Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Mindful Experience in Plum Village

Well, not sure really where to start. I didn’t expect to write a blog about my last week’s experience, but here I am :)

When I decided to sign up for this one week “Health & Happiness Retreat” in Plum Village in the South of France I didn’t really know what to expect to be honest. I had no idea how many people will be there and what exactly we are going to do except for mediation, living healthy and exercising.
Plum Village is a monastery in the South of France with three different locations: Upper, Lower & New Hamlet. The nuns lived in the New Hamlet and that’s where I was going to spend my week. The monks were located in the Upper Hamlet. The monastery is run by Vietnamese nuns & monks and was founded by their Zen Master “Thich Nhat Hanh”.

Have a look at the link if you interested (in French and English):


I have to say it turned out to be one of my best weeks!!! Why?
Well, I had to align my body and my mind ;)
It was refreshing, powerful, energizing and healthy. If somebody would have told me beforehand that I could feel so well and energetic, by just eating rice, vegetables and fruits for one week including meditation and exercising I wouldn’t have believed it!!!

My feeling on Sunday when I arrived was curiosity. However I also felt a bit uncomfortable when I heard that we are going to be 152 people and 60 nuns & monks. So many unknown people around me in a surrounding I didn’t know. On top of this we were not allowed to talk much at all as we lived in mindfulness and we practised a lot of things in silence. This was completely new to me and it took me until Tuesday to get used to it and feeling comfortable with it.

We were split up on Monday in our different work groups, which helped a lot and it felt much more like living in a family – no wonder so that we were called the “Carrot-family” :)

Some people might ask themselves how our daily timetable looked like, so have a look:

You can see there was a lot going on and we had a packed day.
For breakfast we had rice soup and we got usually a choice of fruits to take with us on our hike. I decided to eat 2 apples for breakfast and sometimes I had a peer or melon after my hike. For lunch we had cooked brown rice and we were able to choose from different vegetables like: carrots, aubergines, zucchini, root beet, tomatoes, pumpkins and greed salad :) It was our highlight of the day! As for dinner we only had a light soup. Guess what it was…rice soup of course :)

I was scared in the beginning if I would be able to survive one week without eating any chocolate. I had brought some biscuits with me just in case. After the 2nd day we discovered that the bookshop inside the plum village is also selling chocolate. But I tried to stay strong and didn’t buy any.

I have to say, I really enjoyed the Warm-up in the morning followed by Tai Chi, hiking and also the so called “Workgroup meditation”, which turned out to be cutting & cleaning vegetables for the whole group (210 people), but I even enjoyed this part. There was the possibility to chat a little bit to the Vietnamese nuns during the cleaning of vegetables and that was pretty fun. They were so happy about each Vietnamese word I could speak and got so excited that I am going back to Da Nang ;)

On Wednesday we had a “Lazy Day”. However if you wanted they offered two different things so I ended up going Plum picking to the Lower Hamlet. It turned out to be a really fun day! We meet the nuns & monks from up there and we picked plums together for half a day :)


The Lower Hamlet is lying on a hill and you are able to look down to the Lotus pond from the bell tower as well as to the beautiful valley with millions of Plum trees! What gorgeous scenery!!!

We even did our vegetables cutting, Tai Chi and some dancing in the evening.

Oh I almost forgot to tell you – during a break with was organised by the nuns they prepared a lot of food. This time not only fruits, they also had crisps, chocolate and biscuits. What a temptation I have to say. I was sitting down next to a nun and she had one biscuit next to her. She said to me: “You know we are not allowed to eat sweats but today it is the lazy day. So we can eat a little bit. It’s ok.”
So I decided to have half of an oak biscuit with cocoas in it. In the end I was proud I didn’t eat any chocolate, but it was very tempting.

We had a Dharma talk Thursday morning, where monk Phap Dang came down from the Upper Hamlet to share his recent life experience with us.
It was such a moving talk; I really liked his openness, directness, honesty and most of all, his wonderful, deep and meaningful smile. He shared with us that he lived 7 months with quiet some pain in his body, but his meditation and healthy eating and living made it possible to not end up in suffering. However he returned to Vietnam to see his family and one night the pain became unbearable and he had to be admitted into an Emergency unit. The doctors found out that he had quiet a big tumour and they had to operate straight away. The monk told them he doesn’t want to talk any painkillers or morpheme or anything, but the doctors didn’t agree. After some discussions they agreed that he can try to deal with the pain after the operation, but the doctors were convinced he couldn’t cope with it during the operation itself. So after his operation he got some help to sit up to meditate and to walk a little bit each day and he took no painkillers or anything. The doctors tried to convince him to continue with Chemotherapy, but the monk didn’t want to receive all these chemicals in his body. Instead he underwent herbal treatment for 3 months in Vietnam with some deep massage every day, his meditation and practises as he was used to do them beforehand. He just returned to Plum Village a few weeks ago and I have to say he looks really healthy. But my most moving impression was his deep natural smile. After all these worries and suffering he must have gone through!!! I am so grateful he shared his story. It was inspiring and makes you think how your attitude can change your whole wellbeing if you just accept things. Moving on afterwards with a positive mindset is the next step! Inspiring really!!!

