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Unfolding Silence

meditation, kung fu, and artistic research

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Kriya Yoga

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.

Meditation as an artistic practice

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Photo by: Helena Romppanen

Systematical studies on meditation and spiritual practices have increased exponentially since the early ‘70s. In academic research, meditative practices are often investigated as a preparatory training for making art. For example, the performance artist and theorist Phillip Zarrilli makes use of meditation techniques in actor training for accessing and transforming the creative process. A similar approach is carried on by Naomi Lefebvre Sell in the field of dance and somatics.

In other cases, artistic practice and meditation are combined together, generating hybrid methodologies of artistic inquiry. This line of research intertwines meditation with other artistic practices in order to entangle them into a meditative or spiritual framework. For instance, the visual artist Su-Lien Hsieh focuses on the interaction between her painting practice and several Buddhist meditative techniques, such as bowings, mandalas, and breath-awareness.

There is no shortage of examples where the artistic practice itself is interpreted as meditation. The vocal artist, performer and choreographer Meredith Monk – just to mention one – openly bridges her artistic practice to her spiritual practice, drawing parallels between the Buddhist notion of dharma and making art.

In September 2015 I have started an artistic research on meditative silence – the Sharing silence project – as a doctoral candidate at the Performing Arts Research Centre of the University of the Arts (Helsinki). The Sharing silence project provides an alternative track for developing artistic research with meditation.

In contrast with the fore mentioned examples, my work recognises formal sitting meditation as an artistic practice in its own right. My research suggests that approaching meditation as an artistic practice opens alternative and more poetic ways for investigating and communicating meditative experiences. I claim that understanding meditation as a form of art relieves its load of holiness and esoteric imagery on the one hand, and counterbalances its reduction into mechanistic neurophysiological explanations on the other.

My concern is not to expose meditation to the general audience as the object of an inquiry, but to share it as a partner of dialogue in the context of performing arts and artistic research. This work raises questions about the place and the function of meditation in performing arts, in artistic research, in academic institutions, as well as in our society.

The topic of this research derives from my lifelong practice of meditative and somatic techniques such as the Kriya Yoga of Paramahansa Yogananda – which was introduced to me by my parents in my early childhood –, Shaolin and Tai Chi – which I have practiced since 1994 at the school of Master Chang Dsu Yao –, and Vipassana meditation in the tradition of S. N. Goenka – which entered my life relatively late, but had a paramount impact on my development as a meditator. Since 2012, Vipassana has become my fundamental daily practice, and therefore will be the main tool in my investigation.

Earlier experiments

At the current stage of my research, I am working around two questions, or directions. On the one hand, I want to investigate how to unfold and enlighten the artistic potential of formal sitting meditation. On a broader scale, I am researching how participatory performances can contribute to the exploration and communication of the artistic features of meditation.

My earlier experiments consisted in developing artistic technologies for exploring and communicating meditative experiences. Drawing, movement explorations, and creative writing were the tools involved in the experiments. I developed a technique for interviewing meditators, which consisted in filming the movements of the hands of the interviewed persons, who were asked to answer through hand gestures. Even though I found the outcome of these experiments interesting from the perspective of artistic pedagogy and art-making, I wanted to focus more specifically on the practice of meditation.

Therefore, I began to elaborate participatory experiments for sharing meditative silence. These events/platforms were devised for facilitating mindful experiences and creative processes within and between the participants.

In March 2017 I started the practice of meditating one hour a day in different spaces of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki. Students and staff of the school were invited to join me in silence. This experience made me realize how the simple action of sitting in stillness triggered a complex negotiation between myself, the meditative practice, the space, and the presence – or the absence – of other people. I collected feedbacks from the visitors, by means of a guest book, where people were free to write and draw.

As my contribution to the CARPA 5 symposium at the Theatre Academy of Helsinki, I further developed this experiment by installing a meditation room in the conference building, and inviting participants to share silence. Throughout these events, I became interested in the silent dialogues generated by the spatial relationships between the meditators, the room, and the objects within the space. I documented this process by means of photos, journals, and interviews with the visitors.

