A Winter Retreat at Home By Participants in the Maison de l’Inspir Winter Retreat
“Doing the winter retreat while staying at home, why not?”
Thanks to this wonderful idea, the first winter retreat for laypeople at the Maison de l’Inspir was manifested. The Maison de l’Inspir (literally, House of the In-breath) is a small monastery of monks and nuns in the eastern suburb of Paris, which opened its doors in early 2008. Sister Giac Nghiem (Sister Elisabeth) is its abbess.
In November 2008, a proposition was made to the members of the Paris Sangha to commit to a program of regular practice during the three-month winter retreat, linked with the Maison de l’Inspir. In a week, about fifteen people had expressed their wish to participate in this adventure, and thus to deepen their practice during the winter retreat while remaining at home.
A Commitment to Practice
Inspired by the monastics’ winter retreat activities, we committed to the following practices:
Listen to at least one of the two teachings given by Thay each week of the retreat. It was possible to listen to this teaching either on Thursday at the Maison de l’Inspir during the Day of Mindfulness, or at home at any time thanks to the Internet.
Make one or two resolutions.
Write daily in one’s journal.
Share about our practice once a week during meetings at the Maison de l’Inspir with Sister Ton Nghiem (Sister Stephanie). On the occasions when we could not come together in person, sharings were done by email.
Practice a new gatha each week. Gathas are little poems that are recited with daily activities to help us go back to ourselves in mindfulness (see the book Present Moment, Wonderful Moment – Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living).
We practiced the gathas for opening the tap, opening or closing a door, throwing out the garbage, sitting down, lying down, contemplating our food, beginning to eat, and finishing our meal. During the course of the retreat, we began to re-write the gathas in rhyming verses that were short and very pleasant to recite.
The gatha for throwing out the garbage (In the garbage I see a rose; In the rose I see the garbage; Everything is in transformation; Even permanence is impermanent) became:
Rose et déchets,
(Rose and rubbish,
The one for finishing our meal (The plate is empty. My hunger is satisfied. I vow to live for the benefit of all beings) became:
Je n’ai plus faim.
Voeu pour ma vie:
De tous, le bien.
(The plate finished,
I am not hungry any more.
A vow for my life:
For the good for all.)
When one does a retreat in Plum Village, it has a very strong effect which makes it possible to reach a state of deep calm and concentration. After this experience one always feels like going back to this state, and it is a strong motivation. However, as soon as one goes back home, I find that one loses that state, more or less rapidly, depending on the environment to which one returns.
The winter retreat at the Maison de l’Inspir was a different experience, which presented two big advantages. First, as we tried to practice during the retreat, we were forced to find solutions and adjustments in our usual environment, and this elevated the level of our mindfulness. The new quality of mindfulness remained less than the one attainable in Plum Village, but I found that it was more solid: it was in our normal life, at home, that we had created new habits. Secondly, by doing the retreat without being physically separated from the family, there was the possibility for the family to be associated with it. This is what happened with my husband, although he was not particularly interested in practicing.
One retreatant, Francoise, wrote: “This winter retreat at home, in the office, in the metro, in the streets of Paris, generated space and time for a more intense spiritual practice. I have a dream that the seeds that we have sown will germinate in other sanghas, and for the winter retreat 2009-2010 we will be a thousand laypeople participating in the retreat ‘at home.’ I make the wish that the energy generated by our collective meditation dispels the veil of ignorance and soothes the suffering of all living beings around us.”
Another practitioner, Celine, shared: “To summarize how I feel about this retreat I would like to tell this story. A magnificent hundred-year-old bonzai was given to a friend; despite all the care taken as far as light and hygrometry, after a few months, the bonzai was losing all its leaves and was showing less and less vitality. My friend took his bonzai back to the shop, and they told him to come back in three months’ time. Three months later, the bonzai was splendid with brand new leaves, and my friend asked: ‘What did you do?’The answer was simple: ‘Nothing, I just put it with the others.’ I feel deeply the necessity of practicing/sharing in the Sangha to help each other out. Moreover, the other is a mirror.”
This retreat was very beneficial for our practice and brought us a lot of joy. And its first manifestation had a beautiful continuation. During the winter of 2009, French members of the Order of Interbeing made the “winter retreat at home” available in many places throughout the country. OI members signed up to facilitate weekly groups to talk about the special practices offered by monastics via email. More than 170 people participated in the retreat at home!