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Unfolding Silence

meditation, kung fu, and artistic research

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Silence

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 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!

………………………………

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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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 – eleventh retreat

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After our first retreat in the forest, in September 2013, we never had other opportunities to experience such a deep connection with nature again, till the end of June 2014. Finally, we could organize a new retreat in the woods.

 

This time we choose a mountain, in the beautiful Italian island of Sardinia.

 

In the picturesque area of ‘Sulcis Iglesiente’ there is a small town named Nuxis. Right at the feet of the town, a wonderful mountain full of olive trees, prickly pears and junipers embraces the whole valley.

 

We spent one week on the top of the mountain: a friend of mine had inherited a small part of the forest and decided to make an artistic retreat-place out of it. That area was not taken care since many decades, so our main activity would be to clean and rebuild the narrow paths which were covered by underbrushes and thorns. Furthermore, we had to identify a few areas where we could create some space for sleeping and for having artistic activities.

 

Even though we were aiming to stay on the mountain throughout the whole retreat, we had actually to visit the town once a day to pick up food, because, I must admit, we were not expert enough with long-term-retreats in nature. At least, we have learnt a lot about how to survive in the mountain and next time we will be prepared for a more radical full-immersion.

 

Retreat 11 – Living Forest – June 2014

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The first day we visited the forest and we checked all the boundaries of my friend’s property, we identified an area for sleeping and we built our tents.

 

We had our first meditation around a giant 5oo year-old-olive-tree. We baptized it with the name of ‘Elios’. The powerful energy and calm majesty emanated by the tree left profound marks in my heart. We all agreed that before cutting any brush or tree, we had to ask permission to the forest, and whatever change we were aiming to do in that area, it should be suggested by nature itself.

 

As it happened in my first retreat, I felt that the enchanting beauty of the mountain was counterbalanced by a lot of small bothers: mosquitos, ants, ticks, a lot of brushes full of thorns, a pitiless Sun which burned our skins, and, in addition to this, I had an injury in my ankle which made every step painful.

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Fortunately, I could always go and take rest in the shadow of our old Elios.

 

We decided not to follow a structured program, but we agreed in how to behave in the retreat. We were free to talk: this time we were confident on the fact that an intense day of hard work in nature would automatically reduce our talks into very essential sentences.

 

I was afraid not to be able to fall asleep on such a dry ground full of stones and actually every night I felt very uncomfortable. But in a way or in another, I could always fall asleep, at least for a short while.

 

The sleeping place was situated in one of the few areas not too much in declivity. But the most suggestive thing was that our tents were built around an ancient metal-cross, which is visible from the town and that once used to be destination of the Christian ‘Via Crucis’ –procession: before going to sleep, from that privileged point of view we could admire the whole valley and meditate in front of the infinity of a starry sky.

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Days passed and we built our own routine. We woke up at 6:30 a.m., with the sound of the bells arriving from the church of Nuxis. We had a one-hour-meditation at the feet of Elios, then breakfast, followed by one hour of T’ai Chi –practice. Then we began to work. Days were ending the other way around: one hour of T’ai Chi and one hour of meditation under the cross.

 

Among all the Hermits in Progress –retreats, this has been the only experience where we explored the dimension of a common rule of living, like in monasteries. The curious thing was that it just happened spontaneously: we actually never discussed about our routine and we knew we were free of breaking the rhythm and doing something else.

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Our work of cleaning the forest was hard and I decided to live it as a session of Karma-Yoga: the path that, according to Hindu philosophy, leads towards God by means of unselfish actions, accomplished without attachment to their own results. By altruistically serving, by offering your deeds to God, you free yourself by the boundaries of you own ego and you may arrive to know God. Such a thought was giving me the strength to resist.

 

On the other hand, we attempted to adjust the areas and the paths according to our own artistic sensitivity, taking into account the esthetics of the natural environment and attempting to act in communion with Mother Nature. In this sense, the strain was tempered by the excitement of shaping the environment.

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During the last days, we found time to arrange small artistic installations making use of stones, woods, and other material we collected in the forest.

 

I felt very tired and I started to experience ups and downs with my mood. I surprised myself being victim of negative and restless thoughts, feelings of emptiness and discouragement.

 

Before leaving, I went to the feet of Elios.

 

In that moment I was thinking of my beloved grandmother. I was sure she died with a beautiful thought in her heart: her own grandchild, my son. I realized that was also my own beautiful thought. I felt rich. There was no longer space for depression.

 

After the retreat, we all had a talk in front of a big Italian pizza.

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We shared the feeling that we had the opportunity to re-encounter our own origins as human beings. We felt sorry for all those moments when we were working mechanically, because of the strain, and we were temporarily losing the awareness that we were dealing with a ‘living thing’. Every single tree, every leaf, the whole forest, the mountain: we realized how precious it was, to live in there.

 

We felt grateful for the profound lesson of presence and awareness we received just by being there.

 

We expressed the will to commit even more in listening to nature, maybe adding the rule of complete silence in a future retreat, and orienting every activity towards the goal of tuning with the life which surrounds us and which, in the very end, we are part of.

 

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