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Unfolding Silence

meditation, kung fu, and artistic research

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teaching

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

Meditation as an artistic practice

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Photo by: Helena Romppanen

Systematical studies on meditation and spiritual practices have increased exponentially since the early ‘70s. In academic research, meditative practices are often investigated as a preparatory training for making art. For example, the performance artist and theorist Phillip Zarrilli makes use of meditation techniques in actor training for accessing and transforming the creative process. A similar approach is carried on by Naomi Lefebvre Sell in the field of dance and somatics.

In other cases, artistic practice and meditation are combined together, generating hybrid methodologies of artistic inquiry. This line of research intertwines meditation with other artistic practices in order to entangle them into a meditative or spiritual framework. For instance, the visual artist Su-Lien Hsieh focuses on the interaction between her painting practice and several Buddhist meditative techniques, such as bowings, mandalas, and breath-awareness.

There is no shortage of examples where the artistic practice itself is interpreted as meditation. The vocal artist, performer and choreographer Meredith Monk – just to mention one – openly bridges her artistic practice to her spiritual practice, drawing parallels between the Buddhist notion of dharma and making art.

In September 2015 I have started an artistic research on meditative silence – the Sharing silence project – as a doctoral candidate at the Performing Arts Research Centre of the University of the Arts (Helsinki). The Sharing silence project provides an alternative track for developing artistic research with meditation.

In contrast with the fore mentioned examples, my work recognises formal sitting meditation as an artistic practice in its own right. My research suggests that approaching meditation as an artistic practice opens alternative and more poetic ways for investigating and communicating meditative experiences. I claim that understanding meditation as a form of art relieves its load of holiness and esoteric imagery on the one hand, and counterbalances its reduction into mechanistic neurophysiological explanations on the other.

My concern is not to expose meditation to the general audience as the object of an inquiry, but to share it as a partner of dialogue in the context of performing arts and artistic research. This work raises questions about the place and the function of meditation in performing arts, in artistic research, in academic institutions, as well as in our society.

The topic of this research derives from my lifelong practice of meditative and somatic techniques such as the Kriya Yoga of Paramahansa Yogananda – which was introduced to me by my parents in my early childhood –, Shaolin and Tai Chi – which I have practiced since 1994 at the school of Master Chang Dsu Yao –, and Vipassana meditation in the tradition of S. N. Goenka – which entered my life relatively late, but had a paramount impact on my development as a meditator. Since 2012, Vipassana has become my fundamental daily practice, and therefore will be the main tool in my investigation.

Earlier experiments

At the current stage of my research, I am working around two questions, or directions. On the one hand, I want to investigate how to unfold and enlighten the artistic potential of formal sitting meditation. On a broader scale, I am researching how participatory performances can contribute to the exploration and communication of the artistic features of meditation.

My earlier experiments consisted in developing artistic technologies for exploring and communicating meditative experiences. Drawing, movement explorations, and creative writing were the tools involved in the experiments. I developed a technique for interviewing meditators, which consisted in filming the movements of the hands of the interviewed persons, who were asked to answer through hand gestures. Even though I found the outcome of these experiments interesting from the perspective of artistic pedagogy and art-making, I wanted to focus more specifically on the practice of meditation.

Therefore, I began to elaborate participatory experiments for sharing meditative silence. These events/platforms were devised for facilitating mindful experiences and creative processes within and between the participants.

In March 2017 I started the practice of meditating one hour a day in different spaces of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki. Students and staff of the school were invited to join me in silence. This experience made me realize how the simple action of sitting in stillness triggered a complex negotiation between myself, the meditative practice, the space, and the presence – or the absence – of other people. I collected feedbacks from the visitors, by means of a guest book, where people were free to write and draw.

As my contribution to the CARPA 5 symposium at the Theatre Academy of Helsinki, I further developed this experiment by installing a meditation room in the conference building, and inviting participants to share silence. Throughout these events, I became interested in the silent dialogues generated by the spatial relationships between the meditators, the room, and the objects within the space. I documented this process by means of photos, journals, and interviews with the visitors.

