Taking time out to meditate


After her visit to Plum Village, DEIRDRE MULLINScame home feeling happy, refreshed and grounded, in a way that a week in the sun has never done for her

MEDITATION isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when one thinks of a holiday in the Bordeaux wine region.

But instead of sipping on the latest vintage from Saint-Émilion or inspecting the vines in a traditional vineyard, I ventured on a seven-day “mindfulness retreat” in Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery half-way between Bordeaux and Bergerac.

Typical of the activities was on day four, when I along with more than a thousand people, led in a walking meditation by a 85-year-old Vietnamese monk named Thich Nhat Hanh.

It wasn’t a regular Sunday stroll – everyone walked extremely slowly and in silence. We wound our way past a lotus pond, through a plum orchard and into woodlands. Hanh suggested that we became aware of the earth under our feet and to let “each step bring you into the present moment”.

Plum Village is home to Hanh who has hundreds of thousands of followers around the world, and is viewed with the same reverence as the Dalai Lama. In the 1960s, he campaigned for an end to the Vietnam War and was subsequently exiled from his home country.

Hanh has dedicated his life to building communities around the world that demonstrate his ethical approach to living. There are 14 mindfulness “sangas” (communities) in nine counties in Ireland.

Plum Village is a collection of old French farmhouses that is run by a community of Buddhist monks and nuns. For 28 years they have offered retreats to teach “the art of mindful living” – the practice of bringing awareness to the present moment.

Visitors don’t have to be Buddhist – people of all and no faiths are welcome – and there is no attempt to convert visitors to Buddhism. “We have enough Buddhists in the world, we just need more people to live mindfully,” says Hanh.

Among the Irish visitors this summer were three generations of a Dublin family. Cleo Fagan and her daughter Saskia (13) were on their seventh visit. Cleo says it is her daughter’s favourite family holiday.

Her mother Marianne went for the first time last year and says her experience was such a positive one that she returned this year with five more family members.

It’s been said that Plum Village is like a Buddhist holiday camp and when I saw the nuns clad in their brown habits playing football with some of the children I could see why. The kids’ programme caters for children from the age of six and there are also programmes for teens and young adults.

But even without the activities, kids seem to love being at Plum Village. They get the opportunity to run free in wide-open green spaces, around the fruit trees and through forests. They play traditional games such as hide and seek, and tag. There is no television, DS or PlayStation, just nature that gives them a freedom that is often denied by the trappings of modern life.

The adult programme has a discipline that runs contrary to the usual idea of a holiday. The wake-up call every morning was at a very unmindful 5am. I found this to be the most difficult aspect of the retreat. I often felt tired, especially when I didn’t manage to nap during the assigned “personal time” after lunch.

The first activity each day is a half hour sitting meditation followed by breakfast.

Plum Village requests silence during certain times such as bedtime (10pm) until after breakfast the next morning.

All meal times are silent for “eating meditation” where you eat slowly and “savour each bite”. I was surprised to notice that I really enjoyed eating in this way. After a few days my tendency to overeat diminished and I developed a deeper appreciation of the flavours in my food. That food was a delicious mix of Western and Vietnamese vegan dishes. This was a big change from my usual diet of meat, dairy and sugar, so the retreat became an inadvertent detox programme. After the initial dips in energy along with headaches from caffeine withdrawal, I began to feel very good.

After breakfast, Hanh usually gives a talk to the thousand- plus people on the retreat. His words are translated into four or five languages. He doesn’t speak in religious mumbo jumbo but in an accessible and relevant way about modern life.

He uses lots of analogies and talks about our inner gardening and our emotions being like seeds, some of which need watering. The talks are basically lessons on how to make ourselves and the people around us happy.

Such subject matter inevitably leads to interesting conversations at the daily “dharma sharing”. Everyone is assigned a “family” of about 20 people – a mixture of visitors and monastics with whom we eat, share household chores, and engage in group discussions.

I didn’t go to Plum Village on a spiritual quest, I just wanted to take time out and recharge my batteries. But my experience surpassed my expectations. It was meaningful and nourishing. I came home feeling happy, refreshed and grounded, in a way that a week in the sun has never done for me.

- A delegation of nuns and monks from Plum Village will visit Ireland to hold a retreat in Co Kildare from October 28th to 31st. Thich Nhat Hanh will visit Ireland in April 2012 to give a public talk in Dublin and hold a three- day retreat. For more information, see mindfulness-ireland.org

- Deirdre Mullins flew to Borduex as a guest of Aer Lingus. Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com)

Get there

Plum Village is about 85km east of Bordeaux and four hours from Paris by train. The nearest train station is SainteFoy la Grande, on the route which runs between Libourne and Bergerac. The nuns and monks offer transfers to and from the train station for €20.

Plum Village offer retreats throughout the calendar year. The cost depends on the accommodation you choose, and includes all food and the mindfulness programme. For more details, see plumvillage.org