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Unfolding Silence

meditation, kung fu, and artistic research

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Questions around Vipassana

If at all there is any conversion, it should be from misery to happiness, from defilement to purity, from bondage to liberation, from ignorance to enlightenment.

S.N. Goenka

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When I left Dhamma Atala, I was struggling with feelings of relief and disappointment. Dhamma Atala is a Vipassana Meditation Centre, situated on the beautiful hills of the valley of Lutirano in Italy. I arrived to the Centre on the first week of December, with the aim of spending thirty-one days there. The frigid temperatures of the Tuscan countryside, together with an accumulation of emotional stress, forced me to change my plan. After sixteen days at the retreat, I woke up shivering with fever.

It was not easy for me to admit that I had met my limit. A little voice in my head wanted me to believe that I will come out of this experience weaker and more muddled than before. I hesitated, asking myself if I really could not endure a few days longer. Finally, in the early morning of the following day I made up my mind, and I left the Centre. It took two weeks for my body to recover fully. It took longer for me to be able to understand this unexpected turn with a serene mind.

After regaining my health, I came to realize that many ‘mental knots’ – such as negative thinking patterns, obsessive memories of past events, or anxiety for future obligations and responsibilities – were finally untied. Some challenging life issues looked much more manageable in the light of my fresh meditative experience.

My pride was tempered by the words of the Vipassana teacher who led the ten-day meditation course at the retreat. He told me: ‘You can take hundreds of meditation courses. This does not make you a saint. The real work of a Vipassana meditator begins when you go back to the world: there you can test and strengthen your equanimity, awareness, love and compassion.’

The benefits of this adventure became clear once I looked back at my journey more objectively. This retreat was a success on many levels: I did manage to complete the ten-day course of meditation, to share questions and doubts with the teachers, to work at Dhamma Atala as a volunteer, to meet different types of meditators, and to explore the dynamics of the life in the Centre. Furthermore, the interruption of my retreat at Dhamma Atala did not mean an interruption in my meditation. I continued to meditate throughout my recovery, and found my enthusiasm renewed.

Vipassana and Tai Chi

The initial motivation behind this project was my need to reclaim the practice of Vipassana. Because of a few troubled interactions with Vipassana meditators in the past, I carried a mental load of trauma and bad memories. I no longer knew if I was practicing for myself, if I was meditating out of habit, or if I wanted to prove a point to the people who had misunderstood and isolated me.

Furthermore, I wanted to verify my practice of Vipassana to be correct. In fact, after I attended my first Vipassana course in 2012, for a long period I was not allowed to participate in Vipassana meditations by the managers of Vipassana courses, because I am a teacher of Tai Chi. This is a typical case in many traditions of meditation, which warn meditators about the danger of mixing different techniques. My case was examined by a Vipassana teacher from Sweden, through the mediation of the manager of the Vipassana group in Helsinki. We had a long exchange of emails.

Tai Chi – together with other practices involving breathing techniques – is generally considered not to be compatible with Vipassana meditation. The main reason for this is that Vipassana trains the mere observation of natural breath, bodily sensations, and mental processes. Conversely, Tai Chi provides techniques of breath control, and energy manipulation.

I had the feeling that the friction was more on the theoretical level than on the practical. At least, the way I came to understand Tai Chi in over two decades of practice – and especially after my encounter with Vipassana – made me abandon any intention to control my breath, or to circulate energy. If there is such a thing as the ch’i (poorly translated as ‘inner energy’, ‘life energy’, or ‘breath’), there is no need to put any effort in moving it. As an ancient Tai Chi tradition reports: wherever an attentive and concentrated mind goes, the ch’i will follow.

Until there is the intention of moving anything, the mind is under the grip of the ego. The real mastery in Tai Chi is Wei Wu Wei: the ‘action without action’. Equanimity, awareness, and even compassion and loving kindness, seemed to me like a solid common ground between Vipassana and Tai Chi. The Vipassana teacher who examined my case was not persuaded by my experience of the two approaches complementing each other.

However, Vipassana meditation felt so beneficial that I continued practicing it regularly by myself. I even attended two ten-day retreats in my own apartment. After four years of standing by, I wrote an email to the same teacher. Once again, I explained in detail the way I currently practice, understand, and teach Tai Chi. This time, I must have found the right words. Probably, my attitude changed too. The teacher wrote that my approach to Tai Chi was absolutely compatible with Vipassana practice. I got the permission to attend Vipassana courses again, with warm wishes for my success in the path of Dhamma. My journey at Dhamma Atala was finally possible.

