|these are the surroundings that meet you, as you arrive plum village in france. no wonder it is easier to find inner peace at a place like this.|
this summer holiday i kicked off with one week in a buddhist monastery, in south of france. the reason being was that i wanted to do something to the level of stress i feel in my everyday life. i had been told that meditation and mindfulness were tools that could be applied for just this purpose. i had also earlier tried daily meditations, for a month. and i had listened to a few talks on the subject, like jon kabat-zinn's talk for google employees. despite of this, i still felt the entire area of mindfulness being quite distant. and i for sure knew nothing about what it meant to live as a monk, and practice mindfulness fully.
now, after a one week retreat, i have touched the surface of a world that is very different to my everyday life. during this week, i feel that my brain has been washed. not brainwashed, as the negative term that is, but "brain washed", as if my mind has been cleaned, and i see a few things more clearly.
below are three issues that i personally feel the retreat gave me the most valuable input on. this will of course vary from person to person. we are all in different places. and we ourselves are even a different person today, than we were yesterday. another time different learnings might very well stand out as much more important.
in general in life, i feel quite stressed. i have so many things to do, and the days are normally too short for everything that i have on my calendar. my shoulders are tense, and often i feel as if i have a knot in my chest, which at times makes it hard to breathe properly.
during the retreat i have been made aware of why i so often feels stressed, and what i can do to keep calmer.
another issue is that i can be judgemental. and often in a negative way. just by observing a person for a few seconds i put him or her into a category of people. and the person normally stays in this category, forever. for example, just by based on some simple gestures a person does, the clothing, or a few words spoken, i make up my mind on what this person is like. and i seldom give this person a second chance. my view of the person will then easily forever colour my impression of what this person is like. i keep doing this despite several times throughout my life having been confronted with being wrong with my initial judgements.
during the retreat i have been made more aware on how my judgemental mind, my mara, works. in a way that i sometimes can see and understand that i am judging, instead of just blindly doing it. being aware of this i can finally try doing something about it.
lack of concentration
at times, and specially when being stressed, i do lose focus. i can for example read an entire paragraph of text, without remembering a single word. i can leave my apartment, without remembering if i locked the door. i can be in a one one one conversation with a friend, without remembering important parts of the what i have been told. this because my mind is somewhere else.
during the retreat i have been showed how a mindful mind can be razor sharp, fully focused on what you do.
|a pond with mud and lotuses, in lower hamlet.|
there are a lot of coincidences that lead me to the one week retreat at the place called plum village. i knew very little about zen buddhism in general. i had just briefly heard about thích nhất hạnh, the man behind the village. and i knew little about what the summer retreat would be like. however, i had been to a talk about the place. a talk that caught my attention. and next to this a friend of mine, whom had done a mindfulness retreat himself, had been advertising the power of a calm mind. this led me to signing up for a one week retreat in plum village, france.
|plum village - upper hamlet - france|
the first days
in general i am not a huge fan of travelling. i did not use to be like this. however, as years has passed i find it more and more stressful. lately, whenever i have had some time off, i like to stay put back home. hence, not very surprisingly, my trip from oslo to plum village was a stressful one. on top of the normal stress my flight to france was one hour delayed. this led to me running short on time for the planned train, that would take me from bordeaux to sainte-foy-la-grande. and if i did not reach that train, i would not reach the van that i had arranged a pick-up with. the van that would drive me to the monastery. so, i was stressed all the way. luckily, just in time, with a few spare minutes to go, i caught the hourly direct bus from the airport to the train station, which in turn led me to just catching the train. it all worked out wonderfully.
|evening walking meditation.|
from the very second i arrived at plum village i could feel a deep calmness. i curiously, and judgementaly, observed life there. i quickly asked myself if this was a place filled with loonies. this as i saw several people walking in slow motion, whispering with each other. and when people ate, they seemed to do so in silence, with their eyes closed. the only time i heard voices was when the adults did sing children's songs, while doing stupid gestures, pretending to be animals, the rain, some waves or what have you got. it did not take long before i started regretting having decided spending an entire week of my holiday at this place. waste of time, i was thinking.
|dharma talk / q&a in upper hamlet. answering the question "why is a dog a dog?".|
the first day in plum village felt like my longest day to date. i got up at 5 am in the morning, and had activities on my schedule until about 9 in the evening. the second day did not feel much shorter. during these two days i struggled a lot. i found the entire program weird. at times plain stupid, and other times utterly boring. i struggled joining in on the songs we all had to sing together. i questioned why i had to do kitchen service, cleaning pots, for several hours every second day. if that was not enough, i had to be inside most of the day, while there was 20-30 degrees in the shade and a sun from a clear blue sky outside. instead of playing, as i'm used to when visiting france, i spent numerous hours sitting on the floor, with my body aching, just wanting to move.
