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Unfolding Silence

meditation, kung fu, and artistic research

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Buddhism

Retreat in Noormarkku – part four

Thursday, 3 August 2017

 

“What’s the difference between an actor and a saint?”. I asked this question to my professor of acting when I was a student at the Theatre Academy in Italy, almost two decades ago. He seemed pleased with my thirst to link artistic sensitivity and spiritual call. He paused, then answered: “An actor says what he does; a saint does what he says”.

This sentence haunted me ever since. I analysed it grammatically, logically, metaphysically. The idea that a theatre artist might be seen as a liar, or a cheater, was hidden in those words. The saint is trustworthy, the actor tells stories. It really disturbed me. I wanted to walk a spiritual path through arts, not to become an entertainer. I wanted to inspire, to share wisdom and compassion, not to spread delusions.

Later, thanks to a few lucky encounters and to some experience earned on the field, I came to understand that on stage the actor is not asked to be real. The audience perfectly knows you are playing a role, there is no need to fake. This would mean to be a liar! The actor’s task is to be true.

Of course, truth in acting is a flexible notion, but for me it means: being fully present in my body and mind. The interpretation and the making of meaning is in the hands of the audience. My only task is to let action happen, not to make it happen. By doing so, the actor is no more the one who says what he does. He is the one who does. This revelation was a gate towards a spiritual way of inhabiting the stage.

Throughout almost twenty years, my artistic practice and my spiritual practice grew intertwined. Now I do not see myself anymore just as an actor. My exploration of meditative and artistic practices broadens all the time. When I asked that question to my professor at the Theatre Academy back in 1999, I would never imagine to find myself one day in Finland, conducting an artistic research on meditation.

The concise answer of my old teacher came back to my mind this morning, when I decided to take a picture of myself meditating on the floor. My artist-researcher mind wanted to stage my sitting place differently: I was interested in investigating what kind of spatial relationship between me, the room and the camera will arise after shifting my meditation cushion from the bed to the floor. As a meditator, furthermore, I wanted to understand how this change will affect my meditation.

The technical procedures to make this photo possible triggered a chain of considerations. In order to take the picture, I have to set up a timer to my camera. I might be in need to take several pictures, before finding the best corner and light. I decided I will not be too punctilious, since I am not a photographer, and I actually want to meditate. Yet, I did have to take more than one shot. This meant that I started meditating three times, before I was satisfied with my picture. In the meanwhile, I realized that the floor was not the optimal sitting place for me: my feet were not able to sink softly, and the blood circulation in my legs might not work well. I quit the sitting.

I thought: “If I publish this picture on my blog, I am communicating that today I did actually meditate on the floor; of course I was meditating, but only for the few moments my camera was shooting; if I publish the picture, my audience will believe that I did meditate on the floor who knows for how long: this would be a lie!”. The voice of my professor was echoing in my head: “Are you going to say what you do, or to do what you say?”. Here my creative crisis started.

What was I supposed to do with my picture? Every choice I make for communicating my research should be founded on honesty. As a Vipassanā practitioner, prior to committing to the training in Samādhi – the one-pointed concentration – and prior to cultivating the faculty of Paññā – the wisdom or insight – you have to take care of Sīla. Sīla is the purification of bodily and vocal action. Each spiritual tradition has its list of commandments about what is morally healthy and what is not. And in a post-modern society like ours, where relativity and quantum physics question any sort of absolute value, some of these rules sound absurd if not ridiculous. Yet, when you seriously undertake a spiritual path, you have to cope with the fact that these ‘rules’ are not just moral impositions, but real supports. Without the foundation of Sīla, you might remain stuck in your meditative practice for ages, without actually making any progress in terms of inner joy, freedom, and loving compassion. The fifth Sīla, in Buddhist tradition, is: do not tell lies!

So, I saw three choices in front of me: I do not use the picture and I forget about all my idea; I publish it and I explain that it was just a short rehearsal; I embrace the challenge, and I make the picture become true. I finally gathered my courage, and chose to be a scientist for once. I went for the third option. I went back to sit on the floor, ready to suffer to fulfill my experiment.