Coming soon: the Sharing silence retreat

In October 2018, I will realize my artistic part, which is an essential step in my doctoral research. This production will consist of a ten-day meditation retreat, happening on the stage of the entrance hall of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki. Throughout the retreat, I will take the vow of silence, I will meditate about ten hours a day, and I will sleep in the school. People passing by will be invited to enter the space, to sit, rest, and join the meditation at any time of the day, for as long as they want. Before and after the ten-day retreat, I will organize two opportunities for verbal sharing with all interested people.

Part of my research-data will consist of my recollection of the experience. Furthermore, I will ask some questions to a small group of volunteers who will share my retreat more closely by visiting the space daily. They will write a journal. Another part of the data will come from the feedback of the visitors in the meditation retreat. I will collect their feedback by means of a free-form guest book. This live installation will illuminate the artistic and social inferences arising from displaying a meditation retreat in a public space.

The Sharing silence retreat will happen from 22nd to 31st October 2018, at the Theatre Academy of Helsinki (Haapaniemenkatu 6). All interested people are invited. If you want to chat with me, please come to the Theatre Academy on 21st October at 12:00 for the introductory meeting, and on 1st November at 12:00 for the conclusion!

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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Retreat in Noormarkku – part five

Friday, 4 August 2017

Just before leaving for my retreat to Noormarkku, a dear friend of mine – a Vipassanā meditator herself – told me: “Try not to go too deep, when you are there!”. She spoke out of her friendly care, knowing me well enough to imagine what kind of challenges I might face.

One thing is to take a proper Vipassanā retreat, scrupulously following the prescribed routine: that rigid structure works like a life jacket, allowing the meditator to dive deep into the practice without danger of drowning. A totally different thing is to jump into a free-style retreat like this one. Here I walk an uncharted territory. I have to be careful not to dig too deep without first exploring the surface.

When I arrived here, my only plan was to meditate and write. Little by little, some routines developed by themselves, out of my needs and interests. For example, I noticed that it is easier for me to meditate in the morning. Therefore, I sit three hours in the morning and only one hour before going to bed. I decided to commit to a daily minimum of four hours. Yet, it is up to me to choose if meditating the three morning hours in a row, or to take breaks in between.

I write a lot. Maybe too much, because in the evening I feel almost exhausted. On the other hand, one of the reasons I came here was to improve my writing. My overworking is a reaction to this unusual freedom: in my everyday life I never have so much time for just writing.

However, in these days I experienced a little conflict. Meditation centres me into my body, releasing physical and mental knots, while writing brings me into my head, where I dwell in intellectual reflection. If I write too much, I produce other knots and tensions in my body and in my mind. In fact, when I meditate after a whole day of writing, thoughts continue to haunt me in my head, and I constantly loose my focus and balance.

Initially, I naively thought meditation and writing to be two counterbalancing polarities: the first being the tool for insight; the second being the tool for self expression. I thought they might be like inhalation and exhalation in breathing: you go in with meditation, then you come out through writing. Meditation can be a way for reaching your core. Writing can be the tool for sharing your insights. I still believe in this theory, but I think my mistake was to match the two practices in the wrong proportions.

Paramahansa Yogananda advises: “If you read for an hour, write for two, pray for three, and meditate all the time!”. This sentence encourages spirituals seekers to prioritise intuitive wisdom over devotion, devotion over reason, reason over intellectual knowledge. I know for a fact that other spiritual teachers disagree, and put for example devotion over insight, but I will not enter in this debate now. What counts for me is my experience of these days. I think I squeezed my rational brain too much – there I should listen to my friend’s advice of not going too deep! But I still have the chance to reverse the proportion of the writing-meditating time in favour of meditation. Or maybe I will just take an extra walk, a few more pictures, who knows…

You know when kids start playing together without any premeditated setup? Play just triggers spontaneously. Eventually, some patterns emerge, a few rules get defined, but the atmosphere remains open to changes and surprises. Similarly, my experience in Noormarkku is like being a child, playing with the countless possibilities of shaping and reshaping this artistic and spiritual retreat.

