The Thai cave rescue that captured the world’s attention

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Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique. A regular mindfulness meditation practice makes this process much easier. After a while, you won’t have to think about staying in the moment – you will notice your mind as it moves from one interpretation to another, and you will watch its movements with compassion and acceptance. Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to choose how we want to respond and engage with a situation, surrounding, our own body pain, fatigue, emotional drain instead of relying on outer help and aid.

Kudos to the 25-year-old monk turned Coach Ekapol Chantawong, affectionately known as “Ake” because he cared for the boys more than himself. Nopparat Khanthavong, the 37-year-old head coach of the Moo Pa (Wild Boars) soccer team, had an appointment on 23rd June 2018 morning. Ekapol Chanthawong, his assistant, was to take the younger boys to a soccer field nestled by the Doi Nang Non mountain range, a formation with numerous waterfalls and caves that straddles the Thai-Myanmar border.

“Make sure you ride your bicycle behind them when you are travelling around, so you can keep a lookout,” he wrote in a Facebook message he shared with The Washington Post. Ekapol coaches the younger boys, so Nopparat told him to bring some of the boys from the older team for additional eyes. “Take care,” he wrote.

The boys and the coach rode their bicycles. They went two miles deep into the cave complex, upon which the group was trapped by sudden heavy rainfall inside the six-mile Tham Luang cave in the Doi Nang Non mountain range on 23 June. The Moo Pa (Wild Boars) academy team, whose ages range from 11 to 16, got trapped with their 25-year-old coach, Ekaphol Chantawong in the caves. Nine days later rescue divers located the team sheltering on a ledge surrounded by water. About two miles of narrow, flooded passageways separated their refuge from the main entrance. Efforts to pump water out began immediately as authorities tried to take advantage of a break in monsoon rains.

Round-the-clock pumping paid off with conditions said to be walk able in some parts of the cave. But the rescue operation still hinged on the boys using scuba equipment despite having no previous diving experience. Each boy was accompanied by two divers with the rescuers facing an 11-hour round trip.

And, a dramatic search and rescue which went on for days, found the boys alive nine days later, huddled on a small, muddy patch surrounded by floodwaters. The entire world’s attention has focused on the only adult, 25-year-old former monk Ekapol, and the role he has played in keeping the boys alive in hard-hitting dilemma and to help them maintain their  endurance. According to rescue officials, he was among the weakest in the group, in part because he gave the boys his share of the limited food and water they had with them in the early days. He also taught the boys how to meditate and how to conserve as much energy as possible until they were found. The coach Ekapol initiated a humanitarian story that engrossed the world for over two weeks.

Efforts were ongoing to take out the boys from the cave, which involved a big team consisting of thousands of divers, engineers, military personnel and volunteers from all over the world – including Elon Musk’s SpaceX – with no clear plan in sight. Diving, the most probable method was seen as too risky for now given the boys’ lack of swimming experience, pitch-black muddy waters through narrow passageways, and one retired Thai Navy SEAL who was among those readying the cave for the boys’ dive died. It was a tough task, very tricky, yet the rescue team brought out the last four boys and the coach on 10th July 2018. Ekapol became the focus of the world’s media. After 18 days ordeal, the final four boys and their coach were rescued from the cave the rescue operation took three days. The last of the Wild Boars then followed their team-mates to hospital where they will be kept in isolation for up to seven days to avoid the risk of infection.

A little of history of Ekapol is a must read. He was an orphan who lost his parents at age 10.  He went on to get trained to be a monk but left the monastery to care for his ailing grandmother in Mae Sai in northern Thailand. There, he split his time between a working as a temple hand at a monastery and training the then newly-established Moo Pa team. He literally found kindred spirits in the boys, many of whom had grown up poor or were stateless ethnic minorities, common in this border area between Myanmar and Thailand. He loved them more than himself. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke. Ekapol taught the kids to do the same.

He assisted Nopparat, the head coach; he devised a system where the boys got more stimulated with the game of soccer, he trained the boys mentally which stimulated them to excel academically. If they got certain grades in school, they would be rewarded with soccer gear, such as fresh studs for their cleats or a new pair of shorts. Nopparat and Ekapol spent time looking for sponsors and used the Moo Pa team to prove to the boys that they could become something more which would make their small town more famous. Besides the boys would go on to become professional athletes. Nopparat says that Ekapol would ferry the boys to and from home when their parents could not and took responsibility for them as if they were his own family. He also designed a strict training schedule, according to physical education teachers at the school field where they practiced. That included biking across the hills that surround Mae Sai.

All is well that ends well: though this episode can be described as fairy-tale ending to a saga of human endeavour, the hero of the story is Ekapol. Also, the Thai authorities need a special mention and the entire world coming together for praying, and helping the rescue team. In an era where social media plays negatively at times by spreading rumours and negative news, this is such substantial evidence of the goodness in mankind. The colour of skin did not matter; the gods everyone prayed became one; the divers and engineers who came to rescue the boys didn’t thinks of caste and creed; they all saved 12 children and a coach from a cave against all odds. The boys and their coach defeated death with their courage and conviction and the prayers of six billion people on this earth. Nothing mattered – the caste, colour of skin, creed, untouchables, richness or poorness not anything mattered.  The media, emotionally moved by the whole scene, steered clear of the murky waters inside the caves. The world was literally glued to the news channels with a suffused breath.

What is highly appreciable is the grace shown by the stunned parents of the children, they didnt shout or cry, and they kept their silent hope on. Against this backdrop, the military was allowed to create a medical facility, carve out a full-scale military plan and initiate a four-day rescue procedure, without interference from government or the slippery element of politics. There was no opposition bluster, merely a nation willing the success. There is so much to learn from this episode: a coach just 25 years old kept 12 boys alive for 18 days. We don’t know whether to call this scientific miracle or spiritual miracle.

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