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Gabriele Goria

meditation, kung fu, drawing, and artistic research

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Religious pluralism

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.

 

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.

Sharing silence – a public meditation retreat at the Theatre Academy of Helsinki (22-31.10.2018): call for meditators!

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Welcome to ‘Sharing silence’. This public meditation retreat is the first artistic production of my doctoral research at the Performing Arts Research Centre.

My interest is to explore formal sitting meditation as an artistic practice in its own right, as well as to understand how a public meditation retreat can contribute to this investigation. ‘Sharing silence’ rises questions about the artistic and social impact of opening a meditation retreat to a public space.

From 22nd to 31st October 2018, the stage of the entrance hall (Tori) of the Theatre Academy will host a ten-day silent retreat. The address is Haapaniemenkatu 6, Helsinki. The meditation space is for all interested people. You are welcome to join the meditation at any time of the day. Feel free to practice your meditation technique, to witness or rest. You can stay for as long as you want.

According to your needs, you can try different postures and places. If you feel like it, pay attention to your spatial relationship within the stage, with its objects and the other meditators. Before leaving, you can contribute to this artistic research by documenting your observations and feelings through writing and drawing in the ‘guest-book’.

If you wish to have a chat with me there are two opportunities for verbal sharing on the same stage: one before, and one after the ten-day public meditation retreat.

21st October, at 12:00: introductory meeting.

1st November, at 12:00: conclusion.

Retreat schedule: 22.10-31.10.2018

Here you are welcome to share silence. You can join the retreat schedule at any time, and the meditation stage is open all day long: feel free to visit the space also in other moments! However, the retreat schedule starts before the opening hours of the school, therefore the visitors will be allowed to join the retreat only from 8 am on – and in the weekend from 10 am.

4:00 am   Morning wake-up bell

4:30-6:30 am   Meditation

6:30-8:00 am   Breakfast break/rest

8:00-9:00 am   Meditation

9:10-10:00 am   Meditation

10:10-11:00 am   Meditation

11:00-12:00 noon   Lunch break

12noon-1:00 pm   Rest/walk out of the building

1:00-2:20 pm   Meditation

2:30-3:30 pm   Meditation

3:40-5:00 pm   Meditation

5:00-6:00 pm   Tea break/walk out of the building

6:00-7:00 pm   Meditation

7:00-8:00 pm   Rest/walk out of the building

8:00-9:00 pm   Meditation

9:00-9:30 pm   Rest

9:30 pm   Sleep

The school building is open at these hours:

Mon-Fri: 8am-10pm; & Sat-Sun: 10am-3pm

 

Stage design: Marianne Palojärvi

Light design: June Horton

Spiritual counselor: Henri Järvinen

On stage: Gabriele Goria

Retreat helpers: Maija Rissanen, Mirjami Heikkinen & Helena Romppanen

Sound: Kaj Wager

Camera: Jyrki Oksaharju

Photo: Evdokia Aseeva

Stage manager: Marja Zilcher

Producer: Aapo Juusti

Poster: Jaana Forsström

Special thanks: Julia Dahlberg, Outi Condit, Leena Rouhiainen, Kirsi Heimonen, Paula Kramer, Raffaele Goria, Konsta Pylkkö & Kalle Kaukonen

 

Warmly welcome!

Gabriele Goria

Questions around Vipassana

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

S.N. Goenka

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

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

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

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

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

Vipassana and Tai Chi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex and Celibacy

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

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

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

Theory and Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equanimity

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

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

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

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

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

Tolerance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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Retreat in Noormarkku – part seven (the end)

Sunday, 6 August 2017

 

One week is gone. My retreat in Noormarkku ends today. I dedicated this morning to the practice of Mettā-Bhāvanā: the cultivation of loving-kindness. Mettā is the Pali term for benevolence, loving-kindness, friendliness, amity, good will, and active interest in others. Goenka considered Mettā the culmination of Vipassanā practice. He insisted that Vipassanā meditators should always end their meditation with a few minutes of Mettā-Bhāvanā: the practice of radiating loving-kindness and goodwill towards all beings.

I am now on the bus, on my way back to Helsinki. I do not find it easy, to write while travelling. So, I will be brief. I want to thank all my readers for following my adventure. Thoughts of love and light go to each of you. I thank the Performing Arts Research Centre for making this journey possible. And all the amazing staff of Noormarkku. The food was delicious. The place was marvelous. I thank my son and my family, for being so understanding. And finally, I thank my friends-meditators from all traditions, who sat with me in spiritual communion, throughout this special week.

Tomorrow my everyday routine will start, and I will have to be fully present for my wonderful son, for my friends and colleagues, for my beloved ones. This retreat opened up new directions in my artistic research, and I feel inspired and grateful. My morning session of Mettā-Bhāvanā filled me with love, which I am still carrying within. But, you know, after you leave your meditation cushion, another kind of engagement with life is about of start. As Dalai Lama often repeats: “It’s not enough to be compassionate. We must act!”.

 

Retreat in Noormarkku – part five

Friday, 4 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Retreat in Noormarkku – part four

Thursday, 3 August 2017

 

“What’s the difference between an actor and a saint?”. I asked this question to my professor of acting when I was a student at the Theatre Academy in Italy, almost two decades ago. He seemed pleased with my thirst to link artistic sensitivity and spiritual call. He paused, then answered: “An actor says what he does; a saint does what he says”.

