Phil, who joined the Plum Village Happy Farm last year, reflects on the 2013-2014 Winter Retreat in Plum Village.
Letting Go of Expectations Relieve Suffering
In the words of Rumi, ‘Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’ Such a field is often discovered in Plum Village, and it is like dwelling in a Pure Land.
When I arrived at Plum Village I didn t see a Pure Land. By the way, my perspective of Pure Land is a state of mind rather than an idyllic location. There’s a song here that goes ‘heaven and hell I know equally well, the choice is up to me.’ Initially I found it difficult to accept the more uncomfortable aspects of living here. I made a long list in fact.
Initially I was uncomfortable being surrounded by thick and sticky mud, especially tiptoeing around it to get into the shower cubicle. Later in the retreat I made friends with the sticky mud. I remember enjoying a walking meditation through the thick of it, there was no discrimination against the mud. I thought it was funny when I got stuck in the clay mud literally while relieving floodwater on the farm. The only difference was my state of mind; suffering became transformed suffering. Acknowledging and embracing any suffering that arises makes transformation possible. I have many more scenarios to mention.
I slept in a dorm with eleven other men. I disliked the lack of space, fresh air, and quietness for a while, but gradually as we dispersed I was sad. I remember being sad that I no longer needed my ear plugs to sleep once one of the men left. Even during the retreat I remember leaving the room and really appreciating the fresh air!
I had resistance to the winter retreat boundaries, but as a consequence it felt like our collective energy developed momentum. If the retreatants had regularly ventured beyond the boundary the energy that we cultivatedwould have dispersed somewhat.
I was a little uncomfortable with the lack of organization and apparent absence of forward planning, especially at the beginning when orientating myself with the new set-up. But the rather relaxed attitude was part of the practice. One time a monastic brother suggested that it was more appropriate to arrive late in a slow calm manner than on time in a fast agitated manner. Many times we rush around out of habit, which is the energy of society.
Waking up regularly at 5.15am was challenging throughout, but when I managed it I felt so much better for it! The countless beautiful skies, crisp fresh air, the beautiful sunrises, the daily dawn choruses etc. It felt like there was a lot of powerful energy in the arrival of a new day.
The lack of internet was frustrating at first, but I came to realize how much time I wasted on mindless surfing. Instead I enjoyed playing table tennis and just hanging out with people – time well spent. A related issue was not being in contact with friends and family back home so frequently, but it meant that I shared more deep and meaningful communication with them as a consequence.
I remember being agitated by chit chat everywhere, when what I wanted was noble silence. I also wanted personal space. I even wore a ‘noble silence’ badge one day. But I ended up going with the flow and stopped resisting. Later a newcomer mentioned the same issue to me, and I realized that I had joined the flow of the Sangha – not standing against the current. I had some really interesting and valued conversations as a consequence.
I realize that sex is considered a taboo topic of conversation in polite society, and I discuss it here because the consequences of not discussing powerful sexual energy can result in subsequent unnoticed behavioural patterns which cause suffering. There was only female companionship for three days a week, which I didn’t like initially. I enjoy female company for several reasons, some reasons more wholesome than others.
Regarding sexual energy, not having an orgasm for the three month duration was quite a revelation actually. I didn’t think I could do it, but I did. As a result my energy level was generally higher as a result.
Initially there were a lack of food treats, and I remember my reaction when some coconut biscuits manifested while I was looking after the tea table. They were supposed to be eaten for special occasions, and this was a challenge because I knew how nice they tasted! Later, during the Tet festival feast (Far Eastern New Year celebration), and on a visit to Bordeaux I certainly made up for this lack of consumption. I realized how my craving mind, when given an inch takes a mile.
Lastly in this list, having mice in my bedroom was a big deal initially. But we were upset when we squashed one by accident when trying to relocate him or her. Sure enough another moved in, and it was quite a joy to see the new arrival.
Being able to ‘let go’ of wanting things a certain way has been essential in order to access peace and contentment, which is essential for dwelling in the Pure Land, or Rumi’s field.
Breathing in, I know I can let go of all obstructions to freedom
Breathing out, this is freedom (Vimukti)
Phil, how refreshingly open you are. I so enjoyed reading about your experiences at Plum Village. I get the sense that you have really grown spiritually and are all the richer for it. You fill me with hope and inspiration. Thank you.
Thank you so much for such an insightful and wonderful sharing!