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Gabriele Goria

meditation, kung fu, drawing, and artistic research

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I Ching

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.

Polar Shadows – contemporary dance encounters tai chi

Picture by: Katarina Meister

Polar Shadows is a live installation, where tai chi becomes the framework for an improvisation of contemporary dance. The dancer and chreographer Laura ‘Swan’ Pentzin has performed with Gabriele Goria – kung fu teacher and actor – in various productions since 2015. Their work is still in progress, aiming to go on stage in autumn/winter 2018.

Throughout the live installation, Gabriele Goria performs the 108 steps of the Yang-style tai chi, in the unique tradition of Master Chang Dsu Yao. Tai chi – the ‘Supreme Polarity’ – is the archetype of a fundamental law of nature: the dynamic principle of change. By means of slow and circular movements, tai chi incarnates this waving flow, where Yin and Yang take birth from each other.

How can contemporary dance respond to this ancient embodied philosophy? Laura Pentzin engages in a profound artistic exploration of tai chi, through her multi-layered expertise in various approaches to dance. By tuning with the flow, or deliberately contrasting it, Laura dances together with energy and space, at times spontaneously depicting the images emerging from the poetic Chinese names of the tai chi sequence.

A short video-demo of the work-in-progress is now accessible on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_Xt70kbd0k

Inner energy: true or false?

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

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

Ching Chi Shen (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where is my soul? – a personal interfaith inquiry

The thought that death will be my end makes me sad.

I am not the only one feeling like that, I know, but fortunately the world is various and there are people who do not have problems in living fruitful lives with the certainty that there will not be any ‘after’.

Is my sadness a symptom of egoistic attachment to my own personality? Partly, I believe so. I am concerned, as many are, about the reason of such a struggle which is life: a chain of never-ending sufferings with a few moments of hope and joy which, in my debatable opinion, are not worth of compensating this unbalanced proportion between sorrow and happiness. Yet, I am still willing to be, to exist forever. Why? A part of me wants to believe that there is a way out from suffering which does not imply annihilation; that the purpose of life is happiness and fulfillment; that in this life or in the next one or somewhere beyond life, hidden in the depths of me, or in the depths of life, there is the peace I am looking for, waiting to be rescued or awakened.

Furthermore, I think my sadness is related to my attachment to my worldview, which has been shaped by my cultural background. I grew up in a Christian environment, where there is a very human conception of the soul: my soul is me, just without my body. This thought has given me comfort throughout many years. I was thinking that with the end of my body my pain will end and I will be happy forever.

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But my comfortable belief was challenged by the evidence that when our brain is malfunctioning, we may lose our identity, our character may drastically change and our memories may be totally erased. So, what is this part of me which is eternal? To which extent can I be attached to the hope that my personality, so strictly related to my body, will magically come back after my death? Furthermore, which personality I will have back? The personality I had when I was a child, or the one I had as an adult, or the last one I had, when I was old and maybe tired of living? Will I have the personality of January 7th at 10 p.m., or the personality I was manifesting a few hours later? Is it not true that we live many lives in one life-time and that our body too changes many times before we die? Of course, usually there are some traits in our temperament that do not have remarkable modifications, at least under normal circumstances, as well as our neurons do not change throughout all our life, yet the very concept of personality is so strictly related to the memories of our life-experiences, which are stored in our brain and body-cells, that if feels a bit unrealistic to hope that we will be the same persons after we abandon our body.

Unless…

The philosophy of Yoga preaches that our body is the grosser manifestation of subtler realities, such as the astral body and the causal body, and that we are destined to reincarnate till our soul will return to its origins, the source of life, or God, which is beyond the three realms. There we are safe, we are finally one with the whole. According to this theory, the physical body is not the source of our personality, but it is shaped by our karma, and, beyond that, by our soul: our personality and our body have certain characteristics because they are ultimately reflecting the uniqueness of our soul, but at the same time they are affected by the actions and thoughts cultivated in our past lives, which are still recorded in our astral and causal bodies.

