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Unfolding Silence

meditation, kung fu, and artistic research

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nuns

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.

Silence-meditation-practice 2016

Special sessions of meditation in TeaK

Dear friends,

I am glad to announce that the fourth season of ‘Silence-medtation-practice’ is open at the University of the Arts – Theatre Academy of Helsinki (TeaK – Haapaniemenkatu 6).

Since 2013, meditation teachers of different backgrounds are invited as special guests to offer free seminars to the students and the staff members of the University of the Arts, and to all interested people.

Our first guest will be Ani Sherab, Tibetan Buddhist nun, on Saturday 20th February at 14-16 in room 535.

You are all warmly welcome!

………………………………

Buddhist views answer, formally or tacitly, such basic questions as:

  • Why am I alive? Has life a purpose?
  • Why do things happen (the way they do), to myself and to the world?
  • Is there some ultimate reality or ultimate being, such as God or soul?
  • Is there life after death?
  • Was there life before this life?
  • Why are some events seemingly so unfair?
  • Is my mind just a product of my biology?
  • Are ethics simply a personal choice or is there a natural, universal ethic?
  • Who or what created this universe and its beings?

Throughout the special session we will have the opportunity to touch some of these questions or other ones, as well as do some simple meditation. 

anisherab 

Ani Sherab

Having taken nun’s vows in Tibetan Buddhist tradition over 25 years ago Ani Sherab is currently practicing in her home town Helsinki. She has spent seven years in long retreats under the guidance of eminent Buddhist lamas of Kagyu Samye Ling Tibetan Centre in Scotland. Since 1997 Ani teaches and conducts retreats in Finland.

 

 

 

Hermits in Progress – eighth retreat

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Throughout our artistic retreats, our “Hermits in Progress” – research-team had the opportunity to taste many different approaches to hermitic life. We have been living in forest, in a small chapel, in countriside, we have met hermits, monks and nuns, then we focused on creating possibilities for ascetic and artistic practices in the frame of our own average daily life.

One experience we had not faced yet was to live in the city. I mean, without a home. Our intention was to better understand the challenge of people who are forced to sleep without a roof, and to see whether the city as well, like the forest, could be transformed into a field for spiritual search if, for example, we would be homeless for one night by choice.

retreat 08 – May 2014 – homeless night

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The actual retreat was supposed to start on Saturday evening and to end on Sunday morning. By accident, I happened to anticipate the beginning of my homeless experience to the early morning of Saturday: I gave my Kung Fu -class outdoors, in a beautiful park of Helsinki, close to the sea. I trained about three hours under the sun, then I spent the rest of the day with my pupils, sitting in a sunny square in the center. I just entered my apartment once, for a few minutes, in order to pick up my jacket for the night: in May, the difference of temperature between day and night is still remarkable, especially for my made-in-Italy-body!

Yet, I immediately had to fight the coming sense of guiltiness: homeless people do not have a deposit for extra-clothes. That thought reminded myself to stay humble: I should avoid to make a “perfect” imitation of homelessness out of such a retreat and I had to learn to let go and surrender to my own limits. Throughout my spiritual search, I have learnt one thing: perfectionism is the greatest obstacle to perfection.

20140517_214455At 9:15 p.m. I found myself sitting on a rock, in a small park close to my own area. I had a terrible headache, probably because of the excess of sun I have been exposed to throughout the whole day. It was still bright, street-lights were still off, and I began to read a book I had with me. Two ducks, clearly a male and a female, appeared from behind me and stopped a few steps of distance from me. They began to eat something in the grass. I started to read again. Then a hare crossed my path. I followed it with my sight, till it disappeared behind some trees. I started reading again, but it got darker. I was not cold and I began to explore the area, in order to find a possible sleeping place for the night. I met another special guest: a hedgehog. I began to reflect that night time is the only moment when humans leave some space to other creatures for living in peace and freedom.

