No Coming, No Going

Peggy McPartland

I know I should just offer compassion. Why is it so difficult?

I’m bumped hard from behind and my tea spills across the floor of the dining hall. I take a deep breath and turn around. It’s the same woman who just ran into me as she came through the doorway a few minutes ago.

She offers her apology in French and I just shake my head saying it’s not a problem as I search for something to clean it up. I don’t speak French and she doesn’t speak English.

It’s the final day of a week-long retreat for French speaking people to practice mindfulness with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Approximately 800 people come to Plum Village in Loubes-Bernac, France for this retreat every year.

I’ve been living at Lower Hamlet in Plum Village for the past five weeks. It’s been a quiet, reflective time. There’ve been less than 35 nuns and only 8 lay friends (non-monastics). It’s been a rare opportunity to live and study with the sisters in a very intimate way.

Most of the sisters are from Vietnam and fairly young. Yet they’re wise beyond their years and filled with a deep love and compassion that I haven’t experienced before.  They’re patient and tolerant of our lack of understanding and our frustrations with living in a community.  And they’re able to continue with this generosity and compassion when 800 people descend into their midst.

The community’s been preparing for the French retreat for quite some time. I’m amazed at the hard work and preparation that goes into it. It becomes quite intense.

As the day of the retreat approaches, I began to waiver between the excitement of the community as they prepare to host this annual event and the dread of being surrounded by 800 people after living so quietly for the past month. I feel selfish. I want this incredibly special time to continue. And I feel guilty for that because I want others to be able to share in this amazing experience too.

I’m thrown from endless days of reflection, quiet and connection into chaos. Hundreds of people arrive during the day, most unfamiliar with the practice. They’re noisy, busy and uncertain. I welcome them in the only way I know how – with a smile.

We don’t speak the same language and I feel lost in this sea of faces and unintelligible voices. I try to be present and mindful, to maintain my balance but I feel like an outsider and lost. It’s a strange feeling after being so grounded during my time here.

It doesn’t take long to find a sort of rhythm and be pulled into the energy of the retreat. We’re divided into “families” of 20 or so to allow for more intimate connection and sharing. I stay on the periphery when I’m not with my family carving out my own quiet time and space. I feel as if I don’t really belong but remind myself it’s only for a few days.

In spite of my discomfort, the week goes by all too quickly. Even with the language difference, we’ve shared deeply and made real connections.

We say our goodbyes and sing one last song together on the final day of the retreat. One of the women in my family who’s been so reserved much of the retreat quietly asks if we can sing the song again in English for me. I burst into tears, finally knowing I’ve been a part of this family of incredible people the whole time and my separateness was only in my mind.

     No coming, no going
     No after, no before
     I hold you close to me
     I release you to be so free
     Because I am in you
     And you are in me…  

We sing with tears running down our faces.

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