20 October 2013

A stay at Plum Village, Mindfulness Practice Center, off-season

Already when I started meditating a little more than a year ago, I heard of the concept of "meditation retreat" or "going to a monastery" and I found it so fascinating that I also wanted to do it. Since I had hoped that my girl friend at the time would come with, I had delayed my trip, but this month I finally made it. During the last year, I had already found that meditation has helped me a lot, but I also sensed that there is a lot more there to attain. So I went to Plum Village very enthusiastically last week: to deepen my practice, to find fellow practitioners, to meet monks and nuns and generally see what it's like. And it was wonderful!

Since there’s a lot which happened inside and outside my mind, I’ll just focus on few topics here and describe them with a bit of detail. (The link above already contains a lot of the overall basic information…) One important thing to keep in mind is that during summer-retreat season there’s lot’s more people and also all the families with kids, so the atmosphere is probably quite different from what I experienced off-season: less people and more of them had previous experience with Plum Village or where staying for a longer period of time. 

Daily Activities: the sample schedule of a "normal day" applies only to three days out of four in the week, because 

  • there is a reduced schedule on arrivals and departure day (the monks do "mindful work" either receiving or seeing off guests or doing stuff around the village), 
  • there are two "Days of Mindfulness" (Thursday and Sunday when I was there) where monastics and visitors all gather in one of the hamlets to hear a lecture (see below) together, share a formal lunch, and have mixed Dharma sharing (also see below). On Sundays there are also a lot of visitors coming just for the day (which I think is a really good way to spend a Sunday) and to my surprise even Thursday had a lot of external visitors.
  • and finally there is one lazy day.
First of all, why people go to retreats like this:
  • to pick up positive energy from nature, the calm and silence, mindful being (eating, walking, rituals, simple work), and all the wonderful people around (lay and monastic alike).
  • to deal with specific or unspecific problems in their lives. Buddhists would call it “deal with suffering”, but the term really doesn’t matter.
  • to figure out what they want to do with their life. Instead of travelling around the world, travelling their inside world, so to say. Although I met several people who actually travelled Europe or the World and included one or more weeks at the monastery in their travels. Many of them had already done retreats in one of the Plum Village offspring practice centers (for example at EIAB in Germany, AIAB in Hongkong, or Plum Village Thailand) or retreats held by travelling monastics around the world (for example in Toronto or Malaysia).
  • to develop their character, become more skillful, become a better person.
  • and again, do all this learning and growing in an environment which is very relaxing, laid-back, and free from stress. Not just external big stress, but also all the small stresses of human interaction, especially if you decide to do it as a silent retreat.
During my last year of mindfulness I had known several “kinds” of meditation, but they were all basically sitting meditation only differing in what I do with my thoughts I what I focus my attention on. (Notable exception: cycling meditation where I focus on the movement of my feet in order to stop my thoughts going wild.)
At Plum Village I discovered a whole lot of new meditation practices:
  • The first and most important practice is breathing with the mantra “I have arrived. I am truly home.” to remind ourselves to be in the present moment, to feel our feelings, whatever we do. This practice spans through all of our daily activities which we want to conduct mindfully, keeping in touch with our breathing.
  • Walking meditation: appreciate nature, appreciate our breathing of fresh air in nature, imagine to walk with someone holding their hand (ex: someone who has died, someone who is far away, someone who is in difficulty).
  • Sitting meditation: enjoy sitting there! enjoy your breath. watch your thoughts, watch your feelings and you impermanent they are and how they disappear.
  • Working meditation: do simple tasks around the village (like cleaning, picking up fruit or nuts, making jam, carry things around, …) and do them mindfully, that is work silently and with your attention going to your work or your breath whenever you notice that you’re thinking of something else.
  • Mindful eating: recite the five contemplations (or your own katha). eat in silence for at least the first 20 minutes. concentrate on the taste of the food. (even if it becomes boring! overcome the boredom and start sensing something deeper!)
  • Listening meditation: one of the most important and difficult applications of mindfulness in practice! listen to someone without judging, without formulating your own answers, without reacting emotionally. instead just concentrate on listening. when you feel your own thoughts or feelings arising, just ask yourself: what kind of feeling is it? when did it start appearing? and then go back to listening. (or notice your breathing, if you need calming down.)