I actually found a nice place where to sleep, in between two trees, but it felt not safe enough: too close to human streets. I went to another park and suddenly I realized why those comfortable benches are divided by an awkward metallic armrest: so that people would not fall into the temptation of sleeping on them! Oh, nice and welcoming city! Under the warm porticoes of railway station it is forbidden to sleep, and police removes you away immediately. You cannot sleep in parks, so, where to go if you have not a roof on your head? I continued walking till I joined a small island, close to a bay of Helsinki. I found a wooden structure built on the sea which, in daytime, photographers use for birdwatching. I entered it, I sat and meditated.

20140518_014505I opened my eyes and, in the darkness of the sea, I saw two swans. I finally felt tired and I slept on the wooden bench. In the middle of the night my phone ringed: Mirre, another member of our team, was aiming to join me if I was not too far. I gave her instructions how to find me and I fell asleep again. When she arrived, we still slept for a few minutes, then the humidity of the sea entered our bones and we had to move back to the city. We walked silently and rapidly, in order to warm our bodies. We found a round square in the shape of an amphitheatre. We sat on the stairs and meditated about twenty minutes. My headache continued. Mirre felt too tired and decided to end her own retreat. I escorted her home, but I did not enter. I waited in the courtyard till she brought me a painkiller for my headache. I walked still a bit towards the center, then the weight of a full day of outdoor-life made me feel exhausted. A couple of drunk people passed by. I compared my feelings with the emotions I proved when I spent one night in the forest. In the woods, I was aware of the noises of nature surrounding me, I was afraid of wild animals but I felt safe in the arms of mother nature: in the very end, that is the place where we all come from and we have built our prisons-cities in order to feel safer. Yet, now it was clear to me that my greatest fear was not wild nature, but human beings!

In the forest everything is organically interconnected. Our bodies are supported by the life which pulses everywhere around: trees purify the air we breathe, rivers bring water we share with other creatures, we walk on soft grass, nurtured by living earth, where insects build their paths, mushrooms and roots are digging in silent communion, bird-songs embrace the whole environment and there is no clear separation between me and the rest of the world, since everything is for everybody and I am a gift to the forest as well. Wild animals have the natural tendency to respect you, if you respect them.

In the city there is separation, fragmentation and disconnection. Street-lights, commercials, cars, buildings are producing an artificial network which actually suffocates the sense of unity and kills life. Human beings get crazy and become the greatest danger you could meet.

After a moment of reflection, where I considered how humans have the unnatural tendency to humiliate themselves, avoiding their own wonderful potential to expand freely and allowing themselves to become prisoners of their own fears and destructive habits, I realized it was time to stop thinking like I were an alien from another planet. I felt a kind of empathy for my human fellows and I prayed for us. I think that many of us are sincerely trying their best to bring light into the world. Maybe we should stop trying: let’s just do it straight away!

My idealist moment passed in a few minutes and I realized that I was, maybe, too tired for philosophical considerations. My feet brought me back towards my area. I sat on the stairs of the amphitheatre once again and I just read my book till my headache ceased.

The sky was bright again when I finally came back home, at 3:45 a.m.

I had been outdoors only 18 hours, but it appeared to me like an eternity. My feeling was that I did something special and magic. I met one of my biggest challenges: staying out in the city at night. Even though I did not spend a lot of efforts in spiritual or artistic practices, I felt that there was a lot of happening inside of me. Buddhist say: Zen-mind = beginner-mind. I was indeed a beginner in such a foreign situation and everything tasted fresh and intense. I was there, present in the moment. Even while sleeping or reading, the challenging external conditions were grounding me into the actual situation.

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I happened to read that spending a homeless night is a Buddhist practice meant to develop empathy and understanding of our poorer fellows. Furthermore, it helps to develop non-attachment towards pleasant or unpleasant external conditions, reminding us that peace and happiness may be found exclusively within ourselves.

One year before, I had already been spending one night sleeping under the porticoes of the small holy town of Assisi, in Italy. Now I was in a bigger metropolis and I perceived a much more restless surrounding environment: it was not a matter of chance that the only place where I felt safe enough to fall asleep was in the nature, close to the sea. In Assisi I could easily fall asleep sharing my stony bench with another hermit and I wake up full of energy. In Helsinki I was afraid to fall asleep and I arrived home very tired. I could not explain to myself what I had learnt from such an experience.

