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Unfolding Silence

meditation, kung fu, and artistic research

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Fragments of God

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Photo: Gabriele Goria

A friend recently asked me to elaborate a reflection on God as a Creator. Especially in front of the compelling arguments of Richard Dawkins on ‘God’s delusion’, I feel cautious at falling into this kind of debate. However, my friend’s request allows me to look closer at my current worldview.

I share this writing as a poetic window onto my quest for a meaning, and surely not as a lecture. Like a curious child, I want to explore what I see, to create connections and to play with them, asking myself once again: what does God mean to me?

God is love. Love is an experience. God is an experience. Experience is real to the extent it transforms. God is the peace which reconciles paradox and contradiction.

God, the Father: the cosmic Consciousness beyond creation. Transcendent. The Tao. The infinite. The experience of Nirvana, or Moksha. But also the Nothing from which everything originates. The number zero.

God, the Son: the all pervading consciousness within creation, from subatomic particles to human consciousness. Immanent. The God who sleeps in the stones, dreams in the flowers, wakes up in the animals, in the humans is aware of being awake, and in the saints finds Himself again. The consciousness which realizes its full expression in a Christ, or a Buddha, bridging immanence and transcendence.  The Dharma: the order of creation, or law of nature. The Tai Chi: the archetypical Supreme Polarity, guarding the seed of duality within its oneness. The number one. But also the Wu Chi, the non-Polarity. The non-one.

God, the Holy Spirit: the Amen, the Word, that is: the conscious Sound/Vibration manifesting the Creation; the energy behind the matter. The intelligent love interconnecting the whole; the spring and the engine of creation and life. The laws of physics; the Karma: the law of cause and effect which rules the Samsara, from a cosmic scale to a human scale, to the wave-like dance of particles and anti-particles. Yin and Yang in action. The number two.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: the number three. The “three which generates the ten-thousands beings” (Tao Te Ching 42).

Creation is related to God as the body is related to the soul. The soul is both individual (atman) – to the extent a footprint, or a memory of individuality persists – and absence of an ‘I’ (anatman) – when interdependence and impermanence are found in the middle path between independence and dependence, and the soul is nothing but a pouring, a flow of consciousness constantly changing, interrelated with everything. In the same way, God is both personal – the God within me, to whom I turn and whom I listen, not in order to obtain favours, but to transform myself – and impersonal – the Being, where there is nothing to attain, where the path is the goal, where life validates itself as the sole purpose.

God happens. God is the voice whispering: why does God allow all of this? Why does God not intervene? God is me. God is the Sun reflected in thousands mirrors. Each mirror is an illusion of separation, an ‘I’ defining itself as an independent individual. God is Father, Mother, Daughter, Son, Friend, Lover. Each expression of love is a reflection of the one Love.

“The Tao which can be described by means of words is not the eternal Tao” (Tao Te Ching 1). The God you can speak about is not the true God. Words are symbols referring to an ungraspable ‘beyond’, even when they are created to indicate a very concrete object, or an experience.

But there are also performative words; expressions which form and transform. Like the sentence “I love you”, which is not a mere report, but reaches out for a connection and creates worlds of possibilities. Therefore, if “in the beginning was the Word, ad the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1,1), this Word was not a word-symbol, or a ‘finger pointing at the Moon’.

In the beginning, was the Word. I like to think that this original and almighty Word – the Amen of Christians, the Amin of Muslims, the Hum of Tibetan Buddhists, the Aum of Vedas – cannot be but one. The whisper, beyond time and space: “I love you”. And there was light.

Sitting still

In this article I will share some reflections about sitting, arisen after I attended a one-day Vipassanā course in Helsinki. These short retreats are targeted at Vipassanā students in the tradition of S.N. Goenka who already participated in one ten-day course. Throughout the one-day course, you have the chance to revise the main points of the meditation technique, and to find support and inspiration for your daily practice.

The course provided about seven hours of meditation, with pause every one hour for ten minutes, and a lunch break. My greatest surprise was to find myself able to sit in each meditation-slot without changing posture. This small achievement was actually a valuable lesson to me. As I am about to describe, I believe stillness to be the result not just of an ergonomic meditation posture, but also of a relaxed, aware and equanimous mental attitude.

The search for a suitable way of sitting has been one of my leitmotivs since I began meditating. Initially, I simply sat on a chair, with my back straight. Being myself rather skinny, my sitting bones started to hurt after a few minutes, no matter if I sat on a hard chair or on a sofa with a soft cushion under my buttocks. Other critical areas were my lower back, my shoulders, and my neck.

When I met Vipassanā meditation, I finally found a tool for dealing with whatever sensation would appear in the framework of my body – pain included! – because bodily sensations are the main object of observation in this practice. Whenever an uncomfortable sensation manifested in my body, I was taught to impartially observe it. No attachment towards pleasant sensations, no aversion towards unpleasant ones: I just had to be aware of their intrinsic impermanence.

This tool naturally helped me to sit still for longer periods. I began to sit on a cushion, either with crossed legs or in the Burmese posture, or on a wooden meditation bench in the Seiza posture. Being closer to the floor makes me feel more grounded and stable. Furthermore, when I sit with crossed legs my sitting bones do not hurt: I guess that this posture allows the buttocks’ muscles and the little fat I have to ‘fold’ and protect my bones in a more effective way…

After my first ten-day Vipassanā course, my back cramps were gone: by sitting still for many hours a day, my body had to learn to give up the grosser muscular tensions and to relax. Yet, my legs often became numb, and at times my joints got inflamed. I continued searching for a meditation posture more suitable to my bodily structure, by making small adjustments in the position of my legs and by using extra pillows as supports. My hip joints are quite tight, so I am not able to sit in the lotus. Furthermore, I have varus knees, and this seems to complicate the chances of crossing my legs comfortably.

Lately, I began to sit on a cushion, with crossed legs. The cushion lies on a thin mattress, which allows my feet to sink softly into the floor. I place two small trekking pillows between my knees and heels, in order to create space and support. My thighs rest parallel to the floor. I adopted this system in my last one-day Vipassanā course too. My posture felt very good for the first thirty minutes. Then, little by little, cramps and pain came and visit my legs, knees and hip joints. But somehow, this time I trusted that no harm would come from my sitting posture.

It took a while to realize – and to admit! – that my cramps were caused by tiny contractions in the muscles around my joints, which gradually cumulated and became more intense. I wondered how I could not spot them before, in all these years. These contractions were the physical response to my mental reactions towards various thoughts and bodily sensations. For example, it was enough for me to feel slightly bored or frustrated, for growing a sense of oppression in my chest. Out of this uncomfortable sensation, I would react with further thoughts of rebellion, and I would unconsciously begin to contract one or two muscles in my most vulnerable joints. There the physical pain would start. But the truth was that before experiencing pain, I already generated the conditions for suffering in my mind.