I am aware that entangling artistic research with my spiritual path is a delicate business. I really want to take care not to loose myself in dangerous depths. I trust my experience and sensitivity. I trust that if I keep it playful, I will give myself time to get more acquainted with the ‘surface’ of such a mysterious land. But at times you just cannot avoid it. Depth reaches you unexpectedly. As my favourite Italian actor Roberto Benigni says, speaking about the masterpiece “La Commedia” by Dante Alighieri: “Nothing is deeper than surface!”.

 

Retreat in Noormarkku – part two

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Second day as a monk in Noormarkku. As I wake up, a sunny morning welcomes me back to consciousness. The thought of taking a walk in the woods is tempting, but I am even more excited of visiting my ‘inner garden’ right away. I sit on the soft bed, ready to meditate. For a while, I give a look around. The wallpapers provide an improbable decoration of pink leaves, which makes me feel I am having a retreat in the bedroom of Grandma Duck.

Usually, prior to the practice of Vipassanā, I spend some time with Ānāpānasati: mindfulness of breathing. Mindfulness of breathing is a concentration technique common to many spiritual traditions. Actually, before encountering Vipassanā path I did practice a technique similar to Ānāpānasati: Hong-Sau technique, in the Yoga tradition of Paramahansa Yogananda. As Ānāpānasati prepares the mind to Vipassanā, Hong-Sau precedes the practice of Aum meditation. In both cases, these techniques aim to focus the attention on the breathing and to calm the mind. In both techniques you have to observe your natural breath, without controlling it. There are some differences, though, which made my first approach to Ānāpānasati rather puzzling.

In the Hong-Sau technique, Yogananda invites his students to direct their gaze gently upwards, as if looking at a distant point ahead, through the eyebrows. This particular focus between the eyebrows is meant to facilitate concentration, and is depicted as the centre of divine perception.  Not to mention that this point in the forehead – known as the ‘third eye’ – is correlated to a physical location of brain and gland functions which directly impact on our mental and physical well being.

Therefore, when I heard Ānāpānasati instructions for the first time, I was concerned: the teacher S. N. Goenka taught his students to focus on the small area below the nostrils and above the upper lip. He did not actually specify the position of the eyes.

Yogananda recommended to keep the eyes half closed, or closed. I am not aware of discourses about possible benefits related to the half closed eyes, but this position clearly carries a powerful symbolism. For example, Yogananda describes guru Lahiri Mahasaya – which is portrayed with half closed eyes in his only existing picture – with the following words:

His intense joy of God-communion is slightly revealed in a somewhat enigmatic smile. His eyes, half open to denote a nominal direction on the outer world, are half closed also. Completely oblivious to the poor lures of the earth, he was fully awake at all times to the spiritual problems of seekers who approached for his bounty.

(Authobiography of a Yogi, Chapter I)

Vipassanā path seemed not to care much about these formal details. Goenka only said to keep the eyes closed, in order to avoid distractions from visual stimuli. At least, I was free to orientate my eyes as I liked. But you can imagine my suspicion when I was asked to observe my breathing through that exotic area below my nostrils instead than through the healthy and ‘scientifically supported’ third eye. Goenka explained that the smaller is the area of concentration, the sharper becomes the mind. In Goenka’s experience the area below the nostrils is particularly sensitive to the touch of the breath and to other subtle physical sensations, and allows the meditator to stay alert and focused for a long time.

I could not avoid a mental link, even though improper, with a discourse by Yogananda’s guru: Swami Sri Yukteswar. Yukteswar used to laugh at an ancient misunderstanding of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras, precisely on the passage describing the focus of the attention in meditation. Yukteswar said that some Yogis misinterpreted the Sanskrit expression for ‘root of the nose’ – i.e. the ‘third eye’ – and intended it as ‘tip of the nose’: a wrong translation, which gave birth to a habit still in vogue nowadays among some yogis, who eventually find beneficial to stare at their nose and meditate with crossed eyes… No need to say, this was not Goenka’s teaching either.

