Interview with Morning Sun Community - as featured in the Mindfulness Bell

Morning Sun Community's Featured Article

We are excited to share Sanghabuild's interview with Morning Sun Founders Michael and Fern, recently published in the Mindfulness Bell, a journal of the art of mindful living!

We feel that this is one of our best articles yet, and we are happy to invite you into Morning Sun's first intimate steps as a young but thriving community. We are also excited to share that the editor selected Sanghabuild's photo of Morning Sun's young adult retreat as the cover photo!

For a more authentic experience with the original Mindfulness Bell article, we have preserved the article and photos in their initial form and layout for you to read.

Step into Morning Sun Community's creation and adventure

We also wholeheartedly invite you to check out more of what the Mindfulness Bell journal has to offer.  Each issue focuses on the most cutting edge practices and topics of socially engaged practice in our world, from mindfulness in education, mindful consumption, social justice and racial equity, practicing peace in times of war, mindfulness and the Plum Village community's continuation in light of Thich Nhat Hanh's illness, and more...

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Fig Picking and Harmonious Living in West Hamlet: Part 2

Fig Picking and Harmonious Living 

 Part 2 of the West Hamlet Series

August, 2017

During our last evening at West Hamlet, Michel and Pascale invited us to take a walk around the vineyards and forests, to a place they often enjoy together as a couple. We still had some packing and cleaning to do, but we knew that this opportunity was not to be missed. West Hamlet is perched upon a plateau that overlooks a long plain of vibrant greenery. Along their property and neighboring lands are terrific views of farms, vineyards, and forests expanding as far as the eye can see… all of them exuding different shades of nature’s emerald solar panels.

We walked to Pascale’s favorite spot on the banks of a shallow hillside cliff, and silently watched the sunset together. In no words at all, Vanessa and I listened and watched the simple beauty of Michel and Pascale’s life unfolding together there at West Hamlet: time to meditate in community each morning, watching sunsets with friends in the evening, communicating deeply with each other as a couple, and leisure time in nature (not to mention luscious fig trees on our walk!). They prioritized living simply within an abundance of nature, instead of more affluent jobs in the city.

A daily spectacle, just behind West Hamlet

Walking back up a small hill, Pascale showed us some juniper bushes and berries that she often collects to flavor her homemade sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables. While picking a few on the spot, she relaxedly shared with us, “I love the nature here, it’s so rich. I love gathering plants, their seeds, and fruits. And I love the plants themselves. Sometimes we go out and pick herbs for hours, and then share them with everyone. When I think of going back to the city, I think ‘Oh no, there’s so much nature here.’”

The overwhelming beauty and proximity to nature is clearly nourishing for everyone in West Hamlet. But whenever I asked them about what they love the most about living there, interestingly, nature wasn’t number one.

“What do I love?”, Pascale amusedly pondered. “Being so close to the Village, benefiting from the days of mindfulness, the morning meditations… all the time we spend at the Village. And what I love the most is to give French classes to the Brothers and Sisters, because that amuses me so much!” Similarly, Michel shared, “What pleases me, is that we are on a path of practice, and we live many ways together in the practice.”

The other residents were quite on the same page as we asked them later. “The proximity to the Village”, Serge replied without the slightest hesitation. “That’s the most important. It’s not only because we are physically close, but it’s the meetings and time together with the Brothers and Sisters. That’s what I love. And the place is so beautiful here, very lovely. When I’m with the Brothers and Sisters, I’m close to the teachings, the recitations, formal lunch, walking meditation outside, and the wider lay community. I have so much joy with my spiritual family.”

A common noontime sight at West Hamlet on a lay day

Over the week, I heard over and over again about how privileged they felt to be living so close to the Village and spending intimate time with the monastics. Over the course of my stay, and often hearing about the joys of living together and down the road from Plum Village, I started to wonder, ‘So, where does the rubber meet the road here in West Hamlet?’. I was curious.

“What difficulties do you experience in community here?”, I asked each of them. Amazingly, both Serge and Josselyne, as well as Michel and Pascal expressed that they had virtually no problems living with the others in community. ‘Interesting, I thought…’ and continued to probe further.

I was sure that regular sharing circles were a big part of their harmonious magic and bonding together. Most communities we had visited used practices like Dharma Sharing and Beginning Anew to attune to each other, develop understanding, and resolve tensions. But once again, they surprised me. When I asked about Beginning Anew (a group sharing exercise that allows expression for gratitudes, regrets, and asking for community support), Serge responded bluntly that they don’t practice formally in that way. As for Dharma sharing, they originally tried to schedule it every week, but in actuality, they only meet monthly, mostly because of their time in Upper Hamlet. I was surprised to see how harmonious they were living together, while not practicing in this way. ‘How do they do it?’, I wondered.

Taking a walk down the road from West Hamlet, vineyards and bucolic homes adorn the way.

Michel helped to point out the differences between communication within their intimate partnerships versus their community practice. “As a couple, we do beginning anew, and we share a lot. In our lay hamlet, however, from time to time, we only share as a group once a month. Sometimes, we share only every few months, because of all the retreats happening in the Village. But we also practice informally with each other: loving speech, compassionate listening, and of course all our nonverbal gestures. We pay attention to each other, not to hurt or upset each other. For example, I’m a smoker, and I always try to pay attention not to disturb others whenever I smoke.”