After this embarrassing insight, the feeling of pain became milder and much more manageable, till it faded away. The most of the time there was no pain at all. When pain came, I was able to welcome it as any other sensation. In those moments, I just let go any will to react and I allowed myself to rest in an attitude of gentle witnessing. My legs and knees felt perfectly ok after seven hours of sitting.

It is not my intent to celebrate such a temporary ‘success’. When I will sit in the next course, I might find myself in a very different place, and who knows how many times I will have to move on my meditation cushion. Yet, the goal of stillness was an important reminder to me. Any time I believe I already know how to impartially observe my body and mind, a new layer of unawareness gets pealed off. Once again, I realized how easily I can be the cause of my own suffering, as well as the key-holder of my own inner peace. 

Be still, and know that I am God.    Psalm 46, 10

In perfect tranquillity, all grief is annihilated.    Bhagavad Gita 2, 65

Know the stillness of freedom, where there is no more striving.     Dhammapada 10, 6

Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature.    Tao Te Ching 16

 

 

Silence-Meditation-Practice 2016

Special session with Catholic exorcist Father Gianni Sgreva 

Dear friends,

I am glad to invite you to the next session of Silence-Meditation-Practice at the University of the Arts – Theatre Academy of Helsinki (Haapaniemenkatu 6). Since 2013, teachers of different spiritual backgrounds are invited as special guests to offer free seminars to the students and the staff members of the University of the Arts, as well as to all interested people.

On April 30th at 13-14:30 we will have a friendly meeting with Father Gianni Sgreva, Professor in Patristic Theology and Exorcist of the Diocese of Helsinki.

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Father Gianni Sgreva will share with us some of his experiences as an exorcist in the Catholic Church, and will lead a brief meditation/prayer session. The event will be in room 702.

Warmly welcome!

 

 

Where is my soul? – a personal interfaith inquiry

The thought that death will be my end makes me sad.

I am not the only one feeling like that, I know, but fortunately the world is various and there are people who do not have problems in living fruitful lives with the certainty that there will not be any ‘after’.

Is my sadness a symptom of egoistic attachment to my own personality? Partly, I believe so. I am concerned, as many are, about the reason of such a struggle which is life: a chain of never-ending sufferings with a few moments of hope and joy which, in my debatable opinion, are not worth of compensating this unbalanced proportion between sorrow and happiness. Yet, I am still willing to be, to exist forever. Why? A part of me wants to believe that there is a way out from suffering which does not imply annihilation; that the purpose of life is happiness and fulfillment; that in this life or in the next one or somewhere beyond life, hidden in the depths of me, or in the depths of life, there is the peace I am looking for, waiting to be rescued or awakened.

Furthermore, I think my sadness is related to my attachment to my worldview, which has been shaped by my cultural background. I grew up in a Christian environment, where there is a very human conception of the soul: my soul is me, just without my body. This thought has given me comfort throughout many years. I was thinking that with the end of my body my pain will end and I will be happy forever.

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But my comfortable belief was challenged by the evidence that when our brain is malfunctioning, we may lose our identity, our character may drastically change and our memories may be totally erased. So, what is this part of me which is eternal? To which extent can I be attached to the hope that my personality, so strictly related to my body, will magically come back after my death? Furthermore, which personality I will have back? The personality I had when I was a child, or the one I had as an adult, or the last one I had, when I was old and maybe tired of living? Will I have the personality of January 7th at 10 p.m., or the personality I was manifesting a few hours later? Is it not true that we live many lives in one life-time and that our body too changes many times before we die? Of course, usually there are some traits in our temperament that do not have remarkable modifications, at least under normal circumstances, as well as our neurons do not change throughout all our life, yet the very concept of personality is so strictly related to the memories of our life-experiences, which are stored in our brain and body-cells, that if feels a bit unrealistic to hope that we will be the same persons after we abandon our body.

Unless…

The philosophy of Yoga preaches that our body is the grosser manifestation of subtler realities, such as the astral body and the causal body, and that we are destined to reincarnate till our soul will return to its origins, the source of life, or God, which is beyond the three realms. There we are safe, we are finally one with the whole. According to this theory, the physical body is not the source of our personality, but it is shaped by our karma, and, beyond that, by our soul: our personality and our body have certain characteristics because they are ultimately reflecting the uniqueness of our soul, but at the same time they are affected by the actions and thoughts cultivated in our past lives, which are still recorded in our astral and causal bodies.

I began to imagine the soul as the awareness beyond thoughts and emotions, beyond my personality: if I follow this theory the soul is an individual reflection of the Cosmic Consciousness. It will not cease to exist neither when I will attain the final union with the Supreme Being: something of me will remain forever, at least in the form of the memories of my past incarnations.

In a way, this theory sounded more scary than the Christian imaginary of Heaven, but it made sense because it was more flexible and it felt reasonable: in each life, you wear a new body and a slightly different personality, in which you may recognize some elements derived from the experiences of your previous lives; these experiences are alive in your subtler bodies but will still evolve and transform without destroying your uniqueness, which is, in the end, the direct expression of your individual soul.

I wanted to follow the truth, not my preferences in terms of belief, and the only parameter I have for deciding if something is true for me is to be honest with myself.

My search brought me to meet Buddhist philosophy, in which the concept of reincarnation is transformed into the idea of rebirth, where there is no need for any individual soul to explain our existence and no need for a Creator to justify Life. In Buddhism, your personality ends with the death of your body, yet, the dynamic energies you have moved and awakened throughout your life (your desires, your actions, your emotions), will create the conditions for an new birth to happen in order to manifest themselves through a new bodily vehicle and a new, temporary and flexible individual personality. The only way to definitely interrupt the cycle of rebirths, and therefore the suffering of life, is to attain the final liberation: this is possible by realizing, through meditation and direct subjective experience, the interdependence of all beings and the ultimate emptiness of reality. Even though there are some extreme nihilistic positions in Buddhist environment too, the main stream refuses the thought of non-existence of reality. Emptiness is not non-existence. Otherwise, how could a Buddhist explain that Buddha attained his final liberation after three days of meditation under a tree and then he continued to live and teach for many decades more? Shouldn’t he suddenly disappear and cease to exist?

But this last point opens a doubt: why then not to call ‘soul’ the energy and the awareness which abide in us behind our personality and which continue to generate new births? If it is true that it is possible to attain salvation, or enlightenment or liberation in this life, Buddhist should admit that the person who has been able to realize her emptiness still keeps a certain degree of individuality or specificity. When such a Buddha dies, is it then that everything vanishes? And how do you explain then the memories of your past lives? And why should you aim to be liberated, if you will cease to exist at the moment of your death and the next rebirth will be the problem of another impermanent and ultimately non-existing personality?

I agree with Buddha, that it is more important to focus on cultivating love and compassion and to work in order to overcome suffering rather that wasting time and energy in useless intellectual inquires about the meaning of life and what comes after death.