|a typical day of the retreat.|
i can be stubborn, and i had decided to go all in on the retreat. this didn't make things easier either. i was extra strict with myself. i had decided not to do any of the activities i normally do. no exercise, no reading, no listening to music, none of my own hobbies, for an entire week. i was considering packing my bags at several occasions during the first two days. luckily i did not do this. it was as if some invisible force kept me from leaving plum village. a series of small but nice events happened if i got lost in thinking of leaving. like me getting to know a very nice person, or having a wonderful realisation during a meditation session.
|buddha hill, upper hamlet.|
upon arrival in plum village everyone is assigned "a family", or a group of people. i ended up in a family named "the lotus family". all in all we were about 20 people in the group. it was an english speaking family. as well there were french speaking families, spanish families, and i believe there were italian families. there were families for children, and families for adolescents. all in all there must have been more than 500 people visiting plum village during this first week of july.
on day three i started feeling more calm, and the following days things only got better. i started enjoying that life was happening in a slow pace. i started enjoying getting up at 5 am, listening to the birds and watching the sunrise on my way to the morning meditation. i started being fully aware of my surroundings. i started finding the dharma talks interesting. i started liking eating in total silence, super slow, enjoying every bite. i started enjoying washing the pots. i started liking to walk in slow motion. watching every step, feeling the ground under me, listening to all the sounds of nature, following my breath. i started liking spending time with my wonderful lotus family. i even started enjoying the songs, while doing all the gestures. something had happened. i started realising that there was no coincidence to what we all went through. there was a meaning to every part of the schedule.
|on our way to a picnic lunch in the open.|
|working meditation, with my lotus family.|
|one big happy family.|
it is hard to summaries all my experiences in one written article. and each experience in plum village will be different. i'm new to meditation and mindfulness. i see the world through "the filters" i have applied throughout the years. filters hard to remove. plum village is something that has to be experienced. i believe that everyone would learn much from a stay there. even just one week. it was amazing spending time at a place with such a special atmosphere. where there are so many people, from all over the world, with so much wisdom. where you can meet people from all layers of society, but being on an equal level. where you can open up, and be yourself, fully.
what will be my challenge is to try to bring parts of what i did learn in plum village back home. back to a life where everything is moving in a very high pace. we were given a few tools, tools i will try to keep using. the tools sounds easy to use, but i know that i would not have managed without having gotten some practice in plum village.
the first tool is a trivial one. it is the breath. it is strange how powerful it is to stop, close your eyes, and take three slow and deep breaths. just by doing this little exercise, several times throughout the day, you can calm yourself down.
another tool is to "let go". i try to control far too much in my life. i even try to control things that is hard or impossible to control. this is creating a massive stress inside me. instead of working on getting control, i would in most situations be far better off with taking a step back, taking a few breaths, and just let go. in the end things will most likely be fine anyway. amazingly enough.
i have been a super fast eater for as long as i remember. a meal has been nothing but a necessity. something to get out of the way quickly, so i can get back to work, or something else i have on my schedule. eating slow, in noble silence, is very relaxing. eating in a way you appreciate the food, and actually taste and feel what you are eating. eating while appreciating the food in front of you. one trick for achieving this is to put down your fork in between each bite. really taking your time chewing properly, and not taking a new bite before everything has been swallowed.
in plum village we ate nothing but vegan food, and i only drank water and tea. no processed food. eating this healthy felt good, despite my stomach getting a bit funny in some days. i do not tend to become a vegan though, not even a vegetarian. at least not yet. however, it is nice being mindful on what you take inside your body. eating meat twice a week is for example more than enough. i still want to enjoy my cup of coffee in the morning. and i want to enjoy a glass of wine, or a beer, whenever it feels right. i will however try to have an awareness of what i eat and drink. and i do not want to consume much more than i need.
through out my life i have seldom been on a calm walk in nature. even from childhood i have always been rushed to get somewhere. as a child i remember all our trips in nature as something stressful. i hated them. it was something that my dad always wanted to do, but at the same time it always seemed like he wanted to do them as quickly as possible. and since childhood i have very seldom done walks myself either. when being in the forest i normally go for a run. so for me slow walking was a new thing. an activity i want to continue doing. a walk where you listen to the sounds around you. observe what muscles in your body is being used while taking a step. a walk where you feel the wind against your skin. walks like that gives you calmness deep inside.
starting the day in total silence, with closed eyes, just focusing on the breath. or listening to the sounds from the forest outside. a wonderful way to start the day, which relaxes the mind, and i want to continue doing.