Sex and Celibacy

At Dhamma Atala, the teacher in the ten-day course was gentle and humble, and patiently answered my numerous questions. It might sound humorous that in a silent retreat I took many opportunities for having conversations with the teacher. But I arrived there unavoidably charged with lots of expectations, and with a lot of caution too. There were subjects I wanted to discuss with an advanced meditator.

One sensitive topic for me was the discussion about sex and celibacy in a spiritual path. To the best of my understanding, the ‘path of Dhamma’ is the same for all. There is no real boundary between the so called ‘mundane life’ and the spiritual path. The teacher simply argued that some meditators find celibacy useful, and some others do not – himself included.

He explained very clearly that celibacy cannot be forced. It might happen spontaneously, without any sense of sacrifice, as a natural consequence of Vipassana practice. When and if it happens, it depends on your personal characteristics and history. If you are in a committed relationship, you cannot take such a step without the consensual agreement of your partner. He added that if you are in a committed relationship – heterosexual, homosexual, it does not matter – sex is not in opposition to dhamma (the Buddhist term designating a ‘cosmic order’, or ‘law of nature’), you do not break the precepts of sila (the Buddhist term for ‘ethics’, or ‘morality’), and it is a positive and constructive way of sharing love.

Theory and Practice

Another doubt concerned the theoretical aspects of Vipassana practice. Part of me was convinced that I found a path which does not require any faith in pre-given truths. But on the other hand, Vipassana courses provide a huge amount of Buddhist theory and terminology.

For example, the theory of sankaras is the ground for Vipassana practice. According to the explanations provided in the courses, sankaras are ‘volitional formations’, or ‘mental dispositions’, which lie at the base of our unconscious tendency of reacting to all kinds of stimuli and sensations. The more one blindly generates reactions of craving or aversion towards such stimuli, the more sankaras will grow and strengthen.

Following this theory, only by dismantling the habit of reacting, the meditator finds freedom from this mental conditioning. When the meditator stops producing new sankaras, old sankaras cumulated in the past will come to the surface, manifesting themselves in the form of different bodily sensations, pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. By means of non-judgmental observation, Vipassana meditators eradicate all sankaras one by one, in order to reach the final goal of ‘liberation’.

In my life, I have come across three major spiritual traditions: Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism.  Somehow, I managed to conciliate the theoretical contradictions between these different philosophies, by acknowledging that each of them came to a meeting point within myself: since I was able to open myself to the various meditative practices embedded in those different spiritual theories, I was the living proof that apparently contradictory theories could harmonically coexist in the same person.

As a matter of fact, I have always been more interested in the meditative practices than in their underlying philosophies. I approached Hinduism through the Kriya Yoga of Paramahansa Yogananda. In my Christian years, I sailed the sea of Faith on the ‘ship’ of Catholic Rosary. Finally, I caressed Buddhism in its profound core by means of Vipassana meditation.

In each of these three spiritual systems, theory was intertwined with the practice, and appeared to be corroborated by my experience as a meditator. However, one question became crucial: to what extent the theory affected my interpretation of the experience? I wondered if the religious and philosophical background in which each meditation technique was developed affected the design of the technique itself, in order to provide specific experiences, which in return would support pre-given assumptions and theories. Is the experience of a meditator led to support pre-given notions?  If it is so, this is a devious form of indoctrination, because it provides the unbreakable certainty of the ‘wisdom coming from within’. Where does freedom go? Where is the liberation?

Vipassana appealed to me the most because of its pragmatic approach to spirituality. When I encountered Vipassana meditation, I was already drained by my lifelong attempt to interconnect different philosophies, or to find their common denominator. I just felt like committing to the practice without blindly believing in any of its aims and goals. Therefore, my question to the teacher was: how to follow a spiritual path without accepting any of its background assumptions, philosophies, and theories? In fact, if one is not involved in the spiritual discourses supporting the practice, meditation might loose its appeal in the long run.

The teacher looked very pleased by this question. He answered that my attitude was centring the inquisitive spirit of Vipassana. Practice is what counts the most. In the end, you can describe your experience with the words you find most appropriate. You can disagree with any pre-given theory. The only thing you can really rely on is your own personal experience. By sharpening your mind, you build your own practice for investigating the processes occurring within the framework of your body.