But the ultimate reason why I feel sad if I choose to believe that I will die together with my body is that such a definitive statement closes the research: there is no longer a ‘why?’ to be answered. Maybe this is true, I cannot deny it. It is possible that the spiritual and profoundly human question ‘why’ is a mistake of our species-evolution and that we should replace it with the more scientific ‘how’. Maybe neurology will definitely explain the previously mentioned phenomena of memories of past lives in a materialistic way. However, I would not jump so quickly to a negative answer.

Science is based on theories about the working of universe and life, which are grounded into objective observations and experiments that we may reproduce and check. Yet, only the specialists can understand the more subtle aspects of them, while the profanes will build an approximate and most likely inexact view on the phenomena.

Spiritual seeking, on the other hand, develops theories about the meaning of life through subjective observation, and such experiments may be reproduced only by individually following the same practices: again, the amateurs will understand only the surface of these theories, which may appear full of contradictions.

Traditional religions often provide very fancy theories about the origins of the universe, life and death, but they have developed tools for spiritual introspection which are valuable nowadays still, even though they may need some updating. Middle-Age science was fancy as well, if we compare it to contemporary science, yet some of its discoveries are still used by modern scientists. So, I believe my sadness towards a negative answer about the question of the soul is also motivated by my attachment to the truth: I cannot exclude that there is no soul, I cannot exclude that there is not an ultimate meaning, but I must not exclude the opposite possibility as well, to be honest, because a realistic approach to life does not necessarily mean a materialistic approach.

Such a non-choice is probably the most frightening position I have ever taken in my life, but it is undoubtedly the most honest and exciting: the truth is that I do not know, but it feels like an act of cowardice to give up with the question ‘why’ just because there may be no answer. I am a human, I ask myself: ‘why?’- and I am afraid there is no answer – but I get power from the creative and dynamic flow that this question generates. Without this question, there would be no art, no philosophy, no compassion.

Is this question coming from the depths of my soul or from my impermanent personality?

The thought that death will be my end makes me sad.

The thought that death may be my end, somehow, awakens my curiosity.

Hermits in Progress – twelfth retreat

 

Our twelfth and last Hermits in Progress retreat has been a surprise.

 

The day before the start we have been told that the place we had booked was no more available: we had twenty-four hours to find another location.

 

After a few hours of calls and e-mails we accepted the offer of a friend of a friend, who had an empty apartment of two-hundred squared meters in a small town close to Helsinki. There were no furniture and a lot of room. We chose the biggest room for the meditations and for the movement improvisations, then each of us spread in the house and chose a spot for sleeping. I found a suggestive space downstairs, inside a closet, where the roof was so low that I could just sit or lie, and darkness was perfect. It reminded me the narrow caves in the renowned ‘Eremo delle Carceri’: the mountain where Saint Francis of Assisi and his Brothers used to have their hermitages.

 

We were nine participants.

 

 retreat 12 – October 2014 – empty house

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Throughout the retreat we observed silence and we followed a simple and flexible program, which provided two hours of meditation per day and a lot of time for free personal practices.

 

The personal practices could include: meditation, prayer, reading, moving, dancing, T’ai Chi, Yoga, drawing and any other silent practice facilitating concentration and awareness that responded to our needs and interests. The personal practices could be performed in solitude or sharing the same space with the other participants. Furthermore, we could choose to share the same practice with someone else, with mutual agreement. We were free to seek for isolation and to break the rules according to our intuitions of the moment.

 

After our first meditation, some of the participants wanted to practice T’ai Chi, so we had a one-hour session of collective training which felt extremely powerful and energizing, in the frame of silence. One of the participants was taking pictures. Another went out for a walk. After the T’ai Chi session, I spent some time alone reading a book that I would recommend to all spiritual seekers: the Imitation of Christ. This book, traditionally attributed to Thomas a Kempis, is a classic of the Christian literature of Middle Age which had the fortune to be welcomed in many other religious environments as well because of its grounded-to-earth approach to ascetic. Exception done, maybe, for its fourth chapter, which is more strictly related to Catholic specificities, the book provides a sort of ‘transversal’ language, human and simple, able to speak to people of different beliefs and ages.

 

Before dinner I still had a session of contact improvisation with another participant, which ended with a brief meditation in pair, looking into each other’s eyes. At the same time another small group of participants improvised funny silent experiments in the forest, such as climbing trees blind-folded or jumping in a circle onto dry bushes. I must confess that these ‘crazy’ artistic moments had a liberating effect in the context of our retreat: by alternating periods of introspection and concentration to periods of freedom and open awareness, the retreat had a breathing pulse, where inner work and self-expression, solitude and shared practices were balancing each other, avoiding the creation of an atmosphere of ‘fake holiness’, where seriousness combined with the automatic habit of smiling to each other could lock us inside a forced and non-honest mood.

 

After the evening meditation I entered my ‘cave’ in the closet and I had a hard night on a hard floor.

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On the following morning I meditated in the big room, where two participants were actually sleeping. The co-existence of sleep consciousness and meditative awareness in the same space felt fascinating, like a symbol representing the subtle boundary separating the sleeping humanity from its awakening through the experience of enlightenment.

 

I went out for a walk in the forest. As it usually happens when I start a period of introspection, this time as well I came soon to face my inner heaviness, my negative thoughts and emotions. I felt that the natural surrounding was able to receive my suffering.

 

Before the Hermits in Progress project had started, I decided to involve also the practice of Catholic Rosary in my research. But one year was passed already and I had not practiced it yet. I knew why I did not pray for such a long period: I had lost my faith and I will probably have religious certainties no longer. Spiritual theories become dogmas and therefore truths to the followers of a religion. But a ‘scientist’ of spiritual seeking unfortunately never forgets that theories are the imperfect and always relative attempting to give unity and understanding to the few objective phenomena we can really name as truths: we live, we die; we do not know what life and death are; we suffer and we look for happiness; we do not know the reason for all this and we do not know if there is any answer at all.

 

However, I had the intuition that meditation without prayer was missing something. Meditation helped me to know myself, to explore my mind and heart, to enter the depths of my center. But I still had the vivid memory of how praying and chanting had given me, in the past, the feeling of expressing myself from the depths of that center. Self-awareness and self-expression are nourishing each other like inhalation and exhalation in the act of breathing.

 

Within the structure of the Hermits in Progress research, this was my last chance for praying. After a half an hour of walking I met a small lake. Watching at the calm water, I took the Rosary out from my pocket. I had the impulse of praying, even though I did not know any more what or whom to pray and what prayer actually was.

 

Since it was Sunday, I chose to focus on the Catholic Mysteries of the Glory: the Resurrection of Jesus, the Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven and the Coronation of Mary. Before praying the first series of ten ‘Ave Maria’, I meditated on the first topic: the Resurrection. I realized that I was overwhelmed by a desperate sensation of disbelief and I did not want to force myself into an act of worshiping which would insult my honesty towards myself.

