I’ve just returned home in Viet Nam from a 21-day retreat at the buddhist practice center in France which is called Plum Village….Lang Mai in Tieng Viet and Villages des Prunier in French. As always, being with the international Sangha, both lay and monastic, is nourishing. I am fed by the brotherhood and sisterhood. I am inspired by the commitment and Right Diligence of those in attendance.
I stayed at the Lower Hamlet. Plum Village, France, consists of several “hamlets,” some within walking distance of each other, and one reached by car or bus. We were 180 lay women, a handful of husbands, and 25 nuns. We gathered four times each week with everyone from the other hamlets, totaling about 850 of us, to hear teachings from our Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh (affectionately called “Thay” which means “honored teacher”). These were, of course, happy and joyful times which often included a picnic and relaxing on the grass, enjoying the shade of the groves of trees.
In fact, much of our practice on these retreats is the “art of deep relaxation.” The mantra for many is “No where to go. Nothing to do. No longer in a hurry!” Recognizing that most of us spend our lives running…. running here, running there….as we rush from one task to another, forgetting to even take a conscious breath, much less to take time to just sit quietly or lie down and rest, a Plum Village retreat allows plenty of space to learn the art that many have forgotten.
Even though the topic of the retreat was a very serious one, What Happens When We Die, the prevailing experience was one of “flower-watering.” The Plum Village daily practice focuses on the positive psychology taught by the Buddha. I watched as the friends around me began to relax, to feel happy and safe. While we were smiling and sharing our Joys, we were also opening to our suffering (which often can be more accurately described as “dissatisfaction”). We began to share at deeper levels, acknowledging our pain. We honored it by bringing it into the Light, no longer hiding it, ashamed and afraid that we might be overwhelmed by it, or perhaps not accepted by others if they knew this or that about us.
While the emphasis on this recent retreat, as I experienced it, was on watering our seeds of Happiness (and allowing the negative, pain-producing seeds to shrink from lack of nutriments), our teacher talked at length about the need to practice the art of suffering, I need to pay attention to this, for I am one who has a strong practice of smiling. Sometimes I smile because I’m feeling happy. At other times, I make a conscious decision to smile, in order to help another to remember to smile. Smiling feels good! And smiles are contagious! BUT sometimes, I smile when I want to pretend I feel happy because I don’t want to acknowledge that I’m suffering (read that as: experiencing the painful feelings of irritation, sadness, frustration, impatience, anger, disappointment….a dissatisfaction with things as they appear to be).
The art of suffering involves being conscious of the painful feelings, acknowledging them (hello, irritation!), honoring the feelings that are there. To take care of the painful feeling, I give it my full attention. Perhaps I find a quiet place to sit or lie down and take some deep breaths, calming the body, calming the mind. If necessary, I take a slow, mindful walk. I do what is needed, in order to nourish myself to feel calm and peaceful. Perhaps later, I need to say something to someone, or take some other action, but I do it calmly, with an open heart and a clear mind.
My own small family group which daily enjoyed meals together, Dharma Sharing together, and mindful working together (very important!) was named the “New Blossom” family. And, by the end of the 21 days, we were each blooming. We shared our joys and our sufferings, sometimes in the circle, and sometimes one-on-one or in smaller groups. I often found myself engaged with another lay sister whom I met walking from here to there. We would bow to each other and then find ourselves sitting down to have a deep and healing conversation, listening to one another with the intention to really hear the other and hopefully to relieve their suffering, or be relieved of mine. These surprising encounters were always a joy, so satisfying on many levels.