Travel Dates: September 30 – October 7, 2016
Accommodations: Upper Hamlet
“In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
I’ve become very interested in meditation over the past few years. I think it’s a practice that will/should become widespread in the future. We know how valuable it is to eat clean and exercise daily…but how do we nourish and exercise our minds?
Earlier this year, I was fortunate to attend a small meditation workshop led by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an extraordinary scientist who helped bring meditation into the mainstream. Those few days were some of the most difficult I can remember, but I left understanding the power of this practice for calming the mind and living life well.
I’ve tried to maintain a regular practice ever since, but getting married and preparing to travel around the world threw me off track. So, cliche as it may sound, at some point in our journey I wanted to find an ashram or monastery to rekindle my practice and introduce it to Linda.
I had expected to find an ideal place in India or Southeast Asia, but while researching from our farmhouse in France, I stumbled upon the most amazing Buddhist monastery just a few hours away, called Plum Village. It was founded by and is the home of Thich Nhat Hanh (who taught Jon Kabat-Zinn). Many of the monks and nuns there are Vietnamese (which Linda speaks). And for part of the year they hold retreats for visitors to work and practice with the monks. The stars had aligned. We signed up to attend a one-week retreat in the fall.
Plum Village is in a pretty remote area of France near Bordeaux (and, yes, being surrounded by vineyards while eating vegan and abstaining from alcohol was going to be challenging!). We rented a car (a Mini Cooper actually, which turned out to be the most fun car I’ve ever driven), put on our audiobook (Water for Elephants is an excellent road trip audiobook btw), and set off.
The plan was for Linda and I to live and practice separately in the men’s and women’s monasteries (called hamlets). We had read the women’s hamlets allowed men as part of a couple, but we thought it would be good to do this individually. I dropped Linda off first at New Hamlet, one of two women’s monasteries. It was a very rustic facility, which we later discovered was built quickly to house overflow from the main women’s monastery, Lower Hamlet. It was located right next to a highway, so you had to wear bright neon vests to walk between housing and facilities. On top of that, Linda was placed in a house that had 10 women with only one bathroom. I felt nervous leaving her there…she was new to meditation and this wasn’t the environment we had pictured. But, we were committed to seeing it through, so I said goodbye to my wife and left her to fend for herself…on our Honeymoon.
Half and hour later, I arrived at the men’s monastery, Upper Hamlet. It was picturesque…nestled in a forest amidst sprawling countryside with a beautiful bell pagoda, large meditation hall, walking paths and farm. It was still very rustic (this was a Buddhist monastery after all), but it had a much more peaceful energy. While being escorted to my room by a super happy, peaceful Irish monk, I noticed several women were attending the retreat. When I mentioned my concerns about Linda and New Hamlet, the monk told me that couples were actually allowed at Upper Hamlet and they could probably find a room for both of us. I jumped at the opportunity and hopped in the Mini to rescue my wife! She was pretty surprised to find me standing outside the meditation hall that night, but when I filled her in, she agreed it would be an amazing experience for us to practice together…though I must say I love and admire her bravery to do it alone.
We had an extraordinary week together. Life at Plum Village was centered on the practice of mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that meditation can be a part of every action by being present in the action – not allowing your mind to be distracted by regrets of the past or anxieties of the future. When you eat, you eat mindfully, enjoying and appreciating each bite before you rush to the next. When you walk, you walk mindfully, staying present to appreciate the beauty of your surroundings. When you work or brush your teeth…
We meditated with the monks each day – particularly enjoying sessions when they chanted, which was surreal. We worked each afternoon – I loved working on the farm (and my main job there was shoveling compost!). At several times throughout the day, a bell would chime, inviting you to pause whatever you were doing and take a moment to breathe and return your thoughts to the present. And every evening until after breakfast, we would participate in noble silence, resting your voice and calming your mind.
Plum Village is a utopia designed for mindful living; while the world outside is often not. We know it will be difficult leaving this environment and maintaining a state of mindfulness. Amongst the monks and visitors, we met some incredible people during the retreat. I spoke to a monk from the Ukraine (who was finishing a 5-year monastic internship and soon to return home) and asked him what he planned to do next. He replied, jolly as so many of the monks were, “Well, I’ve basically disappeared for the past five years. I have no marketable skills to take with me. And I have no idea what’s happened in the world out there. So, I have no idea. But…look at the figs on that tree, they look delicious!”
Some people might find this a strange choice for our honeymoon, but Linda and I loved the experience. Not to say we don’t love sipping piña coladas on the beach, but it’s nice to challenge ourselves with new experiences, especially ones that strengthen us individually and as a couple. We don’t see ourselves living the extreme way we did that week, but we absolutely plan to incorporate parts of it into our lives: we will eat mindfully, take a couple days each week to eat vegetarian, meditate daily and remember to breathe and be present throughout the day.