WALK WITH ME  directed by Max Pugh and Marc J Francis (USA, 2017)

walkwithmeThis movie shows the daily routine and rituals of monks and nuns in the secluded monastery of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village in the South West of France.

The key teaching is that, through mindfulness, we can learn to live happily in the present moment. The goal of the cinematic distribution campaign is “about turning movie theaters into meditation halls, and bringing communities together for a common goal”.

This message was lost on the woman sitting in front of me in the cinema who spent most of the time glued to her mobile phone!

The practice of mindfulness may have reached the mainstream but the number of people prepared to give up their daily distractions and possessions is still limited.  My impression is that most want a quick fix rather than a permanent lifestyle change.

Fascinating and beautifully shot as this movie is, I can’t say that I was attracted to the spartan lifestyle portrayed. Novices and ordained members spend hours in silent meditative practice and live as simply as possible. No sexual intercourse or carnal contact is allowed, this is announced as the first of the regulations (the others are not specifically mentioned during the film!).

The members of the community certainly look serene, reaching a state of detachment that enables them to smile blissfully even when contemplating an infestation of ants. In one scene a group have a day trip to a fairground and go on the rides laughing and joking like big kids.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh praying for forgiveness, enlightenment, guidance or what?

Benedict Cumberbatch reads extracts from Thich Nhat Hanh’s early journals, simple ruminations on the pursuit of happiness elevated to the status of deep profundities thanks to the actors eloquent delivery.

Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of mindfulness as a journey and assures his fellow travelers that they will know when they have arrived.

Advice on concrete problems is not so much part of his remit although one little girl has the courage to ask him how she can overcome her sadness over the death of her pet dog. He tells her that when a cloud disappears it becomes rain. “Your dog has become something else, like the cloud”, he says vaguely.  The girl looks happy enough with this explanation but what is he really saying? That her dog has been reincarnated? That it’s not really dead? That it will live on in her mind? I think the last of these sounds most probable but it’s open to interpretation.

Neither is it entirely clear where all the devout energy is directed. If they are praying to a higher being He /She / It is never identified. The converts speak more about tapping into to the silence within than the void without. Many followers are reduced to tears, seemingly moved by the contemplation process alone rather than anything more specific.  I identified more with one of the monks who had a fit of yawning when all around were deep in meditation.

I like the core mindfulness philosophy that we all need to focus on the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or fretting about the future. However, I’m not convinced that this form of existentialism needs all the pseudo religious trappings to work. In short, I don’t think you need to shave your head, retreat from society or take a vow of chastity to gain inner peace.

It would be more useful to find less extreme ways of tweaking the modern lifestyle choices by resolving to live more simply, eat more healthily, work less and socialize more.  Above all, I would advocate  halting the rampant cycle of consumerism that takes up so much time and money. If this movie helps even a little in furthering this goal it will more than justify the time and energy spent making it.