Coming soon: the Sharing silence retreat

In October 2018, I will realize my artistic part, which is an essential step in my doctoral research. This production will consist of a ten-day meditation retreat, happening on the stage of the entrance hall of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki. Throughout the retreat, I will take the vow of silence, I will meditate about ten hours a day, and I will sleep in the school. People passing by will be invited to enter the space, to sit, rest, and join the meditation at any time of the day, for as long as they want. Before and after the ten-day retreat, I will organize two opportunities for verbal sharing with all interested people.

Part of my research-data will consist of my recollection of the experience. Furthermore, I will ask some questions to a small group of volunteers who will share my retreat more closely by visiting the space daily. They will write a journal. Another part of the data will come from the feedback of the visitors in the meditation retreat. I will collect their feedback by means of a free-form guest book. This live installation will illuminate the artistic and social inferences arising from displaying a meditation retreat in a public space.

The Sharing silence retreat will happen from 22nd to 31st October 2018, at the Theatre Academy of Helsinki (Haapaniemenkatu 6). All interested people are invited. If you want to chat with me, please come to the Theatre Academy on 21st October at 12:00 for the introductory meeting, and on 1st November at 12:00 for the conclusion!

敬禮– Salutation in Kung Fu

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Photo by: Katarina Meister

The ritual of salutation is an integral part of Chinese Kung Fu practice. The codified gestures of salutation embody the practitioner’s genuine feeling of respect towards the masters and the fellow students.

The salutation is performed at the beginning and at the end of each training session, when the practitioner enters or leaves the training space, and when she/he begins or ends any exercise. This ceremony is not meant to be a superficial formality, and is not to be understood as an obsolete routine.

Ching Li (敬禮) is the Chinese term for ‘greeting’, and literally means respect and worship. According to Confucius, the virtue of Li (禮= respect for rituals) is one of the four pillars supporting the moral and spiritual growth of a person. One of the main concerns of the early Confucianism was to re-establish social order, by forming noble and complete human beings. Together with Jen (仁= human sensitivity), Hsiao (孝= respect for parents, and cult of the ancestors), and I (義= righteousness, or the moral disposition to do good), Confucius considered Li as a tool for channelling human emotions into a constructive and positive flow.

In the context of Kung Fu – which developed under the philosophical influence of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism –, the salutation represents the external expression of an inner attitude of gratitude, worship and respect. Furthermore, this ritual works as a frame to the practice of Kung Fu, facilitating concentration. Each gesture of the salutation is synchronised with an inhalation or with an exhalation, providing an opportunity for training awareness of breath and body.

Beyond the great variety of greeting rituals, in Kung Fu there are two main salutation forms: the standing greeting, and the formal salutation ceremony on the knees. The most renowned standing greeting is Pao Ch’üan Li (抱拳禮), which can be translated as ‘greeting by holding a fist’. As mentioned above, Li (禮) means respect for rituals. This term includes the meanings of courtesy, ceremony, etiquette, and worshiping. Pao (抱) means holding, or embracing. Ch’üan (拳) means fist.

Pao Ch’üan Li is performed in a standing posture. The typical ritual wants that one hand envelops the other, which is closed like a fist. This simple action provides many variations, according to the different Kung Fu schools and traditions. In some schools the right hand holds the left fist, and in other schools the left hand holds the right fist. There are historical and philosophical reasons behind each of these variations, but I have not found a thorough exposition on this topic yet.

Other differences concern the way the hand touches the fist. For example, the hand can be straight, slightly curved, or fully closed on the fist. Furthermore, the two hands can meet at various levels of the body, from the face level to the upper abdomen level. Minor diverging details can be found also in the posture of the feet and legs, as well as in the inclination of the torso.

