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This is What Kept the Thai Boys Calm While Trapped in a Cave

Their coach, a former Buddhist monk, used meditation to keep them grounded during their traumatic experience.

YE AUNG THU / Contributor/ Getty Images
YE AUNG THU / Contributor/ Getty Images

It’s been over a week since British divers first discovered the group of Thai boys trapped in Thailand’s Tham Luang caves — and today, all twelve boys have been successfully rescued and miraculously brought to safety. The source of calm that preserved their spirits while they were trapped for two traumatic weeks? Meditation.

According to new reports covering the incredible rescue story, the boys’ soccer coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, taught the boys a method of Buddhist meditation that allowed them to keep calm while entrapped. The 25-year-old coach, who led the hike into the cave that flooded on June 23rd, had spent a decade as a saffron-robed monk at a gilded temple in Northern Thailand before becoming a soccer coach. He taught the boys how to stay calm through meditative techniques, which may have helped improve their mental state by “allowing their fearful and negative thoughts to flow through them like a storm passing, rather than fighting their fear,” David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University’s medical school, told the Washington Post.

“Look at how calm they were sitting there waiting. No one was crying or anything. It was astonishing,” the mother of one of the boys told the Post, referring to a viral video of the boys’ rescue.

According to a 2014 meta analysis by Johns Hopkins researchers, meditation can play a vital role in the treatment of anxiety and pain. The research found that meditation can improve mental health, lessen anxious feelings, and reduce psychological stress — a major concern for the future of the boys’ mental states now that they are safe.

“It’s very likely that while the boys were in the cave but not yet discovered by rescuers that they experienced various degrees of anxiety, fear, confusion, vulnerability and dependency, and perhaps hopelessness,” explained Paul Auerbach, of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stanford University’s medical school.

The Thai boys, ages 11 to 16, listened to Coach Ake’s instructions, and learned how to implement the Buddhist meditation practice that has existed for over 2000 years. The wisdom behind the ancient practice, which emphasizes mindfulness, deep breathing, and emotional regulation, has been implemented into modern workplaces to help improve focus and lower stress. Although the practice often gets associated with images of scenic hilltops and sunset prayers, meditation has time and again been proven to work as a simple technique that can be easily embedded into the daily lives of corporate climbers, doctors, and busy parents.

Even for those who are skeptical of the science behind meditation, it is clear the practice helped them feel grounded and connected in a time of frightening trauma. “Even if it functioned solely as a way for the children to feel like their coach was doing something to help them,” Michael Poulin, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, told the Post, “Feeling loved and cared for is paramount.” 

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