Thursday, August 27, 2009

La Maison de l'Harmonie

It was actually much harder than I thought to blog while I was on vacation, so now that I'm back home I'm playing catch up on the past few weeks. The next few posts will chronicle the last part of my trip, starting with my weeklong retreat in the French countryside at a lovely place called Maison de l'Harmonie (Harmony House).

Harmony House is an ecological/spiritual community that came into being 6 months ago thanks to a meeting of the minds between a renown French environmental advocate, Phillipe Desbrosses, and the monastic community of Plum Village. Mr. Desbrosses offered up his unused house and land in Sologne (a few hours from Paris) so that a group of young laypeople (as opposed to monastics) could live together in the spirit of Plum Village while cultivating the land organically and hosting mindfulness retreats.

There are currently 5 permanent residents at Harmony House, and I met 3 of them during a recent retreat called "Nature and Relaxation" (the other two residents were on vacation).

Here I am with Phap Liêu, one of the monks from Maison de l'Inspir (a Plum Village monastic community established in Paris about a year ago) and the fabulous Harmony House 'brothers:' Alain, Charlie, and Manu.

Phap Liêu came with another monk from Paris, Phap Tâp, in order to lead the retreat of about 30 participants. Like any retreat following the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn, the basic idea is always to cultivate mindfulness
in a variety of ways: sitting meditation, walking meditation, silent meals, singing, dharma sharing/talks (more on that later), bodywork like qigong or yoga, etc. But given the theme of this particular retreat, we also spent a lot of time outside on long walks in the countryside (which sadly wasn't possible for me because of my broken toe) and doing what they call 'total relaxation.' It was basically a deep relaxation guided by one of the monks, who sang us some incredibly beautiful lullabies while one of the participant 'played' tibetan bowls. We did this a few times, and it was absolutely amazing - I was so relaxed that I even fell asleep once, which is the first time that's ever happened to me in a relaxation, since I often can't even fall asleep in my own bed much less on the floor in a room full of people, many of whom are snoring!

Here's a picture of the altar in the meditation hall, which is in part noteworthy for its absence of a Buddha statue. There was one at first, but one of the monks decided that he didn't want it there since it wasn't a Buddhist retreat - so he took it away! I thought that was pretty funny, because all of us were used to being around Buddha statues and I'm sure it wouldn't have bothered anyone. But the Buddha was gone, so we practiced mindfulness without him. We had beautiful bouquets to inspire us instead, created by a Japanese participant who practices Ikebana, the art of flower arrangement.

We did have a Buddhist reminder outside, however, in the form of Tibetan prayer flags (even though Thich Nhat Hahn is Vietnamese and teaches in a completely different tradition - that's Buddhist tolerance for you!). To the right you can see the composting toilets, which were a recent addition in order to accommodate the increasing numbers of participants while limiting water consumption, in keeping with the ecological principles of Harmony House. And I'm sure the compost will go back into their beautiful gardens (more about those in the next post).

With all that fresh country air, delicious organic food from the garden, and wonderful exchanges between the participants (in addition to all the mindfulness practice of course), it was an incredibly relaxing and restorative week. I found it really hard to leave Harmony House, and can't wait to go back!

For more info on Maison de l'Harmonie and de l'Inspir, you can visit their blogs by clicking on the links embedded in this text or on my blog list to the left.

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