The story: how I ended up at Plum Village

We're in July 2005, I am 15 years old.

My mother forced me to go with her to a 1-week Buddhist Mindfulness retreat in the south west of France near Bordeaux. It's called Plum Village or Le Village des Pruniers in French.

I don't want to go there, I'd rather play video games all day. But here I am, bored, at the train station of Sainte-Foy-La-Grande, a village in the Gironde.

Monks pick us up at the station, they're smiling and friendly but I don't care, I don't feel it. I'm afraid of what awaits me there.

My mother told me we wouldn't stay together as there are several hamlets and women stay in a different hamlet than men.

I was thinking "what's the point of bringing me with you if we don't stay together?". I sighed, the real teenager clichĂŠ.

The monks invite me to join the car that goes to the Upper Hamlet and my mom is heading to the Lower Hamlet with the nuns.

When I arrive at the Upper Hamlet, monks tell me that I'll stay with other teens of my age. We're gathered and start getting to know each other.

I quickly realize it's an international environment and people from all around the world come to this place.

In my group of teens, there are people from Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and France. Outside our group, there were people from the US and even Australia.

There's one particular boy I quickly notice as he's very sarcastic and judgmental about everything around him. He's from Belgium and introduced himself as "Pools", a nickname.

I'm wondering "How the fuck did this guy end up here?", so I asked him.

It's his first time and has been brought by his friend, Adrien, who was in our group as well. My second thought was "How the fuck Adrien managed to convince this guy to come here?". I didn't ask.

Adrien is a regular visitor and comes to Plum Village every year. He's at home here.

There's also Sam, Janine two pretty girls from Netherlands, Marc, a tall boy from France who seems to like jokes, Sirio, an Italian cool guy, and Lucas from France, who looks funny as well.

These persons are the ones I remember the most in our group.

I realize I ended up at a summer camp, but not just any summer camp, a spiritual one. With monks.

I feel that it's going to be something I never experienced.

A word on Plum Village and its Master Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

Plum Village is the largest Buddhist monastery in Europe and America, with over 200 monks and more than 10,000 visitors a year from all around the globe.

It has been founded in 1982 by Thich Nhat Hanh, also named Thay.

Thay is one of the best-known Zen Buddhist masters in the West.

He's a global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist, revered around the world for his pioneering teachings on mindfulness, global ethics and peace.

He's a bestselling author of more than 100 books on mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism.

He was nominated by Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize of 1967.

In short, he was quite a person. He passed away at 95, in 2022. Plum Village continues to welcome visitors.

As an adult, I realize how lucky I was to have been around him during this retreat.

A typical day at Plum Village

Mindfulness is the way

Many people from all around the world come to Plum village to experience one essential thing: mindfulness.

From the second you wake up, it's about being fully present to what you're doing, whether that's brushing your teeth or tying your shoelaces.

It's about doing everyday things but being totally zoned in on them, noticing every little aspect and feeling.

It may seem trivial, but it totally changes the way you live your day.

Mindfulness is so much the opposite of busy modern life that when you arrive at Plum Village, you're on another planet.

Everything in Plum village is guided by mindfulness.

Walking meditations

A walking meditation at Plum Village

In our daily lives, when you see a crowd, there's the noise that goes with it. Except at funerals.

In Plum Village, you can often see large gatherings of people, but in silence and with a high quality of presence. This creates something powerful and hard to describe with words.

Walking meditations were truly impressive to me.

We walked really slowly outside. I noticed how my feet touched the ground, the cool breeze, and different sounds around us.

It was quiet. Just walking and breathing.

At first, it felt weird, walking with people without talking. But then, I felt calm, like my mind stopped racing.

I saw things I usually don't notice, like the shape of leaves and how the light changes. It made me appreciate the moment more.

I once saw a monk pick up a worm in our path and gently put it aside to protect it from the walkers behind.

This simple gesture was a true demonstration of respect for life at Plum Village.

Sitting meditations

We'd sit on cushions, legs crossed, in a quiet room. We were guided by the monks.

Eyes closed, we just focused on our breathing—breath in, breath out.

My mind often wandered to things like friends or daydreams. But the key was learning to notice that and gently bring my focus back to my breath.

For us teens, it wasn't always easy, but it really helped us find a bit of calm.

Mindful eating

In our daily rush, we often eat without thinking much about it, on autopilot.

Many of us grab food from the store without considering who made it or how.

During meals, we’re often distracted—talking, watching TV, or scrolling through our phones. Quiet meals without any distractions are becoming rare.

Plum Village teaches us a different way.

Here, when you get your meal, you’re fully there. You’re aware of the effort that brought the food to your plate. You think about the people who grew the vegetables or harvested the rice.

We feel thankful for these people and the food we have. Eating becomes an act of mindfulness, a moment to appreciate what we have.

Through this practice, we learn not only to eat but to nourish our bodies and souls with mindfulness and gratitude.

Group sharing

Sitting in a circle, we each shared our thoughts and feelings about the day.

It was a safe place to say what was on your mind. Everyone listened without judging.

It made me feel understood and connected. I heard stories from others that made me think and feel.

We laughed and sometimes got emotional.

It showed me how sharing honestly can bring people closer.

