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A mindful retreat among the monks

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What made the story all the more fascinating is that Plum Village isn’t just any Buddhist monastery. Not by a long shot. It’s home to the renowned Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh.

I can hear you now. “Thich Nhat who?” Long story short, he is one of the fathers of mindful living — a spiritual leader beloved by millions around the world.

“Thay,” as he is affectionately known by his students, visited Brock University five years ago to host a weeklong mindfulness retreat for educators. It was a sellout crowd. In the world of spirituality, Thich Nhat Hanh is a humble rock star. His bio is impressive. He is the author of more than 100 books on mindfulness and meditation. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1967 by Martin Luther King Jr. for the work he did advocating for peace during the Vietnam War. He is, in a word, inspiring. His key message is that happiness lies in the present moment. By learning how to be mindful in everyday life, he says, we can find peace in ourselves and in the world around us.

“Who couldn’t use a little more peace?” I thought to myself as I devoured “The Monks and Me.” The appeal of finding peace in a Buddhist monastery in France was undeniable. Talk about a romantic locale for connecting with your soul. In the end, of course, the lesson to be learned is that we can connect with our soul and find peace wherever we are — in France or sitting on a lawn chair in our own backyard. Contrary to popular belief, peace has nothing to do with the conditions around us, and everything to do with those inside of us. It’s a lesson I needed to understand more clearly. Maybe you can relate.

Excited as I was at the prospect of a retreat at Plum Village, I wouldn’t have the chance to join the nuns and monks there for some time. Then fate stepped in when I was backpacking in the UK last year. I ran into a woman who had just left — you guessed it — Plum Village. She talked about her experience so lovingly and with such reverence. It was a sign; I knew in my heart that I had to go.

Fast forward three weeks — three long weeks. Excited as a kid on Christmas Eve, I hauled my backpack from the luggage rack on the train at the Sainte Foy La Grande station near Bordeaux. I was 40 minutes away from Plum Village by car, and soon to walk through the iron gates of a tranquil little world all its own. As promised, one of the village nuns, Sister Marianne, picked me up from the station in her makeshift taxi. Joining us was another guest who I had met on the train: a bubbly young French midwife named Isabelle. She was a return visitor who couldn’t imagine life without Plum Village. Good omen? I thought so.

After a quick “Bonjour!” and a double kiss on the cheeks, we jumped into Marianne’s car (which for reasons I can’t recall was nicknamed “The Silver Cloud”), and away we went. Our route took us on a stunning tour of the rolling French countryside. Fertile vineyards everywhere, the air warm and sweet. I felt restored already.

As we pulled into the driveway of the “New Hamlet” site and parked the car, I looked up to see pink rose bushes climbing the cream coloured walls of the dining hall. I pulled my pack out of the trunk, walked over, closed my eyes and inhaled. Any stress I might have been feeling up to that point began to melt away. Opening my eyes, I noticed an old-fashioned swing hanging from a nearby tree. I strolled over, sat on the wooden plank and began to pump my way skyward. Everything on the ground below became tiny. It felt like my worries were becoming tiny, too.

After a few minutes, I jumped off the swing and turned my attention to the rest of the grounds. A giant gong-style bell under a pagoda roof formed the elegant centrepiece of the backyard. Kicking off my sandals, I roamed through the grass in my bare feet. Colour was everywhere — in the elegant pink and green lotus flowers floating in the back pond, in the blackberry bushes ready for harvest, and in the apple trees silently observing us from neat rows nearby.

Being in nature’s embrace felt good: still, serene, peaceful. For as lush and beautiful as the outdoors were, my dorm room was nothing short of austere. It was a monastery, after all, not the Four Seasons. Creaky bed springs, hard pillows, no closets. The room was one of several inside an old farmhouse beside the dining hall. A cat on the front porch, clotheslines strung between trees, roosters crowing at daybreak. It was straight out of Central Casting, and I loved it.

