The Sacred Centre

sharing – daring – caring – writing from the heart

Category: On the Road to Mindfulness

Sixth Day – Rest

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Today was Mindfulness Day at Plum Village, where once again all the hamlets got together. My back had significantly improved since the Thai Massage and this morning I was able to sit much more comfortably during meditation. I did working meditation as allocated in the toilet block under the watchful presence of that lump in my throat. Why? What is it about cleaning that makes me feel so annoyed and upset? Is it too downgrading, does it make me feel a failure? It can’t be that bad, I used to be a cleaner myself!

After the optimistically painless start into the day I only made it half-way through the Dharma Talk DVD. I felt so tired, woozy, sick and had this panicky feeling of walls closing in. So, after a little while of fidgeting and fighting off sleep, I left, the walk of shame through the big hall filled with a crowd of monastic and lay people, and went to bed, breathing heavily.

I spent most of the day resting in bed, away from the many people that had come to visit, skipped Dharma sharing and the second lot of working meditation, but had a good talk with my room mate instead, who once again felt similar. It’s incredible how similar we are indeed. It somehow feels good, not to be alone with these awful feelings.

I felt I could go a little deeper during walking meditation later in the day. But overall I just want to go home now. This whole group commitment thing was getting too much. But I also realized once and for all that I could not live as a nun as I had previously thought I might one day, but really admire those who do and am grateful that they offer us the opportunity to find ourselves and to practice with them.

Lazy evening meant we had a lot of time to talk. Us three room mates sat under the willow by the frog pond with another girl and her boyfriend form the other hamlet. We laughed and spoke about things that mattered to us and the world. No preference, just like-minded people. Later in our room we kept on talking until nearly midnight. And there it was again – that feeling from childhood – the uncomplicated and fun pyjama parties, staying over at a friend’s house with no worries…other than knowing that tomorrow it will be all over again already.

A couple of days ago one of my room mates was talking about leaving Facebook, for all the same reasons that I have always wanted to leave. After my initial disappointment that I won’t be able to keep in touch with her in that easy non-committal way that Facebook offers, I decided it was time for me to leave too. And it felt so good! I actually look forward to going home and clicking the leaving button 🙂

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Fifth Day – Endurance

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I share a lot of similarities with one of my room mates. We both consider ourselves highly sensitive (read about The Extrovert Detox) and always aim for the same sitting cushion. Just like me she often feels like running away, not linking rules and even today felt the same irritation as me during meditation. We are both aware how easily we can pick up other’s emotions and mistake them for our own.

The “Mutant Message Down Under” revealed a few more insights to me. “There should be no suffering by any creature except what they accept for themselves. Each soul on the highest level of our being could select to be born into an imperfect body; they often came to teach and influence the lives they touched. All diseases and disorders have some spiritual connection and serve as stepping stones if we would only open up and listen to our bodies to learn what is taking place.”

“You cannot hear the voice of Oneness when you are busy talking. Clear your mind and thoughts and wait to receive.”

I wondered whether I should have just stayed at home with this book of wisdoms instead of travelling all this way to find peace at Plum Village in  France but realised immediately that you only learn by practicing, not merely by reading about it in a book.

After the alarm of one of our room mates had gone on and on and on this morning while she blissfully carried on sleeping, and not to mention the seemingly endless sitting mediation, we now returned giggling joyfully from a deep relaxation session which somehow resembled more a Chinese karaoke session. The singing just wouldn’t stop. Irritation arose and found release in laughter with each other. But the best was that the girl who slept through her alarm also managed to sleep through the relaxation! Unbelievable! 🙂

And it was only 10am… What else would we have to endure today? I can generally be quite impatient and when I feel I need to go I will just go. Sitting through mental and physical pain and discomfort is challenging but it also tests your endurance.

Me and one of my room mates skipped working meditation. Just gave in to the feeling of disinterest and irritation. I don’t know yet what it means in the long run but it did make me feel guilty, neglecting the community. I almost feel like I lost interest. I don’t know if this is part of my current issue with anxiety and depression or the medication adjustment phase, or even just plain disinterest itself. Maybe I’ve stressed myself that much that I really can’t find my quite core again?

My reluctance to carry on participating here might actually make it easier to re-integrate back into real life again after. Maybe that is also an indication that I’m ready to tackle real life again instead of hiding from it. I also haven’t taken a single photo yet since arriving at Plum Village. It made the flow easier I suppose. Anyway I have everything documented already from my last stay three years ago.

I had a deep moment during walking meditation where we stood by a still water and I momentarily got lost in the mirroring depth of lush spring green trees and leaves on the water’s surface as fellow participants appear one after the other like shy deer.

Me and my room mates finally agree to wake up without the extra alarm, promising we would wake each other up if the bell didn’t.

Fourth Day – Fighting Pain

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I awoke feeling slightly ill, very heavy, not able to motivate myself to move a single limb, while I was very aware of a fist sized pain sensation in my back. I really much rather skip working meditation today but that also makes me feel incredibly guilty and such a failure. I always see things through, I never give up. But I worry, worry, worry about every possible outcome regardless…

The Mutant Message Down Under revealed that “souls were made in the likeness of Divine Oneness, capable of pure love and peace, with the capacity for creativity and caretaking of many things. We were given free will and this planet to use as a learning place for emotions, which are uniquely acute when the soul is in human form”.

The new back pain is probably just because I changed my sitting practice yesterday and used new muscles.

The working meditation wasn’t that bad after all, having been gently pushed to go by one of my fellow room mates. The process of allocating who does what was pure hell and I had to really fight the urge to leg it and hide. But I got what I wanted, the library, which was basically sorting books and was very calming on my mind. It’s funny, as with the veg patch, first you don’t want to do it, then you get into the flow and forget your surroundings, like some sort of trance and suddenly you “come round” and feel exhausted but also proud of your achievement. I wonder whether I will be able to the same at work next week.

Of course I tried to place a heavy burden of blame on myself for once again doing only the things I wanted, getting my way again, and knowing that if I hadn’t there would have been a very high chance of me disappearing in my room, hiding in bed.

Later that day I had an awesome Thai massage by one of the retreat participants who had listened to my dharma sharing the other day and needed to practice. It eased my back pain and made me feel a little fresher and clearer in my head as well. I can only recommend you try it out for yourself!

A beautiful moment at the frog pond, catching the last golden rays of the setting sun, while listening to the evening bell and song. The water was sparkling and glittering, flies danced ecstatically, the sweet scent of freshly mowed grass still lingered in the air, as three souls unite when my room mates cross paths and briefly join me in the present moment, sharing eternity with each other.

I feel easier, less tense and frustrated. Sitting is easier, just eating is still a bit cramped. I was humbled by the realisation that someone had gone through the kind trouble of peeling the kiwi instead of just cutting them into halves. I find myself getting too late to activities. Am more relaxed. I figured that you don’t necessarily come here to be relaxed but to learn to relax and then be ready relaxed for when you leave back into reality.

Third Day – Releasing Blame

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This morning was beautiful. Fresh air after the rain, golden sunshine. As I sat down to look over the frog pond, a light sprinkle of rain blessed us while the sun looked on. It was as if the rain wanted to be part of this beautiful experience, like a cosmic handshake or hug.

Last night us three in the room were talking and laughing and it felt so good, exactly what I had been missing. Like hanging out with friends you’ve known all your life and you’re finally catching up again, despite having known them a mere three days. It felt good in my heart.

All night I was dreaming, waking, sleeping, tossing and turning. Today is lazy day, two more hours sleep, breakfast, a long and gentle yoga session, shower. I’m wondering: Have I been on my own too long or too much so that I feel the only way is my own way? Is that why I feel like rebelling against rules?

In on of my dreams last night I cried a little after a silly girl said to me that maybe I shouldn’t go on a run with them since my bad mood would bring them all down. Afterwards I felt like saying that she “should” have been more supportive and could have helped me lift my mood instead of rejecting me. I didn’t cry for long, there were things to do, even in my dream world.

I’m reading “Mutant Message Down Under” by Marlo Morgan and am equally amazed as I am unsure of whether it is fiction or reality. The reviews are confusing but the simple truths of humanity, which we seem to have forgotten all about, are revealed by example of the life and believes of the Australian Aborigines. It might be an invented story but this doesn’t make it any less mind blowing and answers a lot of questions as well as offers advice, coinciding with my own thoughts and conversations with other retreat participants. As soon as I pick up the book, there is the answer in black and white!

In terms of dreams, for example, one member of the tribe realises after a dream about a turtle with only two legs on one side that his aches and pains had materialised because his job as tool maker, which he loved, had become less enjoyable with more self-inflicted pressure, so he was signalled a need for change. He had become one-sided, hence the two legged turtle, no longer balanced in work and play. He said: “When thinking became flexible, joints became flexible. No pain no more.”

