There have been lots of adaptations due to COVID-19, and Plum Village has been no exception. Sister Sinh Nghiêm explains how the planned “Wake Up Ambassador’s Retreat” for organizers and facilitators of Plum Village’s young adult communities moved online.
No one planned for an online retreat at Plum Village in 2020, but conditions are now sufficient to better realize our teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn’s vision of a fully “online monastery.” Plum Village offered its first online retreat, the Wake Up Ambassadors retreat. The Wake Up spirit of discovery and extension of our frontiers was well alive and joyful. Participants were familiar with the basic practices of mindfulness and were, in some way, facilitating or supporting their local Wake Up sanghas. There were over 140 registrations. At least 84% of these have received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and 14% are members of the Order of Interbeing. For most of us in the organizing team, it was the first time we have organized and participated in such an online retreat. It was a pilot retreat that hopefully paves the way for future online retreats during this period when Mother Earth gets a chance to rest and rejuvenate herself.
Online Wake Up Retreat Recap
Sr Annabel Chan Duc began the retreat with a vivid Dharma talk urging Wake Up ambassadors all over the world to reflect on their role as ambassadors for our country, our parents, and Mother Earth, who is crying out, “SOS!” which stands for “Stop! Oh, Stop!” After this period of confinement, we cannot return to “normal” life as if nothing had happened. We will continue to have more calamity and suffering if we have not learned fundamental lessons on how to live together harmoniously with Mother Earth and all species of plants, animals, and minerals. As humans, we can learn to see each other as members in an enormous spiritual family. The next Buddha may not be an individual, but a community where we can cultivate a collective awakening if we want to continue living on this wonder-filled planet. How will we live differently at home with our family? Can we see work colleagues as family members? Can we practice deep listening and loving speech with all sangha members?
The online Wake Up retreat had nearly everything a regular retreat would have in its schedule. In live Zoom rooms, we did qi gong, guided sitting meditation, Dharma talks, question-and-answer sessions, walking meditation, mindful meals, total relaxation, Dharma sharing, workshops, panel sharing, afternoon yoga or dancing, and even “hang-out” time to connect in an informal way. Each person was a square box coupled with sound bites down the wifi channel, but this did not deter us from playing games together, singing together, and really feeling our connectedness with each other through space and time. We were miles apart and each person in their house, but the deep listening, compassion, and joy flowed without obstacles.
As an organizing team, we worked together harmoniously, each taking care of a different aspect of the retreat. Like the different fingers on a hand, each of them have their own function, but they know how to work in harmony. They cooperate and support each other without any one finger controlling or giving orders to the other fingers. The taller finger does not say to the shorter one “You’re shorter, so you’re less capable than me!” Nor does the shorter finger have any inferiority complex and hide away. Communication is flowing and easy because we trust each other
Retreat Participants Experience Shifts in Their Lives
We offered our collective joy and harmony, and those who participated benefitted from this retreat. For instance, a young woman said that when she comes to practice at Plum Village, she feels in love with everyone, and her heart feels so open. Then when she returns to the city, she feels her heart gradually closing. However, by practicing at home through an online retreat, she feels it possible for her heart to stay open. She noticed this when meeting her landlord with whom she has a very formal relationship. Because of the online retreat, she could contact the energy of Plum Village—joy, safety, and relaxation—and her love within could radiate.
Another participant described a change in her relationship with technology because of the online retreat. Before, she was either completely consumed by the internet or just wanted to throw her phone in the river. However, during this online retreat, she realized that all the hardware that makes our gadgets come from Mother Earth’s resources. Even the internet comes from Mother Earth because it is a human invention. Through this retreat, she could feel that with technology, we are spreading something beautiful into a space that is often toxic. Being online and being bombarded by so much advertising, email, and information can be harmful. However, this retreat showed her that it does not always have to be that way. Instead, we can use technology to connect and create beauty and community. She expressed gratitude for her gadgets because they are like Dharma doors. A post-retreat feedback said “What was particularly helpful is to bring the retreat spirit into my own home, making the integration into daily life easier. And it was so nourishing that I could join everything, including the total relaxations.”
Overall, the organizing team received encouraging feedback for future online retreats. However, some elements could not compare to a retreat where people gathered in person. These include the physical presence of others practicing together, immersion in nature, hearing other people’s voices during singing meditation, eating meals together, and the light informal connections with those around. What helped to foster the sense of connectedness and community during our online retreat was that participants were committed to following the schedule of practice throughout the whole duration of the retreat. We saw each other repeatedly, even if on a screen, and this creates familiarity in a setting that lacked the physical presence of others. The practices of deep listening and loving speech expressed when people share from the depths of their hearts create bridges of understanding and love, no matter what is the medium of communication.
Internet technology and an online retreat create conditions that can help us to realize our connectedness, which is already present and has always been there. Practicing together online is a skillful means by which our limited sense organs (the eyes, ears, and mind) remember our much larger connection and collective consciousness. For example, a sister’s elderly father caught COVID-19 and fell into a coma. It seemed like he would not make it. However, the sisters gathered and chanted for him, sending him energies of love, peace, and well-being. A few days later, we heard the news that he had come out of the coma, and when the doctor asked him how he was feeling, he said “Very well!” We were all so glad and happy!
Our ability to sense and connect with each other has always been there, but due to our busy-ness, our distractions in goals and projects, our endless pursuit for sensual consumption without reflection that we have forgotten this innate ability. Instead of feeling more fulfilled and happy by our individual and material pursuits, we often feel more disconnected and empty inside. Whenever we have a chance to let go of these preoccupations and reconnect with Mother Earth or return to ourselves by being aware of our breathing and what is happening in our body and mind, we can rejuvenate our natural sense of connection. Peace and happiness can bloom again in our hearts. It seems ironic, but it works. When we can return and connect within ourselves, our connection with others is natural and comfortable.
The next retreat offered online by Plum Village will be “Understanding our Mind: Applied Buddhist Psychology in Dialogue with Neuroscience” which runs from the 23rd to 28th of June 2020. The dates of three more online retreats over the summer are announced here.
For more information about the Wake Up movement for young adults including finding a local group, please visit the Wake Up website.