I began to imagine the soul as the awareness beyond thoughts and emotions, beyond my personality: if I follow this theory the soul is an individual reflection of the Cosmic Consciousness. It will not cease to exist neither when I will attain the final union with the Supreme Being: something of me will remain forever, at least in the form of the memories of my past incarnations.

In a way, this theory sounded more scary than the Christian imaginary of Heaven, but it made sense because it was more flexible and it felt reasonable: in each life, you wear a new body and a slightly different personality, in which you may recognize some elements derived from the experiences of your previous lives; these experiences are alive in your subtler bodies but will still evolve and transform without destroying your uniqueness, which is, in the end, the direct expression of your individual soul.

I wanted to follow the truth, not my preferences in terms of belief, and the only parameter I have for deciding if something is true for me is to be honest with myself.

My search brought me to meet Buddhist philosophy, in which the concept of reincarnation is transformed into the idea of rebirth, where there is no need for any individual soul to explain our existence and no need for a Creator to justify Life. In Buddhism, your personality ends with the death of your body, yet, the dynamic energies you have moved and awakened throughout your life (your desires, your actions, your emotions), will create the conditions for an new birth to happen in order to manifest themselves through a new bodily vehicle and a new, temporary and flexible individual personality. The only way to definitely interrupt the cycle of rebirths, and therefore the suffering of life, is to attain the final liberation: this is possible by realizing, through meditation and direct subjective experience, the interdependence of all beings and the ultimate emptiness of reality. Even though there are some extreme nihilistic positions in Buddhist environment too, the main stream refuses the thought of non-existence of reality. Emptiness is not non-existence. Otherwise, how could a Buddhist explain that Buddha attained his final liberation after three days of meditation under a tree and then he continued to live and teach for many decades more? Shouldn’t he suddenly disappear and cease to exist?

But this last point opens a doubt: why then not to call ‘soul’ the energy and the awareness which abide in us behind our personality and which continue to generate new births? If it is true that it is possible to attain salvation, or enlightenment or liberation in this life, Buddhist should admit that the person who has been able to realize her emptiness still keeps a certain degree of individuality or specificity. When such a Buddha dies, is it then that everything vanishes? And how do you explain then the memories of your past lives? And why should you aim to be liberated, if you will cease to exist at the moment of your death and the next rebirth will be the problem of another impermanent and ultimately non-existing personality?

I agree with Buddha, that it is more important to focus on cultivating love and compassion and to work in order to overcome suffering rather that wasting time and energy in useless intellectual inquires about the meaning of life and what comes after death.

But the ultimate reason why I feel sad if I choose to believe that I will die together with my body is that such a definitive statement closes the research: there is no longer a ‘why?’ to be answered. Maybe this is true, I cannot deny it. It is possible that the spiritual and profoundly human question ‘why’ is a mistake of our species-evolution and that we should replace it with the more scientific ‘how’. Maybe neurology will definitely explain the previously mentioned phenomena of memories of past lives in a materialistic way. However, I would not jump so quickly to a negative answer.

Science is based on theories about the working of universe and life, which are grounded into objective observations and experiments that we may reproduce and check. Yet, only the specialists can understand the more subtle aspects of them, while the profanes will build an approximate and most likely inexact view on the phenomena.

Spiritual seeking, on the other hand, develops theories about the meaning of life through subjective observation, and such experiments may be reproduced only by individually following the same practices: again, the amateurs will understand only the surface of these theories, which may appear full of contradictions.

Traditional religions often provide very fancy theories about the origins of the universe, life and death, but they have developed tools for spiritual introspection which are valuable nowadays still, even though they may need some updating. Middle-Age science was fancy as well, if we compare it to contemporary science, yet some of its discoveries are still used by modern scientists. So, I believe my sadness towards a negative answer about the question of the soul is also motivated by my attachment to the truth: I cannot exclude that there is no soul, I cannot exclude that there is not an ultimate meaning, but I must not exclude the opposite possibility as well, to be honest, because a realistic approach to life does not necessarily mean a materialistic approach.

