The following post was written by Ana Romero, graduate of The Perri Institute for Mind and Body. Ana is a yoga teacher, dancer and graphic designer who continually seeks for different adventures traveling and living abroad.
After a ten hour flight from Mexico, I arrived in Paris. I felt excited and scared. I was on my way to Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, a village in the countryside of southwest France. I was picked up at the train station in a big white van to go to Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery that was founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. This Vietnamese monk and peace activist has shared his teachings through more than one hundred books and dharma talks to a wide array of professionals including U.S. police officers and congress men and women. The scenery from the train station to the monastery was beautiful with all the cute hills, the vineyards, the sunflower fields, and other crops, and I really wanted to enjoy my experience of the view--but the truth is that I was terrified. I was more than 5,700 miles from home, with a severe inflammation all across my lower back that wouldn't even let me pull my carry-on luggage. After half an hour in the white van, I arrived at the Lower Hamlet, where some of the Buddhist nuns and laypeople practice the art of mindful living. As soon as I arrived, I felt the peace I could potentially reconnect with. It was an austere set of cabins surrounded by plum trees with a beautiful bell tower and a big lotus pond where every morning, one could hear the frogs croaking and the birds singing. Did I mention that there wasn't any internet or phone service?
At Plum Village, the wake up call is at
with the sound of a bell. After rolling a little in bed and splashing some water on my face, I started walking towards the meditation hall. Right away, I felt the calmness of the subtle footsteps of the nuns dressed in long, brown robes, some of them wearing a kneaded hat to cover their shaved heads. The first day we experienced a guided meditation which called many aspects of nature related to the human being. Some of the days we would also practice a slow walking meditation in the hall. After that, we had some time to stretch our bodies, practice yoga, or run. At
it was time for breakfast; the meals were silent most of the time in order to really savor and concentrate on the gift of the delicious vegan foods, and the efforts around them. After breakfast it was time for working meditation, but before we began we would gather in a circle for announcements and for chanting pure and beautiful songs. Off we would go to start different chores like cleaning, gardening, painting, preparing food, etc. Each day we would also practice walking meditation amongst the trees or by a creek, connecting with nature, contemplating, but most importantly focusing on the breath, focusing on each step, focusing on the present moment. Another of my favorite moments of the day was arriving at the time of Noble Silence, which would usually start when the sun started its final descent. During that time, a nun would chant and ring a beautiful low-pitched bell to celebrate our big star. It was a time to reflect, a time to write or read, a time to just be.
I'm somewhat of a shy person, so I arrived to the monastery with the idea of really focusing on myself. And I did--but I also found that it was very easy to establish a connection with the other laywomen. There were moments of very loving and deep conversations, and there were other moments of so much laughter that I would have to find a tissue to dry my tears. As a laywoman, it was amazing to observe this community of monastics and experience their lifestyle in a less committed way. Their facial expressions are very pure and genuine, and there was room for hard work and seriousness--but there was also room for joy, for giggles, and for fun. It was really wonderful to feel their joy and their commitment. There were some days that all the monastics and the lay friends, men and women, would gather in one of the hamlets to celebrate the day of mindfulness. During that day, there was usually a Dharma talk, a sharing of a learning experience from one of the monastics. In one of the talks, a U.S. monastic was sharing his experience about living in a community, and how it isn't easy. Their talks were so simple, so honest, and even daring at times. This American monk shared with us about finding a little piece of soap that hardly lasted for his shower, and how those kind of things, on different levels, could be tricky when living with somebody else, and especially when living within a bigger community. But that simple talk was fun and spontaneous, because he suddenly made us aware that he was giving us images of him naked and showering. He made us laugh!
Plum Village is a beautiful place full of nature. It is a great place to practice being with yourself and with a community. The talks were simple and sincere, but at the same time, they left a huge learning experience. It was the ideal place to focus on my breath and just be. As a yoga teacher, I wanted to deepen my meditation practice to then share it with my students, and to incorporate it more into my classes. After all, yoga is a meditation itself, as well as preparing the body to have a meditation practice. Being at Plum Village not only planted the seed to deepen the meditation practice for my classes, but it transformed the way I feel when something is going wrong or difficult in my life. I learned from one of the sisters that instead of denying or pushing away that suffering, it was more effective to acknowledge it and give it love in order for it to heal. In a video talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, he said, "Take your suffering as if it would be a crying baby, you don't know what the newborn needs yet but at least you are holding and giving him/her love." My stay at Plum Village was a huge experience because I was really hurt physically, and yet, I was fine. Slowly, I started to feel that transformation of joy and laughter, and therefore, I started to heal.
Photography by Ana Romero