And this is really curious: even though my rational mind could not put into words the meaning of such a hard retreat, when the day after I went back to work, I felt I had added a new stone of joy to my inner castle of peace and happiness.

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Hermits in Progress – seventh retreat

 

After six experiences of “self-made” hermitage, our “Hermits in Progress” -team had the opportunity to dive into a solid mystical tradition, spending one afternoon together with Catholic Carmelite-nuns. It may seem a short time, compared to the one-week-retreats we developed previously, but to me this has been a shaking encounter which awakened contradictory feelings of hope and suffocation and filled me with a sense of romantic fascination.

DSC00361In the middle of a forest close to Espoo there is the only Carmelite-cloister of Finland. Throughout over 25 years a small community of nuns has been living secluded within the boundaries of such a peaceful wooden monastery. They never leave that place but for exceptional reasons and for very brief periods: that may happen once in three years . Their main activity is praying for others. The only reason for such a choice is, in their own words, their love for Christ.

After an intriguing interview with the nuns, we shared with them their evening-routine: Vespers-prayer, chanting, reading and one-hour-silent adoration.

Retreat 07 – March 2014 – Meeting hermitsDSC00364

I arrived to the place filled with memories of my Catholic period, when my favorite authors were Terèse de Lisieux, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross: the mystical spirituality of Carmelites was not unfamiliar to me. I was excited to meet people who were embodying such an ascetic path of prayer and seclusion.

Despite of my theoretical preparation, I felt overwhelmed by waves of love and joy as soon as the first nun came and welcome us in front of the monastery-door. It is hard to explain, but I believe that many persons who shared my same experience could recognize that feeling of being in front of a “living” person: the nun was full of life, in a way which looks more complete and at the same time more spontaneous and simple than our average way of being alive. It was like watching at a soul without filters, and that soul was beautiful, hilarious and extraordinarily approachable and humble. She showed us the chapel, where we spent a few minutes in silence.

Then another nun invited us into a small room, divided into two halves by a wooden banister. Behind it, the four nuns came in one by one and sat on chairs, smiling at us. They invited us to do the same: there were chairs for us as well on the other side of the banister.

DSC00367They explained that in the monastery there were only four nuns. One of them passed away a few years ago and another one went back to Sweden in order to become a hermit: “she will be my next target”, I thought…

As soon as we started talking, I realized that nuns were interested in my Catholic background. I felt locked: I could not express myself freely, for example opening the discussion towards a more ecumenical perspective. They put Christ in front of all: Christ was the center of every action, and there was no space for doubts or questioning the very base of their own belief. I felt that the depth of their own spiritual work was not balanced by a curiosity towards other beliefs. I questioned if that was fear, which avoided them to create the conditions for a fair dialogue, or maybe just ignorance.

In a way, it was a pity that such a great mysticism was so limited by the boundaries of their own religious convictions. I admired Carmelites for their own commitment, but I felt suffocated by their unidirectional belief, which put me in the uncomfortable attitude of cutting off a huge part of myself.

Yet, I must admit that their own simple presence was captivating. I perceived the power of their own provocative choice in such an outgoing, extrovert and globalized society. Their own life reminded me that my own value as a person is not necessarily related to the great things I do, but it relies more simply in the way I do what I do. The inner motivation is actually more important than the external action. Nuns live the same simple routine every day, throughout their own entire life, performing normal actions which do not put their own skills in evidence or which do not reveal any immediate utility for the rest of humanity, but that does not matter: nuns are striving to fill every single breath with love.

DSC00368I also reflected that these persons could develop a great strength by being secluded in a few squared meters, but probably they would feel lost if put into “real” big world. Yet, again, I realized that they were a perfect micro-cosmic example of everybody’s condition: maybe I feel I am a mature adult in my own society, but what if I would be eradicated from my place? Furthermore: I am so proud of my independence, but could I survive out of the ecological system of my planet?