Coming back to Ānāpānasati, the most relevant difference from Hong Sau technique was that I did not have to mentally verbalize any mantra, nor to practice any form of visualization. While in Hong Sau technique you mentally chant the sound ‘hong’ throughout your inhalation, and the sound ‘so’ throughout your exhalation, Goenka’s teaching did not support this practice. Goenka affirmed that mantras and visualizations have the effect of calming the mind more quickly, but this happens only at the surface level, since the attention is carried by images or sounds which are inducted. Furthermore, the repetition of specific sounds has the power to quiet the stream of thoughts. Even though this temporary change of frequency might feel beneficial, it alters the natural status of the meditator. In the long run, you might miss the chance of observing your own true nature. Whether Goenka’s opinion is true or not, I gradually came to love his approach. The freedom from mental chanting allowed me to better focus on my natural breath. To accept it as it is. I cannot say that it is more difficult to calm the mind without mental verbalization or visualization. For me the simplicity of Ānāpānasati was a relief: I am not good at multi-tasking.

After my first ten-day Vipassanā course, I was curious to investigate what the different Buddhist schools say about the posture of the eyes in meditation. By my surprise, Zen and Tibetan Buddhist meditators prefer to keep their eyes open, in order to avoid daydreaming. A Tibetan Buddhist Lama, furthermore, told me that according to your level of energy, you can change the orientation of your gaze: if you feel tired, better to look upwards in order not to fall asleep; if you are in balance, look straight; if you are overexcited, look downwards for calming down.

The more I researched on this topic, the more I realized that there is such an amazing variety of teachings that it makes no sense to look for the ‘correct’ tradition. Each version of mindfulness of breathing presents unique specificities, which are supported and corroborated by the experience of generations of meditators.

Today I humbly started my morning meditation with Ānāpānasati. The technique is simple; the practice is not easy. It is all about awareness. And considering that I am the one who just a few days ago mindlessly threw a pair of dirty socks into the WC – maybe I believed the washing machine reincarnated into a new form – well… no matter which technique I practice, the texture of my awareness seems to be in need of special maintenance!

 

Silent Christmas

When I first announced that I will spend my Christmas holidays in silence, some friend of mine commented: “ah, this year you are going to skip Christmas!”. “Actually – I replied – I feel like I am getting closer to its true essence!”. After such a profound journey, I start believing that my guess was well founded.

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The main reason which brought me to such a choice was not any intentional provocation towards the social or commercial aspects of Christmas festivities. In fact there were many people I would love to visit. Living abroad, I have rare opportunities to spend time with my family and old friends, for example. Yet, after a depression and a rather turbulent year I came to the conclusion that my priority was to encounter myself first.

On 18th December I secluded myself in my own 22 square meter apartment, where I meditated ten hours a day, determined to stay there till the 27th. I followed the exact structure of a ten-day-Vipassana retreat, as hold in the tradition of S.N.Goenka: I woke up at 4 a.m., meditation began at 4:30, throughout the day there were some breaks for resting, one pause for breakfast and one for lunch, no dinner, no reading, no writing, no communication with the external world and meditation ended every day at 9 p.m. I had agreed in advance with a dear friend of mine that she would enter my apartment a couple of times throughout the ten days in order to leave some food supplies in my entrance lobby. I gave her a copy of my keys and I would keep the door of my room closed, so we will avoid any kind of interaction.

In the beginning I felt a bit distracted by the fact that I was in my own apartment, but after the first day my home became a neutral space which at times I started to respect like a temple or a meditation centre. The daily routine of cleaning, cooking and washing dishes helped me to feel the care towards the place and towards myself too, as if I were at the same time the participant in the retreat and the ‘loving servant’ of this participant.

