Why would you spend a full 90 days in a mindfulness practice centre in the winter retreat, living with many monastic and lay sisters? How did you make it possible to have that time from your “real” life? What were the challenges? How have you changed?
Our long-term friends at the New Hamlet, Plum Village France candidly responded to these questions.
Pauline, a young French friend – learning to embrace suffering
I first came here for the 2013 Wake-up Retreat. I am a Christian and it was here that I discovered selfless love. There were overwhelming moments where I touched so much love that I wanted to stay then, but I could not. It took some courage to be here for the winter, to allow a blank on my resume.
I came with a big suffering. This is the perfect place to learn how to be with it, to embrace it. I learnt how to take care of my thoughts, to be kind and gentle with myself, to speak to myself as a mother would speak to her child. During one walking meditation as I was surrounded by many people, I decided it was a good time to let my suffering come up. When it appeared, I simply said to it, as Thay says, “I am here for you.” And I heard a little voice inside that said: “oh, thank you so much.” I said to it: “yeah, it’s ok, I am here for you.” I felt I could stay with it, and it lessened. Afterwards, I felt great peace and joy. For the first time in my life, I realised that I could stay with it. I would not die from it.
When I go home, I hope to keep taking care of what’s going on in my head, continue to meditate and walk mindfully. My dad visited me here for one week. After returning home, mum called me and said, “Oh, your dad is so well behaved after the time at Plum Village.” Then my sister called and said, “Dad told me it was a great experience and that I should also come here with my boyfriend.” I am so happy to see how it spreads.
Ania from Poland – learning to listen to myself
One of my aspirations was to learn how to listen deeply. It was very challenging to start listening to myself. It scared me. I knew that different parts of my body were saying different things. The energy in my body is not flowing; I am not very balanced energetically. In this way, I cannot know what I really want and I cannot understand other people. The communication is not possible if I don’t understand what I want and what other people want. I started to work on this.
I experienced the spaciousness and timelessness here. In this non-pressure environment, I can function better and find a natural way of being. Because of this, I found a place in me where I can listen to my own voice. I started to listen from this point where there is no identification or expectation. I started to look at myself this way, and perceive others in the same way. That’s how I found the gratitude for being alive.
Christina from Greece – funding the future with the present
I know that I will really see the fruits of the practice when I go back home, and slowly, slowly in my life. But I already see some now. For the first time in my life, I feel that I am connecting with my ancestors, with my inner child. I feel it organically instead of mentally. Before, I had been thinking about them, but now I feel them inside my body. It really brings a feeling of being reunited inside, of unity.
I first came to Plum Village in 2017 for one week. I was exhausted then because I had run a very rich and intense youth programme for two years. When I arrived, I felt this huge relief. I felt intuitively that here is a harbour for me; I can stay here and be held. I had been holding myself for a while and I didn’t have much more space inside to go on holding without being held.
Coming to the Winter Retreat was a challenge for me at the start. Since last year, I’d been looking for sustainable funding and partners for the youth programme. I wasn’t sure if I had made the right choice by coming here. It took me two weeks to really let go, to really live this experience here and not be half there. I have the trust that by being here, I am in fact funding the programme by deepening and opening more space inside myself. From this space and with my aspiration, things will manifest. My partner has also made it possible by supporting me to be here.
What I feared the most was sharing living space with others. But it was incredibly easy. I don’t know if it is this particular group of people. I remember after the first two weeks, I felt that I just loved them.
Isabelle from France – healing from illness
I took the opportunity of my illness this year to come to the Winter Retreat. I am grateful for the support of the sisters because they allowed me extra time to sleep, rest, and not move too much. It feels right to be here. If I stayed at home, I would have sunken into sleeping for the winter.
I’ve been coming to Plum Village over the past three years. There were many fruits after my first Winter Retreat. I could “change the CD” now, as Thay would say. For example, when I wake up at five o’clock, quite grumpy, I recite the “waking up” gatha (see below). Incredibly, I feel better. Recently, I was feeling down. But by looking out into nature, and listening to others’ sharings, I could feel a switch in my mood. Other friends are also coming to me with their positive energy. Before, I often felt separated. I feel it less now. It’s really nice to know that I can do it. The energy here holds us and really gives us so much.
