Mai pen rai: never mind or don't bother?
For most westerners living in Thailand, a striking aspect of the Thai psychology is the attitude of mai pen rai (Thai: ไม่เป็นไร). This outlook dominates much of Thai culture & society, and whilst at first can appear attractive to foreigners new to Thai ways, it is invariably eventually viewed somewhat negatively. So, what it is? There are several translations for the term in English, the most common being 'never mind,' 'don't worry,' 'don't bother,' 'no problem,' 'it's okay,' & 'it doesn't matter.' In line with the Thai concerns with saving face and minimizing conflict, mai pen rai is uttered innumerable times during an average Thai person's life. So, when a mistake is made, a minor disagreement occurs, or someone cannot comply with a request, mai pen rai may be employed. Often accompanied by the way (pressing hands together in a prayer gesture) & a smile, it reduces tension in a variety of settings, including the home, the work place, school, the market, and even the sports field.
There, however, what many westerners might see as a dark side to mai pen rai. On occasions, it seems to be used to avoid responsibility, or to justify inaction. Examples would be parents allowing children as young as twelve - sometimes younger - to ride motorbikes, which is a common sight in Thailand. This lack of parental care is astounding, given the widely-observable pride taken in children. When the water is cut off and in need of restoration, mai pen rai may be invoked to justify a lackadaisical approach to restoring the supply. Even when someone dies, and there may be questions of culpability, the phrase may be used to evade justice. On a daily basis, dishonesty & laziness, & are also covered with the term; no wonder people coming from cultures where honesty & taking responsibility for one's actions are expected, find living in Thailand an infuriating experience.
What are the origins of this quintessentially Thai attitude to life? Well, many credit it to Buddhism, which permeates so much of Thai cultural practices. In Buddhism, non-confrontation, forgiveness, and not getting upset are considered virtues all Buddhists should endeavor to cultivate. When taken to the extreme, however, it can be used in ways that don't seem to be Buddhist at all, such as avoiding responsibility for one's actions (which flies in the face of the Buddhist teaching on karma). Of course, any approach to life that is used without wisdom will have negative consequences. Wisdom in Buddhism is developed through meditation & reflection, but in truth very few Thais practice these disciplines. Therefore, the more negative manifestations of mai pen rai are commonly witnessed in the country.
That mai pen rai has some relationship to Buddhism seems clear; it is its application that decides just how in line with the teachings of the Buddha that will decide its efficaciousness. A way to understand this, and in the process adapt better to Thai culture, is to use mai pen rai as kind of mantra or meditation object. Rather than blindly accepting it or reacting against it, the phrase can be used as a source of Buddhist reflection. Buddhist teachers often teach the use of mantras to quieten the mind or establish concentration. They can also be used as a meditation tool when they possess a positive message. This message can then be the focus of contemplation and it can become manifest as an attitude or quality of mind.
In Thailand, particularly in the forest meditation tradition, the word Buddho (Thai: พุทโธ่), which is a variation on 'Buddha,' is used in the way described above. Having the meanings of 'awakened,' 'enlightened,' 'knowing,' it has obvious qualities to it that can benefit the meditator. Another word documented being used in this way is the word citta (A Buddhist word meaning 'mind'). Using this word can focus the mind upon itself, creating a state of self-reflection. Mai pen rai, though not traditionally used in this way, can certainly have similar results. Establishing an attitude that means 'never mind' and 'it's okay' can calm the mind and reduce stress. It moments of potential confrontation, it can also reduce the causes of conflict.
One way to utilize this technique is to use it through the day in response to situations in which negative reactions are coming up in the mind. As soon as there is awareness of such a feeling, utter mai pen rai. Accompanying this inner recitation, should be a feeling of letting go applied to the said negative emotion. Repeat the phrase until the original feeling dissipates, and then take note of the positive result. Keep doing this as each occurrence of negativity comes up. At first, this will be difficult, as the mind will follow its usual patterns in these situations; but with perseverance, the negative mind states will reduce. Another method is to establish the mind in a state of 'never mind' by remembering mai pen rai before any negativity arises. This way, when problems occur, the prevailing mentality will be one of letting go, so that problematic thought patterns will have less chance to get a grip of. The mind will not cling to such processes and their results, but rather observe them with equanimity.
Mai pen rai is, then, a psychological kingpin of Thai culture. It is also a cause for irresponsible inaction. Looking a little deeper, though, it is an attitude of mind that can relive us of attaching to certain things and outcomes which can cause contention & suffering. Keeping mai pen rai with us puts us in closer relationship with Thai attitudes, enabling an level of understanding that most foreigners find evasive. It can free us of so many petty clinging that separate us from the reality of this moment. And, in doing so, leads us to that placeless place where there is no division between here & there, me & you. All this from remembering the phrase mai pen ray or one of its variants such as 'never mind' or baw pen yang (Northeast Thai: บ่เป็นหยัง). The latter is this writer's favorite, living in Northeast Thailand. Why not try it, and find a little bit of Thailand in your heart?