This sentence haunted me ever since. I analysed it grammatically, logically, metaphysically. The idea that a theatre artist might be seen as a liar, or a cheater, was hidden in those words. The saint is trustworthy, the actor tells stories. It really disturbed me. I wanted to walk a spiritual path through arts, not to become an entertainer. I wanted to inspire, to share wisdom and compassion, not to spread delusions.

Later, thanks to a few lucky encounters and to some experience earned on the field, I came to understand that on stage the actor is not asked to be real. The audience perfectly knows you are playing a role, there is no need to fake. This would mean to be a liar! The actor’s task is to be true.

Of course, truth in acting is a flexible notion, but for me it means: being fully present in my body and mind. The interpretation and the making of meaning is in the hands of the audience. My only task is to let action happen, not to make it happen. By doing so, the actor is no more the one who says what he does. He is the one who does. This revelation was a gate towards a spiritual way of inhabiting the stage.

Throughout almost twenty years, my artistic practice and my spiritual practice grew intertwined. Now I do not see myself anymore just as an actor. My exploration of meditative and artistic practices broadens all the time. When I asked that question to my professor at the Theatre Academy back in 1999, I would never imagine to find myself one day in Finland, conducting an artistic research on meditation.

The concise answer of my old teacher came back to my mind this morning, when I decided to take a picture of myself meditating on the floor. My artist-researcher mind wanted to stage my sitting place differently: I was interested in investigating what kind of spatial relationship between me, the room and the camera will arise after shifting my meditation cushion from the bed to the floor. As a meditator, furthermore, I wanted to understand how this change will affect my meditation.

The technical procedures to make this photo possible triggered a chain of considerations. In order to take the picture, I have to set up a timer to my camera. I might be in need to take several pictures, before finding the best corner and light. I decided I will not be too punctilious, since I am not a photographer, and I actually want to meditate. Yet, I did have to take more than one shot. This meant that I started meditating three times, before I was satisfied with my picture. In the meanwhile, I realized that the floor was not the optimal sitting place for me: my feet were not able to sink softly, and the blood circulation in my legs might not work well. I quit the sitting.

I thought: “If I publish this picture on my blog, I am communicating that today I did actually meditate on the floor; of course I was meditating, but only for the few moments my camera was shooting; if I publish the picture, my audience will believe that I did meditate on the floor who knows for how long: this would be a lie!”. The voice of my professor was echoing in my head: “Are you going to say what you do, or to do what you say?”. Here my creative crisis started.

What was I supposed to do with my picture? Every choice I make for communicating my research should be founded on honesty. As a Vipassanā practitioner, prior to committing to the training in Samādhi – the one-pointed concentration – and prior to cultivating the faculty of Paññā – the wisdom or insight – you have to take care of Sīla. Sīla is the purification of bodily and vocal action. Each spiritual tradition has its list of commandments about what is morally healthy and what is not. And in a post-modern society like ours, where relativity and quantum physics question any sort of absolute value, some of these rules sound absurd if not ridiculous. Yet, when you seriously undertake a spiritual path, you have to cope with the fact that these ‘rules’ are not just moral impositions, but real supports. Without the foundation of Sīla, you might remain stuck in your meditative practice for ages, without actually making any progress in terms of inner joy, freedom, and loving compassion. The fifth Sīla, in Buddhist tradition, is: do not tell lies!

So, I saw three choices in front of me: I do not use the picture and I forget about all my idea; I publish it and I explain that it was just a short rehearsal; I embrace the challenge, and I make the picture become true. I finally gathered my courage, and chose to be a scientist for once. I went for the third option. I went back to sit on the floor, ready to suffer to fulfill my experiment.

And what an embarrassing surprise was to realise that I could do it. In the end, it was not that challenging: I meditated on the floor for one hour and forty-five minutes. Only a small cramp on my left buttock caught my attention at some point. I found a posture for my legs and feet which did not disturb my blood circulation. The floor was a much more grounding experience than the bed. After the meditation I felt so inspired, that I rushed my lunch in order to come back to my room and start writing.

Today I said what I did. It was when I took the picture of myself on the floor, inspired by my visual instinct. Then I did what I said, when I went on meditating in order to make my mental vision become true. Did I behave like a saint on like an actor? I do not know where to locate myself. But I know where I see myself going. I want to be a spiritual artist. And maybe, one day, an artist of the spirit.

 

 

 

Retreat in Noormarkku – part two

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Authobiography of a Yogi, Chapter I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Silence-Meditation-Practice 2016

Special session with Catholic exorcist Father Gianni Sgreva 

Dear friends,

I am glad to invite you to the next session of Silence-Meditation-Practice at the University of the Arts – Theatre Academy of Helsinki (Haapaniemenkatu 6). Since 2013, teachers of different spiritual backgrounds are invited as special guests to offer free seminars to the students and the staff members of the University of the Arts, as well as to all interested people.

On April 30th at 13-14:30 we will have a friendly meeting with Father Gianni Sgreva, Professor in Patristic Theology and Exorcist of the Diocese of Helsinki.

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Father Gianni Sgreva will share with us some of his experiences as an exorcist in the Catholic Church, and will lead a brief meditation/prayer session. The event will be in room 702.

Warmly welcome!

 

 

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