Grateful to be here: Robbie at Rains Retreat in Plum Village
Dear beloved community,
I’ve been here in Upper Hamlet for a little over six weeks now, the first ten days of which were spent in quarantine with another seven lay friends. The Rains Retreat began with formal ceremonies around a month ago and we’re already well into the weekly flow of Dharma talks, Dharma classes, mentor-mentee groups and days of mindfulness (where we practice together with our sisters in Lower and New Hamlet). The arrival of subsequent quarantine groups means that as our collective momentum of practice deepens we’ve also been steadily growing as a community. I’m enjoying sharing a room with Nick from Oxford and Adam from the Czech Republic. We’ve created a calm, warm and safe energy, which feels stable and supportive.
Each week I seem to settle a bit more, and two weeks ago in particular I felt a deeper sense of arrival. Monastics remind me however that perhaps it’s best to recognise that this arrival never really stops. The seasons are turning and we’ve now left behind the reliable warmth. While sitting outside was the norm a few weeks ago we’re now either wrapped up or spending more time inside as the temperatures drop with the sun. The leaves on the trees are skating though greens, browns and reds in the most generous display. We’ve also been collecting and eating lots of nuts.
I’m very grateful to be here. I think that’s worth saying out loud daily. It’s felt a long journey; many years of waiting for conditions to align so that I could come to a place like this. I’ve known the simplicity of the routine and monastic practice is deceptive (just sitting, walking, eating, sharing, service, exercising, and so on) but I’m still some way from understanding how they will shape me over an extended period of time. I’m both curious and stimulated by this idea. I can get some sense of it simply by looking around and feeling the energy of kindness, stillness and generosity that is so abundant here. I can see that returning again and again to this collective set of practices throughout each day, joined by a community of others doing the same, can touch something much deeper than anything I’ve experienced over the last decade of my own spiritual journey.
For now, I feel a great trust in the process and don’t need to look long to see the joy and peacefulness that are possible. In fact, with such an emphasis here on touching the seeds of joy and peace, it seems not only to be possible but inevitable. Swirling concerns from home are still present in me – an unfinished PhD top of the list – but I’m doing my best to just be here. So far I’ve been in remarkably stable and good spirits.
My main focus since I arrived has been establishing a feeling of safety in my practice – my chest and breath have long-been tightening in response to bringing my attention to them. To my relief several elder monastics here have experience with trauma-sensitive mindfulness and have been helping me adapt my practice. For example, for all the sitting meditation sessions I’ve been lying down, as it’s a posture that allows my body to feel calm, and I’ve been encouraged to continue doing this with their full support. The relationship between trauma and mindfulness practice is a complex and fascinating one and there’s growing recognition here of its importance.
Alongside various service rotas (breakfast cooking/washing up and community cleaning) I’ve been learning how to compost. I volunteered for this as it seems such a clear and literal metaphor for the process of transforming garbage/suffering into something new. It’s smelly but quite something to observe (meditation thought: is a ‘literal metaphor’ a paradox?) I’m also on the lay Care Taking Committee so am helping to organise weekly events.
One unexpected pleasure has been music. I brought my guitar thinking I may play a little on my own but in fact I’ve been playing with others almost every day. There seems to be such a collective enthusiasm to play and sing together it’s sometimes difficult to stop. This has been an interesting way to look into my own strong habit energies around music-making and the subtle role of my ego and confidence in social dynamics.
Overall, I’m told the musical energy has been missed, as have the lay friends in general. With Plum Village closed to the public for so long, there’s much gratitude that we’re here again. It’s easy to forget the role we all play in nourishing the monastic community by offering our heartfelt intrigue, enthusiasm, naïve questions, day-to-day concerns, troubles and sufferings and of course our own rich energy of practice.
I feel much warmth in my heart when I think of the UK Plum Village community and all my friends in Heart of London and Wake Up. I know that without you, I wouldn’t be here now. Looking forward to sharing and walking with you again when I return.
With smiles of gratitude from Upper Hamlet,