Such a non-choice is probably the most frightening position I have ever taken in my life, but it is undoubtedly the most honest and exciting: the truth is that I do not know, but it feels like an act of cowardice to give up with the question ‘why’ just because there may be no answer. I am a human, I ask myself: ‘why?’- and I am afraid there is no answer – but I get power from the creative and dynamic flow that this question generates. Without this question, there would be no art, no philosophy, no compassion.

Is this question coming from the depths of my soul or from my impermanent personality?

The thought that death will be my end makes me sad.

The thought that death may be my end, somehow, awakens my curiosity.

T’ai Chi and I Ching

In April 2014, the Italian Kung Fu-instructor Sergio Volpiano visited our training group in Helsinki.

DSC_0032He led an intensive six-day-workshop, where we had opportunity to widen and deepen our practical skill and theoretical knowledge in some of the main styles provided by Kung Fu Chang-curriculum: Shaolin Ch’üan, T’ai Chi Ch’üan, Mei Hua Ch’üan, Hsing I, …

In particular, Sergio focused on the relationship between T’ai Chi Ch’üan and I Ching (易經: the Chinese “Classic of Changes”, one of the oldest books of divination in the world).

T’ai Chi Ch’üan (太極拳) literally means “Supreme-Polarity-Boxing”, designating a sophisticated martial art which is based on the study of the alternation of Yin and Yang: the two complementary principles ruling all dynamics of existence, deriving from the undiversified T’ai Chi (= Supreme Polarity or Sublime Model). According to Chinese ancient philosophy every single aspect of the universe, starting from the very concept of energy, may be considered in terms of waves oscillating in between two polarities: Yin and Yang.

I Ching – book describes the universe as being ruled by a multi-layered combination of Yin and Yang, which has been systematized into an Omni comprehensive scheme, composed by 64 hexagrams: sixty-four symbols which are formed by the combination of six stacked horizontal lines. Each line is either Yang (an unbroken, or solid line), or Yin (broken, an open line with a gap in the center).

Among all topics explored with Sergio Volpiano, I would like to share two inspiring images related to the beginning and the ending of T’ai Chi Ch’üan form. I apologize in advance for possible imprecisions, most likely due to my inexact recollection-capacity. I developed the images further, adding my own personal interpretation.

The very first movement of T’ai Chi Ch’üan form has no name and it is traditionally integrated with the immediately following Ch’I Shih (起式)-gesture:“Beginning of the Form”.

IMG_0830Ch’I Shih movement is traditionally associated to the 35th hexagram of I Ching, which is composed by two trigrams (smaller unit-symbols built with three stacked lines): the upper lines represent fire, while the lower lines are earth. In other words: Sun is rising on Earth. This hexagram is named Chien (晉): “prospering”. By analyzing the ideogram-structure, we can find treats reminding us birds coming down from the sky and, again, sunrise. That is to say: at sunrise birds begin their natural activity of looking for food on the earth. Sunrise is image of a rapid and easy progress, as well as expansion and brightness.

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Therefore when T’ai Chi Ch’üan begins, the practitioner is alike a noble man who is working in order to develop his own inner human potential, making his own virtues to shine in front of the world by means of such a precious activity. On the other hand, each gesture of the form should become spontaneous and natural like the instinctive action of birds coming down and looking for food.

