Orono yoga instructor finds mindfulness in a needle and thread at French retreat

Orono yoga teacher Sandy Cyrus in Wheel Pose at Plum Village.
Courtesy of Sandy Cyrus
Orono yoga teacher Sandy Cyrus in Wheel Pose at Plum Village.
Posted July 19, 2012, at 5:57 p.m.

It’s another “lazy day” at Plum Village. It is day 11 of the 21-day retreat. There has been a rematch with the pingpong playing German camper and the standing is USA-2, Germany-0. The second game went into triple overtime.

We are all starting to make deep personal connections, discovering our similarities. There’s the Englishwoman whose father might have fought side by side with mine in the second World War, other women who have been recently widowed as I was 20 years ago, and women with grown children the same age as mine who are going through similar life experiences.

Oh yes, and remember those complainers who were driving me crazy last week? In every case, I’ve found out something astounding about them worthy of my respect: a lifelong career nursing dying patients, a woman coping to live with brain injury, a Reiki master. With understanding, the walls between us come down. The best thing I can do for myself with those who create aversion in me is invite them to tea.

Initially hesitant in our surroundings, we now move purposefully with ease between the greenhouse and the dining room, the tea table and the meditation hall. Tea drinking is a kind of meditation practice here. Each practice is accompanied by a little verse that reminds us to wake up to what we are doing: “This cup of tea in my two hands, mindfulness is held perfectly. My mind and body dwell in the very here and now.” You can try it with your coffee, too.

As I enter my second week here, now that the novelty has worn off, I wonder how I will pass the time. To really sink into this experience and make it my own, I’ve been opting out of some scheduled activities, making time for my own personal yoga practice, rest, reading and laundry (by hand). Slowing down creates spaciousness. I notice this feels like a luxury and wonder how I can insist upon it when I return to my everyday life.

A nun asks, “Can anybody here sew?” I raise my hand. I get hauled off from the vegetable chopping team and plunked down in the sewing room.

The nuns are choreographing a pageant, or a ballet, or something (my Vietnamese isn’t too good, but I think I get the idea). They want to know if I can design and construct some costumes — four birds, two butterflies and a deer. I’ve spent a lifetime working in the theater. I think to myself, “You have come to the right place.” Pedal to the metal.

Four hours and one butterfly later, I notice that from the moment I threaded the needle, mindfulness flew right out the window. I fell into what the Buddhists call my “habit energy.” You know it’s your habit energy when it takes you four hours to realize that you’re even doing it. It is not until the last two stitches that I think to bring myself present to the sensation of the needle penetrating the fabric, the movement of pulling the thread through, the feeling of the thread taut in my hands.

Until then I had proceeded in my typical way, a kind of determined panic, seasoned with just a hint of martyr. But in those last two mindful stitches, I found the freshness and joy in the action that had been there all the time, if only I had reached to touch it.

This is exactly why we ring the bell. We call it the bell of mindfulness. It says pay attention; notice what you are doing. It asks “Are you touching this moment completely?” At Plum Village you don’t need a watch. Just listen for the bell. Fifteen minutes before the next activity, and just before meals, a nun will invite the bell outside the dining hall. (We say “invite” rather than “strike,” as the bell is our friend.) At the sound of the bell, everyone everywhere stops in their tracks and enjoys three breaths. It is a magical moment.

They also do it when the phone rings, or the clock chimes. You can do the same practice yourself with the doorbell or a car horn or whenever you hear the singing of birds. Anything can be a bell of mindfulness, ushering you home to your own breath to receive the nourishing and refreshing qualities of the present moment.

This has been a very good “lazy day.”

This column is part two 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 fullcircleyoga@yahoo.com. For information on Plum Village Monastery, visit www.plumvillage.org.

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