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Gabriele Goria

meditation, kung fu, drawing, and artistic research

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Kung Fu

Fragments of God

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Photo: Gabriele Goria

A friend recently asked me to elaborate a reflection on God as a Creator. Especially in front of the compelling arguments of Richard Dawkins on ‘God’s delusion’, I feel cautious at falling into this kind of debate. However, my friend’s request allows me to look closer at my current worldview.

I share this writing as a poetic window onto my quest for a meaning, and surely not as a lecture. Like a curious child, I want to explore what I see, to create connections and to play with them, asking myself once again: what does God mean to me?

God is love. Love is an experience. God is an experience. Experience is real to the extent it transforms. God is the peace which reconciles paradox and contradiction.

God, the Father: the cosmic Consciousness beyond creation. Transcendent. The Tao. The infinite. The experience of Nirvana, or Moksha. But also the Nothing from which everything originates. The number zero.

God, the Son: the all pervading consciousness within creation, from subatomic particles to human consciousness. Immanent. The God who sleeps in the stones, dreams in the flowers, wakes up in the animals, in the humans is aware of being awake, and in the saints finds Himself again. The consciousness which realizes its full expression in a Christ, or a Buddha, bridging immanence and transcendence.  The Dharma: the order of creation, or law of nature. The Tai Chi: the archetypical Supreme Polarity, guarding the seed of duality within its oneness. The number one. But also the Wu Chi, the non-Polarity. The non-one.

God, the Holy Spirit: the Amen, the Word, that is: the conscious Sound/Vibration manifesting the Creation; the energy behind the matter. The intelligent love interconnecting the whole; the spring and the engine of creation and life. The laws of physics; the Karma: the law of cause and effect which rules the Samsara, from a cosmic scale to a human scale, to the wave-like dance of particles and anti-particles. Yin and Yang in action. The number two.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: the number three. The “three which generates the ten-thousands beings” (Tao Te Ching 42).

Creation is related to God as the body is related to the soul. The soul is both individual (atman) – to the extent a footprint, or a memory of individuality persists – and absence of an ‘I’ (anatman) – when interdependence and impermanence are found in the middle path between independence and dependence, and the soul is nothing but a pouring, a flow of consciousness constantly changing, interrelated with everything. In the same way, God is both personal – the God within me, to whom I turn and whom I listen, not in order to obtain favours, but to transform myself – and impersonal – the Being, where there is nothing to attain, where the path is the goal, where life validates itself as the sole purpose.

God happens. God is the voice whispering: why does God allow all of this? Why does God not intervene? God is me. God is the Sun reflected in thousands mirrors. Each mirror is an illusion of separation, an ‘I’ defining itself as an independent individual. God is Father, Mother, Daughter, Son, Friend, Lover. Each expression of love is a reflection of the one Love.

“The Tao which can be described by means of words is not the eternal Tao” (Tao Te Ching 1). The God you can speak about is not the true God. Words are symbols referring to an ungraspable ‘beyond’, even when they are created to indicate a very concrete object, or an experience.

But there are also performative words; expressions which form and transform. Like the sentence “I love you”, which is not a mere report, but reaches out for a connection and creates worlds of possibilities. Therefore, if “in the beginning was the Word, ad the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1,1), this Word was not a word-symbol, or a ‘finger pointing at the Moon’.

In the beginning, was the Word. I like to think that this original and almighty Word – the Amen of Christians, the Amin of Muslims, the Hum of Tibetan Buddhists, the Aum of Vedas – cannot be but one. The whisper, beyond time and space: “I love you”. And there was light.

Polar Shadows – contemporary dance encounters tai chi

Picture by: Katarina Meister

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

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

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

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

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

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!

敬禮– Salutation in Kung Fu

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Photo by: Katarina Meister

The ritual of salutation is an integral part of Chinese Kung Fu practice. The codified gestures of salutation embody the practitioner’s genuine feeling of respect towards the masters and the fellow students.

The salutation is performed at the beginning and at the end of each training session, when the practitioner enters or leaves the training space, and when she/he begins or ends any exercise. This ceremony is not meant to be a superficial formality, and is not to be understood as an obsolete routine.