There will be more working meditations this week and something in me is really going against it. I struggle enough with the early sitting mediations and worry that by pushing myself too hard I will get worse again. On the other hand I wonder whether it is a good opportunity to gently get myself prepared for work again. I do worry that I won’t be able to do my job when I return next week…

On jobs Mutant Message Down Under sais: “Business seemingly has become a hazard to humanity. It started as means to get better things, to express individual talent and become part of the money system. But now the goal of business is to stay in business. But business isn’t real, it’s only an idea, an agreement.”

The book describes how the tribal members believe that the difference you make in the world is by leading by example, by the things you do. That gives them the drive to be a better person each day. They say: “People are non-living when angry, depressed, feeling sorry for themselves or filled with fear. Breathing doesn’t determine being alive. It just tells others which body is ready for burial or not. Not all breathing people are in a state of aliveness. It’s okay to try out negative emotions to see how they feel, but it certainly isn’t a place one would wisely want to stay.”

I remembered yesterday’s dharma talk and the topic of blame. “We can’t blame others, no matter how much we feel we ought to.” Our emotions are within us and others merely mirror them. What we react to is ourselves. Just what to do with that blame? It’s easy to direct it at ourselves, but not advisable. Sitting with it is hard. A life without blame, or rather the prospect of it, appears to be happier. How does it feel to be happy, without anger or pain, I ask one of the girls: “Light, free” she sais after a few moments of thinking. “Happiness is peaceful” sais another. I wonder, will we get bored when we’re always happy? Do we create emotions to “entertain” us when we’re bored, like a theatre production?

I realise how much I have been blaming others: my father, teacher, technology, the world, climate change, other people, my boyfriend, manager, work, depression, the system, food, the weather, my genes, my body, myself. So what remains if I don’t blame any of those? A whole lot of nothing?

Again from the book: “The only way to pass any test is to take the test. All tests at any level are repeated until you pass.”

“Happiness is freedom from wanting!” Leaving the bookshop “just” with an ice-cream is a start.

After a long lazy day we practice beginning anew in the evening. Touching the earth I vow to release blame and express my hurts. There are still no tears but I feel lighter, happier after releasing attachment to blame. I’ve been tying too many knots over the years by swallowing hurts and blaming others for my pain instead of speaking up and clearing my emotions. Now I have arrived at the bottom and can begin to untie one knot at a time. Releasing the built up anger, becoming free and happy.

That night I write a letter to my boyfriend, saying how I admire him, regret how I made him suffer with my mood swings and not listening to him properly, saying how I also feel disappointed that he doesn’t give me his full attention when talking to him, wishing that we can become more aware of each other’s emotional needs. I feel relief.

Second Day – Anger Manifests

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We all spend the day at the Upper Hamlet, a long day with dharma talk, formal lunch and dharma sharing. Inside of me it was boiling and bubbling, my back hurt with a passionate burning sensation which stretched all along the whole length of my spine. I was fed up with sitting and being “happy”. The dharma talk fittingly spoke of a crying baby inside of us that needs attention.

A humble moment occurred when Thich Nhat Hanh, zen monk and founder of Plum Village who was still affected by his illness, was wheeled in during the dharma talk while a hall full of monks, nuns and lay friends sang “I have arrived, I am home“. His presence was immediately noticeable. He was only able to hold up one hand in half prayer pose but with his eyes full of energy he scanned every single face in the hall, going along the rows of people. I also spotted Sister Chân Không, who helped to set up Plum Village, among the group of monks and nuns during the welcome song at the beginning of the day, as if seeking refuge. I was very touched and humbled to be in the same room as those two inspiring individuals.

I was hoping to see one of the monks again that I spoke with the last time I was there but I couldn’t spot him in the crowd. We had shared from the heart our experience of not being recognized and accepted by our parents. There had been no change in my situation apart from a new sort of anger that was brewing at still being ignored by my father and I was intrigued to hear whether there had been any changes for him. Later back at the Lower Hamlet, a girl who attended one of the other dharma sharing groups said how touched she was by a monk in her group who shared with his mother who had come to visit him from the other end of the world and that both had cried. By her description of him I could assume that it was him, tall, big nose, still with his hair, slightly curled and combed back. I was saddened to think I missed him, the lump in my throat tightened. But then I heard we might still meet the other hamlets again for a day of mindfulness later in the week. That would be good, maybe the time just wasn’t right yet.

During dharma sharing I spoke from the heart how I had tried to keep up my practice since my last visit to Plum Village three years ago and how I felt like a failure for my stress related anxiety despite my knowledge and awareness of mindfulness and had come to Plum Village in the hope to find my flow again. But instead, I said, I was experiencing frustration and anger, feeling like I want to run away, but figured that since I was aware of these emotions I might as well sit with them and see what happens. The dharma talk also mentioned how our emotions are not us, that they are mere visitors in our house. So we can sit with them but we won’t let them take over our house.

It was interesting to hear others share how they were struggling, especially in their second week (even if mine was three years later). It seems to be that way. Also, when the need to share arises it appears to be common to feel your heart race or a pressure feeling in your chest. For me it was also accompanied by anger at what others were saying, which subsided once I had said what I felt and was able to listen to the others without that negativity inside of me. I felt a little lighter afterwards, as if someone had lifted the lid off the pressure cooker, even had a few more natural and less constrained conversations with other participants afterwards.

I want to cry, let it all out, but it just wasn’t happening! My 48 hours were up, where were the tears?

And after learning about non-attachment we merrily go into the gift shop and buy pretty and useful things we don’t really need.

The key to a happy and emotionally balanced life is to let the heart speak when it calls out. I wouldn’t be depressed if I had been able to speak up openly and clearly express my opinion, regardless of it being different to others. I need to start doing that. No point in silently agreeing with others only because you get their point. You can bring your own point across as well and calmly work on finding a middle point agreement that suits everyone.

I probably also tried too hard to be mindful, setting myself up for disappointment. I feel suffocated by the rules of meal times. They are all different and I’m just never quite sure when to wait, eat or get up. Earlier we were unsure because there had been no bell and it was already ten minutes after beginning of meal time and lazy evening. So when I observed a nun take food I thought it meant we could help ourselves. But when picking a plate I was reminded that the bell hadn’t yet invited dinner and the nun had some other reason for taking food. Felt like such a fool! And my internal magma was bubbling…

 

 

First Day – Irritation Rises

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While travelling to Plum Village I kind of naively believed to be travelling and arriving on my own until half the train got up to leave at the same station. And the girl that sat next to me on the plane also stood there! Having been to Plum Village before I found it easier to settle in and be. I slipped straight into my comfy yoga pants and poncho and looked forward to a wholesome week of calm, despite the strong headache I experienced on the evening of arrival.

However, as it goes, the first irritations already came to the surface right on the first morning. I woke up from the 5am bell, not having slept all too well, and was looking forward to laying in the dim morning light for a little bit longer while listening to the gong, when instead my room mate’s mobile phone alarm was going every five minutes for the next thirty minutes and persistent plastic bag rustling ensued from the other.

I had a rather enlightening dream though, which helped me feel really good about my unsure thoughts to look for a new job. In the dream I made that decision and announced it openly, which felt liberating and good, a feeling of relief that still registered in my tired bones when I woke up.

My irritation grew further during orientation, when a retreat participant with a persistent sniff sat right behind me. The meal time rules seemed to have gotten more complicated too, or did I just not realise the last time? Breakfast: noble silence, fill tables and only eat when table full with at least six others. Lunch: Noble silence, sit anywhere, only eat when everyone is seated at all tables, don’t get up for at least 20 minutes. Dinner: Noble silence, sit anywhere, start eating straight away. My back started to hurt from sitting unsupported, the Sister kept going on and on… Too slow, collection of mats at the end, too slow… but I’m also able to leave it be better than the last time.

I’m diving into the anonymity of the group of participants without feeling alone. Where else can one be with a large group of people from all  over the world without the need to talk or interact and without feeling left out? Maybe I’m excluding myself too much. It’s still early days, the group still needs to find itself.

I still feel rather restless, like as if I should be doing something, can’t stay down very long, get up and walk, slow walking. I’m somewhat in a hurry to I don’t know where. It must be my anxiety, though I always thought it is enthusiasm, curiosity drive. The lump in my throat came up during walking meditation but went again at some point. During the committed quiet time at lunch and while weeding during working mediation I felt trapped, angry, impatient and had a strong urge to run.

The last time I was here it took me 48 hours to unexpectedly cry. It was crucial for me in my process of letting go and I’m hoping it will happen again this time. Let’s see what happens tomorrow.

 

 

Behind the Smile

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Lower Hamlet, Plum Village, France

Three years ago I spent a week at Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery in France, which teaches the mindfulness philosophy of Thich Nhat Hanh (read about it here). Ever since then have I been practicing to keep my calm but found it often difficult in the fast world outside the comforting surroundings of Plum Village, and the sense of peace I acquired during my week there soon dissolved like clouds in the sky.

A month ago I experienced work related stress and anxiety. Some might, and some did, say they saw it coming, I had been under a lot of stress at work over the past two years. I blame myself, because I took on so much, but there is also a lot to be said for the additional stress at work with unpredictable and often unmanageable workloads and also when our department moved on top of it all.