 

Suddenly, I was surprised by a simple idea: I will pray the Rosary through my doubts! My prayer will share my inner debate with the Unknown. By doing that, I will express myself.

 

I looked at the mystery of the Resurrection with a new courage. It would be easy to take such a magical story literally, yet it seemed to me a very partisan and partial explanation for overcoming the human fear of death: by coming back to life, Jesus proved that death is not our end; furthermore in the Gospels we can find a few allusions to the resurrection of the bodies. Personally, I have no problems in accepting that Jesus resurrected. But I have no preconceptions either in interpreting the resurrection of the bodies as a symbol representing the renewing of our ‘inner temple’ of consciousness from unawareness to awareness. I cannot even exclude that the myth of the resurrection of Jesus was built by fanatic disciples: it is sufficient to look how easily the followers of modern gurus tend to create an aura of magic and to attribute miracles to their spiritual leaders. Furthermore, in our globalized era we have access to other reasonable theories elaborating the same topic, adding interesting nuances to the question of life after death, such as the theory of reincarnation, the law of karma, or the Buddhist concept of rebirth, which actually eliminates the idea of an individual soul.

 

Like in physics different theories can be regarded as aspects of the same underlying theory, I can imagine that in spiritual seeking as well different religious theories can be regarded as attempting to enlighten different aspects of the same question. Yet, while in science we have been able to imagine the unifying M-theory, which may be intended as a ‘family’ of different theories, in spiritual seeking the problem is still opened, since there are no objective phenomena we can observe and analyze in a third-person modality and we rely on our subjective experiences. Religious theories are therefore remarkably more fancy and affected by cultural traditions than scientific theories are, and this specificity is also the reason why religions are easily resonating in tune with our human hearts: with that I do not mean that science is better than religion or vice-versa, but that for spiritual theories we need a different treatment. I think that building a syncretic universal religion would correspond to creating an artificial universal language out of the many existing on our planet: it would flatten and kill the bio-diversity of our living human society which is a fundamental factor for its survival. That is why a pluralist approach to religion, which promotes coexistence and acceptance of all religious paths as equally valid, especially if it is grounded in subjective direct experience, sounds to me as a more reasonable tool for spiritual seeking.

 

And that is why sometimes I feel full of fear: I have no more solid truths on which I can build my worldview. I have only flexible directions. Without dogmas life looks unstable. But that is the price for being completely honest with myself. This path requires a lot of courage and there are moments when I feel I am lacking of it.

 

After this long and elaborated reflection, I finally started to recite the series of ‘Ave Maria’ without focusing on the literal meaning of the words of the prayer, but simply opening my doubts, thoughts and feeling to the Unknown. The prayer was a channel helping me to connect my deep heart with the trees around me, with the lake, with the birds, my fellow humans, the rest of the universe, the Life. The effect was calming and comforting. Probably the same consequence could happen with any other system of prayer, but it felt easier to use a method I had practiced for years.

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I came back to our hermitage and I still practiced some spinal-adjustment training on the floor, then the whole group gathered for the final meditation.

 

When we finally broke the silence, we understood that each of us had the precious opportunity to deal with important aspects of her/his life. The abundance of free time in the flexible retreat-structure allowed surprising discoveries, encounters and experiments to happen between and inside of us. It was intriguing to observe how easily we could shift from isolation to collective action and vice-versa. On myself, I could analyze and observe the regular waving of my emotions from discouragement to fun, from anger and frustration to enthusiasm and hope.

 

The thing I will always remember is that this has been the first time in my life that I participated to a retreat where silence was broken every now and then by sincere and full-hearted laughs!

Hermits in Progress – nineth retreat

 

After our homeless night, the next “Hermits in Progress” –retreat was a full-day-meditation in the Sesshin style (攝心, literally “touching the heart-mind”): in one room of Theatre Academy of Helsinki we practiced an enjoyable system of Zen-meditation which alternated sitting, walking periods and short breaks as well, all performed with the same mindfulness. The session was guided by Rev. Henri Järvinen, member of our “Hermits in Progress” –research-team, and it was open to all interested people.

 

Some students of Theatre Academy and some members of the school-staff attended the meditation as well.

 

Retreat 09 – full day meditation

 

In the field of spiritual search, I am more and more convinced that nothing happens by accident. At least, this retreat came just in the right moment of my life and it worked on me as a powerful reminder of the benefits coming from silence and stillness.

 

Throughout the last month, I had gradually substituted my daily practice of meditation with more intense sessions of Kung Fu –training. I consider Kung Fu as an effective system of dynamic meditation and, for certain reasons, it feels very suitable to my own personality. Because of some feelings of rejection, I had drastically reduced my sitting periods of Vipassana-practice (another Buddhist meditation-technique I used to love). That was not a new issue in my life: I have a rooted tendency of alternating more dynamic phases with more introspective periods, throughout one year. I believe this is not necessarily a bad thing: Yin and Yang, the two dynamic principles of universe, are supposed to vibrate together in a spontaneous dance of waves, where the rising of one aspect marks the diminishing of the other and vice-versa, giving rest to each other and maintaining a balanced relationship of harmony. The renowned Kung Fu –Master Da Liu reminds that even within the frame of a single day it is important to alternate the practice of dynamic meditation (such as T’ai Chi) to moments of sitting meditation.

 

But I was probably abandoning the middle path of balance, becoming victim of my habit of looking for extremes: I was starting to work unidirectionally, by overtraining Kung Fu and quitting sitting meditation. And such an attitude brought me to exhaustion: if on one hand sitting meditation appeared to me like a boring practice, on the other hand Kung Fu -training was becoming too heavy.

The Sesshin-practice that Rev. Henri offered us revealed to be extremely therapeutic. I was a bit afraid that jumping straight into a full-day-meditation after a one-month-break could simply pull me definitively apart from any spiritual routine. But the session was structured in a clever way: twenty minutes of sitting meditation, ten minutes of walking meditation, twenty minutes of sitting, five minutes for a break, and then again, with the same order. Unexpectedly, it felt easy to stay there. And without any apparent effort, I found myself in a deep status of awareness. At the end of the session, my mind was calm, fresh and renewed. I recognized the same condition of quiet that I had experienced many times when I used to practice my daily meditation.

 

How could it happen that meditation became boring to me? Where did my rejection-feelings come from? Why was I about to quit that practice? Maybe, previously, I had exaggerated in the opposite sense: meditation practice had become more important than my daily life; my own “ego” had begun to identify itself with meditation and got frustrated when I did not find more time for that practice. In other words: I became too attached to meditation-practice and I mixed the tool with the goal. I got restless if I had only twenty minutes for meditating instead of a full hour and maybe I did not start at all. I had become stressed and perfectionist. And the same thing was going to happen with my Kung Fu –practice. Attachment and repulsion go together, like Yin and Yang.

