I am sitting on a patio at dusk in the French countryside and the landscape is dotted with timber and stucco farmhouses surrounded by fields of corn, poppies and asparagus. Behind me is the Mulberry Gatehouse, a dormitory-style residence that will be my home for the next three weeks.
I am at a 21-day retreat at Plum Village in the south of France. I am here to transform. I will learn the practice of mindfulness with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.
Plum Village is a kind of Garden of Eden. It is a Buddhist monastery just east of Bordeaux, a compound of four hamlets. I am living at New Hamlet, which I signed up for because I figured it was “new” (modern), but instead it is so called because it was the most recent acquisition. New Hamlet is humble and serene, yet the water pressure is great and the showers are hot, which counts for a lot.
In our section, we are five to a room. I’m lucky because one of my roommates has brought every convenience known to man and she shares readily.
There are 200 guests from 26 countries speaking 17 languages in New Hamlet. The program is being translated into Thai, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese and French. The total guest count for all four hamlets (Upper, Middle, New and Lower Mountain Temple) is 850 and there are 170 monks and nuns.
How do we practice? It is so simple: We breathe. While we breathe, we know that we are breathing. This is the technique that keeps us in the present moment. This is the instruction we’ve paid thousands of dollars and traveled from all over the globe to receive.
It may be simple, but can you do it? Try to keep your attention focused exclusively on your in-breath from beginning to end. Then maintain your attention completely on your out-breath all the way through, without thinking of anything else. How about the next breath? And the next? When did your mind wander off?
This daily practice refreshes and trains our minds to wake up to the miracle of life in the only place where life happens: in the here and the now. When we can focus our minds, there is a natural progression from awareness to concentration to insight.
Most of us spend a lot of time dwelling in the past, in memory or regret, and in the future, in fantasy or fear. Generally, we take life in this moment for granted. It is easy for us to forget to show up for our appointment with life right here, right now. That’s why more than 1,000 of us have come together to support each other, to remind each other to sit, to walk, to eat and to live in awareness.
So what is it like? It is Day Five and already I’m feeling crabby because it is a “lazy day.” It’s throwing me off. I’ve lost my groove. It must be that I thrive on structure. Normally the morning bell rings at 5 a.m. At 5:30 we exercise: walking for health, Qi Kong bamboo stick exercise or yoga. Then sitting meditation from 6:30 to 7:15am. Next is breakfast in silence, followed by a two-hour talk from Thich Nhat Hanh, whom we lovingly call “Thay” (pronounced “tie”), which means “teacher” in Vietnamese.
When his lecture takes place in one of the other hamlets, we are afforded a 20-minute bus ride through the beautiful French countryside, which we also take in silence. The silence occurs like an ocean of peace.
The afternoon schedule goes like this: walking meditation, lunch, small group discussion, working meditation (I wash and chop vegetables), dinner and an evening program.
There is one “lazy day” every week. The idea behind it is to practice the art of doing nothing, to have no agenda, to simply follow your nose. An impromptu game of ping-pong with a German woman who is living in the camping area turns out to be the highlight of my “lazy day.”
I spend most of the rest of the day noticing how much certain other people annoy me, especially the complainers. Whatever is happening, you can count on them to be complaining about it. Every time I turn around there’s another one right next to me. I become more and more irritated and obsessed with their behavior until I realize that complaining about the complainers makes me one of them.
It looks like I have some more practicing to do. Lucky for me, there are 16 days of retreat still left.
This column is part one of a three-part series on Sandy Cyrus’ retreat at Plum Village. Cyrus teaches yoga at her Orono studio, Full Circle Yoga. She can be reached at email@example.com. For information on Plum Village Monastery, visit www.plumvillage.org.