Some commentaries of I Ching describe Chien-symbol as the image of a prosperous time, when society works because noble men are inspiring other people to serve their enlightened and generous leader with right heart. In my own interpretation, the enlightened leader represents the light of awareness. Noble persons are the good qualities of our own intimate nature, purified from the dust of unawareness. The prosperous period is the special time dedicated to the practice of T’ai Chi: an activity which naturally disposes our mind towards concentration and awareness. According to Chinese philosophy it is our connection with earth-element which avoids our own true nature (fundamentally good) to shine. In a flat vision of the world, the closer is Sun to the sky, the more it may enlighten the earth. In other words: the higher is the level of awareness attained throughout the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’üan, the more our noble nature comes to the fore and brings its brightness into the “dusty” areas of our mind.

IMG_0828The last movement of T’ai Chi-form is named He T’ai Chi (合太極), generically translated as “ending of T’ai Chi”. Actually, the He (合)-ideogram is composed by the symbol of mouth, surmounted by three traits: three mouths are harmonically chatting together. Therefore the literal meaning of the ideogram is: “union”. He T’ai Chi means: “union of T’ai Chi”.

Union with what?

Tradition relates He T’ai Chi-gesture to the 36th hexagram of I Ching, named Ming I (明夷): “brightness hiding”. Here we have the opposite situation of 35th hexagram: now fire is below and earth is up. Sun went under Earth. That represents a dark time, when a nation is ruled by selfish and corrupted people and noble souls must hide. Commentaries suggest us to endure throughout adversities, by cautiously hiding our own shining nature: without taking part to degrading actions of average people, we must maintain our inner light alive within us. It is better not to openly fight against evil till it is too powerful. It is recommended to patiently wait for a more propitious time when people will be receptive to the inspirational power of light and they will be capable to accept correction and wisdom.

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I think that dark times may be compared to those periods of frailty when our mind is most exposed to “temptations” undermining our own inner balance: clouds of unawareness coming and going within us throughout our day are the “crowds of corrupted ignorant people” ruling the country of our mind. Ming I-hexagram may suggest us that after the practice of T’ai Chi we are supposed to come back to our daily life maintaining the attained awareness alive within ourselves, without engaging fights against all obstacles coming to challenge our inner harmony: in periods of weakness, the risk would be to lose. When you are not powerful enough to discard a negative habit or to change external circumstances, acceptance and compassion are the qualities to be developed. Inner awareness is enough to start a silent process of transformation. Propitious times will come, when your noble nature will shine in all its pureness.

“Union of T’ai Chi” can be interpreted as an encouragement to bring the “T’ai Chi-attitude” into our own daily life, attempting to maintain our own noble nature awake throughout the rest of the day, with patience and humbleness. What a resonance with the biblical challenge of being “in the world but not of the world”!

It is interesting to notice that both Ch’I Shih and He T’ai Chi –movements are performed in Ma Pu (馬步)-posture (feet parallel, large about the double size of your shoulders, as if you were sitting on a horse ) and are the sole moments when the weight of our body is equally distributed on both legs. That means: perfect balance of Yin and Yang. The greatest difference from the beginning and the ending gestures relies on arms-movements, which are curving in reverse directions.

One peculiarity of traditional Chinese Martial Arts is the poetry of terminology and theoretical studies. Yet, the beauty of such images is not meant to remain an abstract intellectual picture: symbols have the power to affect our practice. The two hexagrams of I Ching we have just examined invite us to impart specific qualities to the opening and closing gestures of T’ai Chi-form: for example we could attempt to perform Ch’I Shih as sunrise and He T’ai Chi as sunset.

What does that mean? I believe that only by awakening a sincerely artistic approach towards the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’üan we will experience the answer.

A last thought which comes to my mind is that sunrise and sunset are the two traditionally recommended periods for the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’üan. In general, all transitional times in daily and seasonal natural cycles affect our own inner energy and awareness: it is considered a good habit to counterbalance their possible destabilizing influence with centering-practices such as meditation or T’ai Chi.

All these reflections came up from the synthetic and precise explanations of Sergio Volpiano, but I am afraid I have been flying a bit too far from their original source. That is what happens when you plant one seed of inspiration into another person’s heart: thought-trees have wings!

Gabriele&Sergio

 

 

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