having a schedule
during the week in plum village we had quite a packed schedule. however, there was some space in between for a cup of tea or a rest in the grass. in everyday life, where things have to be done, it is very efficient scheduling your day. and having a schedule to follow is stress releasing. when you wash your house you wash your house, without checking your emails. and when you answer your emails, you answer your emails without reading the newspaper. i plan to make a daily schedule for common activities, with a few lazy days in between.
it was wonderful having the phone in flight mode for more or less a week. i realise that the device we call a smart phone is really dumbing me down. it might be the number one stress element in my life. always being "online" is making my brain go "offline". i have now turned off all sounds of my mobile, and disabled notifications. this way i am in control, and decide when to check the mobile. in huge contrast to the mobile telling me to check it every few minutes. since i no longer do hear phone calls i have activated an answering machine. people can leave me a message. if it is important i will call them back, on my time. as well, i use no social network at a regular basis. facebook is checked one to two times a month, instagram a few times a week. which, luckily, are the only two social platforms i am using.
it was not before after the retreat i did realise how much that had changed. first of all, it was as if time was standing still in plum village. a day felt like a week, and the week long retreat felt like a month, or longer. this is in huge contrast to what normally happens in life. because as i have grown older time moves faster, and faster, and faster. when i was a child each day felt long. now i can barely remember what i have done for the past year. i believe the key here is mindfulness. if you truly live in the present moment, you remember what you do, and you remember more details of what you do. we are all born with this capacity, living right here, right now. when a child plays he or she doesn't think of what comes next, or what happened before. however, grown up tends to be very occupied in their minds. whenever you do one thing you think of something else. you then forget what you have done. you go through life, not realising what is happening around you, or inside you.
as i wrote above, travelling has lately always been stressing me out. well, there is now one exception to that rule. my return trip from plum village to norway. i have never felt more calm when travelling. nothing stressed me out. for three hours i sat on the plane, just enjoying my time, doing nothing. i ignored the child close to me that was crying in his mum's lap. the little boy next to me, that bumped into me several times, i found amusing. i observed the interesting cloud formations outside my window. i listened to my breath. i did not rush to get out of the plane as quickly as possible. nor did i push myself through the crowds of people to be the first to pick up my suitcase. when i met a friend at the airport i invited him for a cup of tea, instead of rushing back home as quickly as possible. i listened curiously to what he said. on my way home i dropped by a restaurant in the city. there, another friend showed up. we sat down and had a wonderful conversation. i was still in no hurry. kindly, he offered me a ride home. so, by letting go, and relaxing, the entire trip became wonderful. it was as if i was surrounded by a thick layer of calmness. no annoyances could break through and affect me, the way they normally do. the entire world felt slower, and all sounds felt lower.
when i came home and unpacked i remembered in details what items i had been unpacking, and where i had put things. this in very big contrast to how i normally operate, unpacking on auto-pilot, while thinking of something else. that is when my wallet might end up in my underwear drawer, and my glasses on the shoe shelf. when answering my emails, after having been offline for a week, i was super focused. nothing distracted me, as i mindfully, fully focused and extremely effectively, did one email at a time. when i wrote the first draft of this quite long blog post, i did not lose focus even once. i did not check the news, social media, my phone, my email or what have you got. i forgot all about time, and just kept going on writing. it is a wonderful feeling, living in the present moment.
during the retreat i did no exercise at all. i have been sleeping, sitting, or walking slowly. in my everyday life i always have some pains in my body. from running, climbing or lifting weights. my body feels tense, and after so called "good sessions" it might be hard to rest as i go to bed. subsequently one week in plum village my entire body felt amazingly good. no pain, not even in my back, despite sitting so much still. does a stressful mind create an tense and aching body? i believe there is a correlation there as well.
it will be hard living a more peaceful and mindful life, as a stressful everyday life is rushing past around me. demands at work, on the social arena and with family and friends. i realise that in a few weeks all i learned in plum village might be forgotten. now, four days later, i already feel the effect wearing off. but i will work hard for a few things to stay with me. i really hope i will remember to stop, and take a few deep breaths, when feeling overwhelmed with the tasks i have to do, and no time to do them.
i get that i must sound like a religious "born-again" person. i also realise that the entire plum village retreat might sound like a place where a religious sect lure people in. well, i was slightly sceptical towards this being the case myself. but this place nor its teachings is related any religion. buddhism, and mindfulness, is no religion. it is a way of life. very simple, at the same time very hard.
for me the challenge was to let down my guard, and stop being judgemental to a practice that is in contrast to how i have lived my entire life. luckily i did manage to open up. now i hope visiting plum village will become a yearly tradition. i need to keep reminding me that it is possible to calm down, and gain balance. i want to once again enjoy this wonderful, almost magical place, alongside fantastic people.
in the meantime, while being home, i will strive to celebrate today's day, every day, in this magnificent land of the present moment. because in this land we all are kings and queens.
plum village - home page
plum village - upper hamlet - france