One of the questions that accompanied me on the 21 Day Retreat 2018 in Plum Village was: ‘What place does the practice have in my life right now?’ Motivated by my recent experiences with tantra and other interests and inspirations in my life. I wasn’t sure whether this practice would still nourish me enough and somehow felt that there was a choice to make, either this (practice) or that (practice). The below is an account of the difficulties and frictions I experienced as well as the nourishing elements of the practice I (re)discovered.
Frustration and friction, hope and healing
This month I stayed in ‘Upper Hamlet’ where usually only male monastics, male lay friends and couples stay. For this retreat’s cooking team Plum Village made an exception, welcoming me and a couple of other ‘single women’ in Upper Hamlet. Partially due to this setting, the first days I had difficulties being and expressing myself freely. I observed myself feeling overly aware of my body’s feminine shapes and how visible they were which influenced the way I dressed and moved. I covered myself in layers of clothes too hot for the weather, and for dancing, breathwork or even yoga practice I banned myself to some place unseen. I related to other people with shorter eye contact and little to no physical contact. Even while singing, in the first days, I felt reluctant at times to really let my voice flow freely.
It didn’t take long before discomfort and frustration grew. First I looked outside myself, I blamed the practice, the collective energy of the monastery, other people… until I realised they were merely mirrors. Nobody had told me to behave like this. I was the one censuring myself by acting overly careful and not truly expressing herself! So it was also me who could free myself and invite all of me back in. What a reminder and what a joy to show up and be present, no matter what. To live life fully, not waiting for permission. Taking responsibility for my own actions and (well)being.
Meanwhile I was reading The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd. The book is about the author’s own path of empowerment. Coming from patriarchal societal and religious structures she woke up to learning and embodying a more inclusive spirituality, with the feminine Divine as a crucial notion. Her accounts further sensitized me to (un)balanced gender roles in and around myself. With respect to the latter, the collective structures, it feels like I’m still in the middle of processing and investigating. There were several moments that triggered my sense of equal valuation of genders. I felt a knot in my belly when the beauty and importance of brotherhood in (lay) life, was declared without mentioning sisterhood as well. The fact that a man leads the ceremonies in which all genders are represented brought to mind the many situations where being (white, middle-aged) male still means having greater chances of power, respect, freedom, safety… Then there were the hetero-normative narratives in dharma talks or other presentations about romantic love or intimacy, upon which I feel reactivity come alive in my body calling ‘This is not what I want to identify with and support!’
In short, such situations trigger pain and anger in me as well as the wish to distance myself from the practice. Through writing and also talking about it with others, I have come to see other sides as well. It helped me gain a better understanding of the causes and conditions that create these patterns (e.g. cultural differences), a clearer view on the positive change that is happening already (e.g. more awareness and space for LGBTQ community) and again a big reminder: don’t just complain, but do your own work! Take responsibility, change what you can, talk, make visible, etc..
I do feel these reactions I have, the unease with certain behaviours or structures, are super valuable and they are there to be listened to. That’s why I want to remind myself of a number of wishes I have for the community. These are not only related to a more diverse view on gender roles and sexual orientation, but also to dealing with emotions, communication and diversity in the community. I would love for Plum Village to
Nourishment and inspiration
Next to the frictions and critique, however, the question also offered me the space to (re)discover those parts of the practice that really nourish me. In this section, I’d love to shortly mention a few aspects of Plum Village that I really love. They inspire, nourish, support me on my path.
Flower watering. Learn to feed the wholesome seeds in yourself and others instead of focussing on healing wounds and transforming habits only. That way, we build a basis of (self)love and stability that is strong enough to see, embrace and heal the suffering as well.
Compliments and celebration. A continuation of the first point, I still want to highlight Plum Village is such a beautiful holding space in which compliments and celebrating each other bring talents to the surface where they can grow, bloom and flower.
Gentleness. Even the landscape in the monastery seems to tell us ‘relax, soften my dear’. For me it’s also a calling to listen to desires and needs (like sleep or safety) that in everyday life I’d often dismiss for seemingly more heroic behaviour (throwing myself into the unknown).
Mundane mindfulness. Apart from sitting meditation, most of the practice is about integrating mindfulness into everyday. Even the most mundane activities, like sweeping a floor or going to the toilet, can become the path to enlightenment.