And what an embarrassing surprise was to realise that I could do it. In the end, it was not that challenging: I meditated on the floor for one hour and forty-five minutes. Only a small cramp on my left buttock caught my attention at some point. I found a posture for my legs and feet which did not disturb my blood circulation. The floor was a much more grounding experience than the bed. After the meditation I felt so inspired, that I rushed my lunch in order to come back to my room and start writing.

Today I said what I did. It was when I took the picture of myself on the floor, inspired by my visual instinct. Then I did what I said, when I went on meditating in order to make my mental vision become true. Did I behave like a saint on like an actor? I do not know where to locate myself. But I know where I see myself going. I want to be a spiritual artist. And maybe, one day, an artist of the spirit.

 

 

 

Retreat in Noormarkku – part three

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Today is the day of all weathers. There are clouds, sun, rain, hot, cold, and sun again. I had the good idea of meditating three hours in a row, while this kaleidoscopic sky was showing off. I am not a fan of water sports, but this morning I was ready to get a free class of surfing… on the ocean of my wavy moods!

To be honest, on the last night I was worried about what I will write in my blog today. My anticipation of a writer’s block was fully justified, in my opinion. One thing is to meditate and write. Another thing is to meditate and publish my texts right away. I put myself under a remarkable pressure. On the other hand, this challenge adds a spice of excitement to my project. And a bit of fun is necessary not only in artistic but also in spiritual research.

After breakfast, I sat on my meditation cushion. My mental storm – which was in tune with the atmospheric turmoil – ceased all at once. I felt grateful and a bit surprised of my sudden calming down. One second of awareness was able to blow away several hours of preoccupations and elucubrations.

I started observing my respiration. After one hour, I shifted the focus to my bodily sensations. I was expecting to get bored or to be overwhelmed by cramps in my legs at some point, as it often occurs when I sit for longer periods. It did not happen. In some fleeting moments, I caressed an innocent and powerful joy that I recognised to be the hidden inhabitant of my true core. I wished to get closer to this peaceful bliss, but I knew I could not force it. There was something fragile and tranquil in the way my attention remained in balance. I wondered what I was doing different: it felt so natural to keep this steady calmness.

Goenka warns meditators about the stage of tranquillity – a mental condition where neither pleasant nor unpleasant, nor neutral sensations produce reactions. The main temptation in these cases is not the aversion/craving reaction, but rather the fall into ignorance. In fact, you might mistake tranquillity for the experience of Nibbāna. Goenka affirms that tranquillity is a sign that you are nearing Nibbāna, but he reminds his students that the experience of tranquillity is still within the field of mind and matter, the sensory field. You might get disappointed when you realize that your calmness is impermanent too, and this is the place where you loose all the balance.

Even so, there is no way to be sure that I approached the tranquillity Goenka talks about. Second, my spontaneous scepticism would avoid me to believe it in any case. Third, Goenka encourages his students to consider tranquillity too as ‘suffering’ or ‘unsatisfactoriness’:

The gross, unpleasant sensation is dukkha. The pleasant sensation is dukkha. And this subtle oscillation, which is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, this stage of tranquillity is also dukkha.

(Chronicles of Dhamma – Fulfilling the Teaching of the Buddha)

Coming back to my meditation, anyway, something different did happen. Throughout three hours of sitting I was not bothered by boredom. Partly, I relate my relaxed concentration to the fact that I am eating a bit less than usual in this retreat: a free stomach is known to facilitate mindfulness. But the real turnover for me was a simple thought: I reminded myself to equanimously observe boredom too.

Feelings are always somewhere in my body as clusters of physical sensations, even before my consciousness interprets them as feelings. In order to feel bored, I have to sense it somewhere in my body. It is hard to know which sensations cause boredom, since usually boredom arrives to me when I experience a lack of interest in honestly observing my sensations. This kind of boredom hides my expectation of feeling good, or maybe entertained. It hides my fear of facing myself as I am. Broken if I am broken, happy if I am happy. In the very end, this boredom comes because of my unconscious craving for pleasant sensations and aversion towards unpleasant sensations. As always in Vipassanā practice, awareness of sensations, and equanimity in observing them, are the highway towards a more profound joy. And from joy derives the ability to love fully. At least, this was my intuition today.