Friday morning it was the first time I wasn’t freezing when I walked down from my house where I was staying at to the meditation hall at 6am. It turned out to be one of the most amazing beautiful mornings I have experienced in a long time. When we gathered at 7am for the daily Tai Chi practice we had a stunning blue sky with some white clouds. I stood barefoot on the grass and I felt so free and full of energy watching the sunrise during our practise. I can only recommend it!

Our daily hiking’s were done in silence. It felt quiet strange on Monday when we started but I have to say by Thursday I really began to enjoy them a lot and was even irritated if some people broke the silence to chat to each other.
It is impressive how much you recognize if you walk in silence by just concentrating on the scenery and nature around you. We walked the same way the whole week, just the opposite direction sometimes. However it is fascinating what you discover and recognise during each walk. Different new beautiful flowers and vegetables and so many more details on houses or farms. It was an experience and I’m very glad I had the opportunity to be in it.

Friday night I decided to join a workshop about “Mindful Eating”. Didn’t really know what to expect. It turned out that Sister Bao, a really wise older Vietnamese nun shared her experience about her eating habits.
She explained to us what vegetables and fruits are Yin and Yang and in what percentage we need to consume/mix them (1:5). I discovered for myself that I am eating too much Yin. Am I surprised? Not really ;)

We had a very inspiring and interesting Q&A session on Saturday morning with 5 different nuns & monks attending it.

I could relate very well to some questions the audience was asking and I would like to share a few with you.
“If you travel a lot and lived in different countries how do you know where your roots are and were you are home?”
The monk (who went through cancer treatment recently) pointed out to us that it is not about family, culture or the country you live in. It is more about how you are connected with life - our own openness, our personal identity with mountains, forests, sunshine, air, sky, people, love and our heart.
He also said: “If you have love in your heart, you can be happy in any country”.

Another person was raising the question: “How we can make sure that we aren’t going to be soaked in the daily old routines again and end up hassling around all day after leaving the Plum Village?”
The answer from a nun was: The Zen Master gave her the following advice a long time ago and she wanted to share it with us: “Go slowly, breath and smile.”
I like this sentence :) She also said it is ok to walk quickly sometimes, just take out some time afterwards to stop and breath mindfully.
She talked about that they are living with four aspects: work, study, play and practise. The most important thing is to find a balance and never forget you always have a choice.

On Saturday afternoon a ceremony was held to integrate the new people who decided to live by the Five Mindfulness Trainings. It was a very festive ceremony and very moving indeed.

In the evening we had a small celebration, where each workgroup presented a song or sketch and it turned out to be a lot of fun :)

The Carrot family singing a "Basque-Song"

We were overall participants from 22 different countries and the talks were always held in French, English or Spanish and translated in the other one’s. It was brilliantly organized and worded really smoothly.

My Saturday evening ended with a great surprise. I just came over to my Tai Chi teacher to say goodbye when we figured out that we are actually both flying to Vietnam the following week. It turned out that Tu Thanh (our Tai Chi teacher) was half Vietnamese and that she was visiting an Orphanage in Danang. Yes, in Danang! The place where I am going to be as well :) So we will meet up there next week!!! What coincidences life sometimes brings with it is fascinating :)

Tu Thanh & Kerstin

I would like to say Thanks to Rick who actually made me aware of the existence of Plum village :)

Let me finish this blog entry sharing one advice one of the monks gave to us before we left:
“Be open for life. Take a walk every day, lie in the grass/sand every day and relax/meditate every day for 15 min.”


  1. Great article and thank you very much for sharing, Kerstin. I wish you all the best for your journey to Vietnam and I am looking forward to more stories and photos from your new home of choice.. :o) Petra xoxo

  2. I love your blog! So interesting - your life sounds wonderful. Am booked to go to Plum Village myself in two weeks - am curious, would you have liked to have stayed on another week? Not sure whether to go for one or two. Is my first time. Have quite fragile health, otherwise wouldn't think twice!!
    Have you an email address? Maybe I could write to you?

  3. Such an interesting read, and the quote about love in your hear, wherever you are is EXACTLY what I needed to hear today with a decision about where I will live next year to be made. Thanks for sharing x

    1. That is lovely to hear :) Great the reading inspired you and helped you to make a decision for the next step. Your heart knows where to go or where to stay ;) Best of luck!

  4. Thank you for this. I am contemplating a visit. I do not understand how to choose from new hamlet or lower hamlet. Can you tell me where I find info please ? Is it possible to lie down or sit in a chair to meditate? Thank you anitpotter@gmail.com

  5. Hi Tina, I just sent you an email :) Hope this information will help. Best wishes

  6. Kerstin, Thanks for sharing your very personal experiences. Your writing gave me the knowledge I needed to go ahead and visit Plum Village. I have just returned and am a changed woman. I'm grateful to you for sharing. :)

    1. Thanks so much 'Adventurous Aimster :) I am very happy to hear that! Plum Village has changed me and my life as well. So glad that you liked it and hope you can find a Sangha to practice back home :)

  7. Hi Kerstin, can you advise whether you think it's best to go to Plum Village for one or two weeks? This will be my first time to go there. Also, can you let me know which of the Hamlets you thought was nicer - the New or Lower Hamlet? My email is ruthjohanna69@gmail.com Many thanks.. :0

  8. Hi I would also like to know your opinion on which hamlet to stay in. I enjoyed reading your blog