I also feel a failure for not being able to get on top of it and instead ending up unable to work, or even live, for that matter, despite everything I had learned about stress management and health and wellbeing. I went against my belief that we can heal ourselves with a healthy and nutritious diet, exercise, a positive attitude to life and whichever complementary or alternative therapy suits by taking antidepressants. I was always critical towards medications, the chemicals and side effects, and worried they might change me. But the stress and the anxiety had festered so much I already hardly recognized myself anymore, so taking pills couldn’t possibly be any worse. And it wasn’t. It turned out to be the best I could possibly have done since every aspect of my life slowly improved over the past weeks.

The physical, mental and emotional symptoms had become unbearable and are difficult to explain, especially since from the outside I didn’t look much different. It was the inner turmoil, the persistent unhappiness, constant worries, the tiredness, exhaustion and aching limbs, the acid cursing through my veins, the heart racing, that lump in my throat, the lack of focus and motivation, the deep sadness and feeling of loneliness, all hidden behind a calm smile, which only faded when nobody was watching. I didn’t know what to do, all my stress busting practices, meditation, yoga, walks, acupressure, acupuncture, psychotherapy didn’t seem to work anymore. Even worse, I was more and more unable to do them. I realised I was getting really bad when I stopped doing my usual daily yoga practice. So I summoned up my last strength and tried again to make an appointment with my GP.

At the moment I feel very good, calm, relaxed, at ease, happy. I have crossed the 4 week threshold of the adjustment phase of my medication relatively unharmed by side effects. I feel more peaceful within myself, enjoying time with my partner without fear and worries, being among people without panic, waking up without my heart racing, appreciating simple moments, having the motivation and will to get up and do things and not worrying too much about my return to work. I carried on with my daily yoga, meditation, acupressure and walks and am certain that without them I would either have gone down a long time ago already or would be much deeper into the illness and less likely to recover so smoothly and quick.

The thing is that we don’t always realise how deep we are into something – be it stress or relaxation. We simply carry on living. The only time we really notice how deep we have gone is when we experience the opposite. That’s how we measure success or failure. So without the bad we won’t know how good we are and equally we won’t know how bad we have got until we feel good again.

My second visit to Plum Village wasn’t as joyful as the first but brought on more of a struggle, which could be due to anxiety, the medication adjustment phase or simply because I had changed as a person. I will share my thoughts and feelings from that week with you over the next few days.

Until then
Anna

The Breath of Life

I have come to see more and more recently, how important our breathing is and how distant we become from ourselves if we are unable to connect with our breath. Breath is life – life is breathing. We could possibly survive without food for about a month or two, without water for two to three days but without oxygen only for a few minutes.

Breathing deeply can help to maintain the connection to our body and inner self. Taking a deep breath and following the natural flow of your breathing in and out of your body for a few minutes can be a simple way to celebrate being alive. It can bring you back into the present moment and also give you a sense of calmness and being at peace with yourself.

However, not everyone is able to breathe properly, me included. I spent a week at Plum Village recently, a Buddhist retreat in France, and there I learned to use any kind of sound – a bell, ringing phone, door bell, beeping car – as a way of centring, bringing my awareness back to my breath and most importantly, to drop my shoulders.

Small Bell at the Lower Hamlet, Plum Village

At first, this was strange to me, I actually tensed up even more whenever I heard the mindfulness bell, as if I innately feared something bad was going to happen. At the same time I realised that my breath literally got stuck in my chest, I was unable to breathe properly. It was as if someone was holding a tight grip on my neck and shoulders, as if I was doing something I shouldn’t do, as if I wasn’t allowed to be alive.

This actually translates nicely onto my father’s decision to have me aborted. His words posed a danger to my most basic need, being alive and breathing, and once I took my first breath they unconsciously haunted me for most of my life, giving me the feeling that I shouldn’t be here, alive, breathing.

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

I had some deep revelations and a lot of letting go during my stay at Plum Village, which you can read about in the category “On the Road to Mindfulness“, and soon I began to relax whenever I heard the bell. I even began to long for the sound of mindfulness to bring me back to peace.

Back home I found this clever gadget, a mindfulness bell that you can install on your computer, or run via your web browser and that you can set to a preferred time or let it surprise you at random. www.mindfulnessdc.org/bell/index.html

I even extended the idea of using any sound to bring me back to the present moment to someone screaming outside, which used to infuriate me, but has now become a reason for me to simply focus on my breathing and to smile. Believe it or not, I actually sleep through most of the midnight screamers now 🙂

It was a couple of months before I learned about the mindfulness bell that I felt the urge to get myself another singing bowl in addition to the one I had bought in Nepal a few years ago. It is only now that I realise that this little bowl serves as the perfect mindfulness bell! 🙂

By living more consciously aware of yourself and your surroundings you can celebrate life at any moment in time. Another tool I would like to carry forth from Plum Village is the practice of slow walking, or walking meditation. Walking not to get somewhere but simply to walk for the sake of walking, breathing, slowing down and arriving in the present moment.

While I was doing just that today along our seafront on the sand that the low tide had revealed, I decided I am going to invite others along whenever I do a walk like that to spread the teaching of mindfulness and help others to slow down and become more peaceful within themselves.

Monks and Nuns walking slowly at Son Ha, Plum Village

So if you read this and you live somewhere around Eastbourne, or are planning to visit, and would like to join me on a mindful low tide walk along Eastbourne’s seafront, follow me on Facebook or Twitter where I will announce when I will be going. This will be very sporadic, whenever I am free and it happens to be low tide, and quite likely on a short term notice.

The walk will be very slow and in silence, but there will be time after and before for questions. Make sure you are there at least 5 minutes before the time stated, I will not wait. As a meeting point I suggest the old fountain outside of Fusciardie’s Ice Cream Parlour. I like to walk barefoot, and like to encourage others to do the same, but feel free to wear wellies or water proof shoes if it would make you feel more comfortable. There is absolutely no charge, besides, air is free to breathe as well 😉

However, if you wish to donate something, I would like to collect for urgent maintenance and repair work in Plum Village, aiming to send all donations over in December as a Christmas present. Plum Village is such a tranquil place of peace and calm, which also supports a lot of Vietnamese living under very poor conditions in Vietnam.

My room was in Persimmon House at the Lower Hamlet, Plum Village

Plum Village was established over 30 years ago, and time is passing which means that there are cracks in the walls and boards falling from the ceilings (yes it came down right outside my room door :)).  There also are a lot of Government regulations and expectations to live up to, and if things don’t improve, Plum Village will not be able to take any more visitors, which would be a great loss.

Bell Tower and Lotus Pond at Lower Hamlet, Plum Village

If you are unable to join me, why not practice on your own. Walk slowly, breath deeply and smile to yourself 😉

Enjoy living and breathing in the present moment!

Love
Anna

Mindfulness in Reality

So how do I integrate the practices of mindfulness I had learned at Plum Village into my daily life? Whereas it is possible while I make an effort, it is also more difficult than I had thought. 

While on holiday one has time and it is easier to fully dedicate myself to meditate, slow down and relax. But back at home in every day life, there is always something that needs to be done which causes distractions followed by stress.

Even though I take the time to sit and breathe, my mind wants to carry on planning the day and get things done. And it really doesn’t help that I have loads of photos to sort through and a very slow computer to do it with! 🙂

I’m loosing all my mindfulness over it… Does mindfulness require a good working computer?

Although I am generally more at ease and less stressed in most situations, I also feel that all my joy and excitement has fallen to the wayside, overshadowed by a soft blanket of peace and calm. My first day back at work was almost surreal, colleagues joked I look lost, asking whether I was away for too long and had forgotten what to do. How can I get back to being more actively joyful without directly toppling over into the cycle of mania and depression?

It is almost as if my body and mind are fighting to prevail over my soul. I notice pure anger welling up as my computer stops working once again… I scream out loud. Not mindful at all. I decide it is time for a new computer.

I see that the true lesson of mindfulness is not to master being mindful but to integrate mindfulness into daily life. And to not get upset or angry at our or other’s unmindful behaviour but to use our awareness to be more mindful in the future. Our behaviour will be noticed by others, who in turn will reflect it back to us. How would you like to be treated? Treat others the same!

Another new behaviour of mine is that I don’t feel like eating meat. After a week of wholesome vegan cuisine at Plum Village I am left wanting more of it and even feel repulsed at the thought of eating meat. It is almost like eating my own brother. At the same time I don’t like to call myself a vegetarian, it is so limiting. I have been eating meat since I came back, but I get less and less inclined to carry on, and more and more excited about trying vegan dishes. They are just so easy and delicious!

Interestingly, a lot of people assume that I already am vegetarian. When I ask what gave them the idea, they shrug their shoulders and say they just thought I was. Is it because most of my meals are vegetarian or because I eat a lot of salad, or because I promote raw chocolate? I don’t know, but does it matter?

Nope 🙂

To a mindful life and new ways of thinking!

