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  • We go on a picnic.
    All of us .
    It’s quite a sight.

    Over seven hundred people ; all walking mindfully towards the lake.
    Quietly, purposefully, mindfully walking; one foot in front of the other.
    Each one carrying a brown paper bag with a packed lunch inside.

    The Garda Siochána (police) in a patrol car have stopped the traffic in the busy tourist town of Killarney, while the steady stream of people cross the main road leading to the park lake.

    Car drivers roll down windows and hang on their elbows, kids on bicycles stop and point, jarveys in their jaunting-cars rest their horses and stoically gaze at our meandering procession.

    At the lake we spread out and find a comfortable place to sit on the gently sloping crescent of grass that forms the lake-shore.
    We munch our lunch. Mindfully. Enjoying our food in full awareness in the present moment.

    The sun shines on the lake. The rushes sway gently in the breeze. The mountains bear witness.

    Seven hundred people sitting on a lake-shore, quietly eating together. There is something biblical to the scene. I am reminded of the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes. Christ feeding the multitudes.

    It’s day three of a four day retreat: Mindful living today.

    Over Seven hundred and fifty people, mainly from Ireland, but also England, the United States, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark , have come together to listen and experience at first hand the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn ; Vietnamese monk, poet, peace and human rights activist and one of the best known and most respected Zen masters in the world today. He is accompanied by about fifty monks and nuns from the Buddhist community of Plum Village in the Dordogne, France, where Nhat Hanh has been living in exile for the last forty years.

    Thich Nhat Hanh's key teaching is that, through mindfulness, we can learn to live in the present moment instead of in the past or in the future. Dwelling in the present moment is, according to his teachings, the only way to truly develop peace, both in one's self and in the world.

    Thây (as he is called by his students, which means teacher) has a simple, clear and poetic style of teaching that is easy to access and understand. His teachings have brought the healing power of mindfulness to many thousands of people worldwide.

    It’s a busy programme, starting at 6.30 a.m. with meditation followed by stretching exercises. Breakfast is at eight, followed by a teaching by Thich Nhat Hahn at ten o’clock, followed by mindful walking. After lunch there is Darma sharing; sharing together our experiences and questions in small groups. Dinner is followed by an evening programme, which goes on until about 10.00 p.m. The food served at meal-times is excellent, tasty and nourishing. Meals are enjoyed in silence, theoretically at least. It’s difficult to put so many Irish people together in one place and expect them to keep quiet.

    Occasionally a monk or nun will invite a mindfulness bell to sound three times. This is an invitation to stop what we are doing, relax, bring our awareness to our breathing, and return to the present moment… I have arrived...I am home.

    In the course of the few days my stress, my resistance, my self-made harness; my protective layers; peel away like layers of an onion. Where my resistance is great the first evening at joining the nuns and monks in the singing of what to me sounds like kindergarten songs; I find myself this morning completely disarmed and singing along with the children who present us with the gift of a newly learned song:…I like the roses, I like the daffodills, I like the mountains, and the rolling hills…I like the stars that shine when the sun goes down…she-boom, she-boom, she-boom, she-boom… Complete with accompanying hand gestures.

    And , as is always the case when I peel onions , the tears come. I open. I soften. I allow the compassion and love that is present to wash over me.

    Back at the lake-side, my wife and I finish our lunch and walk to the shore where there is an old ruin standing alongside a stone-built pier. Here we meet a group of young monks with back-packs and sun glasses; hanging out, joking and smiling with the female photographer who is taking their photograph. They look relaxed, like celebrities, which in a sense they are. Many up-and-coming rock bands would be jealous of their global touring schedules. Where monks of other eras used illuminated manuscripts to communicate their message, these cyber-monks travel the world, use internet, Facebook and live-streaming video.

    Bringing the teachings of love and compassion and mindfulness of their now eighty-six year old master to those who open their hearts to it.

    Suddenly the photographer rushes off, having made some arrangements with the monks. We catch up with her later. Her name is Valerie O’Sullivan, a free-lance photographer commissioned to do a feature on the retreat for a national newspaper.

    Over the course of the weekend we spend some time with our Danish friends and their three children who have also come to Ireland to attend this retreat.

    Too soon it’s Sunday lunch-time, and we are breaking-up and saying our good-byes.Tired, but also nourished and cleansed by the experience.

    Monday we drive to the airport to catch a flight back to Amsterdam. But first I have to fill the car with petrol and return it to the car-hire company. At the petrol station I pick up a newspaper and pay at the counter.

    And there it is , on the front page , this great photo.
    Like the sound of a mindfulness bell, it invites me to return to the present moment.
    I breath in, I breath out… I have arrived… I am home.

    Photograph reproduced with kind permission of the photographer Valerie O'Sullivan:

    For more information about Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum VIllage community see:
    Plum Village
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