My roommates were an eclectic group: a German doctor who was about to have a baby, a musician from Spain, students from Italy and Australia, an executive from the UK and a Canadian contemplating the idea of becoming a nun. Thanks to the roosters next door, we rolled out of bed each morning at 5. Our first brush with mindful living came when we looked in the bathroom mirror. Taped above the sinks were illustrated meditations written by Thich Nhat Hanh. Each reminded us to be mindful of the water helping us to start our day: “Water flows over these hands; may I use them skilfully to preserve our precious planet.”

I began to notice water more than I ever had, and to express gratitude for it, too.

After we washed up and brushed our teeth, my roommates and I walked to the nearby sanctuary for a 5:30 meditation. Stalks of corn towered above us in the dark at the side of the dirt road. Crickets chirped in the fields. I remember breathing in the cold air and feeling fully alive — the kind of alive you feel when your heart races just a little at the excitement of it all.

Once inside the sanctuary, I couldn’t help but be amazed. The interior looked like a beautiful old barn, with rough-hewn beams in the ceiling, grey stone walls, lush purple carpeting on the floors. The Buddha sat majestically at one end; windows lined the opposite wall.

Without a sound, we sat on tufted purple pillows on the floor and listened to the nuns chant. It was a study in harmony: sacred and soothing. When the chants ended, we joined the nuns in meditation, and later joined them in a walking meditation through the sanctuary. The idea was to move slowly, hands pressed together, eyes on the ground, aware of every step. Just being there inspired awe.

More than once, I had to pinch myself to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.

After morning mediation, it was on to breakfast — but a different kind of breakfast. In the Buddhist tradition, we ate our meals in silence, quietly contemplating our food as we chewed. Released from any pressure to make small talk, we could silently express gratitude to the people who grew our food, prepared and served it. In effect, I was training my brain to focus on “now” and to notice and appreciate the present moment.

It was a bit awkward at first, but by the second day, I began to enjoy it. In the end, it became one of my favourite Buddhist lessons. Quietly in that dining hall each day, I learned to savour. It is one of the great teachings of mindfulness, and to do it in the home of Thich Nhat Hanh felt like a privilege.

Something else I learned to do? Stop being in such a hurry.

The nuns and monks at Plum Village ring a “bell of mindfulness” each day. That bell was our signal to stop: stop moving, stop thinking, stop talking. And once we stopped, we noticed what had been right in front of us all along — everything from a ladybug on the ground to a chirping bird, to a spider weaving its web in a nearby apple tree.

The truly great thing about it was that I knew I could practise this lovely form of mindfulness at home, using the bells of everyday life as my signal to stop. Nothing would be off limits: a baby’s cry, the sound of a fire truck or an ambulance, the chime of a church bell, the call of a blue jay or the ringing of my iPhone.

I began to feel the joy of fully inhabiting “now.” And once I started, I didn’t want to stop. Happily, the weekly group walking meditation through the apple orchards of the village gave me yet another chance to focus on “now.” In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, we walked as if we were “kissing the Earth with our feet” — noticing the feel of the grass and the way it grounded and centred us.

We walked in silence. We sat on the ground in silence. It’s a memory that I cherish.

Another cherished memory? That’s easy: the village garden.

Part of the retreat included a work assignment for two afternoons. I chose to help weed the vegetables. It was a tough job; the ground was hard and dry and the weeds had deep roots. On top of that, France was being hammered by a heat wave. I sat on a bucket between rows of kale under the sweltering sun and wished it were time for dinner — time for anything that would get me out of there.

Yet when I finally packed my bag to go home at the end of the week, I wanted to remember that big old patch of ground. I had weeded the earth there, that was true. But I had also weeded my mind. With each plunge of the spade, I did my best to focus on “now” and the beauty of the present moment — even though it was sometimes hot and sweaty and hard. A lot like life, when you think about it.

Throwing my pack on my back, I closed my eyes and smiled. “The Monks and Me” had brought me here. What next?

I couldn’t wait to find out.