Love
Anna

A Mindful Journey Home

When the bell invites me for breakfast the last time, I step outside into the warm rays of the sun that are filtering through the leaves, into the fresh morning air, sensing the cold, as the cuckoo greets me with his call.

Bell tower at Lower Hamlet in Plum Village

Reality sucked me in like the East Australian Current does with the sea turtles. At first I withstood the current, smiling, driving far too slowly through the rolling green hills as I leave Plum Village behind me. But all too soon did other drivers, traffic jams and time catch up with me. I maintained my conscious breathing, which did help to remain calm. It was difficult, however, to find decent food. I just didn’t want to eat meat. And everything had cream of some sort or another. When I actually found a salad bar along the motorway they didn’t even have green salad leaves.

After a ten hour drive north, I arrive with my protector on the roof in the pretty country village of Mont-Dol, where I had booked in for two nights. This time I took full advantage of my protector and he duly took me to the nearest toilet or petrol station whenever I asked for it, even if it meant that I “accidentally” misread the sat-nav.

The BnB is a beautiful farm building and is run by a lovely couple, accompanied by two friendly dogs, a loud goose and a few horses, still, the atmosphere is noticeably different to Plum Village. People ask so many interrogative questions and the old awkwardness of having to make conversation for the sakes of it hangs in the air, all the while the TV is running in the background. In my lovely little attic room hang abstract drawings of nude ladies.

Countryside BnB in Mont-Dol

I try to accommodate the “new world” which is clashing with my inner peace like two rivers meeting and being expected to share the one and only river bed. Outside it thunders and the heavens are pouring tons of hail over us. There was thunder the evening I arrived at Plum Village… I remember one of the nuns saying yesterday that “It isn’t other people, songs, movies, books etc. that make us sad or happy, but that they merely bring up the sadness or happiness which is already in us”.

Walking towards Mont St Michel

The whole next day I spend on Mont St Michel, a granite rock island topped with a picturesque abbey and even has a few houses dating back to the middle ages, which are now mainly hotels, restaurants and gift shops. Up the stairs, down the stairs, left round, right round and then down to the beach and round the island rock at low tide. Pretty impressive!

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View of St Aubert’s Chapel at the beach of Mont St Michel

The following morning I wake up early, as if my body unconsciously joined in the morning meditation at Plum Village, and as I look outside the window a huge full moon is hovering over misty fields. I nearly lost all my mindfulness trying to open the window, but it wouldn’t budge, so I only got a blurry impression of the mighty scene. Oh how I wished I was at Mont St Michel now! Why didn’t I at least go outside? Because I was at the top floor of a tree story farm house whose stairs creaked like nobody’s business and it was Sunday after all and I worried the owners might think I try to sneak away without paying 🙂

Mindfulness is to enjoy the moment when it happens and not to look at it on a photo later.

When I enter the dining room for breakfast I naturally bow as I see a monk in cream coloured robe sitting at the table. Oh dear, I wonder if I shouldn’t have. Plum Village has properly conditioned me 🙂

Nearly two weeks driving through Europe including 6 countries and many toll stations on the last leg of my travels, and I was back again at the familiar ferry port in Calais. Earlier I had found myself suddenly and unexpectedly on a rather high bridge crossing the Seine estuary, clinging to the wheel of my car for dear life as I reach the middle of the bridge which was way too high above the water.

On the ferry I get myself an über-expensive meal because I am proper hungry and as I sit by the window eating, watching the French coast pass by, I feel like the Queen of England 🙂

As soon as I have finished eating I am outside, pointing my noise into the wind. With no more spaces left on my memory card, eliminating the chance of taking any further photos, I surrendered fully to the present moment. With view of the French and English coastlines as time grants me an extra hour, I find a place to simply be. Soon the first seagulls announce land and the familiar white chalk cliffs welcome me home. We even get an extra tour along the cliffs thrown in for free as the port wasn’t ready to take us in and we had to wait for a little while.

Chalk cliffs at Dover

The last couple hours driving on English soil pass in no time and I find myself back home, sitting on the sofa, smiling blissfully hoping that this feeling will last.

And I totally forgot to add the map in all my blissfulness 🙂

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Travelled from Plum Village (4) to Mont-Dol (5).

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And from Mont-Dol back to Eastbourne.

Truly Arriving at the Sixth Day of Mindfulness

Frogs of the Lotus Pond at Plum Village

As the wind rustles through the trees, we are standing around the lotus pond, listening to the frog’s song as they jump and play around. The sun is out and the daisies are smiling up at me from the green grass and I can’t help but smile back at them. We had butterflies passing by, spiders and ants crossing our path while walking mindfully through the plum tree orchard. And as the wind blew through the bamboo, I knew that I had learned something new. As I pass underneath the sweet scent of the elderberry tree I pause and feel at peace as I reach to smell the roses and admire the beautiful orange-yellow against the stone wall. I have finally arrived, I am truly home.

Having finally arrived, being truly at home expressed itself to me as an immense feeling of calmness, a deep sense of happiness, the absence of all worries, just being present in the moment. All my tensions and funny gut sensations seem to have vanished. At our last Dharma sharing I made a feeble attempt to communicate this sensation of peace to the others, which I had no words for. And while my confusing array of words was simultaneously translated into French, the French speakers looked at me with slight bewilderment.

How do you express a feeling and put it into words? I compared it to being in love – just different. One of the Vietnamese sisters said she fully understands what I mean, because many here have experienced the same sensation of pure happiness and she was happy for me to have found it here too. A French sister called it “the Buddha within”, saying that I can carry it within me wherever I go, but that it is also important to nourish it well. Those comments already added great nourishment to my inner Buddha 🙂

“If a feeling is so intrinsically beautiful that it can’t be expressed by words,
it can only be expressed by living it.”
Anna

“Water your flowers”

The language barrier meant that there were some participants that I didn’t talk much to. It is interesting to notice that something in me assumed that we wouldn’t have anything in common either. A few days ago I was thinking to myself how easily we meet new people and judge them straight away on first sight and then slowly get to know them by listening to their Dharma sharing and suddenly you begin to feel a connection with them.

Today a French participant had said this about a mushroom: “Up to now I never liked the big Asian mushrooms, just didn’t like the look of them, with their big wobbly shape. Today I tried one. At first I just looked at it, deeply, until I could sense the connection with it to the whole cosmos. Then I ate it, with every bite recognizing and assessing the texture, the taste, the smell, and I began to like it, just the way it is.” The intensity and huge meaning behind it touched me deeply, particularly because I was sitting next to her while she was poking around at her food while I caught myself thinking why she wasn’t just eating it…

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I was surprised to see how many participants here have problems with their parents, either not being fully accepted or trying to live up to individual expectations. Once again quite aptly we were watching a Dharma talk by Thay on video about children and parents today, suggesting that we should aim to see our parents as 5 year olds in order to help us develop compassion towards them and to enable us to heal the pain we associate with them. And it came to me that parents are also just people with problems they are trying to heal. And they then try to create a world for their children that fulfils their own dreams and ideas, believing they are making it better than their own childhood. When children begin to work on realising their own dreams and ideas, parents might meet them with misunderstanding and criticism, purely because they think their view is better, for they surely must know it best. Who gives us the ideal of how parents or children should be?

Some people came with similar expectations to Plum Village. Some left earlier because they didn’t think there was enough teaching. Others said they didn’t get their money’s worth out of this week. Once again, what are they basing their evaluation on? Some only want to come to meet the honourable Thich Nhat Hanh. He actually has written over hundred books on the theory and philosophy of Plum Village, you don’t need to come here to be taught what you can read in them anywhere in the world. Here you can come to practice mindfulness. I came without any expectations, only hoping that I would be able to calm down a little. This I have done, together with unexpected profound insights and wonderful occurrences. The arising uneasiness from the negative comments I settled with deep breathing.

The welcome letter in our room (click to enlarge)

Though my back still aches during sitting meditation, the pain seems to have moved downwards below the shoulder blades. I am pleased to say that today I actually felt light while sitting in meditation, as it should feel like, unlike the past days, where I always felt like a heavy block of pain. Having observed the brothers and sisters sitting gracefully in peaceful silence, I wonder how long it took them to sit trough the pain until they were able to meditate without being bothered by pain.

Replaying some conversations I had with brothers and sisters or remembering individuals I had listened to during Dharma talks and sharing, I wonder whether one decides to become a monk or nun because one feels unable to cope with or to have failed in “normal life”? Is it a way out, like running away or is it possibly the true path of awareness that the “normal world” can’t actually give us what we really need to live in the here and now? For what kind of life is it to be running from here to there and simultaneously be thinking about yesterday and tomorrow, if one could joyfully live every moment to the full right here and now? Who determines how fast the world should turn around itself to function properly?