Master Chang Dsu Yao (1918-1992) – in whose school I have practiced Kung Fu since 1994 –  explained that the fist represents the Sun (the Yang polarity), while the other hand stands for the Moon (the Yin polarity). Therefore, Pao Ch’üan Li symbolises the union of Yin and Yang. In Chinese, the ideogram Ming (明= bright, or clear), is written by putting the Sun (日) and the Moon (月) close to each other. In my first years as a Kung Fu student, I liked to imagine that the brightness coming from the summed light of these two celestial bodies shined through the symbol of Pao Ch’üan Li.

Ming is also the name of the famous Chinese emperors’ dynasty under which the Shaolin Ch’üan – the most renowned style of traditional Kung Fu, born in the legendary Shaolin temple – reached its splendour. After the collapse of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), for a long period Shaolin monks and masters continued to side with the Ming against the Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1912), despite of the repeated destructions of the Shaolin temple. In these historical circumstances, Pao Ch’üan Li represented also a sign of identity between Ming supporters.

Another type of standing greeting is Ch’ü Kung Li (鞠躬禮), where the practitioner simply bows the upper body. Ch’ü (鞠) means to bow and Kung (躬) means body. This form of salutation is generally performed when the hands hold a weapon, and the practitioner has no possibility to put the hands together.

The formal greeting on the knees marks the beginning and the end of a training session. This salutation ritual is called Kuei Pai Li (跪拜禮), which means greeting-ceremony (禮= Li) on the knees (跪= Kuei) by bowing forward, or worshiping (拜= Pai). In the school of Master Chang Dsu Yao, this ceremony includes three bowings: one to the Heaven, one to the ancestors, and the third to the lineage of masters. The archetypical interrelation of Sky, Earth, and Human becomes manifest in these three bowings.

Once, I heard a story about Master Chang Dsu Yao, and the ritual of salutation. One day, in the period of the Chinese civil war (1927-1950), Chang was forced to fight against a warrior of the opposite faction. The two men had never met before, and stared at each other for a long time.

Then, the ceremony of salutation began. With surprise and reverence, the warriors realised they were performing exactly the same gestures. They were students of the same Grand Master!

Another interminable moment of silence followed. Finally, they performed the salutation once more, and left the field. No fight occurred.

This episode reminds me of a basic value in traditional Chinese martial arts: respect. In Kung Fu, a genuine pedagogy of respect starts with the salutation.

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Photo by: Junru Dong

Questions around Vipassana

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

S.N. Goenka

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

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

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

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

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

Vipassana and Tai Chi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex and Celibacy

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

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

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

Theory and Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equanimity

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

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

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

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

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

Tolerance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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Sharing silence – an artistic research on meditation

How can meditation be understood as an artistic practice? How does meditation affect the surrounding environment, as well as the inner space of participants and witnesses? What is the line of demarcation between ‘exposing’ meditation and ‘sharing’ meditation?

This article summarises the artistic experiment on meditation I conducted at the end of my second year of doctoral studies at the Uniarts Helsinki’s Performing Arts Research Centre, Theatre Academy (Tutke). My research originates from my practice of Vipassanā meditation, in the tradition of the Burmese teachers Satya Narayan Goenka (1924-2013) and Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971).

As taught by Goenka, Vipassanā consists in the systematic and non-judgmental observation of physical sensations throughout the body, while sitting quietly with the eyes closed. Differently from meditation techniques which aim to block the distractions of senses and thoughts – in order to transcend the ‘material world’ – Vipassanā encourages an intimate encounter with the body/mind reality. Paradoxically, the more the meditator observes her/himself, the more the dualistic separation between inner world and external environment fades into an experience of interconnectedness.

On March 27th2017, 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 – as well as external visitors – were invited to join me in silence. They were allowed to stay as long as they wanted. They were free to quietly witnessing, or to meditate with me. Before leaving the space, the participants had the chance to leave a comment by writing or drawing, or by any other means they found suitable for better expressing themselves. On May 4th, the Sharing silence –experiment arrived to its conclusion. New developments of this artistic format will be elaborated throughout the next school-season (2017/2018).

