How can meditation be understood as an artistic practice? How does meditation affect the surrounding environment, as well as the inner space of participants and witnesses? What is the line of demarcation between ‘exposing’ meditation and ‘sharing’ meditation?
This article summarises the artistic experiment on meditation I conducted at the end of my second year of doctoral studies at the Uniarts Helsinki’s Performing Arts Research Centre, Theatre Academy (Tutke). My research originates from my practice of Vipassanā meditation, in the tradition of the Burmese teachers Satya Narayan Goenka (1924-2013) and Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971).
As taught by Goenka, Vipassanā consists in the systematic and non-judgmental observation of physical sensations throughout the body, while sitting quietly with the eyes closed. Differently from meditation techniques which aim to block the distractions of senses and thoughts – in order to transcend the ‘material world’ – Vipassanā encourages an intimate encounter with the body/mind reality. Paradoxically, the more the meditator observes her/himself, the more the dualistic separation between inner world and external environment fades into an experience of interconnectedness.
On March 27th2017, I started the practice of meditating one hour a day in different spaces of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki. Students and staff of the school – as well as external visitors – were invited to join me in silence. They were allowed to stay as long as they wanted. They were free to quietly witnessing, or to meditate with me. Before leaving the space, the participants had the chance to leave a comment by writing or drawing, or by any other means they found suitable for better expressing themselves. On May 4th, the Sharing silence –experiment arrived to its conclusion. New developments of this artistic format will be elaborated throughout the next school-season (2017/2018).
This work intends to develop platforms where to explore the artistic features of meditation. My concern is not to ‘expose’ meditation to the general audience as the object of an inquiry – as it happens for example in the current landscape of neuroscientific researches on the topic – but to ‘share’ it as a partner of dialogue, in the context of performing arts and artistic research. I claim that approaching meditation as an artistic practice opens alternative and more poetic ways for investigating and communicating meditative experiences.
Because of the intimacy of the meditative practice, I did not feel comfortable at opening my experiment to a completely random audience. Therefore, I created a private Facebook group – including around eighty potentially interested people – whom I invited to take part into my research and to spread the invitation among trusted friends. Eight people actually came and joined in. Some of them came back many times. A few of them took photos of the space and of myself meditating. These pictures made me realize that the choice of my meditation posture and of my place in the room – as well as the spatial disposition of the other participants – create interesting proxemic dialogues.
I began to play with the possibilities offered by the diverse spaces of the Theatre Academy. I sat in small rooms, dance studios, auditoriums, lecture rooms and in the big gym too. Many other places of the building remain to be explored. So far, I did not dare to explore too challenging locations, such as the entrance hall, the corridors and the stairs. I wanted to find a compromise between the choreographic potential of the space and its suitability for a serious practice of meditation. My concern for making the participants feeling comfortable at joining me in meditation played a big role in my choice of the spaces.
Almost all the visitors who stayed till the end of the meditation sessions felt the necessity to share some insight or personal intuition with me. One participant commented that silence gave herself space for processing personal problems and challenges. Another visitor reported that my choice of sitting facing the window gave her the feeling she was the performer, or the focus of the event, and she became aware of her spatial relationship with me. Some underlined how the presence of another meditator in the same space positively affected their meditation.
My experience was also of being supported by the visitors passing by. At times though, I forgot to meditate for myself. In some occasions, I was too excited of the presence of an ‘audience’ and it took me effort for centring myself again. When nobody came and visit me, I had to fight the temptation of feeling lonely and failing. This reminded me of my greatest challenge in dialogical situations: staying open, without loosing the centre. It became clear to me that Sharing silence was an experience of dialogue. A simple action such as sitting and meditating, engaged me in a complex negotiation between myself, my meditative practice, the space, and the presence – or absence – of other people.
The feedbacks left by the participants on my guests-book vary from analytic descriptions of their meditative process, to poems, visions, thanks, encouragements, and drawings. Some chose to use a pen, some a pencil, some chose colours, other preferred black on white. One participant did not feel like adding words, so she circled some words of my welcome-letter, at the entrance of the room. ‘Join me’, ‘feel free’, ‘what’, ‘see’, ‘feel’, ‘how’, and ‘passing by’ where her selected words.
When I read the reports I wrote in my journal, I can spot some recurrent patterns and their evolution throughout time. For example, in the beginning of the experiment I was excited by the presence of visitors, and part of my attention was drawn to them. Later I found peace, and my meditations began to be more centred, no matter if visitors arrived or not. My personal life issues regularly came and visit me in my thoughts, and it felt organic and positive to process them in a meditative frame. I reached the verge of loosing my motivation at some point. My private life challenges were participating in my meditation, and meditation was mirroring my life. I felt forced to take a break, for one week. When I started again, I realized my work was making a lot of sense, actually.
This experience brought me to the liminal area between performance and meditation, and reinforced my intuition that the two aspects coexist in harmony. I do not know how to analyse this process yet, nor I can clearly define what kind of knowledge it is producing. I will take time for this, before proceeding in launching Sharing silence 0.2. For the moment, I wish to warmly thank all the people who supported my research, with their physical or spiritual participation!