I have always been a bookaholic, as anyone who has been shopping with me will testify. If I see a bookshop I just have to go in and invariably never come out empty handed. Consequently I have quite a collection of ‘waiting to be read’ books, stacked away for later. One of my favourite authors is the now 87 year old Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. I first discovered him with ‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’, a beautifully written book which explains how to acquire the skills of Mindfulness, slow down our lives and begin to live in the moment. He shows how simple acts as washing the dishes, drinking tea and eating a meal can be transformed into acts of meditation.
A few months ago he came to London and gave a talk at the Royal Festival Hall and it was at this moment that I decided to visit Plum Village. This is where Thay (this is what he is known as) lives, practices and shares his immense wisdom and experience. And so it was I found myself on a plane bound for Bergerac in France at the beginning of August. As the plane touched down I was rather surprised to see a small collection of ramshackled buildings with corrugated iron roofs posing as the airport! As it turned out the arrivals hall was a tiny shed with a hole cut out of the wall through which our luggage was shoved onto a rather dilapidated old conveyor belt which wasn’t working. All in all a rather rustic affair! Fortunately my case arrived swiftly and I made my way hurriedly to find a taxi. Not having spoken French for some years now I was quite surprised at the ease with which I explained where I was going and without more ado we sped through the town to the railway station listening to Serge Gainsbourg on the radio. Hearing his voice I immediately relaxed and felt at home once again, recalling pleasant memories of my years living in Paris.
Upon arriving at the station I bought my ticket and sat down to wait for the train. There weren’t many people around but like me they all seemed preoccupied with where they were going. It suddenly dawned on me that the whole purpose of this journey was to deepen the practice of being in the moment and there I was worrying if I would be in time for the train and if I would catch the right one! I laughed at the irony and relaxed. I then enjoyed every moment of waiting, gave up worrying if I caught the right train…we are always on a journey, always going somewhere but if our thoughts are stuck on the destination, we bring ourselves out of the moment and begin to project ourselves, often our anxiety into the future, we lose the connection with the body & become ill at ease. To be in the flow of life is to experience the present, moment by moment with full awareness not attached to the result or destination. Going with the flow. Being at peace with where we are.
The train came slowly into the station and finding a very comfortable seat, enjoyed the ride to St Foy La Grande, a typical sleepy little French village. As I exited the station it was clear who had come to pick me up! Several serene figures were standing nearby dressed in brown robes with straw hats..unmistakable. There were a few of us on the bus and we chatted happily as we made our way to Son Ha monastery where we would be staying. We arrived late so it wasn’t possible to have a look around so remembering that we had an early start the next day, unpacked and went straight off to sleep.
The wake up bell rang at 5am and rather sleepily I got up, dressed and with torch in hand made my way outside. Our journey up to the meditation hall couldn’t have been more beautiful. It took us first of all through a magical pine forest which at that time was so peaceful and calm you couldn’t help but be absorbed by the forests presence. The vitality, strength and yet tranquillity of the forest would be a constant reminder of the natural beauty all around but also of our own unique inner beauty (revealed through awareness) that is ever present but often goes unseen. After a while we came out into a clearing and continued through some beautiful countryside, passing the statues of the Buddha looking out over the hillside, crossing paths with the local cats, a very friendly pair of ginger cats who seemed more content at watching the world go by than catching mice; until we arrived at the top of the hill.
Everyone filed into the immense hall and sat down for meditation, the monks had already arrived. The large bell sounded, silence filled the hall. This became one of many rituals throughout the day which I always looked forward to. The first few days, however, were a struggle. I had gone there with the intention of finding some peace and solitude. In fact there were around 700 people on this retreat and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had made a mistake. My lovely friend Julia even offered to arrange for a flight home the next day. After much consideration I decided to stay for the whole 21 days and looking back I’m glad I did as it turned out to be an amazing experience.