 

However, after the full-day-meditation guided by Rev. Henri, it was absolutely clear that a part of me was longing for such a calm status of mind.

I reflected about the meaning of spiritual practices and about the criteria for choosing them.

 

Starting from the last point, I believe that a simple criteria is what Saint Paul suggested: “Test all things, hold fast what is good”(1Ts 5,21)! If meditation or Kung Fu give me results of wellbeing and mental peace, they are good practices. It does not make sense to give time to an activity in the mere hope for some future benefit, just because I have been told or taught that it will happen. My personal experience should be the main testing room. It is true: sometimes results do not arrive immediately. A bit of faith, trust and commitment are required. But it is not wise to sacrifice an entire life waiting for something good, if such a waiting makes me become sad, closed, frustrated or depressed. Life is not very long: I should fill it with actions which help me to be a better person right now.

 

And here it comes the first point: the meaning, or purpose of spiritual practices. They should help me to be a better person right now. To feel better now. To live my life and not to renounce my life. Whatever choice I make, challenges and obstacles will come, I would get frustrated, bored, stressed. I will experience doubts. My spiritual practice is good in the extent it sustains me also in such critical phases. Whenever I am aware that my spiritual practice starts to reduce my own inner potential, maybe it is wise to stop it. But how to be sure whether my practice is sustaining me or weakening me? It is possible that, in order to eradicate some negative habits, I have to make an effort which apparently seems to be against my own nature. It is possible that in such a case I would feel (my own “ego” would feel) diminished and humiliated.

 

In the midst of doubts, I would suggest to use wisdom: whenever I notice that love towards myself includes others as well; whenever the respect towards myself develops together with kindness towards others; if I do not obsessively attach myself to my own spiritual practices, but I firmly keep in mind the goal of living a full life; well… these are all symptoms revealing that I am working towards an uplifting direction.

 

On the other hand: whenever my spiritual practice becomes more important than my life; when my own ego is so identified with the practice that I begin to believe that I cannot live without it; when I get nervous or restless and I love myself excluding others; in such a case I am maybe walking towards a degrading direction.

 

Furthermore, it is possible that I meet a good spiritual practice, but after a while I start to feel a sort of repulsion because I am afraid of suffering: sometimes it is painful to eradicate degrading tendencies, and I may prove feelings of discouragement, boredom or restlessness as well. I would say that these were precisely the kind of feelings that brought me to my own crisis. I became blind and incapable to see that I was actually working to improve myself and I was preparing a “gift” to the world at the same time. My mind was confused, but I did not travel in the wrong direction till my actions started to follow my thoughts: little by little, I was giving up with daily meditation and I was close to join a peek of exhaustion also with Kung Fu. I would comment that in such a peculiar case, the fault was not to be attributed to my choice of “wrong” spiritual practices, but to my own attachment to them, which definitively was an attachment to my own ego and brought me towards repulsion.

 

Providentially, the “Hermits in Progress” –retreat gave me the opportunity to go back to the fundamental meaning of a spiritual practice: love, awareness, peace and fullness of life. After that day I started again to integrate harmonically Kung Fu and meditation, paying a special attention in order to avoid fanaticism. In the very end, if I am fully aware and I do it with my own whole heart, isn’t it much more fruitful to spend the whole evening playing with my son? At that point, who could tell where is the difference between life and spiritual practice?

 

 

T’ai Chi and I Ching

In April 2014, the Italian Kung Fu-instructor Sergio Volpiano visited our training group in Helsinki.

DSC_0032He led an intensive six-day-workshop, where we had opportunity to widen and deepen our practical skill and theoretical knowledge in some of the main styles provided by Kung Fu Chang-curriculum: Shaolin Ch’üan, T’ai Chi Ch’üan, Mei Hua Ch’üan, Hsing I, …

In particular, Sergio focused on the relationship between T’ai Chi Ch’üan and I Ching (易經: the Chinese “Classic of Changes”, one of the oldest books of divination in the world).

T’ai Chi Ch’üan (太極拳) literally means “Supreme-Polarity-Boxing”, designating a sophisticated martial art which is based on the study of the alternation of Yin and Yang: the two complementary principles ruling all dynamics of existence, deriving from the undiversified T’ai Chi (= Supreme Polarity or Sublime Model). According to Chinese ancient philosophy every single aspect of the universe, starting from the very concept of energy, may be considered in terms of waves oscillating in between two polarities: Yin and Yang.

I Ching – book describes the universe as being ruled by a multi-layered combination of Yin and Yang, which has been systematized into an Omni comprehensive scheme, composed by 64 hexagrams: sixty-four symbols which are formed by the combination of six stacked horizontal lines. Each line is either Yang (an unbroken, or solid line), or Yin (broken, an open line with a gap in the center).

Among all topics explored with Sergio Volpiano, I would like to share two inspiring images related to the beginning and the ending of T’ai Chi Ch’üan form. I apologize in advance for possible imprecisions, most likely due to my inexact recollection-capacity. I developed the images further, adding my own personal interpretation.

The very first movement of T’ai Chi Ch’üan form has no name and it is traditionally integrated with the immediately following Ch’I Shih (起式)-gesture:“Beginning of the Form”.

IMG_0830Ch’I Shih movement is traditionally associated to the 35th hexagram of I Ching, which is composed by two trigrams (smaller unit-symbols built with three stacked lines): the upper lines represent fire, while the lower lines are earth. In other words: Sun is rising on Earth. This hexagram is named Chien (晉): “prospering”. By analyzing the ideogram-structure, we can find treats reminding us birds coming down from the sky and, again, sunrise. That is to say: at sunrise birds begin their natural activity of looking for food on the earth. Sunrise is image of a rapid and easy progress, as well as expansion and brightness.

tri30dtri02d

Therefore when T’ai Chi Ch’üan begins, the practitioner is alike a noble man who is working in order to develop his own inner human potential, making his own virtues to shine in front of the world by means of such a precious activity. On the other hand, each gesture of the form should become spontaneous and natural like the instinctive action of birds coming down and looking for food.

Some commentaries of I Ching describe Chien-symbol as the image of a prosperous time, when society works because noble men are inspiring other people to serve their enlightened and generous leader with right heart. In my own interpretation, the enlightened leader represents the light of awareness. Noble persons are the good qualities of our own intimate nature, purified from the dust of unawareness. The prosperous period is the special time dedicated to the practice of T’ai Chi: an activity which naturally disposes our mind towards concentration and awareness. According to Chinese philosophy it is our connection with earth-element which avoids our own true nature (fundamentally good) to shine. In a flat vision of the world, the closer is Sun to the sky, the more it may enlighten the earth. In other words: the higher is the level of awareness attained throughout the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’üan, the more our noble nature comes to the fore and brings its brightness into the “dusty” areas of our mind.