This work intends to develop platforms where to explore the artistic features of meditation. My concern is not to ‘expose’ meditation to the general audience as the object of an inquiry – as it happens for example in the current landscape of neuroscientific researches on the topic – but to ‘share’ it as a partner of dialogue, in the context of performing arts and artistic research. I claim that approaching meditation as an artistic practice opens alternative and more poetic ways for investigating and communicating meditative experiences.

The experiment

Because of the intimacy of the meditative practice, I did not feel comfortable at opening my experiment to a completely random audience. Therefore, I created a private Facebook group – with around eighty potentially interested people – whom I invited to take part in my research and to spread the invitation among trusted friends. Eight people actually came and joined in. Some of them came back many times. A few of them took photos of the space and of myself meditating. These pictures made me realize that the choice of my meditation posture and of my place in the room – as well as the spatial disposition of the other participants – create interesting proxemic dialogues.

I began to play with the possibilities offered by the diverse spaces of the Theatre Academy. I sat in small rooms, dance studios, auditoriums, lecture rooms and in the big gym too. Many other places of the building remain to be explored. So far, I did not dare to explore too challenging locations, such as the entrance hall, the corridors and the stairs. I wanted to find a compromise between the choreographic potential of the space and its suitability for a serious practice of meditation. My concern for making the participants feeling comfortable at joining me in meditation played a big role in my choice of the spaces.

Almost all the visitors who stayed till the end of the meditation sessions felt the necessity to share some insight or personal intuition with me. One participant commented that silence gave herself space for processing personal problems and challenges. Another visitor reported that my choice of sitting facing the window gave her the feeling she was the performer, or the focus of the event, and she became aware of her spatial relationship with me. Some underlined how the presence of another meditator in the same space positively affected their meditation.

My experience was also of being supported by the visitors passing by. At times though, I forgot to meditate for myself. In some occasions, I was too excited of the presence of an ‘audience’ and it took me effort for centring myself again. When nobody came and visit me, I had to fight the temptation of feeling lonely and failing. This reminded me of my greatest challenge in dialogical situations: staying open, without loosing the centre. It became clear to me that Sharing silence was an experience of dialogue. A simple action such as sitting and meditating, engaged me in a complex negotiation between myself, my meditative practice, the space, and the presence – or absence – of other people.

The feedbacks left by the participants on my guests-book vary from analytic descriptions of their meditative process, to poems, visions, thanks, encouragements, and drawings. Some chose to use a pen, some a pencil, some chose colours, other preferred black on white. One participant did not feel like adding words, so she circled some words of my welcome-letter, at the entrance of the room. ‘Join me’, ‘feel free’, ‘what’, ‘see’, ‘feel’, ‘how’, and ‘passing by’ where her selected words.

When I read the reports I wrote in my journal, I can spot some recurrent patterns and their evolution throughout time. For example, in the beginning of the experiment I was excited of the presence of visitors, and part of my attention was drawn to them. Later I found peace, and my meditations began to be more centred, no matter if visitors arrived or not. My personal life issues regularly came and visit me in my thoughts, and it felt organic and positive to process them in a meditative frame. I reached the verge of loosing my motivation at some point. My private life challenges were participating in my meditation, and meditation was mirroring my life. I felt forced to take a break, for one week. When I started again, I realized my work had become very meaningful to me.

This experience brought me to the liminal area between performance and meditation, and reinforced my intuition that the two fields coexist in harmony. I do not know how to analyse this process yet, nor I can clearly define what kind of knowledge it is producing. I will take time for this, before proceeding in launching Sharing silence 0.2. For the moment, I wish to warmly thank all the people who supported my research so far, with their physical or spiritual participation!

 

Silence-meditation-practice 2016

Special sessions of meditation in TeaK

Dear friends,

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

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

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

You are all warmly welcome!

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

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

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

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Ani Sherab

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

 

 

 

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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Where is my soul? – a personal interfaith inquiry

The thought that death will be my end makes me sad.

I am not the only one feeling like that, I know, but fortunately the world is various and there are people who do not have problems in living fruitful lives with the certainty that there will not be any ‘after’.