Buddha statue at the Lower Hamlet

Together with all the issues we seem to have with our parents, I wonder whether we could be happier living alone.  Having come to the understanding that monks and nuns live apart from each other so they could devote themselves undisturbed to finding inner peace, yet still live under a shared roof, the thought arises whether God only created Adam to share the wonders of his creations with someone else? Because what worth is there to being able to create if one can’t show it to someone? Is this maybe the reason why us humans on principle can’t be alone?  I myself am very creative and wonder what it would be worth if there was nobody who I could create things for. What would I do if I was the last human on earth?

The last gongs of the big bell announce noble silence. I pause, breathing in and out. Standing under green foliage, I watch a yellowing leaf gliding to the ground as a couple of birds fly up from the trees toward the evening sky.

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I sit in the small meditation hall on my own for the last time. Tomorrow I will already leave Plum Village, though I am not sad about departing, rather excited to share my insights and new practices with the world.

The air is crisp and cool and fresh from the rain, the dark blue evening sky is clear. The frogs and crickets are singing their song, in the distance the sound of a tawny owl. I watch in awe as the moon rises bright and big above the bell tower roof.

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A Serene Fifth Day of Mindfulness

A grey lazy morning, rain is mixing with the water of the lotus pond, a gentle wind, otherwise silence. Can’t possibly walk past the water drops on the roses without taking a photo.

 I think I have finally understood the table manners now. Fill empty seats at a table before sitting at an empty table, bow before sitting down, wait until everyone is seated at the table and bow before beginning to eat. When finished eating, bow before standing up, wash up your plates and remain silent for the whole procedure 😉

Cat outside dining room

Cat outside dining room

I have been watching many “random acts of kindness” or rather “rescue missions” of small creepy crawlies and invertebrates the last days. Just like flowers are left untroubled by slow walking Buddhists. It gives you an idea what impact mindfulness could have on the planet if we were all to incorporate it into our daily lives.

The bell and I

My stay here has greatly helped me to breathe better or slower. My shoulders are also so much more relaxed and I can now hear a clicking noise every now and again when I take a deep breath, which might not sound good, but compared to the previous tightness, is definitely a positive change. At first I was unable to join in with the group singing, partly because I didn’t know the texts and melody, but also due to shame and embarrassment. As the days went by I began to recognize some of the songs and began to sing along. Today I even sang a short German song in the group on my own, which was complemented with cheerful hand fluttering, for here nobody claps their hands.

Small bell

It dawns on me why monasteries separate men from women, because I understand now that it is about finding inner peace, which is impossible to find if there is someone who you just can’t get out of your head. For if I have found inner peace, I can engage peacefully with the other sex without my head being full to the brim with perplexity. And I realise how perfect it is that I have found a loving long-term partner, who gives me all the time and space in the world when I need it and yet is also there to listen, talk and share my life with. Even though I might at times long for the excitement we felt when we had just met, I also know that these feelings won’t last in any relationship, and if I were to keep looking for these feelings of excitement, they will be all I will ever have. For once they will stop me from finding inner peace and secondly experience the beauty of real love, which develops over time. Just like wine, as the French will tell you 🙂

View over plum orchard at Plum Village

Today’s walking meditation leads us past the plum trees with a beautiful view onto Plum Village. We stop for a mindful moment and I smile when I see that the tall grass is bowing to me in the wind and I bow back. A purple flower is standing proud amidst the green border. My head prickles under the sun. I’m breathing in and I’m breathing out as feet slowly pace ahead again.

The bowing grass and the purple flower

Working meditation was on the schedule again and I was once again allocated to remove the cobwebs, this time in the big meditation hall. The little nuns made the most of it and took full advantage of my height, even tying a long bamboo stick to my mob so I could reach the high ceiling. I wondered what more figurative cobwebs there were  that I still needed to get rid off, didn’t I already remove enough during my stay?

Big meditation hall at Plum Village

When I reached the far end of the hall and began to remove cobwebs around the magnificent stained glass window depicting Buddha, I came to the conclusion that the last few figurative cobwebs were still clouding my full devotion to whatever there is that makes us live. As I looked at the vibrant colours of the glass, I promised myself to continue practicing mindfulness, as it seemed to be a practice of real worth to the inner self, which is where devotion should be aimed at first and foremost.

Stained glass window in the big meditation hall

Yesterday I had talked to the brother about how I don’t like to be part of a group, especially not a religious belief, since I don’t believe in a one and only belief and that I don’t like the rules that come with such group formations. This was reason enough for me to decline my holy communion when I was 14, and I wasn’t prepared to let my search for the truth be blinded by somebody’s teaching of their truth.

The golden light of the evening sun

But what I had come to like at Plum Village was the ease of simply going with the flow of your breath. Yes, there are certain rules, like the table manners for example, which are really just courtesy rules, whereas the teachings are mainly based on the heart, on being in the present moment, being mindful of yourself and your surroundings and to practice for your own inner peace. And like the brother had said: “You don’t need to be a Buddhist in order to practice.”

A cheeky noble silence cherry picking

As noble silence sets in me and my room mate are reaching for red cherries, giggling and whispering merrily.

Cheeky cherries

Celebrating Wesak on the Fourth Day of Mindfulness

Stick exercise! Equipped with a bamboo stick matching my height, I stand in a circle in the dim morning light while a faint rain is drip dropping on my rain coat. Wielding my stick precariously over my head, stretching with it behind my back, this is fun!

 

Early morning stick exercise

Today we are leaving the Lower Hamlet again in the white mini vans to celebrate Wesak, the Buddha’s Birthday, at the Son Ha building, a short drive away. Everyone from all Hamlets gathered together again for a few songs, wholesome lunch, a short walking meditation and obviously for the Wesak Ceremony.

Happy Wesak

The previous day, some brothers and sisters had lovingly decorated the estate. They had hung garlands along the water bank, attached flowers to the small bridge crossing the water and, on what seemed a tiny island, had set up a place with a small Buddha statue and a water basin filled with flower petals. It looked really pretty, just the weather didn’t.

Everyone gathered around the big tree to listen to the story of Buddha’s birth. The brothers, sisters and lay friends formed two lines, separating men and women, and slowly walked towards the second bridge, crossing the water, along the small strip of island towards the Buddha shrine.

Up to the very end, as it was nearly my turn, I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do. Nervously observing those in front of me, I bowed, got down on my knees, scooped up a ladle of petal water and poured it over the Buddha statue. Then I put the ladle back down, bowed, stood up and walked as slowly as my nerves were letting me over the bridge and relaxed. It just doesn’t help if a large group of people is looking at me (that includes Buddhist monks).

Suddenly I felt socially very awkward. I didn’t know anyone and couldn’t see the other girls from my hamlet. It didn’t help that a fellow German lay friend recognized me from the Dharma sharing two days ago and started talking to me. It was really quite surprising to notice how different it is to talk to men after a few days among women. It threw me off balance and made me rather nervous. Even more surprising was my reaction to him saying he was getting himself a cup of tea, asking if I was having one. I said no – I simply don’t drink tea – which always seems to give off the idea that I don’t just want tea but don’t want to carry on talking either, which is never my intention. After an awkward moment he turned away to get his tea whereas my throat was blocking off again, and the feelings of rejection came flooding up, just like they had done two days ago at the dinner table.

Small bell at Son Ha

Now that was strange. I went for a slow walk to calm me down and noticed the brother from the Dharma sharing two days ago, whose story had brought up my invisible core. I approached him, bowed and asked if I could share something with him. “Of course sister”, came the open answer. I told him about my breakthrough and thanked him for sharing his story, as it did help me, unlike I had said there and then, for which I apologized again. I really liked the uncomplicated yet deep way we talked. When he said that I didn’t sound like someone who had only been here in Plum Village for a few days, rather a few years, I replied that I have been talking and thinking like this for many years, just that I don’t really listen to myself often, hence I was here hoping to find stillness so I could listen to myself.

With his tall statue and unique facial features, he stood out from the crowd of mainly short Vietnamese monks and nuns and I couldn’t help but wonder why he had curly brown hair, unlike his fellow brothers and sisters. He explained that shaving your head is a choice you make and that it is usually an obvious sign that something is going on in someone’s head if the hair is growing. I asked if he had found complete peace here with his practice of mindfulness and whether old hurts would therefore cause him no more pain. He replied that even though he had found peace here, he could still feel the pain.

I was thinking aloud whether pain is peace, or peace is to be found in pain. They both appear to be directly connected with each other. Maybe the goal is to find peace in pain? The brother made an interesting remark that stuck with me. With his big blue eyes, he seemingly looked straight into my heart when he said that if we can’t understand our parents, we might be able to find out what is going on inside of them by watching our own thoughts and habits, because it is the same genes at work.

Vegan BBQ – really good!

The scent of burning charcoal and roasting vegetables raised my interest and I went to inspect my first vegan BBQ. And it was really, really good! The many different varieties of tofu I have encountered this week is phenomenal! After lunch we are being entertained by brothers and sister with catchy songs, jokes and laughter.

