It is my last day at Plum Village. I have survived the 21-day meditation retreat in the south of France and tomorrow I depart.
I have noticed that people get tense when they travel. I think it is because they are outside of their comfort zone. Unfamiliar surroundings make people confused and anxious.
The practice of mindfulness expands your comfort zone — infinitely. In fact, a good practitioner is at ease anywhere and everywhere. We think certain situations are stable and unchanging. We know what to expect. Consider the freedom that comes with the understanding that everything is in constant flux. When I discard my expectations, I wake up to the world. In these past three weeks I’ve been training myself to appreciate, receive and be present for every moment, exactly the way it is and exactly the way it isn’t.
Thich Nhat Hanh was once asked, “How do you spend your free time?” He replied that this question assumes that there is time that is free and time that is not free. When you are capable of choosing every moment just the way it is, all time is free.
It is a whole lot easier to behave like that here in a supportive community than it is out in the world. Yet every small step forward is a net gain. Here are some easy ways to practice:
Mindful eating: Slow down, savor small bites and chew thoroughly. Studies show that people who eat more slowly avoid overeating. Honor your food — when you eat, only eat.
Mindful walking: Each day use the time you walk from the parking lot to your office as a meditation. Feel the earth under your feet. Peace is every step.
Bells of mindfulness: Turning on the light, brushing your teeth, walking up stairs. Choose any activity you perform every day and let that act remind you to come home to yourself. Take refuge in this moment. You don’t need to wait to reach your bed to rest. You can relax right now and breathe. It only takes one or two breaths to feel refreshed.
I am still learning the basic principles of Buddhist philosophy. I have been practicing meditation in the style of Thich Nhat Hanh for two years. I love the rituals and ceremony connected with the practice, plus the supportive energy of the sangha (a group of people who practice sitting and walking meditation together on a regular basis).
This retreat was called “The Science of the Buddha.” It turns out that the basic tenets of Buddhist thought line up remarkably well with recent discoveries in the area of quantum physics, like the interdependence of all things and the nonlocal nature of reality.
For more information on this topic, read “The Quantum and the Lotus” by astrophysicist Dr. Trinh Zuan Thuan and Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard. Dr. Thuan presented ideas from his book at this retreat, as did Harvard-trained nutritionist Dr. Lilian Cheung, who spoke on her book, “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.” For a simple, basic introduction to Buddhist philosophy, I recommend “Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living” by Thich Nhat Hanh.
This year is the 30th anniversary of Plum Village. In 1966, Thay (our nickname for Thich Nhat Hanh, meaning “teacher”), was invited to speak at Cornell University and left Vietnam for a three-month speaking tour in the West. Because he spoke out in favor of peace and reconciliation and against the war, the government of Vietnam refused him re-entry to his homeland. Thus began a 40-year exile, which led to the establishment of a practice community at Plum Village in the south of France in 1982.
Thay’s teachings took hold in the West. Throughout the world, his influence as a Buddhist teacher is second only to the Dalai Lama. If he hadn’t been exiled from his homeland, this would not be the case.
Thay’s experience reminds me of the story of the farmer whose only horse ran away. The villagers bemoaned the bad luck of the farmer. Later, the horse returned with a second horse. “What a lucky man!” the villagers proclaimed. The farmer’s son tried to tame the wild horse and was thrown off and broke his leg. “How unlucky,” the villagers said. The next day, the army came through the village and took every able-bodied young man to fight in the war. The farmer’s son was spared because of his broken leg. And so it goes. We never know if our glass is half empty or half full.
I came to Plum Village to transform. Instead I learned the art of transformation, tools that I can use again and again to nourish happiness and ease. If I look deeply enough into the compost, I will see the rose that is already there. The Buddhists would say this is not wishful thinking, but rather the true nature of all things. Viewing life like that, as one continuous energy flow, relaxes my mind and leaves me with a peaceful heart.
This column is part three 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on Plum Village Monastery, visit www.plumvillage.org.