Ching Li (敬禮) is the Chinese term for ‘greeting’, and literally means respect and worship. According to Confucius, the virtue of Li (禮= respect for rituals) is one of the four pillars supporting the moral and spiritual growth of a person. One of the main concerns of the early Confucianism was to re-establish social order, by forming noble and complete human beings. Together with Jen (仁= human sensitivity), Hsiao (孝= respect for parents, and cult of the ancestors), and I (義= righteousness, or the moral disposition to do good), Confucius considered Li as a tool for channelling human emotions into a constructive and positive flow.

In the context of Kung Fu – which developed under the philosophical influence of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism –, the salutation represents the external expression of an inner attitude of gratitude, worship and respect. Furthermore, this ritual works as a frame to the practice of Kung Fu, facilitating concentration. Each gesture of the salutation is synchronised with an inhalation or with an exhalation, providing an opportunity for training awareness of breath and body.

Beyond the great variety of greeting rituals, in Kung Fu there are two main salutation forms: the standing greeting, and the formal salutation ceremony on the knees. The most renowned standing greeting is Pao Ch’üan Li (抱拳禮), which can be translated as ‘greeting by holding a fist’. As mentioned above, Li (禮) means respect for rituals. This term includes the meanings of courtesy, ceremony, etiquette, and worshiping. Pao (抱) means holding, or embracing. Ch’üan (拳) means fist.

Pao Ch’üan Li is performed in a standing posture. The typical ritual wants that one hand envelops the other, which is closed like a fist. This simple action provides many variations, according to the different Kung Fu schools and traditions. In some schools the right hand holds the left fist, and in other schools the left hand holds the right fist. There are historical and philosophical reasons behind each of these variations, but I have not found a thorough exposition on this topic yet.

Other differences concern the way the hand touches the fist. For example, the hand can be straight, slightly curved, or fully closed on the fist. Furthermore, the two hands can meet at various levels of the body, from the face level to the upper abdomen level. Minor diverging details can be found also in the posture of the feet and legs, as well as in the inclination of the torso.

Master Chang Dsu Yao (1918-1992) – in whose school I have practiced Kung Fu since 1994 –  explained that the fist represents the Sun (the Yang polarity), while the other hand stands for the Moon (the Yin polarity). Therefore, Pao Ch’üan Li symbolises the union of Yin and Yang. In Chinese, the ideogram Ming (明= bright, or clear), is written by putting the Sun (日) and the Moon (月) close to each other. In my first years as a Kung Fu student, I liked to imagine that the brightness coming from the summed light of these two celestial bodies shined through the symbol of Pao Ch’üan Li.

Ming is also the name of the famous Chinese emperors’ dynasty under which the Shaolin Ch’üan – the most renowned style of traditional Kung Fu, born in the legendary Shaolin temple – reached its splendour. After the collapse of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), for a long period Shaolin monks and masters continued to side with the Ming against the Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1912), despite of the repeated destructions of the Shaolin temple. In these historical circumstances, Pao Ch’üan Li represented also a sign of identity between Ming supporters.

Another type of standing greeting is Ch’ü Kung Li (鞠躬禮), where the practitioner simply bows the upper body. Ch’ü (鞠) means to bow and Kung (躬) means body. This form of salutation is generally performed when the hands hold a weapon, and the practitioner has no possibility to put the hands together.

The formal greeting on the knees marks the beginning and the end of a training session. This salutation ritual is called Kuei Pai Li (跪拜禮), which means greeting-ceremony (禮= Li) on the knees (跪= Kuei) by bowing forward, or worshiping (拜= Pai). In the school of Master Chang Dsu Yao, this ceremony includes three bowings: one to the Heaven, one to the ancestors, and the third to the lineage of masters. The archetypical interrelation of Sky, Earth, and Human becomes manifest in these three bowings.

Once, I heard a story about Master Chang Dsu Yao, and the ritual of salutation. One day, in the period of the Chinese civil war (1927-1950), Chang was forced to fight against a warrior of the opposite faction. The two men had never met before, and stared at each other for a long time.

Then, the ceremony of salutation began. With surprise and reverence, the warriors realised they were performing exactly the same gestures. They were students of the same Grand Master!

Another interminable moment of silence followed. Finally, they performed the salutation once more, and left the field. No fight occurred.

This episode reminds me of a basic value in traditional Chinese martial arts: respect. In Kung Fu, a genuine pedagogy of respect starts with the salutation.

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Photo by: Junru Dong

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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Inner energy: true or false?

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

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

Ching Chi Shen (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hermits in Progress – 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?

 

 

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