This retreat took place from the 24th of February 2021 until the 28th of February. I wrote this post on the 8th of march, “international woman’s day”. I had originally planned to write about the need for intersectional feminism when I remembered one of the key messages of this retreat, so I wrote the recap to have this reminder of how to stay kind, hopeful, joyful and engaged.
Attending an Online Retreat
Attending an online retreat is not the same as being there in person – obviously. And it’s so much more than I thought it could be.
I am saying this as someone whose main job is an online community around personal growth… so I am well aware of what’s possible, and I have done plenty of online courses, meeting, classes and such. If there is one “good” thing Covid-19 did was making us explore what is possible online despite thinking it would never be more than a crutch – and for some people, it can never be more I acknowledge that. For me, online works really well, in many cases I actually prefer it – starting from self-paced courses to environmental groups and life drawing classes. What I need are more meetings with friends, though. For me the difference, if it works well or not, is if it has a goal/ purpose or if it’s hanging out. Hanging out online isn’t really possible in what I’ve tried so far but maybe if you play together or so.
Action from the heart
Before the Online Retreat
I should have done something like this retreat months ago, and I am grateful that I finally did.
I needed a retreat – and yes, I can now say at home, and online retreats count too – more than I can say.
As we have been to Plum Village in 2019 I received regular updates and this online retreat really spoke to me:
“Action from the Heart – Harnessing the power of understanding and love to change the world.
This is a special retreat for climate activists, social activists, activists in other fields and anyone working to create a healthy and compassionate society. Activism carries the risks of burnout, interpersonal conflict, emotional exhaustion, and despair. As antidotes, we’ll explore how to truly listen to our hearts, restore balance and harmony in our life, and find the strength and inspiration we need to build collaborative communities and realise our collective aspiration.“
My partner and I both took the days off and attended. As the kids were with their mother this week, we could fully concentrate and participate in the retreat.
There were many resources and videos available to prepare for the retreat. We watched some videos, prepared a space to practice, participate, which we decorated and decluttered. We also placed some calligraphy reminders throughout the house.
Plum Village Online Retreat – Day 1
Like in an in-person retreat, the was an all-day full-time schedule, and we started at 7 am with meditation and movement, and the day ended at 9 pm. In between, there was a mix of meditation, deep relaxation, movement, singing, talks and interaction with other participants during the team hangouts and dharma sharing groups and offline activities like the meals or walking meditation.
As my partner and I were attending the online retreat together, we didn’t participate in most opportunities to interact with other participants. I think this depends on your personal situation. If I had been alone at home, the tea-hangouts and dinners would have huge support for the practice and the cultivation of connection.
Dharma talk “Going against the stream” by Brother Phap Lai
This morning’s dharma talk told me nothing new, and at the same time and it was everything I really needed to hear.
I loved how the teacher talked about the urge to wake people up to the problems and crisis in the world, and at the same time, we won’t be successful if we do not wake them up kindly.
He shared thís regarding difficult feeling:
A lot of the anger in us is being angry at the anger, being fearful of the fear, being sad about the sadness.
How about hearing the anger out and transforming it into compassionate action.
How about embracing the fear like we would embrace a fearful child (in us).
How about being a friend to the loneliness and honouring the grief as a connection to what we think we lost?
The other thing that so deeply resonated was looking at anger (and other difficult feelings) as if they were a potato.
We do not need to harvest all the anger potatoes at once, but we can unearth only as many as we can digest. (I added this part because I like the picture)
We also can’t eat the anger potato raw. We need to cook and transform it (which takes time) before we can eat it. Once we have done that, we can healthily harvest its energy.
In a way, this talk was a reminder, a gentle waking up of the knowledge that was there all along but not alive. A wonderful start and preparation of the soil to stay within the picture.
Plum Village Online Retreat – Day 2
My word in yesterdays Dharma sharing was “patience”.
Once I see and know, I have little patience for those who (I think!) do not see themselves yet.
I want to practice patience to let things evolve and sink in. After all, it took me until now to realize what I want others to see too. How can I expect more from others? I am pretty sure that with more pressure, it would have taken me longer to listen with an open heart.
In 2014 at Burning Man a Zen monk already told me
“The only person you can change is yourself – for everyone else you can hold space. If and how they change is not up to you”.
One of the most influential sentences I ever heard and one I need to be reminded of regularly as my conditioning and the perceived urgency of the situation (the story I tell myself) leads me to “forget about it” easily.