Equanimity

At this point I confessed that when I meditate I am mostly aware that I am not equanimous. The teacher said that this was an actual sign of progress, because I started to see myself more deeply. His answer did not sound like a compliment, but it worked as an effective encouragement.

If on my first course in 2012 I had to deal with physical pain – I was not used to sit many hours on the floor –, this time I had to face my mental processes to a new level of depth. Vipassana meditation helped me to investigate the interconnection between my mental habit-patterns and their physical counterparts: bodily sensations, and the way I tend to react to them.

By practising non-judgmental observation of my physical sensations, I gradually reduced the frequency and intensity of my automatic responses. I disengaged myself from my mental habit of escaping discomfort and looking for pleasure. Whenever I succeeded in not reacting with attachment nor aversion towards any sensation, I found space for a new kind of freedom.

This reminded me of the practice of T’ui Shou (‘pushing with the hands’) in T’ai Chi. The ‘trick’ for avoiding the defeat against a hostile force coming towards you is not opposing it, but rather giving up, and yet staying attached to it. In Vipassana, the cultivation of awareness and equanimity create a safe state of mind, where it is possible to stay close to the inner ‘enemy’ forces of craving and hating, attachment and aversion, by letting thoughts and emotions come and go, without being overwhelmed by their power.

Was this feeling of freedom a proof supporting the theory of sankaras? Or was my experience affected by the theory? For the sake of freedom, I kept both questions open.

Tolerance

Especially on the first day of my retreat at Dhamma Atala, it was challenging for me to sit surrounded by people who were also going through difficulties. I could feel their suffering, and I found it disturbing. It took three days for me to become more tolerant, but I did not manage to really develop sincere compassion.

A profound sense of peace reached me in the evening of the ninth day, after one hour of extreme mental agitation. It was a peace that I never felt before, but which did not feel like an extraordinary thing. It was normal, surprisingly and naturally normal.

The day after, the peace was gone. But my attitude towards the challenges of sitting changed. I trusted that whatever happens in my meditation, no matter what uncomfortable or blissful experience I will face, I will be ready to welcome it.

After the ten-day course, the demanding routine of eleven hours of meditation a day came to the end. I started missing it. Ten days was a very short time for conducting such an inner exploration. Then I realized that my nostalgic attitude towards the course could easily turn into attachment and craving: this new mental volition could create the seeds for new suffering.

I did my best to welcome my new situation, and I worked for the Centre as a volunteer for a few days, before the next three-day course would start. Luckily, there were many opportunities to meditate between the working hours: this helped me to maintain my inner balance.

I took a job which was physically exhausting. My task consisted of carrying gravel with a hand-cart, up to the hill for several hours a day, in order to fix the path on the men’s side of the meditation hall. This shift from ten days of silence and stillness to such an active and hard work was not easy. I did not realize that I could take a couple of days off, or maybe I could accept some lighter task.

In this short period of volunteer work the interaction with other people was inspiring, but at times it was stressful. After ten days of complete silence, the act of talking felt almost violent and unnecessary to me. There were a variety of people with whom I did not know how to interact harmoniously. I was silently struggling, and clumsily attempting to develop compassion and tolerance.

When the three-day course started, I felt safe again. The routine of eleven hours of meditation was a familiar structure. But that was also the moment when my body gave up, and I became ill. What an unplanned lesson of humbleness!

Wisdom

I still had the chance to talk with another teacher about some personal issues. The teacher – a nice and joyful woman, a bit older than the previous teacher, but younger in terms of teaching experience – spoke like this: ‘Vipassana is meant to make you independent. I cannot answer for you. My only advice is to meditate. Keep on meditating. The answers will come from within!’

Those words sounded honest. They resonated with my inner wisdom. Yet, I could not refrain from shaking my head, and I held my laughter: the image of the ‘messiah’ interpreted by the Italian comic actor Corrado Guzzanti came to my mind. As a reminder of human fallibility, Guzzanti’s character claims: ‘The answer, you don’t have to search it outside. The answer is within you. And yet… it’s wrong!’

Despite all my questioning, which could be misinterpreted as a sign of insecurity, or maybe of pedantry, it appears that I passed the test of both teachers. My practice was found to be correct. A few details were clarified, and I was even encouraged to guide short sessions of Anapanasati – concentration on the breath – to my students.