IMG_0828The last movement of T’ai Chi-form is named He T’ai Chi (合太極), generically translated as “ending of T’ai Chi”. Actually, the He (合)-ideogram is composed by the symbol of mouth, surmounted by three traits: three mouths are harmonically chatting together. Therefore the literal meaning of the ideogram is: “union”. He T’ai Chi means: “union of T’ai Chi”.

Union with what?

Tradition relates He T’ai Chi-gesture to the 36th hexagram of I Ching, named Ming I (明夷): “brightness hiding”. Here we have the opposite situation of 35th hexagram: now fire is below and earth is up. Sun went under Earth. That represents a dark time, when a nation is ruled by selfish and corrupted people and noble souls must hide. Commentaries suggest us to endure throughout adversities, by cautiously hiding our own shining nature: without taking part to degrading actions of average people, we must maintain our inner light alive within us. It is better not to openly fight against evil till it is too powerful. It is recommended to patiently wait for a more propitious time when people will be receptive to the inspirational power of light and they will be capable to accept correction and wisdom.

tri02dtri30d

I think that dark times may be compared to those periods of frailty when our mind is most exposed to “temptations” undermining our own inner balance: clouds of unawareness coming and going within us throughout our day are the “crowds of corrupted ignorant people” ruling the country of our mind. Ming I-hexagram may suggest us that after the practice of T’ai Chi we are supposed to come back to our daily life maintaining the attained awareness alive within ourselves, without engaging fights against all obstacles coming to challenge our inner harmony: in periods of weakness, the risk would be to lose. When you are not powerful enough to discard a negative habit or to change external circumstances, acceptance and compassion are the qualities to be developed. Inner awareness is enough to start a silent process of transformation. Propitious times will come, when your noble nature will shine in all its pureness.

“Union of T’ai Chi” can be interpreted as an encouragement to bring the “T’ai Chi-attitude” into our own daily life, attempting to maintain our own noble nature awake throughout the rest of the day, with patience and humbleness. What a resonance with the biblical challenge of being “in the world but not of the world”!

It is interesting to notice that both Ch’I Shih and He T’ai Chi –movements are performed in Ma Pu (馬步)-posture (feet parallel, large about the double size of your shoulders, as if you were sitting on a horse ) and are the sole moments when the weight of our body is equally distributed on both legs. That means: perfect balance of Yin and Yang. The greatest difference from the beginning and the ending gestures relies on arms-movements, which are curving in reverse directions.

One peculiarity of traditional Chinese Martial Arts is the poetry of terminology and theoretical studies. Yet, the beauty of such images is not meant to remain an abstract intellectual picture: symbols have the power to affect our practice. The two hexagrams of I Ching we have just examined invite us to impart specific qualities to the opening and closing gestures of T’ai Chi-form: for example we could attempt to perform Ch’I Shih as sunrise and He T’ai Chi as sunset.

What does that mean? I believe that only by awakening a sincerely artistic approach towards the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’üan we will experience the answer.

A last thought which comes to my mind is that sunrise and sunset are the two traditionally recommended periods for the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’üan. In general, all transitional times in daily and seasonal natural cycles affect our own inner energy and awareness: it is considered a good habit to counterbalance their possible destabilizing influence with centering-practices such as meditation or T’ai Chi.

All these reflections came up from the synthetic and precise explanations of Sergio Volpiano, but I am afraid I have been flying a bit too far from their original source. That is what happens when you plant one seed of inspiration into another person’s heart: thought-trees have wings!

Gabriele&Sergio

 

 

Isolation in spiritual organizations and experiential ecumenism

The topic of this article is very dear to me. I have been passing through isolation several times in my life, in religious and spiritual contexts very far from each other: Catholic Church, Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF – founded by Paramahansa Yogananda, the renowned Hindu guru who brought Kriya Yoga to the West) and Goenka’s Vipassana-organization (inspired by the teachings of Buddha).

 
It is important to say that in each one of these environments, I have been spending years of dedication, attempting to put into practice and worship all spiritual principles, traditions and meditative practices they were promoting. In one of my previous posts, “Rosary Prayer, Kriya Yoga and Vipassana meditation – comparing experiences”, I have been describing some of the benefits related to the meditation-techniques I have been following in these three different spiritual paths. Now I will focus on more uncomfortable aspects related to my experience, knowing that many other people are living similar struggles: I hope my honest sharing will be beneficial to those persons who, like me, have been living isolation in spiritual organizations, but still believe there is a great treasure behind the controversial side of every walk.

 
When I decided to deepen my understanding of Catholic religion, I took the commitment to go to the Holy Mass every Sunday, to pray morning and evening about one hour per time, regularly attending the confession-sacrament, giving time for welfare, and I began to study and practice Christian mysticism. I became a fan of Rosary-prayer, in particular. Yet, being myself baptized also in the SRF, I felt the wish to keep alive the Yoga-side of me as well. I felt Christian tradition was lacking in practices exploring the connections between body, mind and energy. Furthermore, I could not take many teachings of the Church literally, especially dogmas, which were dramatically cutting off with my Yoga-background without creating any opportunity for a fair dialogue.

 
Catholic Church is very complex. There are still lot of suspects towards eastern meditation-techniques, in particular connected to the fear that they are too much related to their own specific religious/philosophical background to be acceptable in Christian environment. Yet, things are rapidly changing and throughout all my life I have met many priests, nuns and monks not only open-minded towards oriental philosophies, but practicing eastern meditation-techniques themselves. In their own Christian spiritual path, they could receive great benefits from such practices: Yoga and Zen meditation, for example, were considered by them as “treasure of humanity”. Recently, Pope Francis wrote: “The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs.” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 254)

pope-Francis

 
Despite of such bright personal attempting of shaping Church into a more inclusive system, the institution is still far away from being that universal nest (= Catholic) which welcomes all human beings without generating exclusion or distinctions in different classes. I remember, in my childhood, the feeling of being all the time very careful in expressing my own beliefs: at the age of eight I had to stay out of my class of Catholic religion, together with a Jehovah’s Witness –boy, since I explained that I believed in reincarnation. It is interesting to notice that reincarnation was a normal option in Christian faith, as it is still nowadays in some Islamic environments, till the second council of Constantinople (537-555), when for political reasons the Catholic emperor Justinian encouraged the condemning of Origen doctrines about reincarnation as heretical. Origen was, at those times, one of the most respected fathers of ancient Church.

 
I had to be even more careful when explaining my Yoga-meditation practices in Catholic environment: if I did not meet the right persons, it was easy to start never ending quarrels… which often ended up, among boys of my same age, with the stigma of being labelled as the “odd one”.

