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Unfolding Silence

meditation, kung fu, and artistic research

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Martial Arts

Eternity

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Photo: Gabriele Goria

As a child, I loved to stop by my favourite shop window, and stare at the mechanic clocks displayed behind the glass. I got enchanted by the intricate choreography of dancing gears, each of them waving to a different rhythm, their pace varying according to the diameter and the function of their wheels.

This spectacle acquainted me with the sense of time. The perfect synergy of the clock mechanisms gave me the same thrill I had while listening to the performance of a skilled percussionist. Such a dynamic symphony produced the illusion of a control over the force of time. Time was not untameable: to some extent, it was possible to play with it.

Together with the fun, concerns and existential questions emerged. I wondered if my whole existence was a simple ‘passing by’. As the clocks were clicking their own way through the river of time, my thoughts and actions too, as well as my breath and heartbeat, were enchased in this same flow. Was it so, that my days on earth did come from some ethereal future, were lived in an elusive present, and instantly cast into the past?

In my teenage years, I began to look at the problem from a different angle. I imagined a state of consciousness beyond individual awareness, where each and every moment of past, present and future – including the alternative streams of possibilities – would be accessible at once. In such a place, the flow of time would be stretched into an infinite and multi-layered film, where every single bit of existence would perpetually exist and be meaningful. I named this state of consciousness ‘eternity’.

Recently, I have found myself dwelling on similar conjectures. It is not unusual that, during an intense session of meditation or tai chi, vivid memories of events of my far past emerge spontaneously from some hidden storage of my mind. When these memories reach my awareness, I do nothing. I let them be. And yet I feel lighter, as if old burdens had just been processed in a new and fresh way.

At times, intuitions bring glimpses of future to my awareness. Accurate guesses about coming events might arise. One hour of silence can also be herald of sharp ideas and projects to be realized later.

However, the core of a meditative experience is not defined by these occasional ‘side effects’. At the base of any meditative practice lies the art of being present. In my experience and understanding, when the state of ‘nowness’ is no longer just a series of single and separate dots on a timeline, but develops into a longer and continuous trait, eternity occurs.

Eternity manifests in me when a feeling of timelessness overlaps the awareness of now. Time becomes a flexible mental construct. The fear of letting go melts into a peaceful state of lightness and fulfilment. Love becomes natural and spontaneous; love and eternity belong together. The ego-led interpretations of my personal history shatter in front of an ocean of compassion. There is no need to believe that everything happens for a reason, nor to deny the meaningfulness of things. Life is purpose in itself.

I do not consider myself a great meditator. Sparks of light visit me quite rarely, and when they do, they remind me of how attached I am to my small world. This makes me humble. Yet, such fleeting intuitions encourage me to live my life a little bit more bravely.

If something very disturbing and painful occurs, I know in my heart that everything finds its place in the perspective of eternity. And when something remarkably beautiful comes to an end, I whisper to myself: “Don’t worry, let go now. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing is lost.”

Nothing is lost. Everything is written on the pages of eternity. Is this the comforting illusion – or the hope – of a romantic dreamer? If I were to meet myself as a child in front of the window of that clock-shop, would I honestly share this intuition as an ultimate answer?

Most likely, I would rather keep listening. The experience is tangible. Every single breath of life is ephemeral and eternal. Yes, I would share my silence. Time needs time for unfolding its lessons.

 

Urban Fairytale: Augmenting Reality at Korjaamo

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Urban Fairytale is a short art film written and directed by the dancer and choreographer Laura ‘Swan’ Pentzin. The work explores the themes of connection, breaking free and finding your own way.

Once again, Laura ‘Swan’ Pentzin performs with the actor and martial artist Gabriele Goria. Contemporary dance improvisation, and the traditional Shaolin double-sword form Meihua Shuang Chien come together to build a symbolic tale around the topics of  rebirth, dialogue, liberation, and self-realisation.

The choreography develops on the soundtrack ‘Higher State’, by DJ Orkidea, and the graphics are created by the motion graphic artist Hugo Kiekeben. Urban Fairytale is featured at Art Society Soho Helsinki digital exhibition: Augmenting Reality. You are warmly welcome to visit the exhibition at Culture Factory Korjaamo (Töölönkatu 51) from 18.10. to 17.11.2018.

Director/performer/costume designer: Laura ‘Swan’ Pentzin

Performer/kung fu: Gabriele Goria

Headdresses: Milliner’s Magic

Leather costume design: Burlesque Tsunami

Music by: DJ Orkidea, ‘Higher State’

Camera/editor: Janne Saukkonen

Camera: Katarina Meister

Motion graphic artist: Hugo Kiekeben

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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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T’ai Chi and I Ching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Union with what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabriele&Sergio

 

 

Ch’i – 氣 – breathing in T’ai Chi Ch’üan

 

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.  (Genesis 2,7)

Since the remotest past of humanity, breathing has been worshiped as one of the most powerful symbols of life. The Chinese “Ch’i” (氣) –term designates both the concrete concept of air/breath and the metaphysical idea of spirit/soul/life-energy. Same symbolic value is present in many other ancient languages as well: think about the Sanskrit “prana” –term, or about the connection between Finnish words like “henki” (spirit/soul), “henkilö” (person) and “hengittää” (to breathe).

It is appropriate to observe that lungs are the only semi-voluntary organ in our body: if on one hand they work uninterruptedly and automatically, on the other hand we have possibility to change the rhythm or the depth of our breath by will. That is one of the reasons why in many spiritual traditions breath is considered as the link between body and soul: breathing represents the bridge connecting conscious will together with nature-intelligence.