Dharma talks

Dharma Talks

At the heart of our time at Plum Village are the Dharma Talks.

Led by experienced teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh during my visit, these sessions were eye-opening.

Imagine sitting quietly among others, all sharing a common quest for understanding and peace.

The room is filled with attentive silence, a space where every word is absorbed and considered. These talks bridged ancient wisdom and our daily lives, making the big questions of life feel relevant and personal.

What struck me most was the encouragement to look within. To ask ourselves the tough questions: How can I grow? How can I change for the better?

It was a conversation with our inner selves, steered by teachings that have lasted centuries.

This is the essence of the Dharma Talks at Plum Village: a compassionate guide to living well, rooted in mindfulness and the joy of being truly present in each moment.

The Gong

The Gong - Credits to Paul Davis

There's one thing that makes this place even more memorable. The gong.

There's a gong in every hamlet. And that's a very important piece of the retreat.

On regular intervals, a monk or a nun sounds the gong and everyone in the hamlet, wherever they are, can hear it.

There's a simple rule that everyone follows: each time you hear the gong, you stop what you're doing, make a pause and go back to mindfulness.

If you were discussing with someone, both of you stop and mark a silence, take a breath and go back to being present in the here and now.

Whatever you were doing, you stop, mark a silence, take a breath and go back to mindfulness.

This gong is sounded multiple times a day to help us feel more present and mindful to what we're doing now when hearing it.

How Pools, the bad boy, changed throughout the retreat

In the beginning of this post, I mentioned Pools, a boy from Belgium who's been brought by his friend Adrien, a regular visitor of this place.

During the two first days of the retreat, Pools was very sarcastic, judgmental and sometimes even disrespectful. He made fun at everything.

(I learned later that he had committed offenses in Belgium).

But this boy had landed at Plum Village, a very special place, totally different from his usual environment.

What an experience for him and how interesting for me it was to follow his evolution.

Guess what? He totally transformed throughout the week.

Each new day of the retreat calmed him more.

For the first two days, he resisted the practices. Then, as everyone in the group did them, he adapted and started doing them too. At first, with mockery, then, as time went by, he kept quiet and practiced like everyone else.

He had no choice but to adapt to the energy of the place and the people around him.

By the end of the week, he was calm, peaceful and fully present, like all the teens of our group. This is a great demonstration of the power of Plum Village.

There's an image I'll remember for ever. When the retreat came to an end and it was time to say goodbye, we were all sad to leave and Pools hugged us all, crying "I'll never forget you".

Within 7 days, this "tough guy" who used to make fun of everyone had totally changed his attitude, had become calmer, more peaceful and was crying in our arms.

Big emotions.

The 5 lessons I learned from my Plum Village retreat

1. You get more out of life by going slower, not faster

In today's world, there's this constant push to do more, as if packing our days with activities is the key to happiness.

But this retreat taught me something vital: it's not about doing more; it's about being more mindful and present.

Slowing down allows us to savor each moment, to really be in it, rather than thinking about the next thing on our to-do list.

When we pause, we notice the small details and the big picture starts to shift. We realize that happiness doesn't come from the quantity of our experiences, but from the quality of our presence within them.

2. Mindfulness and living fully in the now is life-changing

Being present transforms everything—especially our relationships. It brings a depth to interactions through active listening and genuine engagement, free from the distractions of phones and laptops.

The benefits are profound: improved focus, deeper connections, and a sense of peace.

This journey into mindfulness echoed the teachings in "Awareness" by Anthony de Mello and "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle, books that have guided me since the retreat.

These great non fiction books affirm that embracing the present is not just transformative, it's revolutionary.

3. Deep joy and contentment requires very simple ingredients

This retreat illuminated a profound truth: deep joy and contentment come from simplicity.

Meditations, long walks, being with people with a high quality of presence and absorbing teachings have brought me a level of happiness I've never experienced before.

It wasn't about crazy activities. The simple acts of being and connecting were enough.

And being surrounded by people on the same journey amplified this feeling.

The sense of belonging and understanding among us was a clear reminder that sometimes, all you need to find joy is to be in the right place with the right people.

4. Spending time in a spiritual community is great

My time at Plum Village taught me the incredible value of spending time in a spiritual community.

This type of place have a special energy that fills the air, making everything feel alive.

It’s a space where you can truly reconnect with yourself, away from the noise and distractions of everyday life.

It’s a meeting place for like-minded souls, people who share a common pursuit of growth, spirituality, and well-being.

This sense of community, of finding others who understand and share your quest, is not just uplifting—it’s transformative.

5. Living outside is great for mental and physical health

We're meant to be outdoors, not cooped up inside staring at screens. There's something about having your feet in the grass, feeling the sun on your skin, that feels right. It's how we're wired.

Spending time outside, whether it's walking, simply moving around, or just soaking up some sunshine, does wonders for both mind and body.

It's not just about the fresh air or the exercise; it's about connecting with the world in its most natural state. This connection, this return to our roots, plays a crucial role in our overall well-being.

Final word

I'll be short as I want to end this article that took me a while to write.

Of course, I'm not sponsored by Plum Village to write this post. But I encourage anyone to go to this place.

I'll return there during the summer of 2024.

Here's their website to book a retreat:

Thanks for reading.