I was expecting to meet the same painful mental struggle I had encountered three years before, when I first attended a Vipassana course. At that time, I was coming from years of daily practice of Kriya Yoga as taught by Paramahansa Yogananda. The encounter with Buddhist tradition and in particular with Vipassana technique put in crisis many of my own believes and dismantled my previous understanding of meditation. After three years, I realize now how much that experience has brought me to develop a spirituality more practical and ‘grounded to earth’.

This time I had no spiritual nor religious conflicts. Furthermore, after the first two days of retreat, I noticed that I was much more fit to sustain ten hours of meditation a day than I was the first time: my daily training in Vipassana throughout three years had given some fruit. On the other hand, another kind of inner battle had started: memories from my past reached my consciousness one by one, showing open wounds that I never dared to face, people I had hurt, obsessive attachments to persons and things, and so on… The more my meditation proceeded, the more I unfolded layers of emotional nods: I understood that anything I do or think is bound to leave marks in me, and no matter how deeply I have been able to hide it, whenever I start to investigate myself everything comes out.

On the fourth day of my retreat I began to feel tired of meditating and in the afternoon I had a moment of discouragement: many days were still ahead and my disturbing thoughts were not leaving their grasp on me. I was afraid of being overwhelmed by negative thinking and getting back to depression: the nightmare of my dark days was still vivid in my memory, after one year. In the exact moment when I was about to quit my sitting posture, I heard the keys of my friend opening the entrance door: she had brought some food, for the first time, and with discretion she left. I suddenly was energized: the feeling I was not alone gave me strength and I stayed in my meditation. I remembered that my mother and another couple of friends of mine had promised to meditate throughout my ten days: I was actually sharing silence with others!

The sixth day was probably the most challenging for me: I woke up with the flue and at the same time I started to lose the purpose of my effort. I was physically and mentally weak, tormented by the ‘ghosts’ of persons with whom I had had turbulent relationships in my recent past and obsessively worried of my coming responsibilities. I felt stupid at spending my days sitting with closed eyes, just observing my bodily sensations. Yet, I was aware that it could be a risky mistake to interrupt the process in the apex of my crisis and – patiently accepting the discomfort – I remained faithful to my schedule. The day after I felt better already. On the ninth day everything made sense, finally: Vipassana had become a training in letting go. Instead of fighting my past or fearing my future, instead of craving for dreams which are gone or are not yet, day by day I became able to accept the much simpler and safer reality of the present. I learned to forgive myself.

Then it came Christmas. My friend had left a special dish for my lunch, with such a delicious recipe that I have not been able to refrain my mouth from saying out loud: “Wow!”. That was the only time I broke the vow of silence. Another funny happening: I used to light a few candles in front of my ‘pluralist’ altar, where you can find Buddha, Christ, Yogananda and a few other inspiring examples of goodness and compassion. Believe it or not, till the day of Christmas the last light to consume and fade was always Buddha’s. From Christmas on, it was Christ’s…

On the tenth day, after about one-hundred hours of meditation, I definitely felt lighter and brighter. I spontaneously started to send loving thoughts to all my beloved ones, to all the people, to all the world. It was clear to me that I had not worked for my own sole benefit, but I had created the condition for being a better person among the others. The most surprising happening was that I could not stop thinking of all the people I had met in my life, and I believe I have recalled the most of them: I remembered of the woman in the supermarket I used to go when I was three years old, another woman I involuntarily insulted on the tram when I was three and a half, a bus driver, the neighbour I had when I was two and a half, the nightmares connected with my own birth, my first kindergarten and the workers in it, my primary school, and so on till the present moment, including the closest persons in my life.

