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Unfolding Silence

meditation, kung fu, and artistic research

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Zen

Eternity

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Photo: Gabriele Goria

As a child, I loved to stop by my favourite shop window, and stare at the mechanic clocks displayed behind the glass. I got enchanted by the intricate choreography of dancing gears, each of them waving to a different rhythm, their pace varying according to the diameter and the function of their wheels.

This spectacle acquainted me with the sense of time. The perfect synergy of the clock mechanisms gave me the same thrill I had while listening to the performance of a skilled percussionist. Such a dynamic symphony produced the illusion of a control over the force of time. Time was not untameable: to some extent, it was possible to play with it.

Together with the fun, concerns and existential questions emerged. I wondered if my whole existence was a simple ‘passing by’. As the clocks were clicking their own way through the river of time, my thoughts and actions too, as well as my breath and heartbeat, were enchased in this same flow. Was it so, that my days on earth did come from some ethereal future, were lived in an elusive present, and instantly cast into the past?

In my teenage years, I began to look at the problem from a different angle. I imagined a state of consciousness beyond individual awareness, where each and every moment of past, present and future – including the alternative streams of possibilities – would be accessible at once. In such a place, the flow of time would be stretched into an infinite and multi-layered film, where every single bit of existence would perpetually exist and be meaningful. I named this state of consciousness ‘eternity’.

Recently, I have found myself dwelling on similar conjectures. It is not unusual that, during an intense session of meditation or tai chi, vivid memories of events of my far past emerge spontaneously from some hidden storage of my mind. When these memories reach my awareness, I do nothing. I let them be. And yet I feel lighter, as if old burdens had just been processed in a new and fresh way.

At times, intuitions bring glimpses of future to my awareness. Accurate guesses about coming events might arise. One hour of silence can also be herald of sharp ideas and projects to be realized later.

However, the core of a meditative experience is not defined by these occasional ‘side effects’. At the base of any meditative practice lies the art of being present. In my experience and understanding, when the state of ‘nowness’ is no longer just a series of single and separate dots on a timeline, but develops into a longer and continuous trait, eternity occurs.

Eternity manifests in me when a feeling of timelessness overlaps the awareness of now. Time becomes a flexible mental construct. The fear of letting go melts into a peaceful state of lightness and fulfilment. Love becomes natural and spontaneous; love and eternity belong together. The ego-led interpretations of my personal history shatter in front of an ocean of compassion. There is no need to believe that everything happens for a reason, nor to deny the meaningfulness of things. Life is purpose in itself.

I do not consider myself a great meditator. Sparks of light visit me quite rarely, and when they do, they remind me of how attached I am to my small world. This makes me humble. Yet, such fleeting intuitions encourage me to live my life a little bit more bravely.

If something very disturbing and painful occurs, I know in my heart that everything finds its place in the perspective of eternity. And when something remarkably beautiful comes to an end, I whisper to myself: “Don’t worry, let go now. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing is lost.”

Nothing is lost. Everything is written on the pages of eternity. Is this the comforting illusion – or the hope – of a romantic dreamer? If I were to meet myself as a child in front of the window of that clock-shop, would I honestly share this intuition as an ultimate answer?

Most likely, I would rather keep listening. The experience is tangible. Every single breath of life is ephemeral and eternal. Yes, I would share my silence. Time needs time for unfolding its lessons.

 

Fragments of God

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Photo: Gabriele Goria

A friend recently asked me to elaborate a reflection on God as a Creator. Especially in front of the compelling arguments of Richard Dawkins on ‘God’s delusion’, I feel cautious at falling into this kind of debate. However, my friend’s request allows me to look closer at my current worldview.

I share this writing as a poetic window onto my quest for a meaning, and surely not as a lecture. Like a curious child, I want to explore what I see, to create connections and to play with them, asking myself once again: what does God mean to me?

God is love. Love is an experience. God is an experience. Experience is real to the extent it transforms. God is the peace which reconciles paradox and contradiction.

God, the Father: the cosmic Consciousness beyond creation. Transcendent. The Tao. The infinite. The experience of Nirvana, or Moksha. But also the Nothing from which everything originates. The number zero.

God, the Son: the all pervading consciousness within creation, from subatomic particles to human consciousness. Immanent. The God who sleeps in the stones, dreams in the flowers, wakes up in the animals, in the humans is aware of being awake, and in the saints finds Himself again. The consciousness which realizes its full expression in a Christ, or a Buddha, bridging immanence and transcendence.  The Dharma: the order of creation, or law of nature. The Tai Chi: the archetypical Supreme Polarity, guarding the seed of duality within its oneness. The number one. But also the Wu Chi, the non-Polarity. The non-one.