Once, I watched a documentary on John Cage, where the great artist reported a Zen quote:

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.

Eventually one discovers that boredom too is impermanent. When I am not aware of boredom arising, it turns into restlessness and agitation. When I observe it with awareness, boredom becomes too interesting to be boring!

 

Retreat in Noormarkku – part one

Monday, 31 July 2017

This morning, the sky was cloudy in Helsinki. I decided to sit for a three-hour meditation. When I opened my eyes, I found myself in Pori, on the west coast of Finland. The sky was still cloudy, and Helsinki was doubtlessly gone. No tele transportation occurred, though: this sort of miracle happens any time you meditate in a long-distance bus!

If you are familiar with Vipassanā meditation, you know how important is to pay attention to your tiniest bodily sensations. Therefore, you can imagine how being shaken by a moving bus does not facilitate the practice. Yet, after a while you get to distinguish the grosser external sensations produced by the vehicle’s waving and all the other sensations arising from within the body. At some point you just do not mind anymore.

In the end – as far as I am able to make sense of Buddha’s teachings –, any physical sensation arises from the contact of an object with one of our five senses, as well as from the contact of a mental content – thoughts and feelings – with the ‘sixth sense’: our mind. Any of these contacts produces some sensation in the body. Sensations trigger reactions. For example, somebody approaches me with a severe and critical attitude, I feel a weight growing in my chest, I experience this sensation as unpleasant, it means I am not comfortable in this situation, solution: I panic! Reactions cannot but generate new contacts – in the example, my panic will produce specific thoughts and feelings, and eventually specific actions and words… – therefore new sensations will arise, new reactions, and so on ad libitum.

According to renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, our body registers stimuli all the time. Damasio affirms that emotions emerge only after the brain registers physical changes in the body. Unconsciously, we are continuously reacting to our emotions. Damasio explains that feelings arise after the brain interprets emotions. I find Damasio’s notion of emotions rather close to the Pāli term vedanā, which, among its rich list of nuances, has the meaning of bodily sensation.  Without any claim of neuroscience proving Buddhist psychology, I like to draw a parallel between Damasio’s theory, and the Buddhist progression of four mental layers: cognition, recognition, sensation and reaction.

Shortly said, Vipassanā practice works around the assumption that sensations are the link between contact and reaction. An assumption which is made incredibly real by the direct experience provided by the meditation technique itself. By equanimously observing your bodily sensations, you train yourself not to suppress any feeling, and yet you avoid to blindly react to them. Such a non-judgmental attitude allows you to contemplate the fundamental impermanence of all sensations, as well as the ever changing flow of thoughts and feelings. This experiential wisdom makes you more ready to perform conscious and original actions out of your inner freedom. If you are simply human then – like in my case –, you become aware of how many times in life you react out of habit. And knowledge – somebody says – is power.

Arrived to Pori, I took a taxi till Noormarkku, which is the small town where my residency is situated. I will spend a one-week retreat here. Kindly supported by the University of the Arts, I will further develop my artistic research on meditative silence. In this moment, I am sitting at a wooden desk, in a wooden villa, facing a window. I am admiring a vast field of grass, surrounded by countless trees. My plan is to meditate and write, from Monday to Sunday. As simple as that.

What I am actually going to write, I have not planned yet. The point is to meditate for a minimum of four hours a day, and to just write. Each evening, I will publish a post on my blog, such as the one you are reading now. Of course, I will allow my thoughts to dwell on my artistic research, but as you can see, I might indulge in sporadic digressions…

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

 

 

Sharing silence – an artistic research on meditation

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.

The experiment

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 – with around eighty potentially interested people – whom I invited to take part in 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 of 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 had become very meaningful to me.

This experience brought me to the liminal area between performance and meditation, and reinforced my intuition that the two fields 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 so far, with their physical or spiritual participation!

 

Silence-meditation-practice 2016

Special sessions of meditation in TeaK

Dear friends,

I am glad to announce that the fourth season of ‘Silence-medtation-practice’ is open at the University of the Arts – Theatre Academy of Helsinki (TeaK – Haapaniemenkatu 6).

Since 2013, meditation teachers of different backgrounds are invited as special guests to offer free seminars to the students and the staff members of the University of the Arts, and to all interested people.