Now my everyday routine has started again. This beautiful adventure is floating away from the ungraspable and yet precious present moment. Only wisdom is left to be tested here and now. Will I pass the exams of ‘average’ life too?

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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

 

 

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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Where is my soul? – a personal interfaith inquiry

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

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

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

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

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

Unless…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hermits in Progress – 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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Hermits in Progress – tenth retreat

 

Think of a small flower growing in the remotest spot on the top of a mountain. Nobody ever sees it. Nobody ever rejoices of its perfume. The flower receives nourishment from sun, rain, earth, and lives its own life in tune with the laws of nature, till it gets dry and dies. Why?

 

You can imagine, if you like, that the purpose of such a hidden beautiful life is giving joy to its own Creator. Or you may think the flower is a gift to the whole world, no matter where it is, since all beings are interdependent. If you believe in reincarnation, you could assume that the flower is in the best possible condition, according to its own karma, for its own evolution.

 

All these theories are great tools to win the feeling of powerlessness it may come when you question the meaning of life. Furthermore, they may help you to live fully and with hope, whether by offering you a direction, a goal, the feeling you are beloved, that you are not alone, or encouraging you to focus on the present moment.

 

Of course, you are free to decide that there is no meaning at all, and live happily as well.

 

We do not know if the flower feels alone or not. We do not know if solitude unavoidably carries on a feeling of loneliness or not. Whatever interpretation you may choose, one thing is sure: that flower lives its solitary life.

 

Same thing we could say about a hermit.

 

retreat 10 – June 2014 – sharing practices


Ten months had passed since we began our “Hermits in Progress” –research. It came the moment to gather together and find a way to share some of our discoveries.

 

Throughout the whole research-process we had opportunities to explore several ways of being hermit and we became aware of our own personal approaches. We could deepen and develop unique spiritual practices, fit for our own specific needs. Some of us attended morning prayers, some others had solitary sessions of sitting or dynamic meditation, Tai Chi, ballet-training… in the secret of our early mornings or in the late evenings.

 

Hidden from the rest of the world, every day little miracles happen: there are precious moments of intense awareness, beautiful simple actions through which we worship Life, which are bound to remain unseen. Or is it so?

 

We spent two days at Luova Kasvu (a beautiful retreat-place in the countryside, close to Espoo), sharing, showing or teaching one of our personal daily spiritual/artistic routines to other participants: our solitary flowers growing on the top of a mountain had the chance to be seen at least once, receiving respect, tenderness and love.

 

In between the sessions we observed silence.

Is there any purpose in creating a window through which you can watch at the “hidden flowers”? As an artist, I believe it is my duty to offer the audience a chance to become aware of their own undiscovered beauty. And that often happens whenever I gift something honest of me, when I offer the audience my own hidden flowers.

 

But the second question is: how can the hidden flower remain so pure when it is hidden no more? That was, indeed, our own challenge this time.

 

We decided to start our retreat by preparing lunch together. While eating, our spontaneous conversation naturally ended up to focus on the experience we had just begun. We realized that the retreat did not need any rigid structure, but it should maintain such a nature of spontaneity. After lunch, we found ourselves speechless: it was clear that words were needed no longer and that we would continue in silence. We gave ourselves one-hour-time to rest and think what kind of “hidden flower” we were willing to share.

 

I did not think, I just slept. After one hour, I went to the dance-hall and sat on the floor. Little by little we all gathered together. Without a word, we began to meditate. After another hour, without any common sign, we started to move: someone was stretching, some other was practicing yoga-asanas, I warmed up as I usually do, with the Chinese Pa Tuan Chin –exercises. That was an absolutely unpredicted solution to the challenge of sharing private practices maintaining the freshness of a spontaneous action. We were in the same space, aware of the rising up of a common, powerful dynamic energy, even though each of us was focused on her/his own personal practice.

 

Another hour passed, when one participant wrote that she was going to walk in the forest, looking for special herbs for our dinner. Some of us followed her in her trip. In the forest, we ended up to hug trees, practicing Ch’I Kung and improvising a dance choreography in slow motion, each of us following different needs and impulses.

When we came back I began to practice Tai Chi. Some of us joined the practice and followed my movements. Some others just watched. I felt the mutual trust was already so deep that I never had the feeling of “being on stage”. There was no separation of roles between observers and practitioners. After dinner, we meditated together throughout another hour. I went and sleep in a separate building, where I could be completely alone.