Afternoon of entertainment

I did speak to the German again briefly during the afternoon, noticing again the difference, this time compared to the monk I was talking to, and how much I long for attention and also affection, not especially his, or of any other random male for that matter, but for my father’s. Though for years and years I thought it was mere attraction to the opposite sex. Now I realise that it is just the missing recognition and accordingly the missing link to a neutral male, being unable to understand fundamental differences between men and women and how to interact. Talking to the brother was like talking from soul to soul whereas talking to the German was like talking from man to woman. Is it necessary for a man to be celibate for me to not get nervous?

I had arranged to walk back to the Lower Hamlet with one of the aspirant nuns form my Hamlet so we could talk. I had asked her a few days ago if she would like to share her story with me. Neither the German nor the brother were around when we were about to leave which to me felt like unfinished business. Even if I knew I would possibly never see them again, I still had made a link with them and simply wanted to say goodbye.

Buddha Statues near Upper Hamlet

We walked towards the Upper Hamlet and I was able to see the impressive group of Buddha statues in the woods. She remarked that I was lucky to see all the hamlets within one week. That usually doesn’t happen, she said. While passing through the Upper Hamlet, we not only bump into the German for yet another banter but the brother also walked round the corner. I get to say a proper goodbye and leave with a serene feeling of happiness, which is topped by the brother driving past us a little further down the road, leaning out of the window saying ” Good luck with everything, Anna, and thank you again for sharing!”

While talking to the aspirant nun I see a lot of similarities.  I observe her talking with another brother and wonder what would happen if brothers and sisters fall in love. She explains to me later that she isn’t permitted to talk to brothers unless she has a “second body”, another nun, with her. This she finds hard, especially since she has quite a good friendship with one of the brothers. She tells me that she had come to realise that she is much happier without a relationship because it enables her to be herself, without being tied down by others. Her story resonate with me, since I used to picture myself living at a monastery when I was younger. I am in awe with the way the brothers and sisters treat each other here, with unconditional love, just like real brothers and sisters.

Both encounters, with the brother and the sister, touched me deeply. And all these other wonderful conversations, so deep and profound, with people that I had met only so briefly, left me feeling as if I had known them forever. And together with the Buddha’s birthday and last night’s ceremony on beginning anew, I also feel like I have just been born again.

A Lazy Third Day of Mindfulness

On a lazy evening followed a lazy day, where we can do whatever we like. Still, I got up before breakfast to meditate and practice yoga, which seems to come naturally to me here. It is good to have nothing else to do or not to need to go somewhere. This way I can fully emerge myself in my practice until the bell rings for breakfast.

Schedule of Lazy Day (click to enlarge)

I have to say that compared to a “normal holiday”, I feel so much more relaxed here, despite of getting up so early and sitting upright without back support for most of the day. This inner tranquillity, that I already feel after such a short time, is very pleasant.

“A true holiday begins within yourself”!

It is truly remarkable and sweet how much the nuns enjoy singing, even if they are not quite sure of the notes. They sing from their hearts, because it brings them joy, not because they want to shine.

Mindful Photography = take time to actually smell the roses!

Mindful Photography – try that 🙂

Most of my three weeks in New Zealand, nearly a decade ago, was spent driving around the north island, jumping in and out of the car, taking photos to capture as much as possible of this beautiful country at the bottom of the world, forgetting to actually be there in the moment. I have long since been aware that I keep doing this. Taking photos to marvel at after instead of looking at the actual motive. Now I am vowing to myself once again that in future I will take time to look at the motive more with my eyes than with my camera lens.

Before lunch today, me and my room mate decided to discover the area around Plum Village. We strolled up along the road towards Loubes-Bernac in fluorescent vests, which the nuns had asked us to do, since there are actually no pavements or walking paths here.

Yes I am a tourist and I am fine with that!

As seen from Loubes-Bernac

We took plenty of mindful photos of the town’s church and then carried on along the road, hoping it would take us in the promised circle back to Plum Village.

Church in Loubes-Bernac

When it was nearly lunch time we realised that we would never make it back to Plum Village in time for lunch. We asked a lady in a car whether she knew a quick way back to “Village des Pruniers” to which she looked at us in disbelief and offered us a lift back. Maybe we were actually lost, just a little bit 🙂

Plum Village Sign

After a few minutes of driving back along the road we had come from, it was now actually raining, we arrived at the Plum Village car park, excited like little children at Christmas. We exuberantly thanked the kind lady, even threw a few bowings in, just because it had become so natural for us to do, which seemed to delight the kind lady, and we cheerfully went on to have lunch.

Soaking beans for dinner

Today I realised that just chewing slower isn’t really mindful eating if you are at the same time already digging in your bowl, preparing your spoon for the next load. So I tried to wait until my mouth was completely empty and then began filling my spoon. What a difference! It took me twice as long to finish my meal, which I really enjoyed. This meant that I even got caught out by the mindfulness bell twice 🙂

The big meditation hall

In the evening we had a “New Beginning Ceremony”, which follows on nicely after yesterday’s revelation. The ceremony involves a lot of  “touching the earth” practice and I vowed to myself that I would leave the past behind, to live unattached by it, to accept it as it is and to start anew from today. This beginning anew can be done as many times as you like. Listening to the nun reading from a book, I begin to like the idea of it more and more, understanding that this practice helps to get rid of old grudges you hold towards others and to simply start again with a new mindset.

Buddha statue outside Dharma Nectar Hall

It differs slightly to my usual “trying to forget and get over it” in that it is actually leaving the past behind and not just jumping over it in an attempt to move on. But it also doesn’t mean you simply forget, but that you understand the mistakes of yourself and others and try to make it better the next time. It would also help if you share this with another person, particularly one that you have a disagreement with. If only it was that easy…

Swing under big oak tree

I’m spending the sunny evening on the swing, hanging from the massive oak tree with its deep green roof of leaves, listening to the evening song of a nun with the regular gong of the big bell inbetween. Apart from that, the wind in the trees and the distant song of birds, there is silence. Even the frogs in the pond are silent.

Big Bell

Letting go at the Second Day of Mindfulness

It took exactly 48 hours for me to begin to cry, of all places right in the middle of dinner. It had been mentioned during our introduction that it is common to cry when we begin to slow down, because we finally have the time to stop and give our feelings a chance to speak. I didn’t think then that I had anything to cry about. Anyhow, I didn’t come here to solve emotional problems. I came here to slow down and become calmer.

After the early morning meditation, my own much needed yoga practice and another nutritious breakfast taken mindfully in silence with the only interruption being the mindfulness bell, the whole Sangha of the Lower Hamlet set off in white mini vans through the rolling hills of Southern France, to visit the Upper Hamlet for a get-together with the other brothers and sisters of Plum Village.

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Questions and Answers with Brothers and Sisters

This was the time for my headphones to shine. We sat together with about 200 monks, nuns and lay friends in the big hall of the Upper Hamlet, listening to questions and answers of anyone who had something to say from their heart, which was simultaneously translated into French, English and Vietnamese. A cheerful choir of Vietnamese nuns sing merrily, while the monks sit silently, smiling.

Parlez vous anglais?

Considerate problem solving and translations

Today was a really beautiful sunny day as the whole 200 people set off slowly through the plum trees and up the hill on a silent walking meditation. I am convinced that if a big group of Buddhists is walking over a field, not a single flower will be bent. We stop further up the hill and sit on the grass, overlooking the Upper Hamlet and beyond. All you can hear is the birds singing and crickets chirring.

Walking Meditation under Plum Trees

Silent rest from walking

“Formal Lunch” is taking place seated in the big hall. All the brothers and sisters have brought along their own eating bowls and my room mate had advised me to just use a bowl instead of a plate. “It is much easier to eat”, she had said with a twinkle. I was quite excited to sit on the floor in a traditional Buddhist way, eating my lunch, but alas, as we entered the hall, all the brothers and sisters were sitting gracefully and serene on their cushions with their filled lunch bowls in front of them, men on the right, women on the left, while normal chairs awaited us lay friends in the back rows.

No shoes inside!

After everyone has finally arrived, a talk about the importance of mindful eating suggests to focus solely on our food and to be aware of the process it has undergone, from being sown, harvested, transported, washed, cooked, prepared and to be grateful for all those involved in the process, who made it possible for us to have this meal here and now. We therefore ought to eat slowly and mindfully, chewing at least 30 times. It was probably the most awkward meal I have ever taken. It is these situation that put you to the test.

I was very hungry all the while it took probably about 30 to 45 minutes from cueing up at the buffet table to walking to the hall, waiting for everyone else to arrive, listening to someone talk about food and then sitting on a chair with an aching back, balancing a hot bowl of food in one hand, trying to get the mix of rice, noodles, tofu, soup and vegetables out with a spoon and fork with the other hand, all the while feeling terribly looked at by a wall of about 100 male faces of monks and lay men in complete silence.

What an experience! I certainly don’t value my food anywhere near far enough!

In the afternoon we have another round of Dharma Sharing in a group of English speakers from all hamlets. That’s where it started. As I was listening to a brother talk about the non-acceptance he encounters from his parents, neither now that he is an ordained Buddhist monk, nor before that, something inside of me stirred. He finished his sharing saying that he hopes that his story maybe helps someone else to come to terms with their issues.

