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.
Bilingual performance with music, poetry, painting, dance, monks and peacocks…
Dear friends, I am proud to invite you to my new performance in Helsinki, produced by Teatteri Quo Vadis. La galleria dei sogni lenti – Hitaiden unien käytävä is a multi-disciplinary performance in Italian and Finnish, which takes place in a dream-like art-gallery. You have three possibilities to see it, and the entrance is free!
Thursday 24.8 at 19:00
Thursday 24.8 at 21:00
Friday 25.8 at 19:00
Place: Lapinlahden Lähde – Lapinlahdentie 1, Helsinki
With: Maija Rissanen, Aleksi Parviainen, Gabriele Goria, Laura Pentzin, Marko Puro and Jiri Parviainen
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!”.
Today I improvised. I was forced to. My monastic routine, as I developed it throughout the previous five days, just could not work anymore. My body protested. Not my mind, because that is still half asleep. Here are the facts: the noise of the ventilation system in my room kept me awake the most of these nights. There was no way to switch it off. Unfortunately, on my last full day as a monk, I feel tired. Well, the other side of the coin is that I will not be too nostalgic about leaving, tomorrow!
This morning I had to divide my meditation into shorter slots, in order to stay focused. From there, it came the idea of alternating relaxing outdoors, short meditations, a bit of writing, and taking pictures throughout the whole day. Nothing essentially changed in my practices but their rhythm, which became more fragmented.
I reflected on the nature of this retreat. As I wrote in my previous post, some rules emerged by themselves.
For example, it just became obvious to me that I will publish my texts on my blog right after finishing them. By the end of each day, there has to be a new post. Then, I had to invent a counterbalancing rule, because the speed of this publishing procedure is also a burden, especially for an Italian author writing in English. So, I gave myself permission to adjust my writings afterwards, by midnight, like Cinderella – Cinderella did not write a blog, though! I read my posts one last time before going to bed. If some passages do not sound clear, if I spot grammar mistakes or spelling mistakes, or if I detect adulterations caused by my tiredness, or by my ‘ego’ – thing which easily happens when I write about myself – I work for making the text clearer and more honest. After midnight, what is written stays written. This is the game.
My only physical training so far consisted in long walks in the nature. I decided to give one week break to my quite hard bodily training. This helped my muscles to loosen their tension, and allowed me to sit quietly for longer periods. Well, today is an exception. My sleep deprivation forced me to adopt a creative solution…
Another delicious amusement is taking pictures. My camera is a cheap one, so the quality of the images is relatively modest. But I really try my best to offer my readers a glimpse of the landscapes I see when I walk, as well as the little details which capture my eye. All the photos I publish along with my texts must be taken on the same day, that is another rule. I like everything to be fresh!
This specific way of sharing by writing, allows me to keep my monastic isolation, and at the same time opens my journey to a potential audience. By doing so, I accidentally make a performance out of my spiritual retreat. This experiment is my first prototype of a performative retreat, and it is far from being perfect. The aim of my PhD research is to explore meditation as an artistic practice in itself. I am not there yet. But I want to believe this is another significant baby-step.
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!”.
“What’s the difference between an actor and a saint?”. I asked this question to my professor of acting when I was a student at the Theatre Academy in Italy, almost two decades ago. He seemed pleased with my thirst to link artistic sensitivity and spiritual call. He paused, then answered: “An actor says what he does; a saint does what he says”.
This sentence haunted me ever since. I analysed it grammatically, logically, metaphysically. The idea that a theatre artist might be seen as a liar, or a cheater, was hidden in those words. The saint is trustworthy, the actor tells stories. It really disturbed me. I wanted to walk a spiritual path through arts, not to become an entertainer. I wanted to inspire, to share wisdom and compassion, not to spread delusions.
Later, thanks to a few lucky encounters and to some experience earned on the field, I came to understand that on stage the actor is not asked to be real. The audience perfectly knows you are playing a role, there is no need to fake. This would mean to be a liar! The actor’s task is to be true.
Of course, truth in acting is a flexible notion, but for me it means: being fully present in my body and mind. The interpretation and the making of meaning is in the hands of the audience. My only task is to let action happen, not to make it happen. By doing so, the actor is no more the one who says what he does. He is the one who does. This revelation was a gate towards a spiritual way of inhabiting the stage.
Throughout almost twenty years, my artistic practice and my spiritual practice grew intertwined. Now I do not see myself anymore just as an actor. My exploration of meditative and artistic practices broadens all the time. When I asked that question to my professor at the Theatre Academy back in 1999, I would never imagine to find myself one day in Finland, conducting an artistic research on meditation.
The concise answer of my old teacher came back to my mind this morning, when I decided to take a picture of myself meditating on the floor. My artist-researcher mind wanted to stage my sitting place differently: I was interested in investigating what kind of spatial relationship between me, the room and the camera will arise after shifting my meditation cushion from the bed to the floor. As a meditator, furthermore, I wanted to understand how this change will affect my meditation.