 
Another crucial theoretical “heresy” I was afraid to share openly was that I did not believe that Jesus was the only Son of God: Christ was, not Jesus. According to the Gospel, the Logos (the Son of God) was before this universe was shaped, he spoke through prophets, he fully embodied himself in Jesus. I believed the same Christ, which is one, spoke through prophets of all religions and embodied into many “avatars” (incarnations of God) of the world: Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Lao Tsu, … Jesus’s awareness was so profound that he could identify himself with the only Christ, and he could say aloud: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John, 14,6). As well as Krishna could affirm: “I am situated within the heart of all living entities. I am the beginning, the middle and the end as well of all living entities” (Bhagavadgita, 10,20). Therefore, Christ is the “true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John, 1,9), and it is potentially abiding in every one’s heart. By following one “avatar”, you are attuning yourself with the only Christ.

 
When I got married, then, the restriction of not being allowed to use contraceptives did complicate our sexual life quite a lot.

 
After about eight years of daily Christian meditation and seldom Kriya-Yoga practice (in secret and full of sense of guiltiness), my divorce put me in front of a choice: continuing of being an active member of Catholic Church, with the limitation of not being allowed to eat the Holy Bread and therefore being officially labelled as a public sinner, or looking for a place where I could feel fully accepted for what I am. I was not worried of preserving my honour, but I took such a challenge as an opportunity to come out from the hypocrisy of denying my Yoga-background and beliefs. Without any act of definitive cutting with Church, I just choose not to become a victim of it. I took distance.

Babaji_KY_Meister_g

 
I decided to deepen my Kriya Yoga –practice and to become an active member of Self-Realization Fellowship. The founder Paramahansa Yogananda preached that Yoga is for all, no matter race, nationality, religious background. And his own religious sense was so wide that it embraced all faiths: I felt I could breathe again. Unfortunately, SRF was not recommending to practice other meditation techniques but Yogananda’s.
The motivation for such a restriction sounded reasonable.

 
SRF was teaching that: “Steadfastly following a single path and applying its prescribed methods will take you most quickly to your Divine goal. Once you receive the Hong-Sau and Aum Techniques, we recommend that you concentrate on them (rather than concurrently using techniques of other paths) in order to reap the highest results from your practice. Students who are already following a given faith may of course continue to participate in such forms of worship they wish.” (SRF – Answers to frequently asked questions, 7)

 
But what to do if my Catholic faith already provides other meditation techniques, such as Rosary-prayer, Ignatian meditation, contemplation and so forth… and what if you sincerely experience that such techniques are actually helping each other and they are not working “concurrently”? Once, a SRF –monk told me “life is short and you are free to choose how to employ your own time in the best way”, encouraging me to choose whether to continue my Rosary-practice or to fully commit with Yogananda’s techniques. That made me feel guilty every time I was praying Catholic Rosary, or practicing some Christian contemplation-exercise. My own experience was telling me that I was doing right, but I felt guilty, deprived of the support of a group or of a competent spiritual father, capable to understand me.

maria

 
SRF then adds that the highest and best technique taught by Paramahansa Yogananda is Kriya Yoga: the quickest method to attain union with God, since it works straight with life-energy, which is the intelligent dynamic power underlying universe. But if you wish to take that step, you have to abandon other religious practices: “Those students who wish to dedicate themselves wholly to the Self-Realization Fellowship path may formally take this step by receiving Kriya Yoga” (SRF – Answers to frequently asked questions, 7). In practice, you may continue to attend other religious practices and being member of SRF, but you will have no access to the “pearl” of Yogananda’s teachings, as well as in Catholic Church I could still be integrated as a public sinner, without access to the “body of Christ”.

 
Furthermore, I realize now that Yoga-philosophy contributed to exasperate my conflicting relationship with sexual sphere: how not to feel guilty of wasting life-energy, every time you have sex?

 
Anyway, I just continued to practice Kriya Yoga regularly, two hours a day, throughout two years more.

 
Then I had a twelve-day-break, when I attended a Vipassana-course, as a part of my artistic research during my Master Degree Programme in Theatre Pedagogy. I was exploring silence as a space of dialogue between art and spirituality, and a friend of mine suggested me to participate to such an intense silent retreat. Vipassana-technique, as taught by S.N. Goenka, is based on mere observation of real body-sensations, and eventually, of their deriving thoughts. No pranayama (breath-energy exercises), no mantras (inner chanting or praying), no visualization. No God.

It has been a shock, but also a great relief, to meet such a neutral spiritual technique. I did not feel perfectly comfortable, since the lack of pranayama-techniques was confusing all my ideas about meditation and the lack of prayer was cutting my spontaneous attitude of connecting to my deepest Self and to the heart of all others in a dialogical way. I did not understand why visualization was considered as a technique working just on the surface level of the mind. I think that imagination is a faculty as real as our own faculties of listening and observing, and it may be used as an effective tool to expand our own awareness, within and without the body: why to struggle ten days attempting to feel a sensation on my hand without imagining my hand, when, just by mentally visualizing it I am capable to bring my attention there immediately, and therefore feeling all sensations in that area? Another doubt was that, even though pranayama was not mentioned as being part of Vipassana-technique, Taoist masters wrote in many books that “wherever there is awareness, there is Ch’i”, that is to say: prana, life-energy, concentrates wherever I focus my attention. And actually the training in passing my awareness systematically throughout all my body, was producing a spontaneous flow of vibrating subtle sensations running up and down, and I was wandering if Vipassana-teachers were just avoiding to label the theory of inner-energy in order to remain grounded on the mere objective phenomena of perceiving specific subjective sensations.

 
Yet, I felt such a technique was integrating some aspects of meditation that were not so much enlightened by Christian or Yoga tradition: a pure contact with reality, purified from the forms (and the poetry) of specific religious theories, a kind of mystical way non-dialogical with invisible realities, but digging into the depths of our own body-mind. I got the impression that I found something extremely important to improve my meditation, something that helped me to perform better also the other contemplative techniques which were still in my own background.

 
I practiced regularly Vipassana-meditation two hours a day throughout two years, “refreshing” every now and then my other techniques: as an art-pedagogue, in my workshops and classes I make use of concentration, meditation and contemplation –techniques. I have also to be ready to encounter new spiritual practices, in order to better understand my brothers and sisters coming from other religious cultures. And of course, being myself an instructor of Kung Fu, I have been practicing Ch’i Kung exercises throughout twenty years and I am currently teaching simple techniques of Taoist-meditation. That has been the tip which generated my third isolation-experience. As I had already completed one Vipassana course, Goenka’s organization was not able to accept me again to a new course, unless and until I would completely discontinue my teaching of meditation. I was not allowed to participate to other Vipassana-retreats, since I was already teaching other meditation techniques, and it was expected that I would be completely satisfied and confident with the techniques that I was teaching, and had no need to practice any other technique.

 
Unfortunately, my life-vocation is what I define “experiential ecumenism”: I will never be able to understand my spiritual fellows just by reading some books about their own religions; I must share, till a certain extent, some of their own spiritual routine, living it “from within”.

 
Now more than ever, I feel the importance of the support of a group or a spiritual father, yet I am tired of feeling guilty of “ruining” or “delaying” my attainment of the final goal, whether it would be union with God, enlightenment, freedom, salvation, peace, bliss, love… just because life enriched me with the encounter of different beautiful spiritual paths.

