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6 places to find Zen in Belgium

Sep 16, 2014
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As city dwellers, we often find it difficult to sign off, unplug and step out of the exhausting daily grind. Sometimes we need a little help to be pointed in the right direction of where to find some peace of mind.

Just in time for the International Day of Peace coming up this Sunday, 21 September, which will celebrate world peace with music, dance, debates and synchronised mediations in Brussels, here are six good places to start your search for inner peace around Belgium.

1. Meditate with monks

Right outside the village of Huy, in the rolling hills of the Namur region, the Yeunten Ling Institute, a Buddhist monastery, welcomes budding bodhisattvas to come and spend some contemplative time roaming their grounds. With guided visitations, week-long retreats and meditation training workshops, the monastery is a peaceful place to find respite from city life while learning to quiet the mind.

Built on the domain of the Chateau du Fond l'Eveque, East meets West as the remains of the 18th-century castle stand alongside impressive pagoda-style temples filled with the wild, colourful trappings of the Tibetan traditions of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has visited three times and the monastery serves as a regular meeting space for anyone – secular or religious – interested in learning about and practicing Buddhism.

The Institute holds weekend and weeklong retreats to teach meditation, yoga and relaxation practices at affordable prices, with accommodation starting at €8.50 for a shared room or around €50 per day for lodgings and meals. Every Sunday, they also offer guided tours of the monastery in French, Dutch and English.

2. Get trained in some Zen skills

Supported by a grant from the Flemish Ministry of Culture and active for over 30 years, the Oost-West Centrum (the East-West Centre) is a non-profit organisation that offers courses for people interested in exploring spirituality and sustainable living.

Merging Eastern spiritual practices with Western ecological frameworks, over 400 courses are offered each year in both English and Dutch. They include old standbys like yoga and tai chi; however, you’ll also find courses in massage, ayurvedic cooking and natural medicine, personal development, dance and even shamanic traditions.

Most of the courses take place in Antwerp, with a few offered in Leuven and longer-term retreats in at the centre’s bucolic farmhouse and event centre in near Orval in Wallonia (see below). The East-West Centre hold open days in September and January where you can come and explore ‘taster classes’ of their various course offerings (in Dutch).

3. Get back to nature

If you really need to get away from it all, head to Bois-le-Comte, an organic farm running an ecological guesthouse and course centre. Run by the same people who are behind the East-West Centre, this old farmhouse is nestled deep in the woods of La Gaume, the farthest corner of Wallonia where Belgium tapers off to meet France and Luxembourg.

There is no WiFi on the farm and mobile service is spotty, so it’s truly a place to disconnect. The drinkable freshness of the air and the nourishing organic food prepared by reputable chefs brought in from around the world are perfect to rejuvenate the spirit and clear the mind of the stressors of routine.

There are three ways to stay at Bois-le-Comte. You can sign up for one of the East-West Centre’s workshops that take place there. All workshop prices listed will include room and board at the farm.

You can also come as a guest. The simple accommodations (starting at €55 per person per night) are half-board, including breakfast and dinner. All meals are vegetarian, usually vegan, and made with 100 percent organic products supplied largely from their garden designed according to permaculture principles.

Finally, if you have more time and a strong desire to sink your hands into the earth, you can also arrange to volunteer on the farm. Most of the people you’ll see working in both the garden or the kitchen are short- or long-term volunteers who are exchanging labour for room and board.

4. Learn to be mindful

Mindfulness, the practice of awareness, is something of a buzzword flying around these days from the workplace to the yoga mat. Companies are bringing in mindfulness trainers to teach employees to eat slowly and contemplate a cookie, school children are being taught to count their breaths and Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who is largely responsible for bringing mindfulness to the West, is giving talks to the world’s business leaders.

One of the most popular ways of learning how to be mindful is through an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course designed by University of Massachusetts researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn has combined the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness practice with Western cognitive psychology to create a behavioural training programme aimed at helping people learn to better handle stress.

In Belgium, IAM, the Institute for Attention and Mindfulness based in Flanders, offers the 8-week mindfulness course in English. The next session begins in November in Brussels and comprises eight weekly evening meetings.

5. Enjoy the silence

For those looking for some radical awakening, you might be ready for a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat. This challenging practice in sitting and self-exploration no longer requires a being able to afford a flight to India or southeast Asia. The Dhamma Pajjota in Dilsen-Stokkem in Limburg, a meditation centre set up by renown Vipassana guru S.N. Goenka, offers regular retreats in English, French, Dutch and German. The cost is by donation, so you pay what you can afford. Not bad for enlightenment!

6. Treat yourself

Sometimes, all you need to do to reset and revive your energy is an hour or two indulging in some self-soothing. If this is the case, try Serendip Spa, a holistic wellness centre just off of Brussels’ Avenue Louise.

You can buy individual treatments or packages by the hour, which include various body and facial massages, soaks, scrubs, relaxing yoga sessions and aromatherapy. They also have regular yoga classes as well as a store selling organic and biodynamic products.

Photo courtesy plumvillage.org