Is my sadness a symptom of egoistic attachment to my own personality? Partly, I believe so. I am concerned, as many are, about the reason of such a struggle which is life: a chain of never-ending sufferings with a few moments of hope and joy which, in my debatable opinion, are not worth of compensating this unbalanced proportion between sorrow and happiness. Yet, I am still willing to be, to exist forever. Why? A part of me wants to believe that there is a way out from suffering which does not imply annihilation; that the purpose of life is happiness and fulfillment; that in this life or in the next one or somewhere beyond life, hidden in the depths of me, or in the depths of life, there is the peace I am looking for, waiting to be rescued or awakened.

Furthermore, I think my sadness is related to my attachment to my worldview, which has been shaped by my cultural background. I grew up in a Christian environment, where there is a very human conception of the soul: my soul is me, just without my body. This thought has given me comfort throughout many years. I was thinking that with the end of my body my pain will end and I will be happy forever.

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But my comfortable belief was challenged by the evidence that when our brain is malfunctioning, we may lose our identity, our character may drastically change and our memories may be totally erased. So, what is this part of me which is eternal? To which extent can I be attached to the hope that my personality, so strictly related to my body, will magically come back after my death? Furthermore, which personality I will have back? The personality I had when I was a child, or the one I had as an adult, or the last one I had, when I was old and maybe tired of living? Will I have the personality of January 7th at 10 p.m., or the personality I was manifesting a few hours later? Is it not true that we live many lives in one life-time and that our body too changes many times before we die? Of course, usually there are some traits in our temperament that do not have remarkable modifications, at least under normal circumstances, as well as our neurons do not change throughout all our life, yet the very concept of personality is so strictly related to the memories of our life-experiences, which are stored in our brain and body-cells, that if feels a bit unrealistic to hope that we will be the same persons after we abandon our body.

Unless…

The philosophy of Yoga preaches that our body is the grosser manifestation of subtler realities, such as the astral body and the causal body, and that we are destined to reincarnate till our soul will return to its origins, the source of life, or God, which is beyond the three realms. There we are safe, we are finally one with the whole. According to this theory, the physical body is not the source of our personality, but it is shaped by our karma, and, beyond that, by our soul: our personality and our body have certain characteristics because they are ultimately reflecting the uniqueness of our soul, but at the same time they are affected by the actions and thoughts cultivated in our past lives, which are still recorded in our astral and causal bodies.

I began to imagine the soul as the awareness beyond thoughts and emotions, beyond my personality: if I follow this theory the soul is an individual reflection of the Cosmic Consciousness. It will not cease to exist neither when I will attain the final union with the Supreme Being: something of me will remain forever, at least in the form of the memories of my past incarnations.

In a way, this theory sounded more scary than the Christian imaginary of Heaven, but it made sense because it was more flexible and it felt reasonable: in each life, you wear a new body and a slightly different personality, in which you may recognize some elements derived from the experiences of your previous lives; these experiences are alive in your subtler bodies but will still evolve and transform without destroying your uniqueness, which is, in the end, the direct expression of your individual soul.

I wanted to follow the truth, not my preferences in terms of belief, and the only parameter I have for deciding if something is true for me is to be honest with myself.

My search brought me to meet Buddhist philosophy, in which the concept of reincarnation is transformed into the idea of rebirth, where there is no need for any individual soul to explain our existence and no need for a Creator to justify Life. In Buddhism, your personality ends with the death of your body, yet, the dynamic energies you have moved and awakened throughout your life (your desires, your actions, your emotions), will create the conditions for an new birth to happen in order to manifest themselves through a new bodily vehicle and a new, temporary and flexible individual personality. The only way to definitely interrupt the cycle of rebirths, and therefore the suffering of life, is to attain the final liberation: this is possible by realizing, through meditation and direct subjective experience, the interdependence of all beings and the ultimate emptiness of reality. Even though there are some extreme nihilistic positions in Buddhist environment too, the main stream refuses the thought of non-existence of reality. Emptiness is not non-existence. Otherwise, how could a Buddhist explain that Buddha attained his final liberation after three days of meditation under a tree and then he continued to live and teach for many decades more? Shouldn’t he suddenly disappear and cease to exist?