I felt like a volcano about to erupt from the inside, yet from the outside I remained calm, joined my hands to bow into the round to signal I would like to say something. As everyone bowed back in acceptance, turning to me to listen, I was lost for words. “Actually, this doesn’t help me at all”, I said, apologizing that I don’t mean it like that, just that for me, it is much more than not being accepted, it is more that I am actually not even being seen at all! If someone smiles at you, it means that he accepts you and likes you. If someone shouts at you, you feel uneasy and think you have done something wrong. But if someone doesn’t even see you and ignores you, does that mean you are invisible?

As I said that I also felt that I couldn’t breathe anymore. The underlying issue here is my father, who decided before my birth that he didn’t want to have anything to do with me. It is a long story. Recent letters have been left unanswered. He simply sticks to his decision. To him I am invisible. I bowed out to the group, feeling strangely lightheaded.

Buddha statues at the Upper Hamlet.
Am I invisible?

We left the Upper Hamlet shortly after and returned to the Lower Hamlet just in time for dinner. Mealtimes seem to dominate the days here 🙂

I still felt a little strange. Entering the dining hall, putting together yet another bowl of delicious vegan cuisine, I decide to sit opposite one of the girls. Only earlier in the day did it emerge that she had German parents, something that connects us. We looked at each other and giggled. We sat and ate in silence. This is not unusual here, though at dinner it is okay to talk quietly, if you like. But I have been conditioned to make conversation, was even told when I was younger that I was strange for not talking much. Accordingly, I felt mildly uneasy, because my conditioned mind believed it would be appropriate to make at least a little bit of conversation. We didn’t.

When the other girl had finished her dinner, she bowed, I bowed back, we smiled and she left the hall to wash her dishes while tears had already began streaming down my cheeks. Oh dear. Here we were. They just rolled and rolled. I finished my dinner as mindfully quick as I could, washed my dishes without looking up too much and headed straight for the small meditation hall.

Inside the small meditation hall

There I sat and sobbed my heart out until I felt a sense of calmness surrounding me. At times I laughed, at times I was quiet, most times I just sobbed. I read aloud all the Vietnamese words from the wooden boards on the walls in a way that would probably make Buddha himself weep and released my sadness with the practice of “touching the earth”, which I had learned only this morning.

I know that the mere act of my dinner companion leaving had triggered the feelings of rejection I feel from my father. And I really hadn’t come all the way here to France to work through this stuff again. I actually thought I was done with it, had talked about it and worked through it a lot over the past years. But then I also realised that this part of me that was sobbing on the floor here was a part that had still been invisible until now. Because it had never been seen by anyone before, hadn’t been recognized by my father, it had also been invisible to myself.

And the only thing to make this unseen part in me visible was to stop and slow down, which I hardly ever do. Never, to be honest. I am always off to the next adventure, a never ending journey of self-discovery. I am glad that I was able to find a save space to stop and finally see this invisible core of myself and to give it the much needed opportunity to express itself.

Another small bell at Plum Village

I saw that because it was out of my control, because I couldn’t make my father look at me, that this is why I have trouble breathing…this whole issue, his decision, was literally and figuratively cutting off my life supply. And since we have been practicing a lot of breathing and letting go here the past two days, it had finally emerged. We burry so much inside of us by busying ourselves with all sorts of stuff!

I thought I had been over it, but I realise now that it was my mind that had been over it, but not my heart. It isn’t my fault. I can only carry on with my existence and accept that my father had problems of his own and that it isn’t my task to solve them. And I decide I will write this to him.

You can now read the letter here.

The First Day of Mindfulness

The sound of the big bell travels through the darkness at five o’clock in the morning. Grey figures slowly wander towards the big hall for the morning meditation. The air is fresh and crisp. I am serenely excited.

Silent on the way to the early morning meditation

The fresh morning air is lovely and after  an hour of meditation I decide to practice yoga in the Dharma Nectar Hall, stretching my limbs and aching back. I’m not used to sit in meditation for that long.

Another bell breaks the silence, announcing that breakfast is ready. A mouthful of porridge gets stuck in my mouth as another gong prompts us to pause for a moment of mindfulness. Nobody talks, nobody shoves and jostles, nobody complains. Everyone moves together in silent unity.

Small Bell

I catch myself repeatedly noticing that my shoulders continuously gravitate upwards, tightening themselves unnoticed. Every time the mindfulness bell sounds, I automatically tense up, as if I fear something is going to attack me if I stop for a moment. I attempt to teach myself to take a deep breath when the bell sounds and to relax and drop my shoulders.

Time is different here. Sometimes you have a few hours spare, then suddenly there are only a few minutes left. Sometimes we get caught out and we jump up and hurry towards the door to put our shoes on and then remember that we are practicing mindfulness and try to walk solemnly to the next task. But some people really walk just too slow 🙂

After breakfast, we sit together in a circle for “Dharma Sharing”, reading passages from “Awakening of the Heart” by Thich Nhat Hanh, talking about our present feelings, listening to the sound of the huge bowl, while I watch an ant beginning the long journey toward the centre of the circle. I am aware that I still carry this awful misplaced feeling inside my gut. The passage I read from the book suitably talks about the connection between our mind and our physical body.

Huge Sitting Bell

Then we walk slowly in a “walking meditation” along green fields, very slowly in peaceful silence. I notice how much more tiring slow walking is compared to my usual fast pace. It is interesting to notice my thoughts and feelings when someone overtakes or stops in front of me. I’m so easily distracted by others 🙂

Green France

I begin to notice a mild headache, which slowly gets heavier as the day goes on. I wonder if it is because I’m still too tensed up or if this could even be the beginning of relaxation. I’m also very tired … the whole sitting upright all day…

Today’s Schedule (click to enlarge)

Today’s schedule proposed “working meditation”, the mindful carrying out of general cleaning duties. I was allocated to remove cobwebs from the dining room and veranda. Now, take this figuratively and you realise that you don’t just remove the cobwebs from the ceiling, but the whole act of being mindful, doing this simple task with every cell of your body, to try and keep your thoughts in the very moment that you are working, you begin to push through your very own mental cobwebs and begin to clear them away. Not to forget the grand sensation of achievement after it is all so much cleaner.

There is a lot of singing in Plum Village. Sometimes we sing in English, sometimes in French, sometimes in Vietnamese, sometimes nobody knows the melody. Everyone seems to simply enjoy the act of singing, no need to know the words or melody. I don’t sing very much.

Centre Building at Plum Village

I spend my free time in the afternoon walking around the lotus pond, past frogs that disappear with a plop and splash underwater, and lingering by the big bell. Have been walking in circles around the centre of Plum Village a lot. A kind of restlessness.

Now it is silent again, noble silence, until tomorrow after breakfast. It is very relaxing, nobody feels like they ought to say something, no unnecessary words just to fill gaps.

Wholesomeness 🙂

Big Bell and Lotus Lake

Surprise Company on the Road to Mindfulness

The weather really hasn’t shown it’s best side since I had left England, but I was way too excited to finally get to Plum Village, so despite the accompanying rain I optimistically got back on the road for the last day of driving to mindfulness.

After a few hours of driving south, past many more vineyards, the weather cheered up a little. It was only while serenely driving up alongside a canal with uncountable flood-gates, enabling small boats to travel up the canal, that I became aware of the presence of a protector. I could sense this presence, definitely male, definitely some higher hierarchy and definitely on the roof of my car. Upon checking in more with this presence, I chuckled. To mind came Jason from the Argonauts, wielding his sword at animated skeletons and Twilight’s Emmett, atop a pick up truck. Don’t ask 🙂

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This other-worldly protector was here purely to ensure my safe travel and quite obviously enjoying the ride. Head up in the wind, on all four on my roof, a big smile on his face, with his steel-engraved leather straps and sword flapping in the wind. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at this visual image of him that I had and the sheer joy of having him there, knowing I would arrive safely, wherever the road would lead me.

Even though I still wasn’t entirely sure what exactly the term “mindfulness” encompassed, I knew that my week at Plum Village would entail a lot of meditation, vegan cuisine and, well, to be mindful with anything you do, particularly with those around you. While on the road I found it nearly impossible to find vegan food. At this moment I was probably still digesting the Boeuf Bourguignon from last night’s exclusive hotel restaurant experience (it was easy to order and I knew what it was).

Today, however, I felt like I couldn’t possibly eat meat and carry it into a vegan area. It just felt wrong. Luckily I found a service area along the route where I could choose a selection of cooked food, so I loaded a plate up with rice and different vegetables, while trying to make the lady behind the counter understand that I really didn’t want any meat. I was secretly hoping it would make up for the many lives of flies that were left on my windscreen (not to mention the bird that plunged onto my roof later).

It is pretty much the same food that I load on my plate at the dining hall in Plum Village a few hours later. I feel insecure, I’d rather run and hide, I am terribly, terribly scared that I do something wrong,  and in my throat is a big lump, which makes it really difficult to eat this simple but nice food. I feel that everyone is staring at me and take the giggling from a group of nuns personal. I was convinced that I sat where I shouldn’t have sat and felt like an intruder into the overall stillness in which everyone was eating so peacefully.