It is not hard to prove that there is a close interdependence between the pace of breathing and the pulse of hearth. There is also an evident connection between hearth-beat, breathing and emotions: think about the acceleration of breathing and hearth-pulse during a panic-attack and compare it with the slow and deep breath you have in a relaxing situation. As emotions affect breathing, on the other hand we have the potential to influence emotions and feelings by practicing breathing control: actors and singers know well how to affect and canalize emotional flow, by means of a sensitive use of breath.

It is not my intention to argue that we are alike machines, meant to perform radical emotional turn-overs just by playing with the joystick of our breath. What I mean is that breathing-awareness at first, and breathing-control as a second step, may improve the quality of our own daily life. Many meditation techniques are based on a preliminary training in mere observation of breathing: without applying any voluntary control on lungs-activity, simple breathing-observation has proved to be an effective tool for improving concentration, calming down emotions and mental activity. In martial arts in general, and in T’ai Chi Ch’üan in particular, such a capacity of maintaining clearness of mind and of canalizing emotional flow has a paramount importance, in order to attain body-health, ability of self-defence and, most of all, to transform the whole practice into a dynamic meditation.

In T’ai Chi Ch’üan, breathing-awareness is just the first step, essential to reach the right level of concentration and calmness. Next move is to learn how to breathe correctly.

One thing I noticed encountering different schools is that there are many “correct” breathing-techniques which differ according to the peculiarities of the discipline they are applied to. For example, Kriya Yoga-meditation, which is a sitting technique, provides short phases of apnea, while in T’ai Chi Ch’üan you have to breathe without interruptions in between inhalation and exhalation, since movements are supposed to be continuous as well. According to certain Taoist schools of Ch’i Kung the abdomen should be contracted inwards throughout inhalation, in order to allow the processes of unification and separation of pre-birth-Ch’i and post-birth-Ch’i to happen. Yet, such an action makes us extremely vulnerable in the phase of inhalation, losing the feeling of fullness within the abdominal area and in the solar plexus, and that is the reason why throughout the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’üan, which is also a martial art, such a breathing technique is not recommended.

According to the teachings of Master Chang Dsu Yao, three key-points are characterizing T’ai Chi Ch’üan-breathing:

– Deep breathing
– Continuous breathing
– Long breathing

Deep breathing designates abdominal breathing. That does not mean, as I misunderstood once, that we are supposed to become aware exclusively of the energy-flow concentrating in the low Tan T’ien (丹田, the “Cinnabar’s field”), which is an important area situated about four fingers below the navel and four fingers inside the body, related to Taoist meditation and traditional Chinese medicine. Throughout the inhalation we should not only expand the lower abdomen, concentrating attention around low Tan T’ien, but we should become aware of the sensations spreading from that point throughout the whole body, even though our intentional thought is leading the Ch’i along specific meridians. Slightly intensifying the pressure on the abdomen during the exhalation, we have possibility to increase such a sensation, consequently opening the chest, where the central Tan T’ien is located. That will cause a better lengthening of our back  and will increase the distance in between shoulder-blades too.

In T’ai Chi Ch’üan –practice the aspects of breathing and life-energy are strictly interrelated, yet, as a Westerner, I feel the need to distinguish such two concepts: if it is true that actual breath cannot join the low Tan T’ien point (lungs are not reaching such a low area in the abdomen), it is also true that it is possible to canalize the breathing-energy wherever my awareness is able to go. As a Westerner then, I have also to admit my reluctance in accepting the existence of such an invisible energy. Yet, the simple correct execution of T’ai Chi Ch’üan-breathing techniques unavoidably leads me to become aware of specific sensations arising around that area. I am aware of the flow of sensations along the body parts I am concentrating on. Master Chang Dsu Yao used to repeat: “it does not matter if you believe or not in the existence of Ch’i: you have just to behave as if it exists”. We cannot prove the existence of life-energy and I personally consider it as a fascinating and reasonable theory, attempting to explain some concrete, real effects happening in myself, clearly affected by the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’üan.

I have mentioned the low and the central Tan T’ien, but actually the other crucial point in T’ai Chi Ch’üan is the high Tan T’ien: the point situated in between the eyebrows. These three areas of the body are involved in the process of sublimation of energy, together with other points situated along the spine (corresponding to Yoga-Chakras). What I mean, is that breathing techniques used in T’ai Chi Ch’üan are dealing with same energy-channels common to other oriental practices. That is why the practice of this discipline may be helped for example by a preliminary training in simple breathing exercises from Ch’i Kung and Yoga.

Continuous breathing means, as I said, no interruptions in between inhalation and exhalation, since body movements and breathing should work in synergy. At least in Yang-schools of T’ai Chi Ch’üan, the forms should be executed without discontinuity, being each technique connected to the following technique in a regular uninterrupted flow of movement.

Long breathing means we should attain a relented breathing, as well as T’ai Chi Ch’üan –movements should be executed as slowly as possible. One temptation could be to move as slowly as possible without respecting the breath-rhythm. Another mistake could be to force our breath to become long and slow. Both solutions provide too active will, conscious effort and work, while such a long breathing should be attained by means of perfect relaxation of body and mind.

While practicing T’ai Chi Ch’üan, mind focuses at first on body movements, then on breath, then on energy and finally, thanks to the attained awareness, it expands into a super-consciousness status. According to the teachings of ancient Masters, our own Ch’i may reach such a high frequency to vibrate in harmony with Nature. If then grace assists us, in the words of Master Chang Dsu Yao, “our own Shen (神, human spirit), joins the cosmic Shen, the divine Shen. Man attains then a status of perfect harmony, since he becomes one with the Sky.

That is the reason why T’ai Chi Ch’üan may become not only meditation, but prayer.

Ching Chi Shen (2)

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