The technical procedures to make this photo possible triggered a chain of considerations. In order to take the picture, I have to set up a timer to my camera. I might be in need to take several pictures, before finding the best corner and light. I decided I will not be too punctilious, since I am not a photographer, and I actually want to meditate. Yet, I did have to take more than one shot. This meant that I started meditating three times, before I was satisfied with my picture. In the meanwhile, I realized that the floor was not the optimal sitting place for me: my feet were not able to sink softly, and the blood circulation in my legs might not work well. I quit the sitting.
I thought: “If I publish this picture on my blog, I am communicating that today I did actually meditate on the floor; of course I was meditating, but only for the few moments my camera was shooting; if I publish the picture, my audience will believe that I did meditate on the floor who knows for how long: this would be a lie!”. The voice of my professor was echoing in my head: “Are you going to say what you do, or to do what you say?”. Here my creative crisis started.
What was I supposed to do with my picture? Every choice I make for communicating my research should be founded on honesty. As a Vipassanā practitioner, prior to committing to the training in Samādhi – the one-pointed concentration – and prior to cultivating the faculty of Paññā – the wisdom or insight – you have to take care of Sīla. Sīla is the purification of bodily and vocal action. Each spiritual tradition has its list of commandments about what is morally healthy and what is not. And in a post-modern society like ours, where relativity and quantum physics question any sort of absolute value, some of these rules sound absurd if not ridiculous. Yet, when you seriously undertake a spiritual path, you have to cope with the fact that these ‘rules’ are not just moral impositions, but real supports. Without the foundation of Sīla, you might remain stuck in your meditative practice for ages, without actually making any progress in terms of inner joy, freedom, and loving compassion. The fifth Sīla, in Buddhist tradition, is: do not tell lies!
So, I saw three choices in front of me: I do not use the picture and I forget about all my idea; I publish it and I explain that it was just a short rehearsal; I embrace the challenge, and I make the picture become true. I finally gathered my courage, and chose to be a scientist for once. I went for the third option. I went back to sit on the floor, ready to suffer to fulfill my experiment.
And what an embarrassing surprise was to realise that I could do it. In the end, it was not that challenging: I meditated on the floor for one hour and forty-five minutes. Only a small cramp on my left buttock caught my attention at some point. I found a posture for my legs and feet which did not disturb my blood circulation. The floor was a much more grounding experience than the bed. After the meditation I felt so inspired, that I rushed my lunch in order to come back to my room and start writing.
Today I said what I did. It was when I took the picture of myself on the floor, inspired by my visual instinct. Then I did what I said, when I went on meditating in order to make my mental vision become true. Did I behave like a saint on like an actor? I do not know where to locate myself. But I know where I see myself going. I want to be a spiritual artist. And maybe, one day, an artist of the spirit.
Today is the day of all weathers. There are clouds, sun, rain, hot, cold, and sun again. I had the good idea of meditating three hours in a row, while this kaleidoscopic sky was showing off. I am not a fan of water sports, but this morning I was ready to get a free class of surfing… on the ocean of my wavy moods!
To be honest, on the last night I was worried about what I will write in my blog today. My anticipation of a writer’s block was fully justified, in my opinion. One thing is to meditate and write. Another thing is to meditate and publish my texts right away. I put myself under a remarkable pressure. On the other hand, this challenge adds a spice of excitement to my project. And a bit of fun is necessary not only in artistic but also in spiritual research.
After breakfast, I sat on my meditation cushion. My mental storm – which was in tune with the atmospheric turmoil – ceased all at once. I felt grateful and a bit surprised of my sudden calming down. One second of awareness was able to blow away several hours of preoccupations and elucubrations.
I started observing my respiration. After one hour, I shifted the focus to my bodily sensations. I was expecting to get bored or to be overwhelmed by cramps in my legs at some point, as it often occurs when I sit for longer periods. It did not happen. In some fleeting moments, I caressed an innocent and powerful joy that I recognised to be the hidden inhabitant of my true core. I wished to get closer to this peaceful bliss, but I knew I could not force it. There was something fragile and tranquil in the way my attention remained in balance. I wondered what I was doing different: it felt so natural to keep this steady calmness.
Goenka warns meditators about the stage of tranquillity – a mental condition where neither pleasant nor unpleasant, nor neutral sensations produce reactions. The main temptation in these cases is not the aversion/craving reaction, but rather the fall into ignorance. In fact, you might mistake tranquillity for the experience of Nibbāna. Goenka affirms that tranquillity is a sign that you are nearing Nibbāna, but he reminds his students that the experience of tranquillity is still within the field of mind and matter, the sensory field. You might get disappointed when you realize that your calmness is impermanent too, and this is the place where you loose all the balance.
