Today is my first full day back at Plum Village. I arrived yesterday evening. Plum Village. I arrived yesterday evening.
Yesterday I missed the train from Paris to Bordeaux because my calendar was in a different time zone, and my heart and mind were consumed with a tiny heart break. I had to buy a new ticket, and was only delayed by an hour. I spent much of the train ride in tears, an emotional wreck. One little thing snowballed, and I finally allowed myself to have a big cry. I had been holding it in while sitting alone in cafes. Could this little thing really be upsetting me this much? Is it hormones? Is it the fact that this tiny thing is part of a pattern I’ve been repeating for decades? Yeah, it’s probably that. So for the first time since I left home almost three months ago, I put on my headphones, opened my computer, and started playing the songs that took me on the deep sad journey, and let myself go there. I opened a blank page and wrote my way through the tears, pulling up song after song. Happened to be in a very public place for an extended period of time. For some reason this felt ok, right, and simply what was
Arriving at Ste. Foy La Grande station felt like a huge relief. I was picked me up from the train station, along with two other women. Driving through the countryside I marveled at how much the landscape had changed in five weeks. The trees were almost bare. Patches of green were rare. I liked the feeling of arriving somewhere familiar, hospitable, safe. The sisters in the office were all smiley, check in was quick. A long term retreatant gave us a quick tour of the main New Hamlet property which I appreciated since a few of the details mentioned were not stated on my previous visit. Things like which buildings had old pipes and could not handle toilet paper, and which toilets could handle toilet paper. The important stuff.
After the quick tour, I was dropped off back at Gate House, where I stayed on my previous visit five weeks ago. This time I’m in a room on the second floor called Bodhi. Amazingly, I have a room with two beds to myself. Only roof above me, and entry way below me. I am aware that nearly everyone else here is sharing space. I feel fortunate. I feel grateful. I know myself well enough to know it was worth the money for me to pay to have this space. This oasis. I can write here.
Now I am sitting on my bed, facing the window which looks out on the French countryside. I plan to write a daily update with a few notes about what’s happening and post weekly. I found that I was able to do quite a bit of long hand writing this morning in my paper journal, and don’t want to transcribe here.
Breakfast: Oatmeal with warm almond milk (or maybe soy milk), sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, plum jam, almonds. Fresh baked rye bread and wheat bread with peanut butter. Orange and apple slices. Tea.
Lunch: Brown rice (white also available), sautéed mixed vegetables with a little pineapple surprise mixed in, mushrooms and root vegetables, steamed carrots and broccoli, pumpkin and hazelnut soup in a clear broth.
Dinner: Rice noodles, sweet and sour soup, roasted sweet potato, lettuce.
A woman fainted during morning meditation. I heard the thud but didn’t see what happened. She was sitting in my row. When the sit was over and we all opened our eyes, bodies swarmed and lifted her out of the room. It all happened in silence. I was later told that she’s fine, and passed out due to low blood sugar. It was good practice for me to stay still and not run to help. I don’t always have to go. There are others there to help. Today, that task was not mine.
Greeted yesterday by a few of the long term lay friends that I met on my last visit. That felt nice. Oddly, the person I felt closest to and was eager to see, barely talked to me. She looked stressed. We didn’t talk until today and then it was brief. She said that there have been a lot of people around over the holidays and a lot of idle talking that distracts from the deeper mindful practice of noble silence. It was like she was telling me to go away. When we met five weeks ago she was very chatty. I can see that this shift into more silence is a challenge for her and one that she is taking very seriously. If feels like a fight with true nature. I hope over the time I’m here we have a chance to connect again. Other long term retreatants were able to convey their joy to see me, and enquire about my life since we last saw each other, keep their comments to a minimum and move on. I’m not back in the soft quiet space deeply enough to feel how strong the vibration of outside energy can be. I do recognize I am that strong different outside energy, and in a few days I will be back in the quiet soft space. But today, my presence along with the other new retreatants is a little shock.
Sister Tuê Nghiêm recognized me last night in the dining hall, leaned in and said “Hi.” She’s like a Plum Village rockstar icon for me right now. She’s clearly a big sister and mother figure to many women. I am grateful to learn from her. Today she looked at me with a knowing supportive smiling glance and gently squeezed my right forearm. Words that she said to me when I was here in November have stuck with me, and are part of the reason I have returned. Initially, I attached the wisdom of her words to her personally. In the days that passed I came to realize that what she shared with me is the teaching that we are all here to learn and that she has become a carrier of. It is the teaching that caught my attention, which I can separate from the teacher. I can see the that this particular teacher, as she was for me in that moment, had a brilliant laser-like way of looking into me and delivering the teaching, the dharma. The intensity of her focus and clarity gave me chills and brought me to the present moment of my life in a way I had not experienced in quite a long time. Open doorways to learning that I had not known possible.
And so I am back on the cushion, after a five-year break. I’m in a loving community of friends from all over the world. My body is well nourished with three outstanding vegan meals every day. My soul is unfolding. My mind is building new pathways.
Note: Unlike other mediation retreats, there is talking at Plum Village. There are even cel phones and computers out. Not a lot, but they are here. This is not a strict place. Thay is not that kind of teacher.
The afternoon activity for new friends was this video - (Thay Video - June 14, 2016 - Present - something I can keep foralong time. One promise)
January 8, 2017 - Sunday - Day of Mindfulness
Every day at Plum village starts with wake up at 5 am. Sitting meditation at 5:30 am, breakfast usually around 7:45 am. This morning we had breakfast a little earlier to prepare for our guests. Today New Hamlet, where I’m staying, hosted all 350 monastics and lay people. It was a tight fit, and we practically ran out of food for lunch.