I gulped my food down past the lump as quickly as possible and got up and out of the hall, following others who are carrying their dishes. Outside are basins with water – one to wash with a little soap and three more to rinse it off – and finally a rack to leave the clean dishes to dry. Playing copycat during the process and then I went on to put my belongings into my room, which I had been shown by one of the Vietnamese nuns.

A lady hesitantly calls my name. She is my room mate and her name is Ana, just like mine. She helps me settle and shows me around. I begin to feel more at ease. The sight of a nun on a lawn mower makes me laugh, easing my insecurities even more.

Among other new arrivals, I sit in the small meditation hall, sucking in the subtle scent of wet and old wood, following the introductory talk and learning that to be mindful, it is important to smile at yourself, to smile at your thoughts, to breathe and to walk.

Sitting outside on the green grass later, listening to the Vietnamese chanting of a nun as she sounds the big bell, inviting noble silence, while lightning and thunder roll over the green hills of Plum Village. Beautiful!

I have arrived – but I am not home yet … the week to come will speak for itself.

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Travelled from Vougeot (3) to Plum Village (4). Click to enlarge map.

Exploring Ancient Roads on the Way to Mindfulness

After eight more hours behind the wheel, having passed many yellow rapeseed fields, it feels like I am getting a pressure sore on my heel. Why was I driving the whole journey again?

Something in me resonates with our connection to ancient trade routes, wondering how old and much travelled the road I’m currently travelling on is. For starters, you don’t get that feeling with flying. There you get catapulted high up into thin air only to be plunged back down onto mother earth a few hours later, where you are then let loose again, slightly disorientated and confused about your precise whereabouts in the known universe.

The town I live in in England has a relatively new harbour (opened in 1993), which was developed from the beachland and gives me a similar feeling of confusion that I get from flying. All the buildings there are build in a similar new style and the roads are newly mapped. Every time I go there, I have the overwhelming feeling of being lost. And I’m not the only one who gets lost there, nor am I someone who easily gets lost in the first place. A thought appeared that maybe it is because it is all newly built and therefore bears no connection to any old or ancient routes, which is why my unconscious route planner has no signal to pick up on in regards to which way to go.

There are a lot of places on earth that I feel an immense connection and sense of awe with. Some might be unconscious, e.g. the fact that I learned after I had booked myself into Plum Village (where I am heading at the moment) that there is a cave nearby in which my prehistoric ancestors survived the last ice age about 24 000 years ago. And also the fact that I left my home country of Germany to live in England, where I feel much more at home. To me, that means a lot.

Most of the early ancient trampled pathways are nowadays big major transport links. This became visibly clear when approaching Langres, France, which is an impressive big town, towering on top of a hill, clearly visible to everyone from a long distance. I could also judge this by road names such as “Route de Paris, Route de Dijon, Route de…” you get the idea. Like how Napoleon had set up avenues of trees so that his troops could walk in the cool shade.

After discovering that Dijon has indeed a very strange smell about itself, the Route des Grands Crus, or road of the great wines (approx. 60 kilometre tourist route from Dijon to Santenay in Burgundy, France) brought me to Vougeot, where a colleague had arranged a room for me in a hotel she used to work at. Amidst many, many acres of vineyards, including a small castle, I settled for a much earned overnight break.

Castle at Vougeot

Castle at Vougeot

Hunting for food, in the literal sense, can be difficult when you are travelling in a country whose language you’re not quite capable of (and if you have a slug phobia and are terrified the French might accidentally serve these to you). I’m, however, quite pleased with the few words I had learned and accordingly barged into a hotel restaurant saying: “Je voudrais la carte s’il vous plait”. And whenever anyone started jabbering in French I politely said: “Je ne parler pas France, parle vous Anglais?.” Excuse my spelling mistakes, I can just about master talking 🙂

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So I found myself sitting at a table with a deep wine red coloured table cloth, looking over the opposing empty chair through a massive panorama window onto the garden with pool and a mill wheel, which was merrily turning around itself in the small river that bizarrely disappeared under a house. Most of the time I felt uneasy sitting there on my own … once again the expectations of others … but then I heard myself talk in French and it strangely put me at ease with myself. And then I even topped myself with “Excuse moi, monsieur , je voudrais la addition s’il vous plait.” Why, the French language is quite beautiful and soo serene 🙂

Plenty of wine

Plenty of wine

Still, despite this being famous wine tasting territory, I did not try any, simply because I just don’t like it.

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Travelled from Germany (2) to Vougeot in France (3). Click for larger image.

On the Road to Mindfulness

As I am setting off by car into the exciting unknown, I notice a slight feeling of uneasiness. It is almost like as if I fear that everything will be different when I come back. And I’m asking myself why I even go on a journey of self-discovery, where I am already with myself right here and now? Cliché thinking 🙂

I chose to travel by car to see more of the surroundings, to pay my mother a visit on the way and to avoid flying, which my anxiety has been rebelling against a little in recent years. But I also noticed how much the driving contributed to me slowing down, to tune into a more mindful approach of thinking and being. Like as if I slowed down already with every mile that I got closer to Plum Village.

I love road trips and the planning that goes with it. I could sit stooped over a map forever and forget the time while exploring all the corners of a country, possible places to see, yet unknown territory, wondering what it might look like. Leaving England on the ferry at Dover, feeling the fresh wind around my nose and the familiar white chalk cliffs slowly fading in the distance, with the French coast already waiting for me at the opposing horizon, I feel free and I can’t help but smile to myself.

Eight hours later I arrive at my mum’s town in Germany and the first thing I notice is the sweet and refreshing scent of the green leafed trees and blossoms, saturated from the rain. A scent like this I haven’t came across in England yet and I wonder if it is specific to the local trees here? It smells like home.

The next morning I sit by the window in my mum’s living room, overlooking the garden I played in when I was younger, listening to the rain as it drums onto the plastic cover over the annex. I’m asking myself where mindfulness begins. I have trouble putting my phone aside without fully knowing whether anyone needs to get hold of me urgently. Do I really have to be on call all the time? Does my phone really always have to be ready to receive a call? Is it important to check my emails on regular intervals? What will happen to the planning of our retreat in England if emails don’t get answered straight away and no comments are left on Facebook to show we are engaging in our business?

Will something change if I simply go my way without constantly aiming to be a better person and to be available for others? It would be so good if I could become calmer and were able to let go, and wouldn’t feel the persistent need to capture each moment by all means instead of simply living with full awareness in the present. How calming the drumming rain is…

Nowadays we are expected to have access to email and phone at all times. And if we don’t, it is our own fault if we miss out on something. Worst is that others start to worry if they can’t get hold of us immediately. Other’s expectations….

I spend the afternoon and evening discussing ancestors and looking at old photos with my mother and grandmother over a raw chocolate cake I had made for my mum’s birthday. For over 200 years can my recent ancestors been traced back to having lived in this area. This is mostly the female line. I dive into the lush green woodlands around the town, trotting on my family’s pathways before I retreat to bed to be ready for my next journey in the early morning.

I saw a fairy gate on my travels in the woods. These are like doorways to another realm. Just look at the difference in colours before and after the bow! For me, it is the perfect symbol for the beginning of my journey to mindfulness.

Travelled from England to Germany

Travelled from England to Germany

Fullness of Mind vs Mindfulness

What on earth possessed me to spend a week at a Buddhist monastery somewhere in France?

Do you really want to know?

It was a simple smile from an Asian woman on a page in a magazine, that touched my heart and stirred something inside of me, that was serenely humble and yet still a little fragile at that point. In fact, her smile had such an impact on me, that I not only had to include her on my vision board collage that I was creating at that time  (read about it here), but also looked her up and upon realising that she had created Plum Village, a Buddhist retreat, together with Thich Nhat Hanh, a well known peace activist and author of a hundred books, I booked myself in straight away.

Looking at this collage again now, two months later, after having experienced the wonders of Plum Village, I see that basically all the word snippets around the smiling Chân Không describe what I found during my stay at Plum Village! To start with, the moon was exactly like pictured, slowly increasing. There was a lotus lake and though there were no lotus blossoms yet, I found a card with the photo of a lotus flower that spoke to me with the saying “No mud, no lotus.”, which has a profound meaning to me.

During that week, my mind became indeed “luminous and empty”, I meditated on a mat pretty exactly like the one on the collage, even the same colour, believe it or not! Intentional change, path of peace, life’s journey… very vague, but apt. Plenty of Buddha statues, and roses and feelings and love.

“A life free of fear, pain, insecurity and doubt is not only possible, it’s our birth right.” This peacefulness I found at Plum Village. It was my “season of awakening”.

I would like to share my path to mindfulness with my mind ever so full of stuff that didn’t serve it anymore. Read on if you would like to join me on this liberating journey to peace of mind!

Love
Anna