Community life. In Plum Village, monastics and lay people share life, work and a spiritual practice together. I’m grateful for all the experience and wisdom that is gathered and lived here, in all the beauty as well as difficulty that comes with community life.
- Sisterhood & brotherhood. I was once again touched by this notion which is so deeply rooted and greatly evolved in this community. Being called ‘sister’ by another human being resonates in me with clarity, depth and mutual respect and inspires a very healing way of relating.
Engaged Buddhism. It inspires me to see the dedication with which Plum Village actively supports peace and social justice in the world, and how it brings mindfulness to (everyday) life in prisons, schools, work situations in very concrete ways.
Mother earth. In the cause of time adjustments are made to make the community’s impact on the earth as positive as possible. Examples are a kitchen turned vegan and two organic farms, but also the ways they practice with usage of water, electricity and the like.
I want to end this section with how I started: What place does this practice have in my life right now? Do I need to choose (something else)? In Plum Village numerous people showed me how their dedication to Hinduism, Tantra, Christianity, or their love for barefoot dancing and voice liberation did not at all hinder or distance them from this tradition. Same was true the other way around. Many a moment I experienced how Plum Village welcomes and integrates the wisdom of other traditions in itself. In the end, it’s not so much about the fingers, but about the moon they are pointing at. As for me, what restricts or enlightens me is not so much the practice, place or tradition, but the degree to which I am able to embody and integrate the wisdom I find there.
On diving in (and out again)
The above brings me also to that second question, about my recurrent desire and difficulty to really dive into something. I realised that there is a longing in me to submerge myself fully into one topic, practice, activity, but that this wish often ends up with a lot of different things I would also love to dive into more. This question, I’ll cover in fewer words and cut straight to my momentary answer. It’s a pattern of mine, which doesn’t support me. At least not the way I dealt with it until now (trying to choose, focus on one thing only and expecting that to fulfil me). Instead, I’d like to experiment with a new way of really diving in.
As a friend said to me: why not dive into three things for a while and then dive into three other things again. In other words, dive in and out of things. Also, go step by step (or dive by dive), instead of expecting to flying straight to the top of the mountain. That way it becomes feasible to really dive in instead of holding back last second at the shore out of fear of the vastness of the ocean. What a mix of metaphors! Ocean, mountain, whatever the image – in diving in and out I feel I have more space within to commit to what’s here and now, instead of being intimidated or distracted. It is not in following that one tradition or education, having that one job or certificate that will prove my talents or justify my presence, but my own joyful dedication to each moment. Ultimately all these apparently small steps or relatively short dives together form my path through this life. I’m happy to feel that right now, in Norway, this new way of diving has brought me much focus and joy already, this blogpost (and some new songs – yey!) being one of its fruits
Should I stay or should I go
To conclude, I’d like to shine light on exactly this consideration – should I stay or should I go? After a few days in Plum Village, I was very tempted to stay. I can still feel these open arms, the wealth of opportunities of working on the land and sharing my music there, the love for and from all the friends, the structure and meditation practice that is so healthy for me… There was a point where I had my whole next year planned in Plum Village: another volunteer retreat in August, then the Rain Retreat from September until December and following that working on the Happy Farm for a year.
But then I remembered: it’s time for integration. The past year, I spend much time in retreats and workshops, I had space to explore and experiment, learn and get inspired. Now I feel the desire to put what I learned and dreamed into practice, to further embody the wisdom and share my gifts, to take responsibility and action. Wow, I’m getting slightly nervous when writing this down. But also excited about the next steps and adventures around living and working.
Thank you Plum Village for the temptation, for getting my intention even clearer and navigating me into the great wide open again. There, too, are open arms, countless opportunities, magical people and more – I just don’t know them yet.
And thank YOU dear reader! For ‘listening’, taking all of this in. I’d love to hear from you! In the comments or in a personal message if you have my FB or email. Maybe there are things that resonate or trigger resistance, maybe you have other or additional experiences – your input is greatly appreciated!
Want to read more insights/experiences that spring from my time in Plum Village during 21 Day Retreat 2018? The initial blog was so long that I decided to divide it up into four pieces. Next to this one, I also wrote about my mindful loving work, unconditional (self & sister) love as well as an ode to people, nature and music. You can read them all in a row or one by one in random order.