Dharma talk/ interview “Laying down the sword” with Sister Chan Khong
Sister Chan Khong’s answers in today’s Dharma talk/ interview gave so many hints and also crystal clear ideas on how to approach if you really need to. She advised us not to speak when we are angry, disappointed or in another way, not at our best. We should not speak immediately but in a peaceful, open and friendly state of mind. Mind you the need to address what was difficult was not up for debate. We are not asked to swallow or push aside what made us angry or where we see problems. The question is when and how to address them wisely.
I feel that part of me still considers it weak to be kind and friendly in the face of injustice. However, the chances that we will bring about the change we crave when we react strongly rather than kindly are low. Or to use this picture it’s more likely to bring peace by being peaceful yourself than by shouting peace at the other.
I have been at this point before where I realized how much stronger and braver it is to speak with love and kindness rather than “execute your rightfulness”.
There’s this quote in NVC “do you want to be right or do you want to be happy”.
It might look as if I am giving in when I choose happiness. But aren’t there arguments that are had for the sake of being right rather than the sake of resolve?
Doesn’t being happy also mean to feel seen and heard and that the outcome is just and only then I am am happy? If all of that is served in order to be happy, I’ll much rather be that than right.
In the last year and a half since my last vipassana retreat, my ego has hardened, the self-righteousness crept in, and it became harder and harder to be open and flexible and creative. It is recommended both in MBSR and in the Vipassana tradition to go on a silent retreat each year at least once. And as much as I enjoyed the ayahuasca retreat, it can’t replace 10 days of silence and meditation and the resolve, restoration and clarity it brings me.
Almost every day, I meditated, but the different struggles with Covid-19, the climate crisis, racism, shifts at work and other personal things very slowly, I lost some of the warmth and openness and compassion I had cultivated. And being at this online retreat, I feel this ice block melt.
This is so needed, and I am so happy to be able to be a bit more of my true self every day and to bring a bit more of my best self to the world.
“No matter what, choose love”
In the evening, there was a workshop with Sister Peace and Valerie Brown. Actually, there were several workshops offered, and this is the one I chose.
Being on an anti-racist path, I hear “let black woman lead” a lot, which was an opportunity to put this into action. This workshop was lead by two black women, and I was craving to be let, and they opened my heard, reassured me and gave me confidence that kindness is the right path no matter what the ego says.
The first question already struck me “What did you need to let go of when you chose to attend this workshop” This was so powerful because I realized that I already had started to doubt my self-righteousness and had opened up to the idea that choosing love, no matter what is an option.
This is where we also learned and tried the following practice:
Practice: Flower watering
To rebuild the connection and appreciation for oneself and each other as a basis for EVERYTHING.
If people know each other – each person says 3 things they appreciate about the person in the “middle”, and then the next person goes into the middle for the next round.
If people do not know each other, the person in the middle first talks about what they like about themselves and what they are grateful for, and the people in the circle reflect it to them.
Plum Village Online Retreat – Day 3
Today I can’t say a lot because there is so much to take in. I was on a good path the days before. The ice inside me had started melting. I was willing to open, listen, be patient, compassionate and understanding. The soil was prepared by the days before.
Dharma talk “The power of collective Action” by Doctor Larry Ward
I am so grateful that I had the change to hear him speak in a moment of my life where I was ready and really deeply listening. It was like he went through my whole being, insights, beliefs, hopes and knowledge, and he connected loose ends, inspired, corrected, clarified, motivated, reassured and healed and held.
It was a crazy ride, and I think Larry Ward gave me a resource for guidance for a long time. This talk is something I want to watch again and again as each time I need to hear some other part, and I’ll bring a different attitude or different troubles.
This talk ploughed the field, planted seeds, weeded, fertilized and watered all at once. You’ll see the crops, flowers, and the harvest in the months to come, even if right now I cannot point out particular learning as the teaching was so rich and dense and addressing so much.
I have now set a reminder to rewatch it on easter.
Plum Village Online Retreat – Day 4
Today is the time to appreciate the dharma sharing group and how it supports, carries, translates, transforms the teachings and the experience.
There’s so much wisdom. The jewels of wisdom are more than I can count. I heard the expression of Dharma rain, which works so beautifully with the picture of the seeds that we water.
The teaching and knowledge and wisdom is all great but isn’t it the moments of failure, of doubt, of experience and learning when we get closer to understanding these teaching in the depth of our hearts? For me, it is like that.