 

When I woke up in the morning, most of the participants were gathered in the dance-hall and moved. I just watched. It felt easy to observe without judgment. I think that we succeeded because we have been very attentive to preserve personal freedom throughout the whole retreat. Silence and shared meditation helped us to attune with each other. Mutual trust followed as a natural consequence.

 

Then we moved upstairs, we sat in front of a cross and we meditated in silence for one hour. Coming down from meditation, I found one of the participant in the dance-hall, in the midst of her daily ballet-warm up. She was focused in repeating simple and extremely difficult gestures. It was clear she had been repeating same actions throughout an entire life. The energy and concentration she was expressing reminded me the way I usually practice my Kung Fu –basics when I am alone.

 

And I understood that everything may become meditation. Even the simple ritual of washing your face in the morning, if performed with full awareness, no doubt: it is meditation!

 

The second day proceeded with a series of small, beautiful, unexpected events, including a touching duo of authentic movement under a flowering tree. We broke our silence during lunch. I realized that everything that happened there could be considered a performance. But nothing else happened but meditation, in a wide range of possible expressions.

 

I think this has been the first concrete hint about how to develop a performance out of our “Hermits in Progress” –research. Furthermore, the reason of such a performance became very clear to myself: encouraging the world to be aware of its secret beauty. Let us all take care of the hidden flowers which are everywhere, around and inside of us!

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Hermits in Progress – nineth retreat

 

After our homeless night, the next “Hermits in Progress” –retreat was a full-day-meditation in the Sesshin style (攝心, literally “touching the heart-mind”): in one room of Theatre Academy of Helsinki we practiced an enjoyable system of Zen-meditation which alternated sitting, walking periods and short breaks as well, all performed with the same mindfulness. The session was guided by Rev. Henri Järvinen, member of our “Hermits in Progress” –research-team, and it was open to all interested people.

 

Some students of Theatre Academy and some members of the school-staff attended the meditation as well.

 

Retreat 09 – full day meditation

 

In the field of spiritual search, I am more and more convinced that nothing happens by accident. At least, this retreat came just in the right moment of my life and it worked on me as a powerful reminder of the benefits coming from silence and stillness.

 

Throughout the last month, I had gradually substituted my daily practice of meditation with more intense sessions of Kung Fu –training. I consider Kung Fu as an effective system of dynamic meditation and, for certain reasons, it feels very suitable to my own personality. Because of some feelings of rejection, I had drastically reduced my sitting periods of Vipassana-practice (another Buddhist meditation-technique I used to love). That was not a new issue in my life: I have a rooted tendency of alternating more dynamic phases with more introspective periods, throughout one year. I believe this is not necessarily a bad thing: Yin and Yang, the two dynamic principles of universe, are supposed to vibrate together in a spontaneous dance of waves, where the rising of one aspect marks the diminishing of the other and vice-versa, giving rest to each other and maintaining a balanced relationship of harmony. The renowned Kung Fu –Master Da Liu reminds that even within the frame of a single day it is important to alternate the practice of dynamic meditation (such as T’ai Chi) to moments of sitting meditation.

 

But I was probably abandoning the middle path of balance, becoming victim of my habit of looking for extremes: I was starting to work unidirectionally, by overtraining Kung Fu and quitting sitting meditation. And such an attitude brought me to exhaustion: if on one hand sitting meditation appeared to me like a boring practice, on the other hand Kung Fu -training was becoming too heavy.

The Sesshin-practice that Rev. Henri offered us revealed to be extremely therapeutic. I was a bit afraid that jumping straight into a full-day-meditation after a one-month-break could simply pull me definitively apart from any spiritual routine. But the session was structured in a clever way: twenty minutes of sitting meditation, ten minutes of walking meditation, twenty minutes of sitting, five minutes for a break, and then again, with the same order. Unexpectedly, it felt easy to stay there. And without any apparent effort, I found myself in a deep status of awareness. At the end of the session, my mind was calm, fresh and renewed. I recognized the same condition of quiet that I had experienced many times when I used to practice my daily meditation.

 

How could it happen that meditation became boring to me? Where did my rejection-feelings come from? Why was I about to quit that practice? Maybe, previously, I had exaggerated in the opposite sense: meditation practice had become more important than my daily life; my own “ego” had begun to identify itself with meditation and got frustrated when I did not find more time for that practice. In other words: I became too attached to meditation-practice and I mixed the tool with the goal. I got restless if I had only twenty minutes for meditating instead of a full hour and maybe I did not start at all. I had become stressed and perfectionist. And the same thing was going to happen with my Kung Fu –practice. Attachment and repulsion go together, like Yin and Yang.

