In the throes of multi-employment, I found myself stressed enough to make the decision to go on a retreat. Somewhere along the lines of being in a better place, that retreat came through for me – so last week, I got on a plane and a train and a shuttle bus to somewhere in the middle of France, to a Buddhist monastery founded and upheld by Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hahn. I was one of forty women in Plum Village’s New Hamlet, one of the three campuses in that area.
Somewhere a few years ago, I found myself starting a vipassana practice – which was useful for me at the time, it taught me how to be disciplined and regimented in my practice. But more recently, off the cushion, I found it very difficult to work out how to be mindful in my daily life. And it turned out that Plum Village was exactly the right place for me to learn how to do that.
So, Plum Village has a few foundations – the lazy day, where meals are the only thing really planned and everything else is allowed to unfold as you want, whether that’s going to a chateau, going for a really long walk, or sleeping all day long. The visits to the other hamlets – or mindfulness days. But a regular day starts at 5am. You wake up, get ready, walk to the hamlet, and sit from 6 to 6:30am. 7am is breakfast, or exercise. Breakfast is really good – the plums are excellent. The food in general is pretty good – a little soy- and carb-heavy, sometimes, considering we didn’t get a ton of exercise, but still good. We start something else at 9:30 – usually a lecture, a talk, an activity of some kind. 11:30 is mindful walking (my favourite part of the day). 12:30 lunch, 3-5:30, mindful service, 5:30-8, dinner. 8pm, the evening sit, then noble silence from 9. When we visit other hamlets, there’s an hour-long dharma talk and a sharing session. Everything is very peaceful and very well, and even when people are emotional, it is safe (some fellow attendees definitely felt unable to relate to some of the material at times, though – which created some resistance). Every fifteen minutes there is a bell to remind us to be mindful and take a breath. We eat in silence – and at lunch, we wait for everyone to be seated before digging in. I learn to eat slowly for the first time ever – thirty to forty chews. It takes me nearly an hour to finish my oatmeal every morning. Sometimes, for fun, I sing the entire Parks & Recreation theme song in my head between taking one bite and the next. I’ve made eating slow into a bit of a competition at time.
It’s not often that what I think I need is what I do need. But in this case, I struck gold. For the first couple of days, I found it really hard – there were moments were I found myself so frenetic, seeking something to do, not sure of how to be productive or how to be. Times where I was so antsy to start my meal even though it would take another fifteen minutes for everyone to be sitting down, or to get up when I couldn’t. It’s funny, because lunch was the only really restrictive part of the day in that sense – in the sense that it seemed less voluntary than anything else, and I still wanted to get away from it. And in those moments, I had to think, ‘Why are you like this? You have nowhere else to be.’ And I guess that I’ve rarely had nowhere else to be before – I am always doing.
I think Plum Village gave me some major perspective on how to live the elements of my life that I miss more mindfully. I find myself conscious of my feet, or my breath, when I get a second. That is a good place to be in.