‘The practice of mindfulness is to learn to live our lives deeply. That way we will not waste our lives’ – Thich Nhat Hanh
We live in a time characterized by speed and restlessness – our everyday is fast-paced and future-oriented. Warnings to slow down, to breathe, to be more mindful permeate our busy lives. Few of us, however, pay heed. The documentary Walk with Me, currently running in the Irish Film Institute, is an invitation to decelerate – to stop, to be more present in the story of our own lives. It is a conjuring of the kind of mindfulness that we should all allow into our everyday. It is, indeed, a lesson for our times.
Plum Village (established in 1982) in the South West of France – a community of Buddhists, and now world leading mindfulness centre, led by the inimitable Thich Nhat Hanh – is the subject of this enlivening, often emotive documentary. Directors Max Pugh and Marc J. Francis, of Black Gold fame, explore and celebrate with observational distance and precision the everyday life of this Buddhist community and renowned Buddhist teacher. For three years, they had access to the world of Plum Village and its inhabitants – the result being a Jean Rouch style vérité film of cascading contemplations and evocations of mindfulness. The documentary is punctuated with scenes of monks gently pouring tea, candles afloat a glistening night-time river, snowflakes softly falling, children playing and laughing, vibrant moons and scattered rays of sunlight. In essence, Walk with Me is a mindful project and documentary, in and of, itself.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the main subject of the documentary, now 90, was forced into exile in 1966 because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. He has spent much of his life in France and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King. He is widely credited with enabling the popularisation of mindfulness in the West and has lectured and written numerous books on the subject. Having suffered a stroke in 2014, Thich Nhat Hanh no longer travels the lecture circuit as widely as he once did – but he remains a powerful, inspiring figure.
As a chronicle of the life of a Buddhist community – and as a salute to a world famous Buddhist teacher, the documentary lets viewers consider the slow-paced life of Plum Village and decide the value of living a mindful life. Indeed, life in Plum Village has mindfulness at its very heart – walking, cooking, eating, reflecting are all conducted to the rhythms of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings. Viewers engage with retreat visitors and resident monks as they reckon with the challenge of being (and mastering the) present in every fleeting moment. A family with toddlers checking in for a week-long retreat pause as a reflection bell tolls; afterwards a monk explains that each time a bell is heard ringing, anyone in Plum Village should pause and reflect. The toddler, vigorously sucking her dummy, attempts a smile.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s lyrical, smiling voice (a long-time admirer) brings Thich Nhat’s teachings from Fragrant Palm Leaves (Thich Nhat’s writings after exile from Vietnam) to the viewers through regular voice-overs, signalling, ever so evocatively, the intellectual intricacies of Thich Nhat Hanh’s engagements with Buddhism. Viewers learn much from the artistry of this version of silent spiritual concentration and connection. Scenes such as that of a girl weeping to the singing of the monks, a nun crying when a retreat member apologises to her young son for shouting at him every night, and a young girl asking Thich Nhat Hanh how to grieve the loss of her puppy help evoke the healing at the heart of mindfulness practice.
Documentary portraits of this kind often converse with the histories and biographies of their main subjects, but this approach is strangely absent from Walk with Me. We do not encounter a straightforward linear narrative in this documentary, no traces of times or dates are visible. Instead, through an assemblage of contemplative moments and fleeting but mindful encounters intercut with the picturesque, viewers are greeted with multiple versions of the present. Whether touring or lecturing in a frenetic New York or leading a mindful walk around Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh, features as a calming, erudite teacher leading many into a place and space of solemnity and reflection.
The documentary is not without its humorous moments – in a line of meditating monks led by Thich Nhat Hanh, a young restless monk yawns and fights sleep, the camera lingers on him for some time. On a street in New York, a line of meditating monks from Plum Village remain deep in their reflection while a Christian preacher attempts to proselytise – this attempt being futile.
Walk with Me signals the increasing need for contemplation and reflection in contemporary lives. If like Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers, more of us understood that there is ultimately, ‘no way to happiness’ because ‘happiness is the way’, our chaotic world might just become a better place.