Our first guest will be Ani Sherab, Tibetan Buddhist nun, on Saturday 20th February at 14-16 in room 535.

You are all warmly welcome!

………………………………

Buddhist views answer, formally or tacitly, such basic questions as:

  • Why am I alive? Has life a purpose?
  • Why do things happen (the way they do), to myself and to the world?
  • Is there some ultimate reality or ultimate being, such as God or soul?
  • Is there life after death?
  • Was there life before this life?
  • Why are some events seemingly so unfair?
  • Is my mind just a product of my biology?
  • Are ethics simply a personal choice or is there a natural, universal ethic?
  • Who or what created this universe and its beings?

Throughout the special session we will have the opportunity to touch some of these questions or other ones, as well as do some simple meditation. 

anisherab 

Ani Sherab

Having taken nun’s vows in Tibetan Buddhist tradition over 25 years ago Ani Sherab is currently practicing in her home town Helsinki. She has spent seven years in long retreats under the guidance of eminent Buddhist lamas of Kagyu Samye Ling Tibetan Centre in Scotland. Since 1997 Ani teaches and conducts retreats in Finland.

 

 

 

Silent Christmas

When I first announced that I will spend my Christmas holidays in silence, some friend of mine commented: “ah, this year you are going to skip Christmas!”. “Actually – I replied – I feel like I am getting closer to its true essence!”. After such a profound journey, I start believing that my guess was well founded.

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The main reason which brought me to such a choice was not any intentional provocation towards the social or commercial aspects of Christmas festivities. In fact there were many people I would love to visit. Living abroad, I have rare opportunities to spend time with my family and old friends, for example. Yet, after a depression and a rather turbulent year I came to the conclusion that my priority was to encounter myself first.

On 18th December I secluded myself in my own 22 square meter apartment, where I meditated ten hours a day, determined to stay there till the 27th. I followed the exact structure of a ten-day-Vipassana retreat, as hold in the tradition of S.N.Goenka: I woke up at 4 a.m., meditation began at 4:30, throughout the day there were some breaks for resting, one pause for breakfast and one for lunch, no dinner, no reading, no writing, no communication with the external world and meditation ended every day at 9 p.m. I had agreed in advance with a dear friend of mine that she would enter my apartment a couple of times throughout the ten days in order to leave some food supplies in my entrance lobby. I gave her a copy of my keys and I would keep the door of my room closed, so we will avoid any kind of interaction.

In the beginning I felt a bit distracted by the fact that I was in my own apartment, but after the first day my home became a neutral space which at times I started to respect like a temple or a meditation centre. The daily routine of cleaning, cooking and washing dishes helped me to feel the care towards the place and towards myself too, as if I were at the same time the participant in the retreat and the ‘loving servant’ of this participant.

I was expecting to meet the same painful mental struggle I had encountered three years before, when I first attended a Vipassana course. At that time, I was coming from years of daily practice of Kriya Yoga as taught by Paramahansa Yogananda. The encounter with Buddhist tradition and in particular with Vipassana technique put in crisis many of my own believes and dismantled my previous understanding of meditation. After three years, I realize now how much that experience has brought me to develop a spirituality more practical and ‘grounded to earth’.

This time I had no spiritual nor religious conflicts. Furthermore, after the first two days of retreat, I noticed that I was much more fit to sustain ten hours of meditation a day than I was the first time: my daily training in Vipassana throughout three years had given some fruit. On the other hand, another kind of inner battle had started: memories from my past reached my consciousness one by one, showing open wounds that I never dared to face, people I had hurt, obsessive attachments to persons and things, and so on… The more my meditation proceeded, the more I unfolded layers of emotional nods: I understood that anything I do or think is bound to leave marks in me, and no matter how deeply I have been able to hide it, whenever I start to investigate myself everything comes out.

On the fourth day of my retreat I began to feel tired of meditating and in the afternoon I had a moment of discouragement: many days were still ahead and my disturbing thoughts were not leaving their grasp on me. I was afraid of being overwhelmed by negative thinking and getting back to depression: the nightmare of my dark days was still vivid in my memory, after one year. In the exact moment when I was about to quit my sitting posture, I heard the keys of my friend opening the entrance door: she had brought some food, for the first time, and with discretion she left. I suddenly was energized: the feeling I was not alone gave me strength and I stayed in my meditation. I remembered that my mother and another couple of friends of mine had promised to meditate throughout my ten days: I was actually sharing silence with others!