According to Vipassana retreats-schedule, the tenth day is dedicated not only to the practice of Metta – or loving compassion towards others – but it has the important role of smoothening the passage from the retreat discipline to daily life. Usually it is the day when silence is broken and it is possible to chat with the other meditators. Since I had no one to talk with, I chose to open a book. I opened the Dhammapada, which collects the sayings of Buddha. Inside the book I found the Christmas card that my grandmother wrote me in 2010, just two years before she passed away. I felt she had been with me too, throughout the ten days. And at 9 p.m., after my last meditation, my retreat ended and I decided to have a short walk out of my apartment. I went to the forest close by. I climbed to the top of a small hill, where I could see the sky. It was full of stars. The first constellation I saw it was Orion: the same constellation that my grandmother pointed at me once, saying “whenever you will see it, I will be looking at it too and our sights will meet!”. I came back home with tears in my eyes. And a smile in my heart.

On 28th December I opened my door to the few friends which had supported me with their meditations and with food. We meditated one hour together. It was a blissful moment when we all hugged and smiled at each other, feeling closer than ever.

One week is gone already and I feel that a huge peaceful revolution has started in me. I cannot affirm to be a different person now, even though I am not the same of before neither. We change all the time and I hope I did change for the better. For sure, I have found some new direction for working on myself. I offer my modest effort to the ocean of life, aware that many other spiritual seekers are at work right now to improve the world by improving themselves. Once I would have loved to think of my enterprise as an extraordinary event. Today I simply can say it was the most unique and holy Christmas in my life, so far.

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Inner energy: true or false?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hermits in Progress – 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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Isolation in spiritual organizations and experiential ecumenism

The topic of this article is very dear to me. I have been passing through isolation several times in my life, in religious and spiritual contexts very far from each other: Catholic Church, Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF – founded by Paramahansa Yogananda, the renowned Hindu guru who brought Kriya Yoga to the West) and Goenka’s Vipassana-organization (inspired by the teachings of Buddha).

 
It is important to say that in each one of these environments, I have been spending years of dedication, attempting to put into practice and worship all spiritual principles, traditions and meditative practices they were promoting. In one of my previous posts, “Rosary Prayer, Kriya Yoga and Vipassana meditation – comparing experiences”, I have been describing some of the benefits related to the meditation-techniques I have been following in these three different spiritual paths. Now I will focus on more uncomfortable aspects related to my experience, knowing that many other people are living similar struggles: I hope my honest sharing will be beneficial to those persons who, like me, have been living isolation in spiritual organizations, but still believe there is a great treasure behind the controversial side of every walk.

 
When I decided to deepen my understanding of Catholic religion, I took the commitment to go to the Holy Mass every Sunday, to pray morning and evening about one hour per time, regularly attending the confession-sacrament, giving time for welfare, and I began to study and practice Christian mysticism. I became a fan of Rosary-prayer, in particular. Yet, being myself baptized also in the SRF, I felt the wish to keep alive the Yoga-side of me as well. I felt Christian tradition was lacking in practices exploring the connections between body, mind and energy. Furthermore, I could not take many teachings of the Church literally, especially dogmas, which were dramatically cutting off with my Yoga-background without creating any opportunity for a fair dialogue.

 
Catholic Church is very complex. There are still lot of suspects towards eastern meditation-techniques, in particular connected to the fear that they are too much related to their own specific religious/philosophical background to be acceptable in Christian environment. Yet, things are rapidly changing and throughout all my life I have met many priests, nuns and monks not only open-minded towards oriental philosophies, but practicing eastern meditation-techniques themselves. In their own Christian spiritual path, they could receive great benefits from such practices: Yoga and Zen meditation, for example, were considered by them as “treasure of humanity”. Recently, Pope Francis wrote: “The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs.” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 254)

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Despite of such bright personal attempting of shaping Church into a more inclusive system, the institution is still far away from being that universal nest (= Catholic) which welcomes all human beings without generating exclusion or distinctions in different classes. I remember, in my childhood, the feeling of being all the time very careful in expressing my own beliefs: at the age of eight I had to stay out of my class of Catholic religion, together with a Jehovah’s Witness –boy, since I explained that I believed in reincarnation. It is interesting to notice that reincarnation was a normal option in Christian faith, as it is still nowadays in some Islamic environments, till the second council of Constantinople (537-555), when for political reasons the Catholic emperor Justinian encouraged the condemning of Origen doctrines about reincarnation as heretical. Origen was, at those times, one of the most respected fathers of ancient Church.