Nuns explained that they are attempting to live each moment with the awareness of the “presence of God”. I began to reflect if such an attitude is fundamentally different from Zen attitude of living here and now. In the first case I am projected outwards, annihilating my own ego in the fire of a greater love, which is rooted in the dialogue with an invisible living presence: the Christ. In the second case my attention is turned inwards, overcoming my own ego by means of the deepening of my attention, looking for a contact with my own real Self. On the other hand, at a certain level of contemplation it is possible to perceive the presence of Christ within, while the Zen-goal of emptiness will be fulfilled by becoming fully present in the world. In both cases there is an attempting to overcome the ego. In both cases the meeting point between my real Self and Infinity relies on a positive change within myself…

This is a very hard question to be evaluated by means of theoretical comparisons. I can just say that when I met Zen nuns, they seemed to be more grounded into present real life while Carmelites were more projected towards the coming heaven. Zen nuns were developing human compassion, while Carmelite nuns were in love with the humanity of the Divine. In both cases there was a great love and care in their actions and words.

DSC00369I do not know what kind of contribution such a visit to the cloister will give to our “Hermits in Progress” –project. In my perspective, this is part of our work of encountering “real” hermits. I start to think that the research we are conducting may bring us much further than we imagined: watching at spiritual seclusion –phenomena with artistic eyes offers us the opportunity to develop more creative approaches towards ascetic practices, free from the boundaries of a specific religious philosophy.

In the past year I had the opportunity to interview two Catholic hermits. In Assisi I spent one night sleeping on the street, close to an unusual monk which was attempting to live in the same poor condition of saint Francis. Despite of the gentle approach of these hermits, I perceived a subtle proudness for their own religious belief: I felt that their wisdom vanished every time they pointed out the superiority of Christian belief compared to other spiritual traditions. Like in the case of Carmelites, they were too much “partisans”, without giving space for a fair confrontation.

DSC00375In order to facilitate a real encounter between religions, the renowned theologian Raimon Panikkar (1918-2010) suggests an approach of “interpenetration” and “mutual fecundation” and he points out three basic criteria to make that possible: honesty in the search for truth wherever you can find it, intellectual openness without biased opinions and deep loyalty towards your own tradition. He wrote that “the religion of my brother should be my religious problem as well”.

Dalai Lama added other provocative suggestions, such as:

–          Organizing meetings of academics with different religious background, discussing differences and analogies of respective traditions, in order to better empathize with each other.

–          Promoting encounters between people of different religions which had profound spiritual experiences, sharing what they could understand by means of their own practices, in order to enlighten each other in a deeper and more direct way.

–          Regular meetings where leaders of different religions may pray together, in order to facilitate mutual understanding and tolerance.

–          Encouraging people of different religions to go together in pilgrimage, visiting the holy places of each other.

–          Meditation: when inner balance is established in me, following my own spiritual tradition, I will begin to experience a natural humbleness which will better allow me to communicate with people of different religions and cultures.

Coming back to my visit to Carmelite-cloister, I think that if on one side the power of that way of living relies on the deep commitment towards its own specific mystical tradition, on the other hand the great risk of such a mono-religious worldview is fundamentalism: everything could become too black and white, right or wrong, and the inclusive intention of Christianity would end up to produce separation and exclusion. I do not say that I met such an extreme contradiction in there: the one-hour-silent adoration actually gave me a remarkable feeling of union, pacifying my mental storm. Among all those points facilitating interreligious dialogue that I listed above, I am sure that the most important suggestion is already part of the daily routine of Carmelite-nuns: meditation! But I believe that a bit of sincere curiosity towards other spiritual practices could transform such a place into a universal (=Catholic) house of prayer, where for example people like me, with a stratified spiritual background, could feel accepted for what they are and find a fuller communion with those beautiful nuns, which did not escape the world because of fear, but through seclusion are attempting to be one with each of us in the love of Christ.

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