Even so, there is no way to be sure that I approached the tranquillity Goenka talks about. Second, my spontaneous scepticism would avoid me to believe it in any case. Third, Goenka encourages his students to consider tranquillity too as ‘suffering’ or ‘unsatisfactoriness’:
The gross, unpleasant sensation is dukkha. The pleasant sensation is dukkha. And this subtle oscillation, which is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, this stage of tranquillity is also dukkha.
(Chronicles of Dhamma – Fulfilling the Teaching of the Buddha)
Coming back to my meditation, anyway, something different did happen. Throughout three hours of sitting I was not bothered by boredom. Partly, I relate my relaxed concentration to the fact that I am eating a bit less than usual in this retreat: a free stomach is known to facilitate mindfulness. But the real turnover for me was a simple thought: I reminded myself to equanimously observe boredom too.
Feelings are always somewhere in my body as clusters of physical sensations, even before my consciousness interprets them as feelings. In order to feel bored, I have to sense it somewhere in my body. It is hard to know which sensations cause boredom, since usually boredom arrives to me when I experience a lack of interest in honestly observing my sensations. This kind of boredom hides my expectation of feeling good, or maybe entertained. It hides my fear of facing myself as I am. Broken if I am broken, happy if I am happy. In the very end, this boredom comes because of my unconscious craving for pleasant sensations and aversion towards unpleasant sensations. As always in Vipassanā practice, awareness of sensations, and equanimity in observing them, are the highway towards a more profound joy. And from joy derives the ability to love fully. At least, this was my intuition today.
Once, I watched a documentary on John Cage, where the great artist reported a Zen quote:
If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.
Eventually one discovers that boredom too is impermanent. When I am not aware of boredom arising, it turns into restlessness and agitation. When I observe it with awareness, boredom becomes too interesting to be boring!
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!
This morning, the sky was cloudy in Helsinki. I decided to sit for a three-hour meditation. When I opened my eyes, I found myself in Pori, on the west coast of Finland. The sky was still cloudy, and Helsinki was doubtlessly gone. No tele transportation occurred, though: this sort of miracle happens any time you meditate in a long-distance bus!
If you are familiar with Vipassanā meditation, you know how important is to pay attention to your tiniest bodily sensations. Therefore, you can imagine how being shaken by a moving bus does not facilitate the practice. Yet, after a while you get to distinguish the grosser external sensations produced by the vehicle’s waving and all the other sensations arising from within the body. At some point you just do not mind anymore.
In the end – as far as I am able to make sense of Buddha’s teachings –, any physical sensation arises from the contact of an object with one of our five senses, as well as from the contact of a mental content – thoughts and feelings – with the ‘sixth sense’: our mind. Any of these contacts produces some sensation in the body. Sensations trigger reactions. For example, somebody approaches me with a severe and critical attitude, I feel a weight growing in my chest, I experience this sensation as unpleasant, it means I am not comfortable in this situation, solution: I panic! Reactions cannot but generate new contacts – in the example, my panic will produce specific thoughts and feelings, and eventually specific actions and words… – therefore new sensations will arise, new reactions, and so on ad libitum.
According to renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, our body registers stimuli all the time. Damasio affirms that emotions emerge only after the brain registers physical changes in the body. Unconsciously, we are continuously reacting to our emotions. Damasio explains that feelings arise after the brain interprets emotions. I find Damasio’s notion of emotions rather close to the Pāli term vedanā, which, among its rich list of nuances, has the meaning of bodily sensation. Without any claim of neuroscience proving Buddhist psychology, I like to draw a parallel between Damasio’s theory, and the Buddhist progression of four mental layers: cognition, recognition, sensation and reaction.
Shortly said, Vipassanā practice works around the assumption that sensations are the link between contact and reaction. An assumption which is made incredibly real by the direct experience provided by the meditation technique itself. By equanimously observing your bodily sensations, you train yourself not to suppress any feeling, and yet you avoid to blindly react to them. Such a non-judgmental attitude allows you to contemplate the fundamental impermanence of all sensations, as well as the ever changing flow of thoughts and feelings. This experiential wisdom makes you more ready to perform conscious and original actions out of your inner freedom. If you are simply human then – like in my case –, you become aware of how many times in life you react out of habit. And knowledge – somebody says – is power.
Arrived to Pori, I took a taxi till Noormarkku, which is the small town where my residency is situated. I will spend a one-week retreat here. Kindly supported by the University of the Arts, I will further develop my artistic research on meditative silence. In this moment, I am sitting at a wooden desk, in a wooden villa, facing a window. I am admiring a vast field of grass, surrounded by countless trees. My plan is to meditate and write, from Monday to Sunday. As simple as that.
What I am actually going to write, I have not planned yet. The point is to meditate for a minimum of four hours a day, and to just write. Each evening, I will publish a post on my blog, such as the one you are reading now. Of course, I will allow my thoughts to dwell on my artistic research, but as you can see, I might indulge in sporadic digressions…