 
I had to be even more careful when explaining my Yoga-meditation practices in Catholic environment: if I did not meet the right persons, it was easy to start never ending quarrels… which often ended up, among boys of my same age, with the stigma of being labelled as the “odd one”.

 
Another crucial theoretical “heresy” I was afraid to share openly was that I did not believe that Jesus was the only Son of God: Christ was, not Jesus. According to the Gospel, the Logos (the Son of God) was before this universe was shaped, he spoke through prophets, he fully embodied himself in Jesus. I believed the same Christ, which is one, spoke through prophets of all religions and embodied into many “avatars” (incarnations of God) of the world: Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Lao Tsu, … Jesus’s awareness was so profound that he could identify himself with the only Christ, and he could say aloud: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John, 14,6). As well as Krishna could affirm: “I am situated within the heart of all living entities. I am the beginning, the middle and the end as well of all living entities” (Bhagavadgita, 10,20). Therefore, Christ is the “true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John, 1,9), and it is potentially abiding in every one’s heart. By following one “avatar”, you are attuning yourself with the only Christ.

 
When I got married, then, the restriction of not being allowed to use contraceptives did complicate our sexual life quite a lot.

 
After about eight years of daily Christian meditation and seldom Kriya-Yoga practice (in secret and full of sense of guiltiness), my divorce put me in front of a choice: continuing of being an active member of Catholic Church, with the limitation of not being allowed to eat the Holy Bread and therefore being officially labelled as a public sinner, or looking for a place where I could feel fully accepted for what I am. I was not worried of preserving my honour, but I took such a challenge as an opportunity to come out from the hypocrisy of denying my Yoga-background and beliefs. Without any act of definitive cutting with Church, I just choose not to become a victim of it. I took distance.

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I decided to deepen my Kriya Yoga –practice and to become an active member of Self-Realization Fellowship. The founder Paramahansa Yogananda preached that Yoga is for all, no matter race, nationality, religious background. And his own religious sense was so wide that it embraced all faiths: I felt I could breathe again. Unfortunately, SRF was not recommending to practice other meditation techniques but Yogananda’s.
The motivation for such a restriction sounded reasonable.

 
SRF was teaching that: “Steadfastly following a single path and applying its prescribed methods will take you most quickly to your Divine goal. Once you receive the Hong-Sau and Aum Techniques, we recommend that you concentrate on them (rather than concurrently using techniques of other paths) in order to reap the highest results from your practice. Students who are already following a given faith may of course continue to participate in such forms of worship they wish.” (SRF – Answers to frequently asked questions, 7)

 
But what to do if my Catholic faith already provides other meditation techniques, such as Rosary-prayer, Ignatian meditation, contemplation and so forth… and what if you sincerely experience that such techniques are actually helping each other and they are not working “concurrently”? Once, a SRF –monk told me “life is short and you are free to choose how to employ your own time in the best way”, encouraging me to choose whether to continue my Rosary-practice or to fully commit with Yogananda’s techniques. That made me feel guilty every time I was praying Catholic Rosary, or practicing some Christian contemplation-exercise. My own experience was telling me that I was doing right, but I felt guilty, deprived of the support of a group or of a competent spiritual father, capable to understand me.

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SRF then adds that the highest and best technique taught by Paramahansa Yogananda is Kriya Yoga: the quickest method to attain union with God, since it works straight with life-energy, which is the intelligent dynamic power underlying universe. But if you wish to take that step, you have to abandon other religious practices: “Those students who wish to dedicate themselves wholly to the Self-Realization Fellowship path may formally take this step by receiving Kriya Yoga” (SRF – Answers to frequently asked questions, 7). In practice, you may continue to attend other religious practices and being member of SRF, but you will have no access to the “pearl” of Yogananda’s teachings, as well as in Catholic Church I could still be integrated as a public sinner, without access to the “body of Christ”.