 
It feels hard to walk alone, but at least for now, that is my way. If you, gentle reader, had the patience to read all this article, please: say one prayer for me!

 
And may God bless you!

Ch’i – 氣 – breathing in T’ai Chi Ch’üan

 

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.  (Genesis 2,7)

Since the remotest past of humanity, breathing has been worshiped as one of the most powerful symbols of life. The Chinese “Ch’i” (氣) –term designates both the concrete concept of air/breath and the metaphysical idea of spirit/soul/life-energy. Same symbolic value is present in many other ancient languages as well: think about the Sanskrit “prana” –term, or about the connection between Finnish words like “henki” (spirit/soul), “henkilö” (person) and “hengittää” (to breathe).

It is appropriate to observe that lungs are the only semi-voluntary organ in our body: if on one hand they work uninterruptedly and automatically, on the other hand we have possibility to change the rhythm or the depth of our breath by will. That is one of the reasons why in many spiritual traditions breath is considered as the link between body and soul: breathing represents the bridge connecting conscious will together with nature-intelligence.

It is not hard to prove that there is a close interdependence between the pace of breathing and the pulse of hearth. There is also an evident connection between hearth-beat, breathing and emotions: think about the acceleration of breathing and hearth-pulse during a panic-attack and compare it with the slow and deep breath you have in a relaxing situation. As emotions affect breathing, on the other hand we have the potential to influence emotions and feelings by practicing breathing control: actors and singers know well how to affect and canalize emotional flow, by means of a sensitive use of breath.

It is not my intention to argue that we are alike machines, meant to perform radical emotional turn-overs just by playing with the joystick of our breath. What I mean is that breathing-awareness at first, and breathing-control as a second step, may improve the quality of our own daily life. Many meditation techniques are based on a preliminary training in mere observation of breathing: without applying any voluntary control on lungs-activity, simple breathing-observation has proved to be an effective tool for improving concentration, calming down emotions and mental activity. In martial arts in general, and in T’ai Chi Ch’üan in particular, such a capacity of maintaining clearness of mind and of canalizing emotional flow has a paramount importance, in order to attain body-health, ability of self-defence and, most of all, to transform the whole practice into a dynamic meditation.

In T’ai Chi Ch’üan, breathing-awareness is just the first step, essential to reach the right level of concentration and calmness. Next move is to learn how to breathe correctly.

One thing I noticed encountering different schools is that there are many “correct” breathing-techniques which differ according to the peculiarities of the discipline they are applied to. For example, Kriya Yoga-meditation, which is a sitting technique, provides short phases of apnea, while in T’ai Chi Ch’üan you have to breathe without interruptions in between inhalation and exhalation, since movements are supposed to be continuous as well. According to certain Taoist schools of Ch’i Kung the abdomen should be contracted inwards throughout inhalation, in order to allow the processes of unification and separation of pre-birth-Ch’i and post-birth-Ch’i to happen. Yet, such an action makes us extremely vulnerable in the phase of inhalation, losing the feeling of fullness within the abdominal area and in the solar plexus, and that is the reason why throughout the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’üan, which is also a martial art, such a breathing technique is not recommended.

According to the teachings of Master Chang Dsu Yao, three key-points are characterizing T’ai Chi Ch’üan-breathing:

– Deep breathing
– Continuous breathing
– Long breathing

Deep breathing designates abdominal breathing. That does not mean, as I misunderstood once, that we are supposed to become aware exclusively of the energy-flow concentrating in the low Tan T’ien (丹田, the “Cinnabar’s field”), which is an important area situated about four fingers below the navel and four fingers inside the body, related to Taoist meditation and traditional Chinese medicine. Throughout the inhalation we should not only expand the lower abdomen, concentrating attention around low Tan T’ien, but we should become aware of the sensations spreading from that point throughout the whole body, even though our intentional thought is leading the Ch’i along specific meridians. Slightly intensifying the pressure on the abdomen during the exhalation, we have possibility to increase such a sensation, consequently opening the chest, where the central Tan T’ien is located. That will cause a better lengthening of our back  and will increase the distance in between shoulder-blades too.

In T’ai Chi Ch’üan –practice the aspects of breathing and life-energy are strictly interrelated, yet, as a Westerner, I feel the need to distinguish such two concepts: if it is true that actual breath cannot join the low Tan T’ien point (lungs are not reaching such a low area in the abdomen), it is also true that it is possible to canalize the breathing-energy wherever my awareness is able to go. As a Westerner then, I have also to admit my reluctance in accepting the existence of such an invisible energy. Yet, the simple correct execution of T’ai Chi Ch’üan-breathing techniques unavoidably leads me to become aware of specific sensations arising around that area. I am aware of the flow of sensations along the body parts I am concentrating on. Master Chang Dsu Yao used to repeat: “it does not matter if you believe or not in the existence of Ch’i: you have just to behave as if it exists”. We cannot prove the existence of life-energy and I personally consider it as a fascinating and reasonable theory, attempting to explain some concrete, real effects happening in myself, clearly affected by the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’üan.

I have mentioned the low and the central Tan T’ien, but actually the other crucial point in T’ai Chi Ch’üan is the high Tan T’ien: the point situated in between the eyebrows. These three areas of the body are involved in the process of sublimation of energy, together with other points situated along the spine (corresponding to Yoga-Chakras). What I mean, is that breathing techniques used in T’ai Chi Ch’üan are dealing with same energy-channels common to other oriental practices. That is why the practice of this discipline may be helped for example by a preliminary training in simple breathing exercises from Ch’i Kung and Yoga.

Continuous breathing means, as I said, no interruptions in between inhalation and exhalation, since body movements and breathing should work in synergy. At least in Yang-schools of T’ai Chi Ch’üan, the forms should be executed without discontinuity, being each technique connected to the following technique in a regular uninterrupted flow of movement.

Long breathing means we should attain a relented breathing, as well as T’ai Chi Ch’üan –movements should be executed as slowly as possible. One temptation could be to move as slowly as possible without respecting the breath-rhythm. Another mistake could be to force our breath to become long and slow. Both solutions provide too active will, conscious effort and work, while such a long breathing should be attained by means of perfect relaxation of body and mind.

While practicing T’ai Chi Ch’üan, mind focuses at first on body movements, then on breath, then on energy and finally, thanks to the attained awareness, it expands into a super-consciousness status. According to the teachings of ancient Masters, our own Ch’i may reach such a high frequency to vibrate in harmony with Nature. If then grace assists us, in the words of Master Chang Dsu Yao, “our own Shen (神, human spirit), joins the cosmic Shen, the divine Shen. Man attains then a status of perfect harmony, since he becomes one with the Sky.

That is the reason why T’ai Chi Ch’üan may become not only meditation, but prayer.

Ching Chi Shen (2)

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