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Gabriele Goria

meditation, kung fu, drawing, and artistic research

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Catholic Church

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.

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 – seventh retreat

 

After six experiences of “self-made” hermitage, our “Hermits in Progress” -team had the opportunity to dive into a solid mystical tradition, spending one afternoon together with Catholic Carmelite-nuns. It may seem a short time, compared to the one-week-retreats we developed previously, but to me this has been a shaking encounter which awakened contradictory feelings of hope and suffocation and filled me with a sense of romantic fascination.

DSC00361In the middle of a forest close to Espoo there is the only Carmelite-cloister of Finland. Throughout over 25 years a small community of nuns has been living secluded within the boundaries of such a peaceful wooden monastery. They never leave that place but for exceptional reasons and for very brief periods: that may happen once in three years . Their main activity is praying for others. The only reason for such a choice is, in their own words, their love for Christ.

After an intriguing interview with the nuns, we shared with them their evening-routine: Vespers-prayer, chanting, reading and one-hour-silent adoration.

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I arrived to the place filled with memories of my Catholic period, when my favorite authors were Terèse de Lisieux, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross: the mystical spirituality of Carmelites was not unfamiliar to me. I was excited to meet people who were embodying such an ascetic path of prayer and seclusion.

Despite of my theoretical preparation, I felt overwhelmed by waves of love and joy as soon as the first nun came and welcome us in front of the monastery-door. It is hard to explain, but I believe that many persons who shared my same experience could recognize that feeling of being in front of a “living” person: the nun was full of life, in a way which looks more complete and at the same time more spontaneous and simple than our average way of being alive. It was like watching at a soul without filters, and that soul was beautiful, hilarious and extraordinarily approachable and humble. She showed us the chapel, where we spent a few minutes in silence.

Then another nun invited us into a small room, divided into two halves by a wooden banister. Behind it, the four nuns came in one by one and sat on chairs, smiling at us. They invited us to do the same: there were chairs for us as well on the other side of the banister.

DSC00367They explained that in the monastery there were only four nuns. One of them passed away a few years ago and another one went back to Sweden in order to become a hermit: “she will be my next target”, I thought…

As soon as we started talking, I realized that nuns were interested in my Catholic background. I felt locked: I could not express myself freely, for example opening the discussion towards a more ecumenical perspective. They put Christ in front of all: Christ was the center of every action, and there was no space for doubts or questioning the very base of their own belief. I felt that the depth of their own spiritual work was not balanced by a curiosity towards other beliefs. I questioned if that was fear, which avoided them to create the conditions for a fair dialogue, or maybe just ignorance.

In a way, it was a pity that such a great mysticism was so limited by the boundaries of their own religious convictions. I admired Carmelites for their own commitment, but I felt suffocated by their unidirectional belief, which put me in the uncomfortable attitude of cutting off a huge part of myself.

Yet, I must admit that their own simple presence was captivating. I perceived the power of their own provocative choice in such an outgoing, extrovert and globalized society. Their own life reminded me that my own value as a person is not necessarily related to the great things I do, but it relies more simply in the way I do what I do. The inner motivation is actually more important than the external action. Nuns live the same simple routine every day, throughout their own entire life, performing normal actions which do not put their own skills in evidence or which do not reveal any immediate utility for the rest of humanity, but that does not matter: nuns are striving to fill every single breath with love.

DSC00368I also reflected that these persons could develop a great strength by being secluded in a few squared meters, but probably they would feel lost if put into “real” big world. Yet, again, I realized that they were a perfect micro-cosmic example of everybody’s condition: maybe I feel I am a mature adult in my own society, but what if I would be eradicated from my place? Furthermore: I am so proud of my independence, but could I survive out of the ecological system of my planet?

Nuns explained that they are attempting to live each moment with the awareness of the “presence of God”. I began to reflect if such an attitude is fundamentally different from Zen attitude of living here and now. In the first case I am projected outwards, annihilating my own ego in the fire of a greater love, which is rooted in the dialogue with an invisible living presence: the Christ. In the second case my attention is turned inwards, overcoming my own ego by means of the deepening of my attention, looking for a contact with my own real Self. On the other hand, at a certain level of contemplation it is possible to perceive the presence of Christ within, while the Zen-goal of emptiness will be fulfilled by becoming fully present in the world. In both cases there is an attempting to overcome the ego. In both cases the meeting point between my real Self and Infinity relies on a positive change within myself…

This is a very hard question to be evaluated by means of theoretical comparisons. I can just say that when I met Zen nuns, they seemed to be more grounded into present real life while Carmelites were more projected towards the coming heaven. Zen nuns were developing human compassion, while Carmelite nuns were in love with the humanity of the Divine. In both cases there was a great love and care in their actions and words.

DSC00369I do not know what kind of contribution such a visit to the cloister will give to our “Hermits in Progress” –project. In my perspective, this is part of our work of encountering “real” hermits. I start to think that the research we are conducting may bring us much further than we imagined: watching at spiritual seclusion –phenomena with artistic eyes offers us the opportunity to develop more creative approaches towards ascetic practices, free from the boundaries of a specific religious philosophy.

In the past year I had the opportunity to interview two Catholic hermits. In Assisi I spent one night sleeping on the street, close to an unusual monk which was attempting to live in the same poor condition of saint Francis. Despite of the gentle approach of these hermits, I perceived a subtle proudness for their own religious belief: I felt that their wisdom vanished every time they pointed out the superiority of Christian belief compared to other spiritual traditions. Like in the case of Carmelites, they were too much “partisans”, without giving space for a fair confrontation.

DSC00375In order to facilitate a real encounter between religions, the renowned theologian Raimon Panikkar (1918-2010) suggests an approach of “interpenetration” and “mutual fecundation” and he points out three basic criteria to make that possible: honesty in the search for truth wherever you can find it, intellectual openness without biased opinions and deep loyalty towards your own tradition. He wrote that “the religion of my brother should be my religious problem as well”.

Dalai Lama added other provocative suggestions, such as:

–          Organizing meetings of academics with different religious background, discussing differences and analogies of respective traditions, in order to better empathize with each other.

–          Promoting encounters between people of different religions which had profound spiritual experiences, sharing what they could understand by means of their own practices, in order to enlighten each other in a deeper and more direct way.

–          Regular meetings where leaders of different religions may pray together, in order to facilitate mutual understanding and tolerance.

–          Encouraging people of different religions to go together in pilgrimage, visiting the holy places of each other.

–          Meditation: when inner balance is established in me, following my own spiritual tradition, I will begin to experience a natural humbleness which will better allow me to communicate with people of different religions and cultures.

Coming back to my visit to Carmelite-cloister, I think that if on one side the power of that way of living relies on the deep commitment towards its own specific mystical tradition, on the other hand the great risk of such a mono-religious worldview is fundamentalism: everything could become too black and white, right or wrong, and the inclusive intention of Christianity would end up to produce separation and exclusion. I do not say that I met such an extreme contradiction in there: the one-hour-silent adoration actually gave me a remarkable feeling of union, pacifying my mental storm. Among all those points facilitating interreligious dialogue that I listed above, I am sure that the most important suggestion is already part of the daily routine of Carmelite-nuns: meditation! But I believe that a bit of sincere curiosity towards other spiritual practices could transform such a place into a universal (=Catholic) house of prayer, where for example people like me, with a stratified spiritual background, could feel accepted for what they are and find a fuller communion with those beautiful nuns, which did not escape the world because of fear, but through seclusion are attempting to be one with each of us in the love of Christ.

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