 
Furthermore, I realize now that Yoga-philosophy contributed to exasperate my conflicting relationship with sexual sphere: how not to feel guilty of wasting life-energy, every time you have sex?

 
Anyway, I just continued to practice Kriya Yoga regularly, two hours a day, throughout two years more.

 
Then I had a twelve-day-break, when I attended a Vipassana-course, as a part of my artistic research during my Master Degree Programme in Theatre Pedagogy. I was exploring silence as a space of dialogue between art and spirituality, and a friend of mine suggested me to participate to such an intense silent retreat. Vipassana-technique, as taught by S.N. Goenka, is based on mere observation of real body-sensations, and eventually, of their deriving thoughts. No pranayama (breath-energy exercises), no mantras (inner chanting or praying), no visualization. No God.

It has been a shock, but also a great relief, to meet such a neutral spiritual technique. I did not feel perfectly comfortable, since the lack of pranayama-techniques was confusing all my ideas about meditation and the lack of prayer was cutting my spontaneous attitude of connecting to my deepest Self and to the heart of all others in a dialogical way. I did not understand why visualization was considered as a technique working just on the surface level of the mind. I think that imagination is a faculty as real as our own faculties of listening and observing, and it may be used as an effective tool to expand our own awareness, within and without the body: why to struggle ten days attempting to feel a sensation on my hand without imagining my hand, when, just by mentally visualizing it I am capable to bring my attention there immediately, and therefore feeling all sensations in that area? Another doubt was that, even though pranayama was not mentioned as being part of Vipassana-technique, Taoist masters wrote in many books that “wherever there is awareness, there is Ch’i”, that is to say: prana, life-energy, concentrates wherever I focus my attention. And actually the training in passing my awareness systematically throughout all my body, was producing a spontaneous flow of vibrating subtle sensations running up and down, and I was wandering if Vipassana-teachers were just avoiding to label the theory of inner-energy in order to remain grounded on the mere objective phenomena of perceiving specific subjective sensations.

 
Yet, I felt such a technique was integrating some aspects of meditation that were not so much enlightened by Christian or Yoga tradition: a pure contact with reality, purified from the forms (and the poetry) of specific religious theories, a kind of mystical way non-dialogical with invisible realities, but digging into the depths of our own body-mind. I got the impression that I found something extremely important to improve my meditation, something that helped me to perform better also the other contemplative techniques which were still in my own background.

 
I practiced regularly Vipassana-meditation two hours a day throughout two years, “refreshing” every now and then my other techniques: as an art-pedagogue, in my workshops and classes I make use of concentration, meditation and contemplation –techniques. I have also to be ready to encounter new spiritual practices, in order to better understand my brothers and sisters coming from other religious cultures. And of course, being myself an instructor of Kung Fu, I have been practicing Ch’i Kung exercises throughout twenty years and I am currently teaching simple techniques of Taoist-meditation. That has been the tip which generated my third isolation-experience. As I had already completed one Vipassana course, Goenka’s organization was not able to accept me again to a new course, unless and until I would completely discontinue my teaching of meditation. I was not allowed to participate to other Vipassana-retreats, since I was already teaching other meditation techniques, and it was expected that I would be completely satisfied and confident with the techniques that I was teaching, and had no need to practice any other technique.

 
Unfortunately, my life-vocation is what I define “experiential ecumenism”: I will never be able to understand my spiritual fellows just by reading some books about their own religions; I must share, till a certain extent, some of their own spiritual routine, living it “from within”.

 
Now more than ever, I feel the importance of the support of a group or a spiritual father, yet I am tired of feeling guilty of “ruining” or “delaying” my attainment of the final goal, whether it would be union with God, enlightenment, freedom, salvation, peace, bliss, love… just because life enriched me with the encounter of different beautiful spiritual paths.

 
It feels hard to walk alone, but at least for now, that is my way. If you, gentle reader, had the patience to read all this article, please: say one prayer for me!

 
And may God bless you!

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