My name is Stuart Watson. I come from Edinburgh in Scotland and I’ve been living in Upper Hamlet in Plum Village for over 6 years.
How did you discover Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings?
I was living in Edinburgh studying philosophy at university when I came across a meditation group. I started meditating with them and got so much benefit from the practice. It really helped me to calm down my mind and find some peace from a busy and negative mind.
I started reading more about meditation and mindfulness practice. In the library of the meditation group I went to I found a copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. I read it and that was the first contact I had with Thay and the Plum Village teachings. I loved the simplicity and compassion of Thay’s vision of practice.
What inspired you to come to Plum Village?
I was enjoying meditation so much and getting so much benefit from it that I wanted to spend more time meditating. I decided I wanted to live in a place where meditation was the focus. I also wanted to be around other people who had a similar intention and was looking for a place where I could devote myself to a spiritual life.
Around this time two nuns from Plum Village came to Edinburgh to host a retreat. I went there and loved the Plum Village style and approach to life. After the retreat, I wanted to visit Plum Village. In June 2006 I arrived in Upper Hamlet for the first time for the 21-day retreat. I stayed there for 3 months.
That summer in Upper Hamlet was life changing. Plum Village was like a paradise to me. It was so beautiful. I remember being touched deeply by the beauty of the natural surroundings. I felt so calm and at home.
I remember, too, feeling the love and acceptance that was present in the community. To find myself accepted into a large spiritual family felt wonderful. It seemed that people whom I had just met had so much care and warmth for me. It was very healing for me to be around so many kind and compassionate people. I could feel the murmurs in my heart as it began to open.
At the end of the three months, I had to go back to Scotland to finish my philosophy degree. But I didn’t want to go back. I knew Plum Village offered me what I really wanted in life which was to feel connected, support to heal the suffering in me and to be more happy. I knew that the study of philosophy wouldn’t help me very much with these things.
However, I had already invested so much in my education that in the end I went back to Scotland for a year to finish my degree, while promising myself I would return to Plum Village as soon as possible for a longer stay.
Can you say more about the suffering you have experienced in your life?
All my adult life I have experienced mental health problems. I suffered from an illness called OCD since the age of 18. The symptoms, which included repeated violent thoughts, were so distressing that I hid them for seven years. I finally sought help and began the recovery process. Experiencing OCD for so long left me with a strong tendency towards depression and social anxiety.
When I first came to Plum Village I was in a pretty bad state. Gradually the positive environment and the steady practice of mindfulness have helped me to ease these symptoms a lot. I no longer have OCD, and the depression and social anxiety aren’t nearly as bad as they once were.
I feel a lot more confident now and feel more happiness and joy in my life. I’m also much less prone to negative thought patterns.
How did you do that and what practices helped you?
I think the basic practices of Plum Village helped me to recognize what was happening in my mind at any time. Before meditating I often knew I didn’t feel good, but I did not know why. Mindfulness helped me to see and recognise the negative patterns of mind that made me suffer.
Embracing suffering with the aid of the breath has helped me a lot. I spend a lot of time breathing in and out, while embracing the discomfort in me with loving kindness. When I allow myself to stop and feel my pain fully in this way, I always feel some kind of release.
I also think that living in a supportive, loving community has been very important for my healing. I am surrounded by so many amazing people who have many wonderful qualities. Everyone here has a similar aspiration, which is to create an environment where we can all flourish. I have benefited a lot from the wisdom and compassion contained within the community.
How has your practice and engagement with Plum Village affected your outlook on life?
I think it has changed my life completely. Before I came here, I didn’t have much exposure to the Five Mindfulness Trainings or a way of wholesome living, so my mind and behaviour wasn’t very wholesome.
The trainings and the self awareness that have come through mindfulness have given me some wisdom to know what behaviors are harmful to me and what behaviors are healthy for me. And the compassion which is growing in me ensures that I do not want to hurt myself or others anymore. The way I lead my life now is very different from the one I lead 5 years ago.
The practice gives me hope that in general, things are moving in a good direction. The reality that I am alive and one day will die does not seem so scary within the context of spiritual practice. The teachings of no birth, no death make it much more bearable for me when a friend or family member dies. It also eases my own fear of death.
I also think that because I have received so much benefit from the practice that I have a natural inclination to want to share it with other people. It means that the focus of my life has become the practice; to develop stability and happiness in me and then learn how to share that effectively with other people.
That wasn’t there before. It has developed while I’ve been here.
When you come home, has it had an impact on your friends and family closest to you?
Since I’ve been living in Plum Village, my mum and dad have become more interested in meditation and in looking for ways to deal with their suffering in a constructive way. I think they see with me that I found a way in dealing with my suffering that’s quite helpful and easy. It doesn’t require any changes in their lifestyles or change in their faith. When I go home, they ask me to practice sitting meditation with them.
So yes, it has changed quite a bit. It’s nice to see that they are interested in it, too. I think these things happen slowly. I still have difficulties with my mum and dad. We still don’t get along that well sometimes, but I think it changes gradually. I can learn to accept them and the relationship becomes easier. It’s a bit less tense.
What is your biggest dream in your path or in your practice?
To love more. I think a big source of my suffering comes from an inability to open up to people and a difficulty to feel warmth and compassion. I have quite a strong tendency towards judgment and negativity. When I judge or feel negative I feel pretty horrible. It is like poison in my mind.
On the other hand, when I feel compassion I feel wonderful. The pain in me is healed and I am a nice person to be around. So I have an aspiration to develop love and loving kindness in me, cultivate a peaceful mind, and learn how to transform the deep suffering within me.
Describe one fun moment where you really tasted true brotherhood and sisterhood.
One moment that comes to mind was during the UK tour in 2010. We got the chance to spend a couple of days at Sister Hien Nghiem’s house which is an old Tudor mansion. There where a series of activities for us to do there that included making candles, medieval singing, dancing and archery.
I remember that it was very fun to be with the monks and nuns and spending all day shooting arrows at the targets in the distance (laughing). Some of us got really into it and we were there for hours. Later some of the monastics dressed up in medieval clothes, and we were dancing around and singing. That was a very beautiful day for me. I felt a lot of joy and a lot of brotherhood and sisterhood.
Has there been a time when you broke away from a form of a practice together and really tasted the spirit of the practice?
For me it is important to find a way of practice that is authentic and natural. If I force myself to do something which I don’t want to do, I won’t be able to do it for very long.
I get a lot of benefit from taking the essence of the practice and putting it into whatever I am doing in my daily life. So I try to practice cultivating awareness and sensitivity in all my activities. I try to not to do things in a hard or driven way, but to bring slowness and softness into everything I do.
In this way even if I am not following the schedule here 100%, I know I am living my life in a healthy way that is authentic for me.
Click here to read about our interview with Stuart about the Happy Farm