24 Sep 2019

By Ena Starmer-Jones

Bathing in the soft glow of awareness: a summer in Plum Village

The air feels cool, fresh, as I inhale; my hands resting gently on my knees. I am aware of the slight roughness of the yoga mat beneath my ankles, and the firm, gently undulating earth beneath it. My mind is quiet. There is little tension now, so early in the morning and after a few days of practice.  We sit in front of the lotus pond, and I focus on its still water, its tightly cupped flowers. A bell marks the end of the meditation, and we stretch and unfold our legs.

As volunteers, we are invited to arrive at Plum Village one week prior to the opening of the summer retreat, to first settle and come back to ourselves, before preparing for the arrival of retreatants. My decision to spend five weeks of my summer here has been a relatively straightforward one. Although able to nurture aspects of my practice since my last time here- a deeply moving experience at the Wake Up Earth retreat in 2017- in many ways, I have felt that my life has drifted out of alignment. A stressful year abroad and a return to an academically rigorous university environment has caused my perfectionist, type A-self to feel considerably out of control; it has nurtured inside of me a fear that has felt entirely too vast, too overwhelming to embrace.

Ena (right) in Plum Village

Deep within me, I have recognised a need to come back here; to strengthen my practice in the presence of the sangha whilst offering service to the community. Characteristically long university holidays and an equally characteristic, limited student budget have only served to reinforce this decision.

The weather is hot on the day that we meditate by the lotus pond. It is a day allocated by the community for practicing mindful service together; the brothers arrive at New Hamlet to assist with preparations for the summer retreat. A large group of us spends the afternoon raking newly-mown grass into piles around the Full Moon meditation hall, and the sun beats down, hard and persistent. The heat renders even this seemingly gentle exertion a significant, physical effort; the rake appears to become heavier, our faces sweatier; we all move more slowly. And yet even here, I am aware of a sense of spaciousness, in the way that we are reminded to be gentle with ourselves; to seek shade when we need it, and in the way that- after a particularly demanding couple of hours- the sisters bring us ice-cream. There is a lot of joy in this moment: in the ice-cream and in the company of each other.

This notion of spaciousness and care holds fast throughout my entire five weeks here. Although we all have our individual responsibilities, such as leading our family groups in mindful service activities and cleaning the houses on changeover day, I do not feel overburdened- there is time to be with myself. With the exception of those volunteering in the children’s and teens’ programmes, which operate on alternative schedules, we are able to participate in all retreat activities, such as dharma talks, dharma sharing and sitting meditation.  We meet three times a week as a volunteer family, which strengthens our connections with one another.

In an environment where I do not feel the pressure to constantly project my energy outwards, friendships form slowly and organically, in a way that feels beautiful and real. There is a lightness and joy to them, and yet they hold a depth also, through the way in which we share this collective aspiration to live more consciously, to be more mindful. We clean the volunteer toilets together, spend Lazy Days swimming in the river at Sainte Foy la Grande, and in the evenings we follow the path through the fields surrounding New Hamlet, or lie on the hill behind Fragrant Well house watching the stars.

There is a lot of laughter and insights in our volunteer family, and I discover how others are attempting to navigate this path of spirituality in the world outside of Plum Village. It is a relief when friends voice difficulties similar to my own, and I also become aware of small changes that I wish to implement in my life once I leave.

After thirty-five days, the change that I sense within myself is subtle but real; it is almost as if everything is bathed in a soft glow of awareness. I see the suffering in excessive plastic packaging as I stand in the fruit and vegetable aisle of a supermarket; I take part in a running event, and the stream of runners prompts me to contemplate the notion of interbeing. Slowly, I also begin to hear the voice of the inner child inside of me, and I try to listen. There is a softness to these insights; seeds of compassion have been watered and nurtured in me, and they bloom. 

I am so very grateful for my volunteering experience at Plum Village this summer. It has cultivated friendships and joy, strengthened my practice, and led me deeply back to myself.

Ena is studying at The University of St Andrews and travels from Essex to attend Wake Up London when she is home from university.