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Unfolding Silence

meditation, kung fu, and artistic research

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Shaolin

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

Inner energy: true or false?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Master Roberto Fassi – in memoriam

On 12th March 2013, the great martial artist Master Roberto Fassi passed away.

FassiChangLeader in an important Italian chemical enterprise, Fassi published many best-sellers among the Italian landscape of martial arts-books, he was columnist in respected magazines of the sector, but most of all Roberto Fassi was one of the most renowned Italian masters of martial arts and one of the European pioneers of Karate, Kobudo, Kung Fu Shaolin and T’ai Chi Ch’üan.

Pupil of Master Chang Dsu Yao, Master Fassi won the first place in Honolulu-Kung Fu-world-championship in 1980, in the competition of  T’ai Chi forms without weapons. In 1991 Master Chang Dsu Yao conferred him the qualification of sixth Chieh of Shaolin Ch’üan  and T’ai Chi Ch’üan: the highest degree ever conferred to a Westerner before.

I had the fortune to participate to his workshops three times in my life: in 1996, in 2002 and in 2008.

My strongest impression has been that Master Fassi appeared to be younger and younger: his spirit was year by year fuller of the curiosity and enthusiasm of a young boy. He was an unstoppable researcher: the last time I saw him, he shared with us pupils his own last discoveries about body and mind -synergy. In his own words, he had “just began” a deep exploration of the smallest connections between physical postures and meridians. I suppose that behind the word “just” there were several decades… His excitement was contagious. He revealed us that he was working in order to fulfill the “small homework” that Master Chang Dsu Yao gave him before his own final depart: deepening his own already remarkable knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine, philosophy, martial arts-history and spirituality.

In the last decades of his life, Master Fassi developed an intense cooperation with the Jesuit Father Davide Magni and with the Cultural Foundation San Fedele of Milan (Italy), for the study and the diffusion of T’ai Chi Ch’üan as a method of meditation and prayer.

Master Roberto Fassi always emphasized the non-violent purpose of martial arts and their own spiritual potential. A typical example he loved to repeat was the explanation of the Chinese ideogram “武”, (Wu), translated as “War” or “Martial”. The Western translation sounds like a violent conflict. But the Chinese ideogram does not represent concepts of fight or competition, as it would be, for example, by painting two swords opposing each other: actually in the picture the deadly weapon, which is a long halberd, is deviated by a bare hand! Here we are, in a powerful visual synthesis, the core of the practice of martial arts: self-defence, not offence. Therefore the study of correct attacks is merely functional to the learning of efficacious defences.

But Master Fassi underlined also that the most important goal of martial arts goes much beyond the aspect of self-defence. As Master Chang Dsu Yao taught, the practitioner of Kung Fu should develop a heart like Buddha’s: all qualities of gentleness, respect, compassion, canalization and control of negative emotions, that you learn throughout your classes of Kung Fu, should blossom in your own daily life. Martial arts are meant to improve spiritual growth, and a good practitioner should behave same way in and outside the class.

The most astonishing quality of Master Roberto Fassi was, in my opinion, his own humbleness. He never showed proudness for his own successes, and he had no mercy in pointing out his own limits, smiling with compassion at his own weak points. He often repeated that he had still much work to do on himself, underlining the importance of the help of partners and friends as mirrors or reminders: the confrontation with others may bring out all those “rooms for improving” still abiding inside of us.

I wish to myself and to all my teachers, pupils and martial arts -fellows to maintain alive in us the same humbleness, the same enthusiasm and passion and the same dedication and will for growing that made out of Master Fassi the great Man he was.

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