On a Day of Mindfulness all three hamlets come together for a day of practice which today included sitting meditation, dharma talk, walking meditation, formal lunch, and sangha sharing.
Between breakfast and the arrival of our guests at 9 am, I spent some time wringing my journal, and preparing lesson plans for my English student. One teacher for one student. We started our practice again last night. She had a little Post-it size pad of paper bound by a ring, filled with notes. We began chatting. Mainly I spent time correcting her which didn’t feel like the kind of energy I wanted to be sharing as a teacher or a friend. The sisters at Plum Village come from all over the world, it truly is an international sangha. She told me that she really wants to improve her English so that she can make more friends among the other nuns. She is limited with Vietnamese. She also wants to be able to have more freedom in her future as a sister to be able to mentor other sisters. I really want to help her. I’ve got three and a half weeks. She wants to be able to speak in clear sentences.
I went to sleep trying to imagine how to do it differently next time. Woke up with the idea of writing
little dialogs. I wrote three dialogs to start. Each have to do with the kind of interactions one has at Plum Village. I want her to be able to have real life opportunities to practice as homework. I also want these dialogs to be something I could offer to the English teacher at PV if they want to use with other students. Or to other individuals who offer to help the nuns with their English.
I actually wrote a lesson plan. Vocabulary, grammar, dialog, homework. I haven’t done that in 20 years. I haven’t told my student or anyone around me that I actually spent time as an ESL teacher. I was a terrible teacher! My Peace Corps friends can confirm. It was not my thing.
After I finished my lesson plan I led a group of women in an impromptu guided movement practice. Felt really good to move my body, and have a receptive group of women join me in practice. There is a young retreating here who I connected with instantly, and have been dancing with at many of the breaks. She has given me words of encouragement around the spaces where I feel compacted, reminding me we are here to feel joy.
At 9:20 am, I joined the entire Plum Village sangha in our large hall for meditation and dharma talk. The talk was about Right Diligence. The entire talk is available on YouTube, and I won’t get into all of what was said, but I will review some of my notes with you below. I really got a lot out of this lesson. It built on the lessons from a dharma talk given during my previous visit about right view. At the end of the talk the monk invited up three lay friends to talk about what they do in the world as examples of right diligence. The first person was a film-maker, making films about mindfulness, and topics that shed light where it is needed. The second person is an artist who created an art program for kids at Plum Village, a sort of dragon treasure hunt, and has turned the project into a graphic novel. The third person is a professor of eye surgery who travels the world teaching mindfulness. He primarily talked about a new mindfulness program in Cuba and the challenges of bringing this new spiritual practice to the Cuban people, and their hunger for it.
I will not attempt to explain right view and right diligence. I can refer you to these Plum Village Winter Retreat 2016 - 2017 talks on YouTube. What I can tell you is that I am learning about how to work on making changes in myself based on these practices. For example, the monk spoke about the mental formation we know as anger. It is one of 51 mental formations in our consciousness. If we imagine a garden metaphor and all of these seeds are in the deep ground of the garden, some are watered and fed more than others. Some grow bigger and stronger than others. Imagine anger (or any other negative/unwholesome mental formations) as a seed that is watered and grows into our mind consciousness. Through right diligence, we look for ways to keep negative seeds from sprouting or not have the conditions. First recognize the seed is in the mind consciousness, then understand the conditions, and finally practice to remove the conditions.
Anger —>Thinking —> Nourishes the unwholesome seed
This is an example of interdependent thinking. When this comes to be, that comes to be.
Change the condition, through mindfulness. Bring skillful attention to breath and body. Turn the spotlight away from anger, and onto breathing and body. By doing this the unwholesome seed, in this case anger, is not being nourished. By starving the unwholesome seed that has grown into a flower, it will eventually dry up and become weak.
Put attention on another seed, a wholesome seed. Remove attention from thinking. Allow mindfulness to take over. This is where the practice and training becomes real. When suffering occurs, shine light on it completely, breathe with it, give it body awareness. Consciousness will expand. Examine the conditions which have allowed the mental formation to arise and invite it to go back down.
Invite wholesome mental formations, like joy, to come up and stay for a long time. Allow wholesome mental formations to grow big and strong like oak trees. Shine a light on joy when it shows up. Give it your attention.
*****Your most precious commodity is your attention****
Those were my big take aways. In our sangha sharing I shared that the seed that is “up” for me now, and often, is craving. I really appreciated this skillful explanation of how to tend to this unwholesome seed. I want a quick solution, and I know it’s not possible. It will take practice and time. I expressed my gratitude for Plum Village as a place where I can be now for a change in condition.
Note: We had hazelnuts this morning with breakfast. I love hazelnuts. I think they are part of the reason I came back. Just saying. I love having hazelnuts in my life every day. Food today was unremarkable except for the fact that I was at the end of the lunch line and didn’t get much. Dinner was some kind of wonderful lasagna, rice noodle soup with mushrooms, lettuce.
Monday - January 9, 2017 - Lazy Day
39 degrees out. Walked to Duras, about five miles so that I could use wifi on my phone to make a call, have a cup of coffee, and try to find a suitable blanket for temple sits is a big stone room with no heat. Back for lunch, which looked like my favorite meal of brussel sprouts, but was over cooked. And then off to Dieulivol, about a mile or less, where there is a cafe with wifi. This is a bit more of a reasonable walk in 39 degree weather with a computer on my back. Here I sit now. posting this update for you. Three layers under that coat you see I'm wearing in this photo with the buddhas.
More posts in a week. Stay tuned <3