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
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.
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.
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!