The sixth day was probably the most challenging for me: I woke up with the flue and at the same time I started to lose the purpose of my effort. I was physically and mentally weak, tormented by the ‘ghosts’ of persons with whom I had had turbulent relationships in my recent past and obsessively worried of my coming responsibilities. I felt stupid at spending my days sitting with closed eyes, just observing my bodily sensations. Yet, I was aware that it could be a risky mistake to interrupt the process in the apex of my crisis and – patiently accepting the discomfort – I remained faithful to my schedule. The day after I felt better already. On the ninth day everything made sense, finally: Vipassana had become a training in letting go. Instead of fighting my past or fearing my future, instead of craving for dreams which are gone or are not yet, day by day I became able to accept the much simpler and safer reality of the present. I learned to forgive myself.

Then it came Christmas. My friend had left a special dish for my lunch, with such a delicious recipe that I have not been able to refrain my mouth from saying out loud: “Wow!”. That was the only time I broke the vow of silence. Another funny happening: I used to light a few candles in front of my ‘pluralist’ altar, where you can find Buddha, Christ, Yogananda and a few other inspiring examples of goodness and compassion. Believe it or not, till the day of Christmas the last light to consume and fade was always Buddha’s. From Christmas on, it was Christ’s…

On the tenth day, after about one-hundred hours of meditation, I definitely felt lighter and brighter. I spontaneously started to send loving thoughts to all my beloved ones, to all the people, to all the world. It was clear to me that I had not worked for my own sole benefit, but I had created the condition for being a better person among the others. The most surprising happening was that I could not stop thinking of all the people I had met in my life, and I believe I have recalled the most of them: I remembered of the woman in the supermarket I used to go when I was three years old, another woman I involuntarily insulted on the tram when I was three and a half, a bus driver, the neighbour I had when I was two and a half, the nightmares connected with my own birth, my first kindergarten and the workers in it, my primary school, and so on till the present moment, including the closest persons in my life.

According to Vipassana retreats-schedule, the tenth day is dedicated not only to the practice of Metta – or loving compassion towards others – but it has the important role of smoothening the passage from the retreat discipline to daily life. Usually it is the day when silence is broken and it is possible to chat with the other meditators. Since I had no one to talk with, I chose to open a book. I opened the Dhammapada, which collects the sayings of Buddha. Inside the book I found the Christmas card that my grandmother wrote me in 2010, just two years before she passed away. I felt she had been with me too, throughout the ten days. And at 9 p.m., after my last meditation, my retreat ended and I decided to have a short walk out of my apartment. I went to the forest close by. I climbed to the top of a small hill, where I could see the sky. It was full of stars. The first constellation I saw it was Orion: the same constellation that my grandmother pointed at me once, saying “whenever you will see it, I will be looking at it too and our sights will meet!”. I came back home with tears in my eyes. And a smile in my heart.

On 28th December I opened my door to the few friends which had supported me with their meditations and with food. We meditated one hour together. It was a blissful moment when we all hugged and smiled at each other, feeling closer than ever.

One week is gone already and I feel that a huge peaceful revolution has started in me. I cannot affirm to be a different person now, even though I am not the same of before neither. We change all the time and I hope I did change for the better. For sure, I have found some new direction for working on myself. I offer my modest effort to the ocean of life, aware that many other spiritual seekers are at work right now to improve the world by improving themselves. Once I would have loved to think of my enterprise as an extraordinary event. Today I simply can say it was the most unique and holy Christmas in my life, so far.

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Inner energy: true or false?

The concept of ‘life energy’, or ‘inner energy’, has a paramount importance for understanding some aspects of many oriental psycho-physical disciplines.

My personal concern as a practitioner of meditation and T’ai Chi is the misleading common imaginary about this topic, which feeds ideas of supernatural magic or even superstitious believes.