Serge explained that while at home, “We tend to really focus on how conscious we are of each other throughout the day. It’s our informal practice of mindfulness that never stops. We function more like a family here. Everyone gives energy to do something when they can do it.” Otherwise he explained, “We let it go and there’s no pressure.”

Our conversations also explored other roots of their harmonious living. For example, everyone had commented at least once how much joy and energy they derive from working and spending time with the monastic community almost every day. Michel expressed with admiration, “The Brothers are a magnificent example of such brotherhood. The community monastic is a global model.” Such closeness with the monastics consistently nourishes and supports the way they speak, listen, think, and behave at home together.

I was curious about their weekly schedule of practice and how instrumental it was towards their communal harmony. Serge recounted their learning early on together that they couldn’t live up to high expectations of daily morning and evening meditations, and other activities in West Hamlet. It was unrealistic for their daily lives often spent in the monastery, so they changed their program to four simple morning meditations per week with rotating facilitators. Each morning, the facilitator chooses the program based upon their individual inspiration. They always sit for 30 minutes, but the facilitator may choose either a guided or silent seated meditation, followed by walking meditation, sutra reading, touching the earth, or whatever practice he or she wishes to guide.

I was impressed by their collective harmony together, but pressed further about what challenges them in community life. “What about for yourselves individually?”, I asked. “What’s difficult for you?”

Warm glowing candlelight infuses their intimate hall during morning meditations

Without much reflection on the spot, Josselyn easily admitted, “Sometimes I just need more silence and solitude. I would like to have a little cabin in the forest at times. That’s my character to need this. Not a lot, just from time to time.” “Yes, me too”, Serge chimed in. “But that’s possible because of our age. When we were on retreat for 10 days at Montagne du Dharma, there was such silence there. When we are at Plum Village, or with our family, I really need space not to talk so much, some silence. Chatting really makes me tired.”

Josselyne amusedly continued. “We thought that we would have several moments in community, and then spend most of our time alone. But the community has shown us otherwise. In fact, we see that we have a little room now and the rest of it is community space. So we spend most of our time in community, with less time for ourselves alone. So it’s flexibility that is so important for us to have.”

Serge also confessed that he often feels the weight of his perceived community role as the ‘Papa’. “That’s a bit difficult at times, to always be the Papa. The role of Papa, I’ve done that for a long time, and I don’t necessarily want to do that again: the one who gives directions, rules, and responsibility. Not only Papa, but leader, even if I have qualities for that.” I asked Serge, “Do you think that it’s more your habits or the community’s needs?” “The two, yes”, he said, “But it’s my responsibility to look at my habits and always be responsible for them.” Between their sharings, I could sense the degree of personal responsibility that people took for their own frustrations and needs. It was likely another significant plus towards the communal harmony scale.

“The Kingdom is Now or Never” – Thay’s powerful reminder to all who who enter the hamlet

It wasn’t until a few days later that I learned something else about West Hamlet’s harmony and ease of communal living. Pascale had been sharing with me about a potential community living project near Plum Village that is more long-term in nature. Both couples are highly considering buying a residential complex with several other families and couples. She reflected, “We don’t have many difficulties here at West Hamlet, because we don’t have many big decisions here. Materially we don’t have difficulties; we only make decisions about the food and that’s easy for us. Each couple has their own room, so we don’t really have any challenges sharing space. I’m aware that it’s more difficult when we make bigger decisions as a community, because there’s more at risk.” “Aha. That makes sense”, I affirmed, as we added another piece of the harmony puzzle.

It’s clear that the six adults at West Hamlet are deeply committed and skillful practitioners, taking time and energy to live consciously and harmoniously together. But hearing Pascale share about the temporary nature of their home helped me to realize something. They are guests in West Hamlet which has unique rewards there, namely harmony and proximity to the monastics. At the same time, there are limitations to their lives there as well, namely decision making that is coupled with greater ownership and long-term sustainability. Pascale continued to reveal insights more at length with me, helping me to understand their next steps forward towards sustainable lay community living, while not neglecting both the gems and rocks that lay on their path (to be continued in a following post!).

Pascale, with figs in hand and a smile in midday bloom

On our way back home, I showed Pascale and Michel a fig tree that I found while jogging the other day. “Look!” I said. “There are so many purple figs here that no one is even picking!” Appreciating my excitement, Michel smiled and beamed back to me,“Yes, that one is nice, but there is another one just down here, that is even better. The fruits are bigger and just as sweet, with both purple and green ones nearby.” “I like the dry ones”, said Pascale. “You can collect those too, and they will last during your travels.”

My small bag was getting too full of figs, so with Vanessa’s promise to wash my shirt, I took it off for us to collect another few rounds. Like excited children, we picked and ate figs to our hearts’ content, laughed, shared, and ate some more before finally walking back together in the dark. Ready to take along with us on our journey the next morning, we strolled back with an overflowing bag and shirt full of fresh and dried figs, complete gratitude for our sunset walk, tremendous joy for our new friendships, and not to mention, a shirt completely stained and dripping with fig juices. And yes, Vanessa did fulfill her promise to wash it… about one week later 😉

This is the second of a 4-Part Series of West Hamlet, Plum Village. Stay tuned for Parts 3 and 4:

Living as a Couple in Community: Interview with Michel and Pascale, and

Deeper Roots, Fresh Visions: Visioning Sustainable Lay Community near Plum Village