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Gabriele Goria

meditation, kung fu, drawing, and artistic research

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God

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!

 

 

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!

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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. 

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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.

 

 

 

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 – 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.

DSC00370

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!

Hermits in Progress – sixth retreat

Hermit-life in daily life

After five challenging retreats, our team gathered together in order to share our own experiences and to plan further developments for the “Hermits in Progress” –project. We realized that a great change had happened already, inside and among us. In the very beginning of our journey we explored hermitic life in “protected” environments, which were clearly separated from daily routines. Think about the forest of Nuuksio, in southern Finland, or the chapel of Kamppi, in the center of Helsinki. Then we shifted our attention towards daily life and we began to search for intriguing ways of making solitude and ascetic practices encounter the challenges of average working and family –life. If in the beginning we were sharing same framework, then we began to spread and work separately. If initially we were a group of individuals striving to walk together on the same path, later on we became a network of interconnected persons, every one of us living her/his own life individually: in freedom and solitude, a greater feeling of unity could develop among us.

After our first retreat I had the chance to interview a real hermit and when I introduced our artistic project to him, he warned me not to hope to grasp the essence of hermitic life just by having short retreats once in a month. He said that hermit-choice requires the aim of embracing solitude forever. Solitude, he said, not loneliness. I agreed. Partly. Another side of me trusted my idea: our project was not just a matter of having short relaxing experiences once in a while. It came out from a two-year-research on silence, which was the spontaneous fruit of our lifelong searches: what a greater commitment could there be, but our own unstoppable, sincere thirst for spiritual search?

Such a thought received confirmation during our meeting. We all expressed our feeling that there was no actual separation in between the retreats: every time that we were learning some important lesson, it became natural to maintain it alive throughout the whole month. We were gradually transforming ourselves into full-time-urban hermits.

The next challenge we decided to face was, for me at least, the subtlest one: listening to our own real needs.

 

Retreat 06 – walk your path – February 2014

The basic idea was to spend three days attempting to fulfill our own image of a perfect hermitage, focusing on those aspects of spiritual discipline which appealed us the most, and which could help us to be in contact with our own deepest self and with others. Adjustments according to working and family challenges were welcome as part of the retreat.

I found it very difficult to become aware of my actual needs. I could not take a decision about my retreat’s rules till a few hours before the start. I reflected that I always had problems in making choices. Since my childhood I was struggling with cosmic decisions, such as “married life or monk-life”,  “saving nature or being a warrior”,“becoming  Superman or the Pope”. Later I met the challenge to decide on which side to stand: Catholic or Hindu religion, Yoga practice or Christian prayer, acting in theatre or practicing Kung Fu? Recently such a fight has transformed into: Kriya Yoga -meditation or Vipassana –meditation, believing in God or in human beings? Usually it ends up that life puts the answer in front of me and I realize that my real difficulty is just to accept it. Letting go my own expectations towards myself and accepting myself as I am right now, accepting my life as it is right now: what a simple and painful process! Yet, without such an act of realism, I find it impossible to generate real changes and growth.

However, after questioning myself throughout a whole week about my basic needs, I could finally figure out three retreat-wishes:

–          Sleep properly

–          Eat fruits

–          Meditation at least three hours a day

It was clear that such a retreat was not aiming to test my own limits, rather it was a space for taking care of myself: I needed to give rest to my body and to my stomach, and I desired to consolidate my habit of practicing long regular meditation-sessions.

This easy routine was not so far from my own average life, especially after I started the “Hermits in Progress” –project, but by performing my actions within the retreat-frame, they assumed a deeper meaning. It was not the first time, actually, that the feeling of being in a retreat had helped me in maintaining a high level of awareness all day long. During one of my meditations I suddenly experienced a remarkable peace: I realized that I had just forgiven an old friend of mine, for a bad mistake that he committed years before. I had the intuition that I also have the potential of behaving really bad and hurting defenseless people as well as the potential of becoming a saint. I felt a sudden sympathy for my friend and something deep within me went to the right place.

At night then, I surprised myself having “spiritual dreams”.  Once, in my dreams I was arguing with some monks about the nature of God, and I realized that I had not to continue begging for some external miracle to happen, in order to improve a certain situation, because God was not somewhere out of me: my feeling of a need for change was actually the God within me, asking to manifest His own presence by means of my own action. I was responsible to operate the miracle. I manifested my doubts about the existence of God to an old monk. He answered me that it does not matter if I believe or not in the existence of a God: I may practice the “presence of God” as if God would exist or in order to make Him exist, and that would be a much more constructive habit for me, compared to my own tendency of dwelling with my own problems all time. Practicing the “presence of problems” it is, indeed, a much more stupid action!

Thomas MertonAnother night I saw a dream of my grandmother explaining me how I can recognize a true experience of enlightenment. She said something like that: “When we are healthy, we do not pay attention to our own body. When we have some disease we start to have pain in some part of the body and we give our attention to it. In meditation we are asked to become aware of our body. When you are enlightened, you will not pay attention to your own happiness. You will simply be happy.”

I know there is nothing original in such statements, maybe my subconscious was recollecting old knowledge I got from some books and shaping it freely into new forms by means of my dreams. Yet, I felt that in those days I was merged into an intense spiritual atmosphere, which did not abandon me neither during my sleep.

Confronting my own retreat-structure with the rules my fellows decided to follow, I have noticed that this time we all gave priority to self-care. We have been gentle to ourselves. We aimed for simplicity, following somehow the Zen-golden rule: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired, drink when you are thirsty… being present in the moment.

At this point, we are exactly in the middle of our research process: six other retreats are in front of us, for other six months. I have no idea where all that will lead us. I feel excited, curious, and my heart whispers that such a process is much greater than I can see. Maybe, I start thinking, it is no more a mere question of producing a performance out of this experience. It seems to be such deep spiritual journey, that our research has began to capture the interest of other people too. But what I desire the most, it is just to go on with the simplicity of a child, letting the results to rest in the hands of Life.

 

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