 

However, after the full-day-meditation guided by Rev. Henri, it was absolutely clear that a part of me was longing for such a calm status of mind.

I reflected about the meaning of spiritual practices and about the criteria for choosing them.

 

Starting from the last point, I believe that a simple criteria is what Saint Paul suggested: “Test all things, hold fast what is good”(1Ts 5,21)! If meditation or Kung Fu give me results of wellbeing and mental peace, they are good practices. It does not make sense to give time to an activity in the mere hope for some future benefit, just because I have been told or taught that it will happen. My personal experience should be the main testing room. It is true: sometimes results do not arrive immediately. A bit of faith, trust and commitment are required. But it is not wise to sacrifice an entire life waiting for something good, if such a waiting makes me become sad, closed, frustrated or depressed. Life is not very long: I should fill it with actions which help me to be a better person right now.

 

And here it comes the first point: the meaning, or purpose of spiritual practices. They should help me to be a better person right now. To feel better now. To live my life and not to renounce my life. Whatever choice I make, challenges and obstacles will come, I would get frustrated, bored, stressed. I will experience doubts. My spiritual practice is good in the extent it sustains me also in such critical phases. Whenever I am aware that my spiritual practice starts to reduce my own inner potential, maybe it is wise to stop it. But how to be sure whether my practice is sustaining me or weakening me? It is possible that, in order to eradicate some negative habits, I have to make an effort which apparently seems to be against my own nature. It is possible that in such a case I would feel (my own “ego” would feel) diminished and humiliated.

 

In the midst of doubts, I would suggest to use wisdom: whenever I notice that love towards myself includes others as well; whenever the respect towards myself develops together with kindness towards others; if I do not obsessively attach myself to my own spiritual practices, but I firmly keep in mind the goal of living a full life; well… these are all symptoms revealing that I am working towards an uplifting direction.

 

On the other hand: whenever my spiritual practice becomes more important than my life; when my own ego is so identified with the practice that I begin to believe that I cannot live without it; when I get nervous or restless and I love myself excluding others; in such a case I am maybe walking towards a degrading direction.

 

Furthermore, it is possible that I meet a good spiritual practice, but after a while I start to feel a sort of repulsion because I am afraid of suffering: sometimes it is painful to eradicate degrading tendencies, and I may prove feelings of discouragement, boredom or restlessness as well. I would say that these were precisely the kind of feelings that brought me to my own crisis. I became blind and incapable to see that I was actually working to improve myself and I was preparing a “gift” to the world at the same time. My mind was confused, but I did not travel in the wrong direction till my actions started to follow my thoughts: little by little, I was giving up with daily meditation and I was close to join a peek of exhaustion also with Kung Fu. I would comment that in such a peculiar case, the fault was not to be attributed to my choice of “wrong” spiritual practices, but to my own attachment to them, which definitively was an attachment to my own ego and brought me towards repulsion.

 

Providentially, the “Hermits in Progress” –retreat gave me the opportunity to go back to the fundamental meaning of a spiritual practice: love, awareness, peace and fullness of life. After that day I started again to integrate harmonically Kung Fu and meditation, paying a special attention in order to avoid fanaticism. In the very end, if I am fully aware and I do it with my own whole heart, isn’t it much more fruitful to spend the whole evening playing with my son? At that point, who could tell where is the difference between life and spiritual practice?

 

 

Introvert teaching

 

As I promised at the end of December 2013, in this article I will report the conclusion of my adventure as a substitute drama-teacher in a comprehensive school of Finland.

In my previous Teaching without teaching-article I described how, after my pedagogical studies, I began to shift my teaching approach from an executive style as a drama-instructor towards a more flexible approach as a facilitator, giving freedom to my students to choose and develop their own goals by themselves, trusting their own capacity of self-educating.

Recently I happened to read an inspiring book by Susan Cain: Quiet – the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. I realized that my whole semester at school has been a systematic deepening of my strategies as an introvert educator, as I believe I am.