The sharing within the Dharma family translates the wisdom into lived everyday actions, struggles and learnings – this is where it becomes more tangible for me. Like the sutra gets translated via the dharma talk and once again via the dharma sharing, and this way, it becomes alive, tangible, present and full of life.
Talking about full – I am quite full, and I need to digest.
Q&A and guest panel
At 9:45 am there was a Q&A session with Sister Lang Nghiem, Sister Chan Dao Nghiem, Brother Hue Truc and Brother Chan Troi Bao Tang. The participants could ask questions and one of the monastics on the panel shared what the question brought up in them. This was yet another chance to see the wisdom lived and in action through experiences, struggles and learnings.
In the evening a panel on the Practice of Climate Activists with Christiana Figueres, Dr. Gail Bradbrook moderated by Brother Phap Linh. Once again we were offered a different and inspiring perspective around activism and how to stay engaged and efficient while centring self-care.
I keep being surprised by the openness, curiosity, engagement and focus on science Plum Village brings to the table. The topics (plant medicines like ayahuasca and mushrooms were mentioned several times) are as diverse as the participants and as welcome.
At some point in the retreat, it became clear to me that failure is an option and accepting this option – surprisingly enough – is freeing.
“You can’t pour from an empty cup” and as much as it is important to do everything you can you can’t do more than that. If you neglect yourself you will eventually get less done not more. So once again this is circling back to the question of finding the right balance. No, not “finding” because we keep loosing said balance and we need to correct constantly. So it’s keeping some balance.
Plum Village Online Retreat – Day 5
The last day. There was the option to receive the 5 mindfulness trainings. I had this chance before at the in-person retreat and I’d say I am pretty close to living them for quite a while already but somehow I didn’t feel ready to officially commit just yet. I think I will attend the next retreat with the clear intention to receive them and therefore prepare for that.
Dharma talk “Cutting Through the Illusion” by Sister Chan Duc
The last talk massaged all the wisdom and insights gently in and wrapped it into the wider context of Buddhism. In a way, it was a rather “classic” teaching and it was also a wonderful roundup. I felt that with this talk the insights and inspiration came full circle and Sister Chan Duc added final touches to the package for us to carry it home and into our everyday lives so we remember more easily and frequently.
If I had to choose one guideline to remember, it’s “leaning in”.
Leaning into the beauty and moments of joy and gratitude that are always present and fully feeling them in mind and the body.
Leaning into the difficult feelings as well. Embracing and listening to them.
There’s so much more behind, for example, the anger that will truly help us understand and resolve. It takes strength and courage to lean into each difficult feeling, and it’s the only way to work with it positively. Pushing it aside will not make it go away, and the “clear” path of acting out of it our brains (amygdala) likes to present us with quickly won’t do the situation any good either.
If I am honest with myself, I knew this already.
Putting knowledge into practice is the challenge.
So here are the tasks for my mindfulness practice
– leaning into the emotion in the body,
– feeling it,
– accepting it,
– embracing it,
– understanding it,
– taking care of it.
And here’s my prayer and my practice: May I remember that more often.
Wrap up of the Online Retreat
The last gathering of the Plam Village monastics and the participants really showcases what was true for the whole retreat and what could be felt in each moment. The kind dedication and honest effort to make this the best retreat possible.
Sure there were some hiccups, but given the program’s size, the different people, places and timezones involved, it was impressive. The people directly involved most likely are aware of 1.000 little things that went wrong, but as a participant, I am simply grateful and impressed.
There were also so many extra touches that made the retreat special. For example, the hamlets’ daily videos gave us a feeling of the places, the calligraphies to print out, the singing together, and the wonderful total relaxation sessions. There was so much care visible in so many details.
Another point that struck me was that I got to know the monks and nuns better than when I was there in person. Obviously, that was not mutual because they couldn’t see me, but I developed a heartfelt connection and became aware of many nuances in personality and character, which was joyful. An extra treat was to recognize some Sisters we had met before in person.
Additionally, the two monks Brother Pham Hanh and Brother (sorry, I forgot his name), who guided our Dhara sharing group, embodied this genuine care as well. The question “How to work with difficult emotions” was raised in the group, and Brother Pham Hanh created an additional talk and drawings for those interested.
Brother (?) shared something that will stay with me, which is a good thought to wrap up this article. I’ll rephrase it the way I remember it.
Think about caring for the world like this:
If your grandmother got sick, and there was no guarantee that she’d be somewhat ok again, wouldn’t you still care for her with all your heart? We can’t force the world into healing, but we can care for her with the same loving dedication and hope we would care for our grandmother.