After the early morning meditation session the monks led us through various exercises. We practiced various qi gong and tai chi routines and an interesting stick form led by an ex gendarme turned monk! This was followed by breakfast and as with all the meals these were held in our ‘family’ groups and were silent. I found this tricky initially and it took me a few days to discover why I was so resistant but after thinking it through it became clear it was my own unresolved ‘stuff’ making an appearance. The learning had begun. Once I had processed this through I began to really look forward to the meals. The silence offered a chance to eat mindfully, something I rarely did. It enabled me to really appreciate and taste the wonderful vegan food that was provided and for the first time in ages actually have time to put my knife and fork down in between each mouthful. Eating in this way over 3 weeks allowed my digestive system to relax in a way it has never done. I began to feel energised and on top of the world. Of course the theme of the retreat was mindful awareness, with the main practices being sitting, eating and walking meditation. However we were encouraged to practice in every activity such as brushing teeth, having a shower, cooking, talking and even cleaning toilets!
At 9.30am everyday Thich Nhat Hanh gave an inspiring talk to the whole retreat. I found it incredible that an 87 year old man could be so full of vitality. He shared his knowledge and wisdom of Buddhist history, psychology, traditions and practices in particular meditation and mindfulness. He wrote and spoke in English, French, Chinese, Vietnamese and even ….Sanskrit! It was quite an experience to witness him delivering his talks over the 21 day retreat being in complete mindfulness of every word.
This was usually followed by a welcome walking meditation, especially if one had been sitting on the floor. Walking in this way, following each breath also became a joyful activity which deepened ones relaxation and connection with the beautiful surroundings, which we often don’t allow ourselves in everyday life.
Lunchtime couldn’t have come soon enough for me. The team of cooks behind the scenes did an amazing job at providing superb vegan meals every day. I admired the imagination & care that went into the preparation of the food and was always a delight for the taste buds. After sitting down in our family groups we were encouraged to wait until all the members of our little group had arrived. The bell would ring and then we started to eat in silence. It was quite amusing to watch the immense struggle from some of the group, not to dive headfirst into their plate of food. It was a good practice in being aware of how attached we are to things and how without that awareness our lives can be led by those attachments.
Being placed in the hills of Bergerac there was little else to do or visit, so spare time often led to wandering around the countryside simply observing and contemplating nature. For some it might have been a struggle but I found it hugely relaxing and exciting to discover and observe things that I otherwise would not have noticed. Both about the countryside but also about myself.
At 4pm the ‘family’ got together for a ‘sharing’ session where everyone got a chance to say what was on their mind and how they felt. For many it was a welcome opportunity to be in such a friendly and safe environment and was clearly a powerful experience. This was a model which we were encouraged to follow in our own towns creating new groups worldwide encouraging people to practice mindfulness on a daily basis.
After supper was working meditation and as luck would have it our group ended up with toilet block cleaning duty. As there were enough people in our group we split up and only had to endure this torment once every 3 days which considering the cooking team were hard at it for several hours a day, was quite a good deal! Although as with the other activities it was meant to be done in a mindful way our group cleaned the toilets and showers amidst much joking and laughter. I guess a release from the intensity of the retreat was necessary. Toilet duty seemed the appropriate opportunity!
There was a little free time afterwards, before the final meditation at 9pm. The vast bell would be struck from across the field in the large pagoda, calling everyone to the meditation hall. The moon would be coming out and the air still. Some crickets would still be sounding. It was a magical time. We entered the hall and sat quietly .Usually it was silent but sometimes we would be lucky enough to be led through a chanting session with the monks. Their voices were amazing and reverberated throughout the hall. A fitting end to the day.
Finally we would make our way back to our rooms, myself retracing my footsteps of the morning. Walking slowly down the hill, through the pine forest, peaceful yet again.
I will never forget the powerful sense of peace and tranquillity that pervaded the whole community at Plum Village. One can’t help but admire the dedication of the monks to work towards a global mindful community and they proved a wonderful example of what the practice can reveal in each of us. There is such a transformational power in a community where everyone has the same goal.
I will be returning soon.