Karen Cumming is a journalist who loves a great adventure. Follow her blog on mindful living, meditation and self-care at karencumming.com

If you go

How to get there

Plum Village is about 85 kilometres east of Bordeaux. Fly Toronto to Bordeaux-Mérignac Airport. Take a 45 minute ride on the Bordeaux Airport shuttle to the Bordeaux St-Jean train station. Then take the train to Sainte Foy La Grande station. A driver from Plum Village will pick you up and take you to your accommodation in either Lower Hamlet, New Hamlet or Upper Hamlet (about a 40-minute trip). Taxis are also available if you arrive outside the scheduled arrival times.

To buy your train ticket in advance, visit Trainline, Rail Europe, or Voyages SNCF.

As an alternate route, fly Toronto to Paris, then take the TGV high speed train to Bordeaux, and change trains at Sainte-Foy-la-Grande.

Food and accommodation for a weeklong retreat

Prices for adults range from 550 euros for a room with two beds and a private bath to 350 euros for dorm accommodation with a shared bath, to 300 euros for tent camping, to 250 euros for those who choose to stay offsite each night. Children and teens are welcome.

More information

Check the Plum Village website for special programs offered throughout the year: www.plumvillage.org

If you’re thinking of making a trip to Plum Village part of a wider exploration of France, check out the French tourism website: http://ee.france.fr/

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Travel & Escape

Why your hotel mattress feels like heaven (and how to bring that feeling home)

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(NC) Choosing the right mattress is a long-term investment in your health and well-being. To make a good choice for your home, take a cue from luxury hotel-room beds, which are designed to support the sound sleep of tens of thousands of guests, 365 nights a year.

“When we’re shopping for a mattress, we do lab testing, identify the best materials, bring in multiple mattress samples and have our associates test them,” explains David Rizzo, who works for Marriott International. “We ask for ratings on comfort level, firmness, body support and movement disruption. It takes 12 to 18 months just to research and select materials.”

Here, he shares his tips to pick the perfect mattress for your best sleep:

Understand your needs. People have different food and exercise preferences, as well as different sleep cycles. So, it’s no surprise that everyone has unique mattress preferences. Not sure whether a firm or a soft mattress is better? Rizzo says the best gauge is to ask yourself, “Do I wake up with aches and pains?” If the answer is no, you’re golden.

Foam versus spring. All mattresses have a core that is made up foam or innersprings or a combination of the two. Today’s foam-core mattresses contain memory foam — a material engineered by NASA to keep astronauts comfortable in their seats. It’s special because it retains or “remembers” its shape, yielding to pressure from the sleeper’s body, then bouncing back once the pressure is removed.

An innerspring mattress has an encased array of springs with individual coils that are connected by a single helical wire. This wire creates continuous movement across the coil that minimizes disruption if the mattress is disturbed, such as by a restless sleeper. According to Rizzo, the innerspring is “bouncier.”

Temperature preference. Consider how warm or cool you like to sleep, and factor in the construction of the mattress to find one with a temperature that suits you. The air space engineered into an innerspring mattress promotes ventilation, which some people find keeps them pleasantly cool. To accomplish the same purpose with a foam mattress (or the foam layer of an innerspring) it may be infused with metal, usually silver or copper, to help dissipate heat and humidity.

Need to test out the right mattress for your needs? Find the right fit during your next trip by booking your stay at marriott.com.

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Travel & Escape

How to make the most of summer travel

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(NC) One of the best parts of our short Canadian summers is the opportunity to enjoy them a little bit extra on long weekends. If you need ideas, check out these creative things to do whether you decide to stay in town or go away.

Do a dinner crawl. Pub crawls are fun for couples, friends and also families with older kids. For an exciting twist that stretches your dollars and lets you taste food from several spots before you get too full, try a dinner crawl. Eat apps at one restaurant, mains at another and dessert at another.