God, the Holy Spirit: the Amen, the Word, that is: the conscious Sound/Vibration manifesting the Creation; the energy behind the matter. The intelligent love interconnecting the whole; the spring and the engine of creation and life. The laws of physics; the Karma: the law of cause and effect which rules the Samsara, from a cosmic scale to a human scale, to the wave-like dance of particles and anti-particles. Yin and Yang in action. The number two.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: the number three. The “three which generates the ten-thousands beings” (Tao Te Ching 42).

Creation is related to God as the body is related to the soul. The soul is both individual (atman) – to the extent a footprint, or a memory of individuality persists – and absence of an ‘I’ (anatman) – when interdependence and impermanence are found in the middle path between independence and dependence, and the soul is nothing but a pouring, a flow of consciousness constantly changing, interrelated with everything. In the same way, God is both personal – the God within me, to whom I turn and whom I listen, not in order to obtain favours, but to transform myself – and impersonal – the Being, where there is nothing to attain, where the path is the goal, where life validates itself as the sole purpose.

God happens. God is the voice whispering: why does God allow all of this? Why does God not intervene? God is me. God is the Sun reflected in thousands mirrors. Each mirror is an illusion of separation, an ‘I’ defining itself as an independent individual. God is Father, Mother, Daughter, Son, Friend, Lover. Each expression of love is a reflection of the one Love.

“The Tao which can be described by means of words is not the eternal Tao” (Tao Te Ching 1). The God you can speak about is not the true God. Words are symbols referring to an ungraspable ‘beyond’, even when they are created to indicate a very concrete object, or an experience.

But there are also performative words; expressions which form and transform. Like the sentence “I love you”, which is not a mere report, but reaches out for a connection and creates worlds of possibilities. Therefore, if “in the beginning was the Word, ad the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1,1), this Word was not a word-symbol, or a ‘finger pointing at the Moon’.

In the beginning, was the Word. I like to think that this original and almighty Word – the Amen of Christians, the Amin of Muslims, the Hum of Tibetan Buddhists, the Aum of Vedas – cannot be but one. The whisper, beyond time and space: “I love you”. And there was light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1st November, at 12:00: conclusion.

Retreat schedule: 22.10-31.10.2018

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

4:00 am   Morning wake-up bell

4:30-6:30 am   Meditation

6:30-8:00 am   Breakfast break/rest

8:00-9:00 am   Meditation

9:10-10:00 am   Meditation

10:10-11:00 am   Meditation

11:00-12:00 noon   Lunch break

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

1:00-2:20 pm   Meditation

2:30-3:30 pm   Meditation

3:40-5:00 pm   Meditation

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

6:00-7:00 pm   Meditation

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

8:00-9:00 pm   Meditation

9:00-9:30 pm   Rest

9:30 pm   Sleep

The school building is open at these hours:

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

 

Stage design: Marianne Palojärvi

Light design: June Horton

Spiritual counselor: Henri Järvinen

On stage: Gabriele Goria

Retreat helpers: Maija Rissanen, Mirjami Heikkinen & Helena Romppanen

Sound: Kaj Wager

Camera: Jyrki Oksaharju

Photo: Evdokia Aseeva

Stage manager: Marja Zilcher

Producer: Aapo Juusti

Poster: Jaana Forsström

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

 

Warmly welcome!

Gabriele Goria

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!

Sharing silence at CARPA 5

On Thu 31 August –  Sat 2 Sept 2017, a meditation room was arranged at the Theatre Academy of Helsinki, in the Auditorium 3. This experiment was part of my artistic research on meditative silence, and was my contribution to the conference CARPA 5. All the participants in the conference were welcome to share silence with me in the following times:

on Thu 31 Aug at 12:30-13:30, and at 18:30-19:30

on Fri 1 Sept at 8-9, at 12:30-13:30, and at 17:15-18:15

on Sat 2 Sept at 8-9, and at 12:30-13:30

The meditation room was open all day long. People could visit the space at any time of the day.

A thorough report on this experiment, is now published on the online journal nivel.teak.fi: http://nivel.teak.fi/carpa5/gabriele-goria-a-report-on-the-meditation-room-experiment-at-carpa-5/

 

Retreat in Noormarkku – part seven (the end)

Sunday, 6 August 2017

 

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

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

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

 

Retreat in Noormarkku – part five

Friday, 4 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Retreat in Noormarkku – part two

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Authobiography of a Yogi, Chapter I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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