By Brother Pháp Lữ and Brother Pháp Liệu
Brother Pháp Lữ and Brother Pháp Liệu were physicians in France before they became monks. After many years of monastic practice, they’ve offered many health and meditation retreats in several countries in order to share Applied Budhism and relieve suffering. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a lot of people are suffering from self-alienation in their daily life, and this can lead to mental or physical disease. Health and meditation retreats were started only three years ago, but within the lay as well as the monastic Plum Village Sangha, the number of supporters has been growing steadily.
Seven years ago, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at an advanced stage, which required a complete treatment with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. Because France has one of the best medical systems in the world, my mother and my whole family were totally confident in conventional methods of tratment. During the hospitalization, my mother received great care from the medical staff. Doctors and nurses worked with devotion and a strong spirit of responsibility. Once back at home, while undergoing chemotherapy as an outpatient, my mother had struggle against the destructive effects of chemotherapy. During the three days following each session of chemotherapy, she generally had high fever and nausea, leading to loss of appetite, exhaustion, and drowsiness througout the day. Three weeks later, she began losing her hair and symptom of anemia began to show up because the chemicals used in chemotherapy are a kind of poison, which, while killing the cancer cells, kill the blood and hair cells as well.
During these long three months of chemotherapy, my brothers and our immediate family were always present to comfort and support my mother. My monastic sangha compassionately allowed me to go home and take care of her. Every day I cooked for her – rice and vegetarian soup, according to macrobiotic recipes – and made the food nutritious and easy enough to digest. Macrobiotic soup helps with cleansing the body and eliminating toxins. Every morning, as I was aware of my mother’s weakness, I kept encouraging and guiding her in drill qigong stick excercise. Maybe thanks to all favorable conditions, and to her determination and strong will, my mother managed to keep a positive state of mind, and finally to overcome the disease. So far, she has recovered. My mother was very lucky to have her immediate family supporting her through this hard time. In Western countries where individualists and the nuclear family are prevailing ways of life, a sick person could be quite lonely at home fighting a disease and all the side effects of the treatment.
Western psychology has thoroughly analyzed and identified the sources of suffering in a patient. First, we can find biological sources such as pain and fatigue, physical symptoms, and side effects of the medicine. Second, there are psychological sources such as a feeling of having lost something (when surgery has removed an organ from the body), of being guilty (the patient blames himself or herself for the disease), and of despair in confronting an inacurable disease and feeling that the body is declining. Third, there are social sources of suffering: discontinuity and relationship breakups, loss of responsibilities or of a job, and isolation. Finally, we have existential and spiritual sources of suffering such as disillusionment, obsession with the fear of death, and also loss of living incentives. Although French medicine has determined the psychological needs of a patient, it doesn’t have the economic and human resources for treating these needs. As a result, the patient feels forsaken when he goes back home. The Health Retreat is a life buoy for these people.
If Engaged Buddhism was formally proposed as a solution to suffering in war, nowdays, Applied Buddhism has been initiated to cope with twenty-first century types of suffering. Health retreats show us how to practice mindfulness meditation in everyday life to recover our body and mind balance. But, curiously, the majority of participants are in good health. Indeed, health has always been an attractive subject for retreats, and the participants should feel many beneficial effects from practicing. In modern Western countries, if a person with an injured body is suffering, that is quite understandable, but even healthy people are suffering from life troubles. Many people undergo stress from preasures in their job, or from loneliness at home. A common denominator of disease nowdays is self-alienation. New information and communication technology along with powerful advertising, which promotes a modern lifestyle, concur to make people externalize their mind instead of living keenly in the present moment. This externalization, in the long run, leads to many disease of the body or mind.
The question is: how do participants benefit from health retreats? First of all, they learn how to stop, to follow their breath, to be conscious they are breathing, or to be conscious of their step in order to bring their mind back to their body. When body and mind are unified, the practicioner can be one hundred percent dedicated to the present moment and then can be capable of identifying and dealing with what is happening inside herself. She may then use her breath and her conscious steps to calm down and ease the tensions or aches in her body. Next, she learns how to recognize and handle her sensations, identify the pleasant from the unpleasant or neutral ones, and transform these neutral sensations into pleasant ones to stay happy. When a practicioner knows how to combine mindfulness energy with her breath and her conscious steps, then she finds happiness in the practice. She only needs to be aware of the numerous reason to be happy inside herself or all around her. For instance, she may be conscious that her mother is still alive, or that she still has both her eyes in good condition, allowing her to look at all the wonders of nature. She also learns how to take care of and handle sensations like anger or any other unkind feeling that come up in her mental formations.
The guidelines of practice in this healt retreat are the twelve breathing methods described in The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing (Anapanasati Sutta) combine with The Sutra of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta) and applied Buddhist Psychology or applied mental formations studies. As for the other Dharma practices, the teaching process is the same as in other retreats, such as those for families, parents, children, couples, young people, teachers, university or school students, psychoanalysts, scientists, businessmen, policemen, parliament members, etc. The meditation practicioner is shown how to practice sitting, walking, bowing, relaxing, eating, working, singing, etc. She learns that any moment can be devoted to meditation. In particular, after practicing listening and loving speech during Dharma talks or communication renewal talks, the practicioner may continue practicing at home to reestablish communication and relations with her beloved or to heal wounds in her family.