But this last point opens a doubt: why then not to call ‘soul’ the energy and the awareness which abide in us behind our personality and which continue to generate new births? If it is true that it is possible to attain salvation, or enlightenment or liberation in this life, Buddhist should admit that the person who has been able to realize her emptiness still keeps a certain degree of individuality or specificity. When such a Buddha dies, is it then that everything vanishes? And how do you explain then the memories of your past lives? And why should you aim to be liberated, if you will cease to exist at the moment of your death and the next rebirth will be the problem of another impermanent and ultimately non-existing personality?

I agree with Buddha, that it is more important to focus on cultivating love and compassion and to work in order to overcome suffering rather that wasting time and energy in useless intellectual inquires about the meaning of life and what comes after death.

But the ultimate reason why I feel sad if I choose to believe that I will die together with my body is that such a definitive statement closes the research: there is no longer a ‘why?’ to be answered. Maybe this is true, I cannot deny it. It is possible that the spiritual and profoundly human question ‘why’ is a mistake of our species-evolution and that we should replace it with the more scientific ‘how’. Maybe neurology will definitely explain the previously mentioned phenomena of memories of past lives in a materialistic way. However, I would not jump so quickly to a negative answer.

Science is based on theories about the working of universe and life, which are grounded into objective observations and experiments that we may reproduce and check. Yet, only the specialists can understand the more subtle aspects of them, while the profanes will build an approximate and most likely inexact view on the phenomena.

Spiritual seeking, on the other hand, develops theories about the meaning of life through subjective observation, and such experiments may be reproduced only by individually following the same practices: again, the amateurs will understand only the surface of these theories, which may appear full of contradictions.

Traditional religions often provide very fancy theories about the origins of the universe, life and death, but they have developed tools for spiritual introspection which are valuable nowadays still, even though they may need some updating. Middle-Age science was fancy as well, if we compare it to contemporary science, yet some of its discoveries are still used by modern scientists. So, I believe my sadness towards a negative answer about the question of the soul is also motivated by my attachment to the truth: I cannot exclude that there is no soul, I cannot exclude that there is not an ultimate meaning, but I must not exclude the opposite possibility as well, to be honest, because a realistic approach to life does not necessarily mean a materialistic approach.

Such a non-choice is probably the most frightening position I have ever taken in my life, but it is undoubtedly the most honest and exciting: the truth is that I do not know, but it feels like an act of cowardice to give up with the question ‘why’ just because there may be no answer. I am a human, I ask myself: ‘why?’- and I am afraid there is no answer – but I get power from the creative and dynamic flow that this question generates. Without this question, there would be no art, no philosophy, no compassion.

Is this question coming from the depths of my soul or from my impermanent personality?

The thought that death will be my end makes me sad.

The thought that death may be my end, somehow, awakens my curiosity.

Hermits in Progress – eleventh retreat

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After our first retreat in the forest, in September 2013, we never had other opportunities to experience such a deep connection with nature again, till the end of June 2014. Finally, we could organize a new retreat in the woods.

 

This time we choose a mountain, in the beautiful Italian island of Sardinia.

 

In the picturesque area of ‘Sulcis Iglesiente’ there is a small town named Nuxis. Right at the feet of the town, a wonderful mountain full of olive trees, prickly pears and junipers embraces the whole valley.

 

We spent one week on the top of the mountain: a friend of mine had inherited a small part of the forest and decided to make an artistic retreat-place out of it. That area was not taken care since many decades, so our main activity would be to clean and rebuild the narrow paths which were covered by underbrushes and thorns. Furthermore, we had to identify a few areas where we could create some space for sleeping and for having artistic activities.

 

Even though we were aiming to stay on the mountain throughout the whole retreat, we had actually to visit the town once a day to pick up food, because, I must admit, we were not expert enough with long-term-retreats in nature. At least, we have learnt a lot about how to survive in the mountain and next time we will be prepared for a more radical full-immersion.