Go on a mini getaway. You don’t need to go very far to enjoy a vacation – exploring a Canadian city over a summer weekend is great way to treat yourself to a holiday. Whether it’s checking out the museums in Toronto or the parks in Vancouver, there’s something for everyone. For upgraded benefits, special experiences and the best rates guaranteed, join Marriott Bonvoy and book direct on Marriott.com.

Host a potluck. Perfect whether you’re staying at home or going to your cottage, gather friends and family together for some food and fun. A potluck is an easy and affordable way to host a big get-together and lets everyone try something new and swap recipes. Make the festivities extra special with a fireworks potluck, too – ask everyone to bring some fireworks or sparklers and put on a light show. Just be sure to follow local regulations for consumer fireworks.

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Lottoland: Here’s why Canadians love it!

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Lotteries have been in existence for many centuries now and it’s an open secret that most people enjoy playing a good lottery.

Asides from gauging your own luck, the thrill of playing, the anticipation of the results and the big wins every now and then is something most people look forward to. Since 1982, the lottery has been in Canada, but now there is a way to play both the Lotto and other international lotteries from Canada, all from the comfort of your home.

With Lottoland, all you need to do is register and get access to numerous international lotteries right from their website. The easy-to-use interface has all the information you need, and great amount of care has been taken to ensure that the online experience is similar—and even better—than if players were to visit each location personally.

The Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries are hitting record highs with their prize money, in what the organizers claim to be the largest jackpot in the history of the world. However, the U.S. has gambling laws that are state controlled and buying your ticket through an online broker can be considered gambling.

“No one except the lottery or their licensed retailers can sell a lottery ticket. No one. Not even us. No one. No, not even that website. Or that one,” Powerball’s website says.

Therefore, to stand a chance to win the $1.5 billion-dollar lottery jackpot it means you have to purchase your lottery tickets directly from a licensed retailer such as Lottoland.

Since 2013, Lottoland has been operating in Canada, rapidly growing in popularity amongst Canadians. Due to its easy of use and instant access to lotteries that were previously considered inaccessible—as Canadians had to travel all the way to the U.S. to purchase tickets in the past—Lottoland has attracted lots of visitors.

Currently, there about 8-million players on Lottoland, a figure that points to the reliability of the website.

One of the core values of Lottoland is transparency and that’s why a quick search on the website would show you a list of all of their winners. Recently, a Lottoland customer was awarded a world-record fee of $137 million CND.

Also, due to the incredibly slim chances of winning the grand prize not everyone would take home mega-dollar winnings, but there are substantial winnings every day.

Securing your information online is usually one important factor when registering on any platform and as the site explains, “Lottoland works very hard to verify your information.”

The site has a multi-verification process that will ensure that you confirm your identity and age before giving you a pay-out. However, in the rare case that a player has immediate luck and wins a lottery before completing the verification process, Lottoland will hold on to the winnings until they complete your verification.

While this might seem like a tedious process, it is very important as these safety features would ensure that your information wasn’t stolen and ultimately your winning routed to another account.

Lottoland is licensed with the National Supervisory Bodies For Lotteries in several countries such as the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden, Ireland and Australia—where it is called a wagering license. Typically, most gaming companies don’t establish insurance companies as it entails that their activities have to be transparent and the must be highly reputable in the industry.

Nonetheless, Lottoland has no issues meeting up to these standards as they have established themselves as the only gaming sector company who has its own insurance company—an added advantage for new and existing users.

Lotteries aren’t the only games Canadians enjoy playing and Lottoland recognizes this by providing players with other types of gaming. As an industry leader, video designers of online games often make them their first choice when it comes to publishing their works.

Online games such as slots, blackjack, video poker, baccarat, keno, scratchoffs, roulette and many others are always on offer at the Lottoland Casino. There’s also the option of playing with a live dealer and a total of over 100 games.

Lottoland has received numerous rave reviews from its growing list of satisfied customer and their responsive customer service agents are always available to answer any questions users may have, along with solving challenges they may have encountered.

More and more Canadians are trooping to Lottoland in droves due to the unique experience of going to a casino without having to leave the comfort of their homes.

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