Plum Village Lower Hamlet near Bergerac

Lower Hamlet Plum Village 14 – 21 June 2019

I am doing this so you won’t have to ……

A place to retreat for mindfulness and meditation, to abstain, to eat healthily and to relax, so I’m not sure why I am writing this at 5.30 am in the morning. The big bell has sounded and we are all up getting ready for a sitting meditation at 6 am.

Squirrel room is my home for the week and I share with Sylvie a scientist from Paris who has forgotten her toothpaste. I brought all the stuff on the list much of which is unnecessary but forgot soap.  So my ablutions for the week will be somewhat rudimentary.  This is a twin bedded room, with all the luxury of home, floorboards, a lamp a window and some shelves. 

Friday 14th afternoon check in with a short tour to find ones bearings was followed by an hour of stretching and yoga which was a little calmer than my sessions with Dolph but still quite demanding as I wrapped myself into a pretzel and held poses which were definitely challenging.  Despite being in France the food will not be something to write home about. There is a glut of lettuce in the village and it will be served at every meal.  It was last night along with cold pasta with tomatoes and onions plus fresh cherries.  Vegan and no alcohol of course. 

Part of this week involved a trip (in fact 2 trips) to Upper Hamlet (for single men, couples and families) another of the 3 villages which make up Plum Village France. Upper Hamlet is more male orientated so lots of Monks. A Neuroscience retreat is happening there with qualified scientists, professors therapists and the like, all having an interest in mindfulness and its use in depression, pain management and general cheeriness. We all went up there to hear a Dharma talk given by one of the senior sisters from our place. She sounds more like a teacher than a run of the mill nun. And spent an hour explaining mind and conscience which was illuminating, she missed out the last stage though when we all reach enlightenment, I’m guessing that’s because not many of us will get there. 

Despite the early start, still finding too much time on my hands I volunteered to teach English. The Nuns many of them are Vietnamese, but they also hail from Sweden and Canada, want to learn languages. The retreat-ants are a varied bunch from all over Europe, Canada, USA, and a bunch of university students from Hong Kong, so if the nuns have some language skills it makes life easier.  I may have found my calling. I’ve now got a delightful 22 year old Vietnamese Nun hanging on my every word. We sorted out the tool shed. The French man in charge wanted all his tools named in English and Vietnamese. So if any maintenance is required Sister Tien An will be right on top of things. After a couple of days I gave her some homework and tasked her with asking the fellow inmates what they did for a living, where they came from, and so on.  I thought it a good way of her having a lot of extra English chats gratis as it were. And I was beginning to realise that teaching English was becoming hard work!  

Part way through the week there is a “lazy day,” every one gets a lie in, no meditation in the dark; and breakfast at 8 am. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with myself, and that is the point to do nothing.  I’m thinking of mindfully walking to find lunch and then mindfully cabbing back. In the event I was able to borrow a bicycle and ride and walk, up a humongous hill to Loubes Bernac a small village with a shop for coffee and a Perrier and I was able to pick up a supply of my favourite coffee. Followed by lunch next door at En Tout Simplicité. Salad, steak frites, fromage, crème brûlée, 25 cl vin plus coffee 14.50 euros. Go if your in the area, a mom and pop outfit and actually very good. There were a few other escapees too, who were amazed at my mode of transport as they faced a hot walk back in the sun.  I was fortunate to freewheel back. 

I have a book with me for the down time here, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”. A tale of dashing across America from coast to coast, along with general debauchery, drugs alcohol and a little theft. I should have chosen better. The irony isn’t lost on me.

Meditation in various guises happens throughout the day, sitting, walking, walking very slowly and a new one was conjured up which is just delightful. Service meditation! So far prefaced by a cheery song or two, and once completed we are thanked by the Sisters who then lead us in another cheery ditty.  What is this service meditation I here you say, well any jobs the sisters need help with and stuff that makes our lives better; so far, for me weeding the garden, that didn’t last long. I didn’t realise how back breaking and knee tormenting weeding is. I had a turn round Happy Farm, where a lot of our food is grown, and had a rummage to see what was growing. Next a group of us “cleaned” the forest, that was a little easier, raking, clearing paths, picking up forest debris and moving it. The idea to make a path for walking meditation, and we did indeed walk along our clean path the next day. The hopefully final service was preparing vegetables. I have managed to escape all the more serious cleaning stuff, loos, showers floors etc and a lot is required here. 

The bell can be rung at odd times and to indicate meal times or time for the next activity. When it is rung one has to stop whatever one is doing and stand still. The idea being to bring us back to the present and to check in with ones feelings and body, re-centre as it were. Noble silences also prevail during mealtimes and then after the final bell at 9pm until after breakfast and that is even harder to remember. So the normal pleasantries good night etc are out of the window. Being a Brit this is quite hard as this sort of thing is automatic, especially as the first morning I woke up and banged my head on the ceiling letting out an expletive. 

The Dordogne in all its greenness is stretching around here with serried rows of vines just ready for the tasting. A wonderful place that Thich Nhat Hanh found for his French home. Plum Village has now expanded so there are three villages but the man himself used to live where I find myself until his recent stroke and now he confines himself to Vietnam. 

The second Dharma talk found me entrusted with the keys to one of the vans used for shuffling stuff around, and so I drove those not fancying the walk up to Upper Hamlet for our second talk. The speaker was a most handsome and engaging monk who looked well on his way to enlightenment. 

The final night found us having a tea-party outside in the sunshine with a proper Vietnamese tea set with tiny cups and some music via a portable speaker. The grounds are full of plums tree so there has been home-made plum jam every morning, There is also a huge lotus lily pond complete with noisy bullfrogs and lots of mulberry trees with ripe fruit. I hadn’t seen a mulberry tree before nor one laden with fruit ripe for the picking. The nuns who are essentially sugar deprived what with no alcohol and no puddings, brought out to the tea party

a special jar of mulberry syrup they had made from mulberries and sugar, delicious, evidently the have to dispose once it ferments!  One day coming back from a walk some of the nuns spotted some cherries that were rip on a tree and there was a frenzy to see how fast they could be consumed. They were kind enough to give me one as I was passing but I left them to it. Small pleasures.



Typical accommodation, the refectory and the morning bell with mulberry trees

Lotus pond

We really did clean up the forest!

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