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Published: November 16th 2014
It is amazing to me how fortunate I have been in my life. Living in Europe has been an extraordinary opportunity, for so many reasons, and the one I am most grateful for of late, is the chance to visit Plum Village.
Swedes break the year down by weeks, something I am only slightly more used to this year than last. Week 8 and Week 44 stick in my head though, because they are the February and October vacations.
School has been a bit stressful, as I know many jobs are, and so I spent a good deal of the fall dreaming up where I might spend Week 44. Over a year ago, a friend has mentioned Plum Village to me, and I had since been trying to find a time when I could go. Without much real hope the time matching, I decided to check to see if Plum Village had anything available for my break. It turned out that they were holding a mindfulness retreat for French-speaking teachers! I signed up as quickly as I could.
Hanh is a Zen Buddhist monk who founded this monestary, Plum Village, in the south of France. His teachings on mindfulness had resonated with so many around the world. The tagline for the retreat was a saying by Thich Nhat Hanh stating that, “Happy teachers can change the world.”
Plum Village is located an hour train ride and forty minute car ride from Bordeaux. There are three hamlets where nuns, monks, and laypeople stay. I arrived in the dark, so I did not get a sense for the space the first day. As my train arrived late, I snuck in to the back of the meditation hall to attend the orientation. Here I leaned some of the basic principles of life at Plum Village.
In order to encourage mindfulness, there are practices that are suggested. For example, chewing each bite thirty times. This focuses our attention on what we are doing, aids in digestion, and allows for a full appreciation of the nourishment. Breakfast is eaten in complete silence. It was surprisingly liberating! Eating together as a community, focusing on tasty food, and taking my time
was an awesome start to the day. Whenever a bell is rung, everyone stops and returns to their breath. It was a wonderful anchor back to the present.
With these thoughts in mind and a general sketch of the week ahead, we all left the meditation hall and headed off to our beds. My lodging was a five-minute walk down this small country road. The stars were out for a show! That commute to the meditation hall in the morning and on the way home became an activity I relished.
The days were rather regular though flexible, starting with optional exercise and sitting meditation, breakfast, then a Dharma talk, followed by a walking meditation. This was a new practice for me. These walks consisted of two steps for an inhale and two steps for an exhale, with constant attention to your feet touching the earth. It was powerful to walk as a group so slowly and silently through the stunning French countryside. After the walking meditation, we often had another Dhama talk, or did working meditation- some sort of chore to assist the community, before eating
with our “family” unit. Here we ate in silence for twenty minutes, and then could share our thoughts and such in our small group.
The space that opened up by not having technology impressed me and has changed my interaction with my phone and technology use. Without my phone and all the social media, there was no pull to be anywhere other than where I was. There was no comparing with others or proving myself. Eating the local fresh food made it impossible to feel like eating vegan was missing out. Instead, it made me feel all the more connected to the time and place.
Our Dharma talks were led by various monks and sisters and brought me peace in the moment and specific tools on how to center myself and therefore improve center my students and others I love. Thich Nhat Hanh even spoke, which was an incredible opportunity, as his health was failing. Unfortunately, since then, he has suffered a brain hemorrhage. I was aware that I was experiencing a community in transition. This powerful teacher has brought together a following that cares so
deeply for him and his teachings. He was a prolific writer, in addition to his many lectures, so his teachings will live on and continue to have an impact on the world.
The week was gentle and healing. I admit that toward the end, I was ready to return back to my regular life, but I felt like I was returning with a sense of calm and specific tools to help me return to the moment during stressful times. What appealed to me about this experience, is it was about showing a way of life and encouraging happiness in others. There was no preaching or superiority. The sisters and monks made suggestions, for example, eating vegan so as not to cause undo harm. They believe that this has helped them, but they had no pressure or judgment for others. Instead, our sisters said that many come to the habit of eating this way on their own, because they find they feel better. It is a sharp contrast to Christianity with the Ten Commandments, this was all about an internal decision. The gentle nature of the teachings appealed to me.
Some thoughts from Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dharma talks:
-He made a joke about the “I think therefore I am” by saying, “I think, therefore I am not here.”
-We all have seeds in us, good seeds and bad seeds; we have seeds of joy and sorrow. We need to be careful about which seeds we water in ourselves an others. We also need to be aware that our environment and what we feed ourselves with, including media, nourishes the seeds within us.
-Awareness of the breath allows us to calm our mind.
It is impossible to sum up all that I learned and experienced here, because so much of it was foreign and new. Certainly, I am grateful for the experience and wisdom that I gleaned.
I spent one day exploring Bordeaux before heading back to Sweden. What a gorgeous sun-bleached town. There is something to be said for places where there is a lot of sun. It was almost comical at the bakery, because I felt like
I was in French class the way the baker and I carried on! She was so happy and our conversation not just perfunctory. It eased me back to the real world gently, and would be worth more exploration another time.
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