There are some specific features of the Health Retreat that everyone is fond of and remembers: first of all, the light and macrobiotic diet mostly composed of either organic vegetables or vegetables planted and harvested by monastics. Western meditation practicioners are very sensitive to whether or not healthy foods have been planted according to organic farming methods, without fertilizer or pesticides. Of course, we can’t take care of human health while setting aside environmental conditions and the health of the earth, the mother of all living beings. For retreat meals, the menu is always composed of simple and easily digested food like brown rice, boiled or raw vegetables, and fresh fruits or dry fruits (like chesnuts). Thanks to this mindful way of eating, which also means eating just the needed quantity of healthy food, our body is strengthened because it doesn’t have to spend much energy digesting. Even when people come to change their way of eating, practicioners notice that they can concentrate more easily during meditation sessions and so enjoy the retreat even more.
Now, concerning physical excercise, we practice full-body relaxation each day within small groups during workshops on health, in which we discuss subjects relevant to individual or group health. Every morning, before sitting for meditation, each participant begins to warm up her body and practices the qigong bowing method or the ten mindful movements. Then, after one hour of meditation, she continues with taichi movements, qigong stick excercise, or yoga. The teacher can always remind her to come back to her body, to focus her mind on every movement of her body, to be completely relaxed while executing the excercise, either bare-handed or with a stick, or during a yoga posture. The daily schedule includes two hours of each group to walk together as a family, under the guidance of brothers or sisters, who remind them to keep quite while walking. With light eating and a motivated mind, the body seems to feel younger and being backed by the strong group energy, most practicioners feel that their walking capacity and muscle activation has significantly improved. They don’t talk but are aware of each other’s presence and so care for each other. As a matter of fact, those who walk more quickly don’t mind waiting for the others. Halfway through their walk, they come to a halt and take the opportunity to enjoy the landscape, chat with each other, and have a snack or fruits and chesnuts or almonds. Walking up hills and breathing in oxygen help the practicioner to clear her mind and put aside every thought and worry during the two hour walk. One or two walking sessions like this are enough for people to know each other and start communicating. Before lunch, every practicioner carries out full relaxation meditation to ease all her limbs and also her internal organs. For most people, this is perhaps the first time they connect with their mind and focus on their heart, their lungs, their stomach, or their liver. When people manage to bring their mind back to their body in order to check and become present with every part of it, connect to it, become familiar with it, and express their love and gratitude to it, then harmony with this internal body parts is restored. Therapy can begin from this very moment.
After a light dinner, the organizers ask experienced practitioners who are familiar with therapy, whether they are monastics or laypeople, to lead thematic workshops about health. Thanks to a common will of contributing and sharing one’s own competence, we manage to have multiple interesting and rich thematic workshops such as: meditation dealing with incurable disease, the fear of death, mindfulness-based practices to handle aches and pains, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to prevent depression relapse, reduce stress, and reduce high blood pressure or asthma attacks. There are also workshops to help a practitioner connect to his childhood, workshops for art therapy, self-massage and accupressure, accupuncture and oriental medicine, macrobiotic therapy, etc.
In the massage and acupressure workshop, participants practice on each other but also learn how to receive care from each other because many of them are used to giving, but not receiving from others. Through this practice, within a small groups of twenty people at most, practitioners feel secure and nursed. A patient can be mentally supported by the group and then won’t feel left to fight his disease on his own. And during sharing moments, he finds out that there are many similar, if not worse, cases than his. A few sessions later, practitioners can begin to reveal themselves and confide their sufferings, removing their mental or physiological blocks. Many participants confess they’ve found Plum Village a family atmosphere they’ve lost at home. Through the contact with young brothers and sisters, they inherit their joyful, fresh, and spontaneous youthful energy. Within just one week of practicing, the seeds of peace, happiness, and fraternity inside each person have been watered. This is the most efficient medicine to treat loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
In short, although started just three years ago, health retreats have received the support and participation of more and more Western practitioners as well as of the Plum Village monastic Sangha. It is deeply satisfying for the project initiators when they see that the diet and nutrition regime in Plum Village has tended towards macrobiotics and that at the same time gymnastics has been promoted in the retreats. Health retreats are not meant to replace the conventional treatments of modern medicine. They just an opportunity for everyone to practice mindfulness, to bring back our mind to our body, and to let go of all preoccupations, worries, or fears in order to get rid of the stress syndrome and self-alienation, common disease in this information technology era. When sick people can practice relaxation and smile again, then a miracle might happen at that moment because the power of self-healing is functioning. Actually, this is not the main focus of the retreat. We just hope the practitioner, once back home, will keep practicing to successfully diminish his suffering, generating joy and happiness for himself and for everybody around him. If a patient cannot overcome his incurable disease and passes away, at least he will have learn to reconcile with himself and his relatives. He should then find peace and comfort in his very last moments of life.
For the future, we are planning to set up thematic retreats on acupuncture, acupressure, oriental medicine preparation, etc., to allow experienced and Buddha-hearted elders to transfer their knowledge of oriental medicine to younger people. In Vietnam, we should never forget Hai Thuong Lan Ong, the eighteenth century precursor of oriental medicine-based treatments in Vietnam, which have proven to be very efficient until now.
This article has been published in Plum Village Newsletter No. 35 – 2012, Standing on Our Two Feet, p. 203-207.