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Gabriele Goria

meditation, kung fu, drawing, and artistic research

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suffering

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.

 

Retreat in Noormarkku – part six

Saturday, 5 August 2017

 

Today I improvised. I was forced to. My monastic routine, as I developed it throughout the previous five days, just could not work anymore. My body protested. Not my mind, because that is still half asleep. Here are the facts: the noise of the ventilation system in my room kept me awake the most of these nights. There was no way to switch it off. Unfortunately, on my last full day as a monk, I feel tired. Well, the other side of the coin is that I will not be too nostalgic about leaving, tomorrow!

This morning I had to divide my meditation into shorter slots, in order to stay focused. From there, it came the idea of alternating relaxing outdoors, short meditations, a bit of writing, and taking pictures throughout the whole day. Nothing essentially changed in my practices but their rhythm, which became more fragmented.

I reflected on the nature of this retreat. As I wrote in my previous post, some rules emerged by themselves.

For example, it just became obvious to me that I will publish my texts on my blog right after finishing them. By the end of each day, there has to be a new post. Then, I had to invent a counterbalancing rule, because the speed of this publishing procedure is also a burden, especially for an Italian author writing in English. So, I gave myself permission to adjust my writings afterwards, by midnight, like Cinderella – Cinderella did not write a blog, though! I read my posts one last time before going to bed. If some passages do not sound clear, if I spot grammar mistakes or spelling mistakes, or if I detect adulterations caused by my tiredness, or by my ‘ego’ – thing which easily happens when I write about myself – I work for making the text clearer and more honest. After midnight, what is written stays written. This is the game.

My only physical training so far consisted in long walks in the nature. I decided to give one week break to my quite hard bodily training. This helped my muscles to loosen their tension, and allowed me to sit quietly for longer periods. Well, today is an exception. My sleep deprivation forced me to adopt a creative solution…

Another delicious amusement is taking pictures. My camera is a cheap one, so the quality of the images is relatively modest. But I really try my best to offer my readers a glimpse of the landscapes I see when I walk, as well as the little details which capture my eye. All the photos I publish along with my texts must be taken on the same day, that is another rule. I like everything to be fresh!

This specific way of sharing by writing, allows me to keep my monastic isolation, and at the same time opens my journey to a potential audience. By doing so, I accidentally make a performance out of my spiritual retreat. This experiment is my first prototype of a performative retreat, and it is far from being perfect. The aim of my PhD research is to explore meditation as an artistic practice in itself. I am not there yet. But I want to believe this is another significant baby-step.

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 three

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Today is the day of all weathers. There are clouds, sun, rain, hot, cold, and sun again. I had the good idea of meditating three hours in a row, while this kaleidoscopic sky was showing off. I am not a fan of water sports, but this morning I was ready to get a free class of surfing… on the ocean of my wavy moods!

To be honest, on the last night I was worried about what I will write in my blog today. My anticipation of a writer’s block was fully justified, in my opinion. One thing is to meditate and write. Another thing is to meditate and publish my texts right away. I put myself under a remarkable pressure. On the other hand, this challenge adds a spice of excitement to my project. And a bit of fun is necessary not only in artistic but also in spiritual research.

After breakfast, I sat on my meditation cushion. My mental storm – which was in tune with the atmospheric turmoil – ceased all at once. I felt grateful and a bit surprised of my sudden calming down. One second of awareness was able to blow away several hours of preoccupations and elucubrations.

I started observing my respiration. After one hour, I shifted the focus to my bodily sensations. I was expecting to get bored or to be overwhelmed by cramps in my legs at some point, as it often occurs when I sit for longer periods. It did not happen. In some fleeting moments, I caressed an innocent and powerful joy that I recognised to be the hidden inhabitant of my true core. I wished to get closer to this peaceful bliss, but I knew I could not force it. There was something fragile and tranquil in the way my attention remained in balance. I wondered what I was doing different: it felt so natural to keep this steady calmness.

Goenka warns meditators about the stage of tranquillity – a mental condition where neither pleasant nor unpleasant, nor neutral sensations produce reactions. The main temptation in these cases is not the aversion/craving reaction, but rather the fall into ignorance. In fact, you might mistake tranquillity for the experience of Nibbāna. Goenka affirms that tranquillity is a sign that you are nearing Nibbāna, but he reminds his students that the experience of tranquillity is still within the field of mind and matter, the sensory field. You might get disappointed when you realize that your calmness is impermanent too, and this is the place where you loose all the balance.

Even so, there is no way to be sure that I approached the tranquillity Goenka talks about. Second, my spontaneous scepticism would avoid me to believe it in any case. Third, Goenka encourages his students to consider tranquillity too as ‘suffering’ or ‘unsatisfactoriness’:

The gross, unpleasant sensation is dukkha. The pleasant sensation is dukkha. And this subtle oscillation, which is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, this stage of tranquillity is also dukkha.

(Chronicles of Dhamma – Fulfilling the Teaching of the Buddha)

Coming back to my meditation, anyway, something different did happen. Throughout three hours of sitting I was not bothered by boredom. Partly, I relate my relaxed concentration to the fact that I am eating a bit less than usual in this retreat: a free stomach is known to facilitate mindfulness. But the real turnover for me was a simple thought: I reminded myself to equanimously observe boredom too.