My parents are taking care of my cats, very important for me. My Dad even said, “Can’t you find a way to stay at Plum Village?” They can feel how I am after a retreat.
When I am home, I am really using the gathas: “waking up”, “taking the first step”, “opening the window” etc. I could also slow down finally with my steps. It really took some time. One day while moving around at work, it dawned on me: “Oh, I am moving from A to B. This is time for me, just for me!” It felt so good to rest while walking because my work requires a lot of energy on different levels.
“Waking Up” Gatha
Waking up in the morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours ahead of me.
I vow to live fully in each moment,
And to look upon all beings with the eyes of compassion.
Jin from Korea – taking care of my mind
I came because I want to become a nun. It’s my first time to spend the winter here. Outside, though surrounded by friends and family, I often felt lonely. But here, I feel protected and embraced, as if the Sangha is a mother and I am a baby. At the same time, I am a mother and I can take care of my mind like a baby.
I’m seeing things and sufferings in myself that I’ve never seen before. Outside, we are busy. I always put on a pair of earphones and pretend not to care. I never looked into myself or took care of myself. But here, I took the time to be with myself on the inside. I shared with my parents that I am using 24 hours for me. Actually it is not only for me. Now I can feel that “I” am getting bigger.
Elka from Belgium – not escaping from difficulties
When I experience difficulties in life, it is always in close relationships such as a partner. I learnt as a child to always be kind to people. I cannot express my irritations. I always keep them inside. Last year in March, I really felt the need to practise in a sangha. A friend of mine told me about Plum Village. I wanted to come for a longer period to experience it fully. Since I create my own jobs, it was not hard to stop.
The first two months went very well. After New Year however, I met some things from myself. Some mud, things that I felt ashamed of, that I didn’t want to recognise. I always pushed them away, telling myself that I have to be kind, to love everybody, to be compassionate. That I cannot be like that, that it’s wrong. I was fighting with myself and struggling.
What I am learning now is to stay with those feelings and thoughts and let go of the story. To just see them, recognise them, accept them and embrace them. I try to stay quiet and calm even when there is a big storm inside and I want to escape. Sometimes I really want to leave, to go home, to escape far away, or escape by eating or buying things. But I can now talk to myself and say: “It’s ok. Just see this.” For me, that’s new.
Normally I close myself during difficult moments and stay closed for a long time. But living with the sangha, we have daily schedules, so I didn’t close myself fully but left my door a little open. Then someone would come and say something, or sing together, or laugh together and it changed my internal weather. I like that so much. I am taking this learning home with me.
Julie from France – connecting with ancestors
I left my studies and home three years ago to heal myself. I travelled a great deal, and had a spiritual practice that is quite personal and wild in some ways. During my travels, I realised that I needed the support of a spiritual community. It is too hard to practise alone. That brought me to Plum Village. What touches and nourishes me here is the emphasis on collective awakening. Not just individuals seeking separate enlightenment.
One Plum Village practice that was very new for me is to connect with our ancestors. This is not really so much in the French culture. I felt that I had enough problems with my parents and I didn’t need more ancestors.
All through winter, my emotions went up and down. Then recently, I felt a very strong anger that stayed for three days. I went to the Buddha Hall and sat for quite some time. Very naturally, I felt the need to touch the earth. The first touching was to express all the anger that I had against my ancestors, as well as my understanding of them. I know they did their best but I just had this huge anger against them. The second touching was for my spiritual ancestors. The third was for all the people in my life right now. This actually healed the anger. That helped me realise that I can have an awareness and control over my own life. I do not need to be a victim of it.
I felt a lot of softness and patience here among the sisters and friends. I marvelled at the different cultures that I didn’t know and enjoyed a lot. Among the sisters, there is a special mix of joy and seriousness that’s very spontaneous. I was not very joyful before because I was wounded, so I could not really laugh or have fun. But when I saw the sisters playing like little children, I felt my own joy coming up. I also feel that my monastic seeds have been watered.