3-month silent retreat in one of the monasteries there. It’s been a goal of mine. I also want to check out a monastery in Australia. That’s a little more extravagant, since from here Burma is really close.
Maybe get some more education to further my coaching skills. I would love to have some experience working in a place that’s between a rehab and a sober living space. I can also see myself working in hospice care again.
Maybe later in life I’ll do something more ambitious and longer term. I always fantasized about making some type of network where there are home bases (not time shares), but some network of homes away from home that allows people to cooperate and share.
Any advice for women who are considering moving abroad on their own?
Do it, absolutely.
Start weaning now, start letting go of stuff. But if you’re coming to Thailand, know that sizes here are smaller. For example, it’s hard to buy a bra here, so bring those with you!
Get your affairs in order as far as end-of-life stuff. That was part of the process in the Zen hospice care training; we did our own end-of-life planning. That there’s a sense of freedom that comes when all of that is done!
The logistics stuff is easy to Google. Plus you’ve got Google Maps, translator apps, currency converter apps, which make it so much easier to go somewhere alone and feel safe.
So do your research, but don’t get stuck in 50 years of planning! There’s only so much research you can do.