Many of us engaged in the fields of climate action and social justice had been looking forward to gathering at the EIAB centre from March 11 to 15, 2020 for “Mindful Action” Retreat. But our disappointment that the EIAB had to close during the coronavirus pandemic and that our Mindful Action retreat was cancelled, was short-lived: within a few days we heard the retreat was going online. Plum Village monastics have been leading in-person retreats since 1982, both in the monastery and on tour; but this would be the first fully-online monastic-led Plum Village retreat.
Every morning we had guided sitting meditations, followed by an experimental “live” collective walking meditation, deep relaxations, dharma talks, panels, workshops and Dharma sharings. We were able to hear both from long-term lay practitioners who have experience in combining mindfulness and activism, and also to pose questions to the monastics.
I was fortunate enough to have a combination of an online and in-person retreat: In my home town, Freiburg, we formed a little Sangha of people who had planned to attend the retreat at the EIAB. It was touching to gather together to listen to the monastics and organisers of the retreat give an introduction to the most important practices of the Plum Village tradition: Walking meditation, sitting meditation, working meditation, eating meditation, and stopping to follow our breathing along with the sound of a bell. Though for some people these were very familiar practices, a lot of the participants had never been to a Plum Village retreat before. Seeing all the faces on the computer following the teachings on their individual screens was a joyful experience, giving rise to an unexpectedly strong sense of connection.
In Freiburg, we were able to enjoy the blue sky and sun walking along the small river that flows through the town. Having returned back home, Annica guided us in a deep relaxation accompanied by her beautiful singing. In a very relaxed state of mind, we had our first dharma sharing in the afternoon. We gathered physically in our little retreat space, and had the opportunity to share together with more people online. Again, I was surprised by the connection that I felt to the people on the other side of the screen. I learned that to practice deep listening, we do not necessarily need to be in the same room.
This first retreat day culminated in a dharma talk by Brother Phap Dung live-streamed to us from the Upper Hamlet meditation hall. There in Plum Village they could see the faces of the online retreatants watching the talk, projected onto the wall – we were virtually sitting together! Br Phap Dung shared insights about how we can sustain our activist practices; communicate with clarity, compassion (spreading the “karuna”-virus!) and courage, and build communities wherever we are.
We enjoyed a Dharma talk by Sister Chan Duc about love and understanding in activism, and transforming difficult emotions such as fear, shame, and anger. Sr Chan Duc shared about the importance of nourishing our seeds of hope and gratitude, cultivating trust in our body, and giving it the rest it needs. We need to take time for reflection and quiet together, because if we are not there to take care of ourselves we cannot be there to take care of the earth. I will carry these words with me: “Don’t force yourself to go on if you have no more compassion”. With these seeds planted in us, the Freiburg Sangha went for a hike in the woods in silence, feeling the forest soil beneath our feet and the sun on our skin. In the afternoon we again enjoyed a total relaxation practice, this time led by Karim, whose soothing voice made it difficult for some of us to stay awake!
Having relaxed deeply (and maybe taken a little nap), we had the opportunity to watch the documentary “Radical Resilience”. This inspiring film shares the perspectives of people who have burned out in their activism and then changed their approach, paying more attention to compassion and honouring their needs, as well as bringing more joy into their work. In the evening we listened to four lay practitioners share their experiences with integrating the practice of mindfulness into their activism. It was very nourishing to hear the rich personal stories of people aged from under 30 to over 70, connected by their efforts to make a more beautiful world possible – action based on the foundation of the five mindfulness trainings. The day was closed with a poem by Joy, one of our participants.
Our last retreat day began again with sitting meditation, this time guided from outside Thay’s hut in Upper Hamlet, where the birds were singing so clearly that it felt like they were there with us. After this Tashy led us in an interactive workshop on sustainable activism and regenerative organizing. The workshop was an opportunity to examine our image of what the ideal activist is like, and apply the question “Are you sure?” to this idealized image. We had a lot of joyful moments together as we collected characteristics (‘bikes everywhere’, ‘loves long meetings’, ‘has an undercut’), and learned that these characteristics are more difficult for some people to fulfill than for others – and overall impossible for any one person to fulfill completely.
We then embarked upon the experiment of practicing walking meditation collectively while being in different places. Invited to hold our phones in our hands while walking, we were able to hear the rhythm of the footsteps and have a sense of walking together. On the little screen, we could see the many different places where people were walking, including the big bell tower in Upper Hamlet.
In the final Dharma sharing we connected around having made similar experiences of feeling alone with the practice of mindfulness in activist spaces. Similarly, we sometimes felt like the only one taking an activist perspective into a retreat or other mindfulness setting. But of course this is often a wrong perception; once you start talking about it you discover other people feel alone with this as well! Feeling so nourished by this, we made the aspiration to continue meeting regularly for online sharings.
The retreat closed with a session of questions and answers, exploring the big challenge of building inclusive communities, getting some tips for being fresh as a flower to start each day, and learning that we can care of fear and other difficult emotions in these uncertain times like we would care for a baby.
After the retreat ended, our small “sangha” gathered one more time in Freiburg to watch two inspiring films: Thay’s biography “A Cloud Never Dies” (not yet released) and the other “The Way Out”. I was very happy to recognize some of the members of my family during the Wake Up Earth Retreat in “The Way Out”. It was beautiful to watch some of the Plum Village monastics visit a protest camp in the UK and bring the mindfulness practice to the activists there. These activists were in the end, successful in preventing a fracking site from operating. My heart is full of gratitude, and I want to thank everyone for making this retreat possible!
Article by Jula Pethes