 

Retreat 11 – Living Forest – June 2014

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The first day we visited the forest and we checked all the boundaries of my friend’s property, we identified an area for sleeping and we built our tents.

 

We had our first meditation around a giant 5oo year-old-olive-tree. We baptized it with the name of ‘Elios’. The powerful energy and calm majesty emanated by the tree left profound marks in my heart. We all agreed that before cutting any brush or tree, we had to ask permission to the forest, and whatever change we were aiming to do in that area, it should be suggested by nature itself.

 

As it happened in my first retreat, I felt that the enchanting beauty of the mountain was counterbalanced by a lot of small bothers: mosquitos, ants, ticks, a lot of brushes full of thorns, a pitiless Sun which burned our skins, and, in addition to this, I had an injury in my ankle which made every step painful.

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Fortunately, I could always go and take rest in the shadow of our old Elios.

 

We decided not to follow a structured program, but we agreed in how to behave in the retreat. We were free to talk: this time we were confident on the fact that an intense day of hard work in nature would automatically reduce our talks into very essential sentences.

 

I was afraid not to be able to fall asleep on such a dry ground full of stones and actually every night I felt very uncomfortable. But in a way or in another, I could always fall asleep, at least for a short while.

 

The sleeping place was situated in one of the few areas not too much in declivity. But the most suggestive thing was that our tents were built around an ancient metal-cross, which is visible from the town and that once used to be destination of the Christian ‘Via Crucis’ –procession: before going to sleep, from that privileged point of view we could admire the whole valley and meditate in front of the infinity of a starry sky.

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Days passed and we built our own routine. We woke up at 6:30 a.m., with the sound of the bells arriving from the church of Nuxis. We had a one-hour-meditation at the feet of Elios, then breakfast, followed by one hour of T’ai Chi –practice. Then we began to work. Days were ending the other way around: one hour of T’ai Chi and one hour of meditation under the cross.

 

Among all the Hermits in Progress –retreats, this has been the only experience where we explored the dimension of a common rule of living, like in monasteries. The curious thing was that it just happened spontaneously: we actually never discussed about our routine and we knew we were free of breaking the rhythm and doing something else.

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Our work of cleaning the forest was hard and I decided to live it as a session of Karma-Yoga: the path that, according to Hindu philosophy, leads towards God by means of unselfish actions, accomplished without attachment to their own results. By altruistically serving, by offering your deeds to God, you free yourself by the boundaries of you own ego and you may arrive to know God. Such a thought was giving me the strength to resist.

 

On the other hand, we attempted to adjust the areas and the paths according to our own artistic sensitivity, taking into account the esthetics of the natural environment and attempting to act in communion with Mother Nature. In this sense, the strain was tempered by the excitement of shaping the environment.

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During the last days, we found time to arrange small artistic installations making use of stones, woods, and other material we collected in the forest.

 

I felt very tired and I started to experience ups and downs with my mood. I surprised myself being victim of negative and restless thoughts, feelings of emptiness and discouragement.

 

Before leaving, I went to the feet of Elios.

 

In that moment I was thinking of my beloved grandmother. I was sure she died with a beautiful thought in her heart: her own grandchild, my son. I realized that was also my own beautiful thought. I felt rich. There was no longer space for depression.

 

After the retreat, we all had a talk in front of a big Italian pizza.

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We shared the feeling that we had the opportunity to re-encounter our own origins as human beings. We felt sorry for all those moments when we were working mechanically, because of the strain, and we were temporarily losing the awareness that we were dealing with a ‘living thing’. Every single tree, every leaf, the whole forest, the mountain: we realized how precious it was, to live in there.

 

We felt grateful for the profound lesson of presence and awareness we received just by being there.

 

We expressed the will to commit even more in listening to nature, maybe adding the rule of complete silence in a future retreat, and orienting every activity towards the goal of tuning with the life which surrounds us and which, in the very end, we are part of.

 

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