Feelings are always somewhere in my body as clusters of physical sensations, even before my consciousness interprets them as feelings. In order to feel bored, I have to sense it somewhere in my body. It is hard to know which sensations cause boredom, since usually boredom arrives to me when I experience a lack of interest in honestly observing my sensations. This kind of boredom hides my expectation of feeling good, or maybe entertained. It hides my fear of facing myself as I am. Broken if I am broken, happy if I am happy. In the very end, this boredom comes because of my unconscious craving for pleasant sensations and aversion towards unpleasant sensations. As always in Vipassanā practice, awareness of sensations, and equanimity in observing them, are the highway towards a more profound joy. And from joy derives the ability to love fully. At least, this was my intuition today.

Once, I watched a documentary on John Cage, where the great artist reported a Zen quote:

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.

Eventually one discovers that boredom too is impermanent. When I am not aware of boredom arising, it turns into restlessness and agitation. When I observe it with awareness, boredom becomes too interesting to be boring!

 

Sitting still

In this article I will share some reflections about sitting, arisen after I attended a one-day Vipassanā course in Helsinki. These short retreats are targeted at Vipassanā students in the tradition of S.N. Goenka who already participated in one ten-day course. Throughout the one-day course, you have the chance to revise the main points of the meditation technique, and to find support and inspiration for your daily practice.

The course provided about seven hours of meditation, with pause every one hour for ten minutes, and a lunch break. My greatest surprise was to find myself able to sit in each meditation-slot without changing posture. This small achievement was actually a valuable lesson to me. As I am about to describe, I believe stillness to be the result not just of an ergonomic meditation posture, but also of a relaxed, aware and equanimous mental attitude.

The search for a suitable way of sitting has been one of my leitmotivs since I began meditating. Initially, I simply sat on a chair, with my back straight. Being myself rather skinny, my sitting bones started to hurt after a few minutes, no matter if I sat on a hard chair or on a sofa with a soft cushion under my buttocks. Other critical areas were my lower back, my shoulders, and my neck.

When I met Vipassanā meditation, I finally found a tool for dealing with whatever sensation would appear in the framework of my body – pain included! – because bodily sensations are the main object of observation in this practice. Whenever an uncomfortable sensation manifested in my body, I was taught to impartially observe it. No attachment towards pleasant sensations, no aversion towards unpleasant ones: I just had to be aware of their intrinsic impermanence.

This tool naturally helped me to sit still for longer periods. I began to sit on a cushion, either with crossed legs or in the Burmese posture, or on a wooden meditation bench in the Seiza posture. Being closer to the floor makes me feel more grounded and stable. Furthermore, when I sit with crossed legs my sitting bones do not hurt: I guess that this posture allows the buttocks’ muscles and the little fat I have to ‘fold’ and protect my bones in a more effective way…

After my first ten-day Vipassanā course, my back cramps were gone: by sitting still for many hours a day, my body had to learn to give up the grosser muscular tensions and to relax. Yet, my legs often became numb, and at times my joints got inflamed. I continued searching for a meditation posture more suitable to my bodily structure, by making small adjustments in the position of my legs and by using extra pillows as supports. My hip joints are quite tight, so I am not able to sit in the lotus. Furthermore, I have varus knees, and this seems to complicate the chances of crossing my legs comfortably.

Lately, I began to sit on a cushion, with crossed legs. The cushion lies on a thin mattress, which allows my feet to sink softly into the floor. I place two small trekking pillows between my knees and heels, in order to create space and support. My thighs rest parallel to the floor. I adopted this system in my last one-day Vipassanā course too. My posture felt very good for the first thirty minutes. Then, little by little, cramps and pain came and visit my legs, knees and hip joints. But somehow, this time I trusted that no harm would come from my sitting posture.

It took a while to realize – and to admit! – that my cramps were caused by tiny contractions in the muscles around my joints, which gradually cumulated and became more intense. I wondered how I could not spot them before, in all these years. These contractions were the physical response to my mental reactions towards various thoughts and bodily sensations. For example, it was enough for me to feel slightly bored or frustrated, for growing a sense of oppression in my chest. Out of this uncomfortable sensation, I would react with further thoughts of rebellion, and I would unconsciously begin to contract one or two muscles in my most vulnerable joints. There the physical pain would start. But the truth was that before experiencing pain, I already generated the conditions for suffering in my mind.

After this embarrassing insight, the feeling of pain became milder and much more manageable, till it faded away. The most of the time there was no pain at all. When pain came, I was able to welcome it as any other sensation. In those moments, I just let go any will to react and I allowed myself to rest in an attitude of gentle witnessing. My legs and knees felt perfectly ok after seven hours of sitting.

It is not my intent to celebrate such a temporary ‘success’. When I will sit in the next course, I might find myself in a very different place, and who knows how many times I will have to move on my meditation cushion. Yet, the goal of stillness was an important reminder to me. Any time I believe I already know how to impartially observe my body and mind, a new layer of unawareness gets pealed off. Once again, I realized how easily I can be the cause of my own suffering, as well as the key-holder of my own inner peace. 

Be still, and know that I am God.    Psalm 46, 10

In perfect tranquillity, all grief is annihilated.    Bhagavad Gita 2, 65

Know the stillness of freedom, where there is no more striving.     Dhammapada 10, 6

Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature.    Tao Te Ching 16

 

 

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