  • Listening to the bell: whatever we are doing, the bell calls us back to feel our breath, our body, our feelings, and our purpose, so we don’t get distracted by what’s going on around us.
To close the circle, all those forms of meditation serve the purpose of bringing mindfulness from the pure (sitting) meditation sessions out into your life, especially when dealing with other people and the emotions caused by this.
I think that during the themed retreats (up to three or four weeks, dates announced each year), which are led personally by Thich Nhat Hanh (“Thay”), all those kinds of meditations are explained in the Dharma talks. I came for stay in-between seasons and there was only short introduction to the village’s practices on Saturday morning (and a mini-short personal intro when I signed in on Friday). Those non-themed stays are thus more for people who have some previous experience with mindfulness and meditation. If you need more info just ask any monk (or if you are female, any nun) during the not-completely-silent times of the retreat. When I was there, many of the lay guests where long-term stays (many of them aspiring to become monks) so I could also ask them.
Dharma lectures (or Dharma talks) are giving by Thay himself when he is present at Plum Village. At my visit he was travelling on his North America Tour and holding a themed retreat on “Finding our true home”. I think the retreat had a Dharma talk or Q&A by Thay every day, while the ordinary (non-themed) retreats only have Dharma talks on the Days of Mindfulness, that is, every Thursday and Saturdays, when there are also guests coming for just this one day. So during my stay, we viewed video-recordings of Thay’s sessions given the same week at Deer Park Park Monastery: one lecture and one Q&A.
One of the most transforming aspects of the practice are the Dharma Sharing sessions. I don’t want to describe them in detail here and just say that they are a wonderful occasion to practice deep listening (or mindful listening meditation) and to connect profoundly with other participants of the retreat. (Links: Purpose of Dharma Sharing, Rules of Dharma Sharing, Another list of Guidelines for Dharma Sharing)
Finally, one aspect I want to shed more light on is the “Noble Silence” and the Silent Retreats. Generally, Plum Village is both a place to relax and have fun as well as practicing complete silence and I think that their house rules provide a very good compromise for that:
  • Noble Silence for everybody is every day from the (silent) evening meditation (8pm in the Fall schedule) until after breakfast the next morning (7pm). This notably includes the morning meditation (except of course the chanting and reciting during the ceremony) and all the free time in between which people use to walk between meditation hall, bed room, wash room, and dining hall. Since the schedule is always quite stable there is really no need to talk to anybody else or even wait for anybody else. Everybody just silently goes their way. If you really want to say “Hello” or rather “Good Night” and “Good Morning” to someone then just silently fold your hands and bow. :-)
  • I have to admit that I sometimes broke this noble silence in the evening to ask if any of my six room mates needs to go to the wash room before I take one of my rather long showers. But otherwise, it worked quite well and especially in the morning I found it awesomely refreshing to be awake for two hours (5:30 to about 7:30) and be around nice people without need to talk to anybody.
  • Self-chosen Noble Silence was also practiced by some people to different degrees. For example, some people (including all the aspiring monks) did all their daily walking around as walking meditation in silence. If they wanted to talk to somebody on the way, they’d just stop walking and gave that person their full attention. Some others simply chose to not start conversations and stay away from group conversations so they’d get a lot of silence for themselves.
  • One nice example was a long-term staying musician who answered all my questions on where to find the lines and notes of the breathing songs and then, when my questions became unspecific and chatty, he told me that he is “actually trying to do three months of silence”. (For the curious: the songbook is A Basket of Plums and you can listen to the songs online, too.)
  • Dharma Sharing and communal singing or of course exempt from noble silence, although someone could of course choose just not say anything during Dharma sharing and just use it to practice listening meditation!

To sum up, my stay at Plum Village was awesome, relaxing, and inspiring. And I met some people for whom it was very healing, too! One thing the stay inspired me to do is to visit the German Plum Village spin-off before I start paid work again. The European Institute of Applied Buddhism also hosts some monastics and is located in an old hospital within a park in the small town of Waldbröl (which is between Cologne and Frankfurt, or in higher resolution for the Germans: between Bonn and Siegen). I also want to connect with Sanghas in Berlin and generally with practitioners in Germany. But I think that after a while I’ll probably enjoy going back to the original Plum Village because it still seems to be the original thing!

PS: Here's a very interesting report of Plum Village during Summer Camp time with 800 visitors staying there!


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