Being introvert, it does not mean to lack in communication-skills and it does not avoid to be a leader or a teacher, even though you may appear smarter in expressing yourself via web rather than in a public speech. As the preface of Cain’s book says, introverts are “the ones who prefer listening to speaking; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over working in teams”. In my case, there are many contradictory nuances which make me not fit perfectly in that scheme: being an actor, for example, makes me capable to deal with huge audiences as well, and I enjoy social relationships too. But in the long run, my true temperament is the solitary one, privileging genuine relationships rather than wide groups of friendly people around me. As Jung wrote: “there is not such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”

As a teacher in a comprehensive school, I soon realized that I could not stand every day acting the character of the pedagogue-entertainer, constantly fighting to conquer the attention of four young classes of restless teenagers. I definitively acknowledged that I was working against my own intimate nature and I decided to risk: I would take my mask away, I would not be “teacher” or “adult” or “actor” no longer. I would simply be myself and treat my pupils as persons. I realized that the more I put myself apart from ruling the pedagogical path of my pupils, the more they took responsibility of their own studies, shaping their curriculum more closely to their own real needs.

Being myself an introvert, I could easily recognize similar characters among my students and therefore help them to be aware of different possible approaches for the realization of their own plans. Introverts may have some difficulty at working in a big group, but in optimal conditions they may become very good connectors, helping the whole group to interact in harmony. And in acting as well, there is space for all: sometimes an intense sight is more eloquent than a beautiful speech.

One class was challenged from within: some difficult relationships among students were threatening to avoid any kind of work. As soon as I noticed it, I reacted passively: instead of shouting and imposing my presence as an adult in order to solve the conflicts, I encouraged pupils to discuss among them, with me as a simple witness. They suddenly began to listen to each other, as they never did before. I cannot say that the problem was solved immediately, but it got better and better throughout the school-semester. And I earned the trust of some of the most turbulent boys, who confessed me later that in their opinion I was a “real” teacher. The class ended up to work in two groups. Initially that felt like a failure, but in the long run I realized that the class was not ready to work as a whole yet, and I believe that such a division allowed both halves to become aware of their own strengths. One group produced a gangsters-movie full of amazing action-scenes, while the other edited a humoristic reality-show, playing with many clichés of TV-programs, cleverly dealing with the topic of inclusion in group-dynamics.

Another class was definitively unwilling to spend time with drama-lessons. They wanted to play football. I allowed them to do that. They were, indeed, very skilled in sports in general. After one month they began to get bored and I suggested them to make a movie about their own talents. They started by inventing new ways of playing football and they ended up to perform amazing tricks with elastic matrasses, jumps, mixing ping pong, football and basketball. No doubt, that was the most creative way of making art I have ever experienced in a drama-class! They made an intense and spectacular short-movie.

A third class was somehow hostile towards the idea of learning new skills or being directed by a teacher. They already had drama classes the previous year. We got a brief talk: I told them that I was not interested in teaching people who are not willing to learn, but that I trusted that they knew what they wanted and that they were for sure capable to attain their own goals without me. I told them that art is freedom and I would offer them a free space, with no rules, where they could do what they thought being enjoyable, interesting, useful to them. If they were late to my classes, I would not punish them. I gave them also the right of skipping one of my classes within the school-semester, with mutual agreement.

That was a risk. But their school life was actually already full of rules, tasks, evaluations and expectations.

And it worked amazingly: some of the students alternated in the role of leaders, and the class worked as a compact team. They produced a theatre-performance, written and directed by themselves, and a video for the ending of the school-year. Furthermore, they played a lot of role-games: by means of fun they could remarkably improve their own acting skills! My role with them was simply to give them some feedback every now and then. Sometimes I just felt I was invisible and useless. But at the end of the year I got a surprising reward. In their last video they interviewed each other asking their own opinions about their teachers. One question was: which teacher is the less disappointed of our class? Most of them answered without hesitating: our drama-teacher!

The fourth group was eager to make a thriller-movie. They had already a project. I could not believe it: one class was actually willing to work! With them, I gave all myself. Since they allowed me to teach, I offered them my competences as an actor and director. They wrote the plot and I gave them my own camera to start making experiments. They needed some extra-actors: I invited professional actors to school, friends of mine who agreed to act side by side together with my students. Of course, the artistic growth of my pupils has been amazing. They could taste the dynamics of professional movie-making, including acting, writing and editing. I can say without exaggerating that I served them with love, admiration and respect, as if they were colleagues of mine. After the première of their own movie, they received a lot of beautiful feedbacks by their own schoolmates. I could read the satisfaction for such an accomplishment in their eyes: one year of intense work was finally rewarded with an incontestable victory. At the end of the year, we greeted each other as friends.