Ching Chi Shen (2)

In physics, ‘energy’ is a term used to define a property or a potential of objects “which can be transferred to other objects or converted into different forms, but cannot be created or destroyed” (I am quoting Wikipedia, to stay simple). To be honest, physics defines how energy behaves but not what energy actually is. So, energy is a theory or an explanation of certain dynamics or phenomena.

Even though terms like Ch’I (Qi, if we use the Pin Yin system) or prana have wider meanings than the western notion of energy, we will see that in oriental psycho-physical practices too such words are attempting to explain the dynamics of physical phenomena and cannot be considered as objects or a things in themselves. You might argue that all matter is energy or vibration and therefore nothing is existing in itself, quoting the laws of impermanence and interdependence very dear to Buddhist philosophy. But on the daily life -level, we can directly interact only with matter: energy manifests itself through this interaction. Affirming that energy is the cause of our interactions is a belief we cannot prove and neither reject: let us keep it there in the suspended realm of possibilities.

As all practitioners of Raja Yoga, Ch’I Kung or T’ai Chi know, you cannot really feel the energy: all what you can experience are specific physical sensations throughout the body, a different quality in the movements or in the presence and eventually some subtle statuses of the mind characterized by an intensified or ‘expanded’ feeling of awareness, joy or wellbeing. Worshipers of ‘inner energy’ would not hesitate to state that these are marks of the circulation or awakening of the energy. The truth, of course, is that we do not know.

Said this, I do not intend to demolish the theory of ‘inner energy’. Rather, I would like to put it to the right place: a space for research. I would like to stop blindly believing in theories, no matter whether they are old or new, philosophical, spiritual or scientific: dogmas do not help reaching the truth, they just impose a truth.

Many oriental psycho-physical practices are grounded into this theory and they apparently cannot work without the concept of ‘inner energy’. Think of all the disciplines where you are meant to cultivate or circulate energy by means of visualization: you bring your attention towards specific areas of your body, or throughout inner paths; often you combine the visualization process with a precise method of breathing, and with a constant and regular practice you will become aware of subtle physical sensations. This is not the proof that inner energy exists: this is the proof that inner energy is a helpful image, facilitating concentration and awareness on the body or on mental processes. Furthermore, this is the proof that human beings do not know very much about their own inner potential. And you are free to give a spiritual meaning to such experiences, if you are a spiritually oriented person. Inner energy is therefore an attempting to explain what happens within and around you. As far as now this millenarian theory still has good points, because such practices do work.

It is true that in some oriental cultures energy is considered also as a physical substance. Think about the three jewels of Taoism (三寶,San Pao): Ching (精), Ch’I (氣) and Shen (神), the three energies (or maybe three levels of sublimation of the sole inner energy). The first two terms include also a materialistic aspect: Ching, the essence, is often associated with liquid substances present in our body, such as sexual fluids and liquids coming from digestion; Ch’I, the blow, is connected with breathing and air. Only Shen, the spirit, is used to designate a more immaterial form of energy, which sometimes is defined ‘empty’: the mental energy.

Yet, there is no need to believe that inner energy exists: all what you have to do is to behave ‘as if’ it does exist. In other words, you can use this image as a tool in order to focus your attention, developing concentration, becoming aware of bodily and mental processes, expanding your human potential. When you combine such a mental work with specific breathing techniques, some biochemical changes in the body and the mind might occur. But it is interesting to notice that there are many meditation techniques which actually do not make use of special breathing methods and do not give weight to the idea of a life energy. Just to quote some: Zen, Vipassana meditation or some of the various Mindfulness techniques are based on the mere observation of physical and mental processes. Yet, not only they seem to produce the same beneficial effects of energy based trainings, but they are able to make you aware of the same kind of sensations which are attributed to the awakening of inner energy: flow of subtle sensations, expanded awareness and peaceful joy are not foreign experiences to practitioners of self-observation methods.

I am very far from having a precise statement about the existence of inner energy and after two decades of practice my direct experience is still basic and elementary. The purpose of this post was to shake some dogmatic positions that sometimes put one school of meditation against another and science against spirituality. Personally, sometimes when I practice T’ai Chi I find it useful to ‘believe in energy’ and sometimes I just need to get rid of it and stay focused on objective physical sensations, without giving them a name.

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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.

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