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A Quest for Peace amongst the Prunes

If only it’s as easy as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests: just learning to sit still and breathe mindfully can lead to a life of happiness and peace. Since I can certainly use a little more peace and happiness in my life I decide to try out a Day of Mindfulness at his Plum Village [1], a Buddhist retreat center in a tiny Girondine village near Duras. It is not a hard decision for me to make as my second home in France is just a 10- minute drive away.

I read on the website that Days of Mindfulness are held each Thursday and Sunday at one of the three hamlets associated with the Buddhist community. The site indicates which of the locations will be used for the twice-weekly events. Anyone can attend and they do not ask for advance registration or payment. Just show up by 8:45 a.m. to begin the morning meditation.

As I descend the hill from my home in Duras, I savour the springtime ride through lush green fields and plum orchards shedding their white petals like snow. It’s the kind of ride that puts you in a peaceful mood. We arrive at the center, where there is a brown, hand-painted board that says “Village des Pruniers, Hameau Nouveau.” A nun at the office door says there is no need to sign in, but she advises that we quickly get ourselves into the Meditation Hall so we can secure a mat close to the “translation boxes.”

The hall is set with more than 100 square mats topped with round, purple cushions. We find the translation box marked “English” and take mats nearby. I’m glad we arrive early as the seats in the Anglophone section fill up quickly. We plug in our headsets, which the website advised us to bring. By the time we are ready to begin the meditation, the room is filled to capacity with about one quarter of attendees in Western dress and the remainder being the resident monks and nuns with their shaved heads and plain brown robes.

A bell sounds, the chanting begins and the room swells with a deep penetrating sound from the lovely, clear voice of a nun singing in a universal language. She chants and rings a large gong several times. A long period of quiet follows and I try to meditate. I am breathing deeply, listening to the sounds of the room, the birds and distant tractors outside, but try as I do, I feel that my body is not growing calmer at all. In fact, my aging hip joints are telling me that the lotus position might not be “my thing.” I shift to knees up, feet on floor for a while, and shift again to calm the various joints that are not allowing me to deepen my experience. After half an hour of fidgeting, the gong sounds again indicating that the meditation is over. I survived my first mindful experience.

A large screen at the front of the room fills with the calming face of Thich Nhat Hanh, who founded Plum Village in the 1970s. He gives a pre-recorded talk, called a Dharma lecture, in his native Vietnamese language on the themes of achieving peace and happiness through the practice of mindfulness. The video lasts about an hour, during which Thay, as he is called by the community, describes in simple terms the steps to becoming more aware and present in each moment. In prior mindfulness sessions, Thay himself might have given the Dharma talk, but recent health issues have reduced his capacity to be physically present. Still, his words, translated through the headphones into numerous languages, resonate with common sense, humor and wisdom.

Thay says that most people cannot sit still, to which I ardently agree. To achieve that stillness, he describes how focusing on one’s own breath, being able to follow a full inhalation to its end, then doing the same with an exhalation is the foundation upon which the practice of mindfulness meditation is based. Using an inhalation to bring the awareness of tension in the body and mind, and then using the exhalation to release that feeling of tension is the next piece of the mindful puzzle. Once one is comfortable with the basic pieces of sitting still and breathing mindfully, Thay sketches out the next steps—literally a walking meditation and how one could use mindful breathing and walking in combination to gain a greater sense of peace whether walking through a forest or even a supermarket.

After the lecture we all have a chance to practice the walking meditation through the plum orchards and up a grassy slope. The monks and nuns lead the way along the paths strewn with tiny daisies and wildflowers. The idea is to walk very slowly, to notice everything around you, taking perhaps two or three steps with each in-breath and another two or three with the out-breath. Thay suggests when we take those few inhaled steps we say to ourselves “I am here.” Then on the exhaled steps, we say “I am home,” furthering the idea that the walking meditation is the end goal and not a way to get to some other place.

This sounds a lot easier than it is. I have a very quick gait and it’s not easy to ratchet it down to a meditative pace. I find myself wobbly and fear stepping on the heels of a monk. At the top of the hill, the monastics sit down facing Plum Village. I sit on a brilliant green tuffet. In the distance I see the chateau of Duras and the pointy clock tower high above the tile roofs. “I am here. I am home,” I say to myself, repeating the mantra silently as I walk back down the hill. The mantra helps keep me on track and staves off any stray thoughts trying to creep into my head. I begin to feel like I am getting it.

Lunch is served buffet style in the dining hall, prepared by a team of monastics who bring out great chafing dishes of steaming vegetarian treats. There is rice, sautéed Swiss chard, a mélange of chick peas with tomatoes and mushrooms, layered tofu “lasagna,” and other vegetables. Dessert is black gelatin topped with yogurt. We taste it and try to identify the primary flavors. Seaweed? Black beans, perhaps? Later, we learn from a nun on kitchen duty that the mystery substance is “grass jelly.” You can eat anywhere on the property—on the steps of the temple with its giant gong, on the grass the bamboo grove, or alongside the frog pond with its noisy inhabitants are some options.

After lunch there is a period of free time. I chat for a while, and then decide to take time to meditate in the Buddha Room, a large stone barn with a giant statue of Buddha at its center. The lights are low and purple mats cover the floor. I sit in a comfortable position, finding in this dark, cool, silent space that peace and calm come quickly. I allow myself a half hour in this way, experiencing no discomfort at all.

The final activity of the day is “Dharma sharing,” like a group therapy session, but without any feedback. One just shares their feelings and ideas in a non-judgmental way. I am not a habitual sharer of feelings, and I am a bit intimidated by the intimacy of this phase of the day, but what I learn is that we are all here just trying to do our best in the world, in whatever form that might take. I share my thoughts with the group and feel lighter for doing so.

Driving back up the hill to my home in Duras, I take time to notice the farms, the colors of spring, the crooked fences, the neat rows of vines and trees, the brilliant poppies, all the while saying to myself “I am here. I am home.”

If you go:

Visit the website www.plumvillage.org [1] and click on Visiting Us for a complete schedule of retreats, ranging from one day to several weeks.

The nearby village of Duras has several restaurants, shops and properties for rent along with a hotel, the Hostellerie des Ducs. Visit www.paysdeduras.com [2] for more information.

Donna Drago is a retired newspaper editor, based in Rhode Island, USA. She is the author of “The Time and the Place: Turning Dreams to Duras in Southwest France,” which is available at amazon.com [3]. Her second home in Duras is available to rent thoughout the year. Contact her at [email protected] [4].

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