That is the end of my six-month-adventure as a substitute drama-teacher. I think I have learnt a lot about being myself. Years ago I felt exhausted after my classes: I was acting as an extrovert all the time. Sometimes it may be useful, but in the long run it is not. Now I had the opportunity to develop a teaching approach more respectful of my own needs, closer to my own temperament. I finally began to embrace my weakness as a strength. And at the end of my classes I began to feel energized. Or, at least, relaxed.

In conclusion of this article, I would like to leave you with the interesting feedback I received from Anna Masanti: a teacher of Finnish who happened to be my substitute in one of my classes.

Anna told me she was impressed. She was supervising the work of my third group of students.

Here you are Anna’s words:

“My background: I have a master degree as a mother tongue teacher (äidinkielen ja kirjallisuuden opettaja) but now I am studying speech communication where I already have bachelor and now I am just about to start my master in that. I have been teaching (mostly as a substitute teacher) since 2007. I have had drama/theatre as a hobby but not for a long time anymore.

It was a really nice experience to meet this class of yours yesterday – for several reasons. First of all I was really surprised to see how fluent the students were in English and how they used English all the time even though I suppose that almost everyone had Finnish as their first language.

It was also such a beautiful experience to see how active these students were. The little I have seen pupils at that age (in a class room), these kids were extremely active and enthusiastic. I wonder if I have had a totally wrong picture of teenagers at that age…

They had a really different conversation culture in the class that what I am used to see in our Finnish school. It was active once again and they had debates, as they were planning the video. The students were not scared or worried to bring up their ideas.

The pupils didn’t expect much from me. In the beginning of the class I asked if they knew what they were supposed to do and after a couple of seconds of surprised faces one started to tell about this video project they have. Another student started to support the first one and this second student took the role of a team leader. She stood up and took her place in front of everyone. They discussed about the video and the content. When they had decided the content (they would make questions like “Who is the funniest of the class” and film other students answering them) everyone took up different kind of questions. I gave paper to this secretary/leader and I asked her to write down all the questions. She was a little dominant compared to others, and as she was also holding the pen she had more power in a way. She was ignoring some of the questions that other students made and I asked her to write everyone´s ideas down.

I was sitting in front of the class but more on the side. They could see me but they didn’t pay much attention on me as they were eager to discuss the topic and one student was already kind of having control over the discussion. I made only some comments during the discussion and my main idea was to get them to keep on giving ideas instead of discussing about only one question for too long. Plus there were some ego fights couple of times. I felt that my role was to have them to keep in mind that there is an adult in the class room and it is not ok to say or do anything that would harm others. That was not a problem most of the time though.

Sometimes couple of the pupils looked at my when they gave their opinions instead of looking each other. Also when things that pupils normally don’t mention when a teacher is there were said, some of the students were looking at me and observing my possible reaction.

I don´t have this experience from before that students are so autonomous. I am used to watch pupils working in groups where they get to decide what they do etc. once in a while. But still I normally feel that I have a control over the class. I have never stepped in a class room without having any idea what is going to happen there. It was a really strange situation for me to sit there and watch the students controlling the whole class. But I enjoyed it really much. I was admiring the kids to be so clever, open and self-confident. These students didn’t really need me in a way. On the other hand I think that even though these students were making the class by themselves, it would have been different if I hadn´t been there as an adult at all. I believe and I hope that being there in the room gave some kind of security for the students – there was an adult. I also believe that there was more some kind of structure in the class when i was there than if there hadn’t been any adult at all. I tried to lead them to go on and make decisions a little.

There was a lot of joy and good energy, enthusiasm in the class room. I suppose it is because they were really doing something that had chosen themselves. One of the students was using his mobile all the time, he was playing some kind of game. Normally I would not aloud that in my class room. But in this case I did not say a word. I don´t really think it would have helped if I had said something to him. And on the other hand he was participating the discussion anyway. One of the students asked the others to use their mobiles to find information on Google. And many of them did that which helped the project as well. Most of the time the pupils are asked to hide their phones but for example here they used them in a good way.

Next time I have a class for a longer time I will try this method. It is really much true that when one gets to choose and decided himself/herself she/he is more involved in his activities. I believe that there are things that must be done, the pupils cannot choose every content of learning for example, at least not in the main subjects. But I believe that this method can be used in a well-planned way in any teaching.”

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