Vipassana meditation as an artistic practice

Gabriele Goria: Doctoral candidate at The Performing Arts Research Centre (Tutke) of the University of the Arts (Helsinki) – updated research plan: 31.05.2018

Introduction

In academic research, meditative practices are often investigated as a preparatory training for making art. The performance artist and theorist Phillip Zarrilli, for example, investigates meditation as a training for accessing and transforming the creative process. In other cases, artistic practice and meditation are combined together, generating hybrid methodologies of artistic inquiry. There is no shortage of examples where the artistic practice itself is interpreted as meditation, like in the case of the vocal artist and performer Meredith Monk.

In contrast with these 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.

Research questions

How to unfold and enlighten the artistic potential of Vipassana meditation?

How can participatory performances contribute to the exploration and communication of the artistic features of meditation?

Supervisors

Kirsi Heimonen & Paula Kramer

Methodology

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.

Later, 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 engaged me in a complex negotiation between myself, my 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.

In the school-year 2018-2019 – fourth year of my doctoral studies – I will realize my artistic part, which will consist of a ten-day meditation retreat, happening on the stage of the entrance hall of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki. Throughout my retreat, 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.

This live installation will illuminate the artistic and social inferences arising from displaying a meditation retreat in a public space. The collected data will be analysed in the central chapters of my thesis.

Part of my research-data will consist of my recollection of the experience. Furthermore, I will give instructions to a small group of volunteers who will share my retreat more closely, by visiting the space daily. They will be asked to write a journal. Another part of the data will come from the feedback of the visitors in the meditation retreat/performance. I will collect their feedback by means of a free-form guest book.

Study plan

Year Autumn term Spring term
2015/2016 – done Doctoral studies; starting the Sitting –project: leading 5 meditation sessions of one hour each for the students of Teak; realizing the Silent Christmas -project: a self-retreat of ten days, providing 100 hours of meditation. Doctoral studies; organizer of Tutke Spring Days; concluding the Sitting –project: 15 meditation sessions; organizer of the event Silence-Meditation-Practice: arranging two lectures, with the Tibetan Buddhist nun Ani Sherab (February 20th) and the Catholic exorcist Father Gianni Sgreva (April 30th).
2016/2017 – done Studies; Unfolding silence –project: combining meditation with writing and other artistic practices (22 solitary sessions of one hour + 7 sessions with another meditator of 2 hour each); organizer of Tutke Pikku Joulu; realizing the Silent Christmas 02 –project. Studies; further developing Unfolding silence: interviewing meditators, who answered through their hands; realizing the Sharing silence –project: 19 sessions of one hour each; rehearsals of La galleria dei sogni lenti –project: a performance based on songs I wrote out of my meditations and dreams.
2017/2018 – done Studies; Online retreat in Noormarku (July 31st – August 6th); La galleria dei sogni lenti –performance (Lapinlahden Lähde, August 23rd and 24th); Sharing silence at CARPA 5 symposium. Studies; planning the artistic part: a Vipassanā retreat in a public space, where I will combine some of the ideas developed through these four projects.
2018/2019 Courses, thesis, and artistic part Sharing silence. Week 42: building the space on the stage of Teak’s Tori. 21st October: pre-retreat mini-workshop. 22nd – 31st October: Sharing silence performance/retreat. 1st November: post-retreat mini-workshop. Analysis of the collected data, courses, thesis. Participation in SAR-International Conference on Artistic Research.
2019/2020 Analysis of the collected data, thesis. Thesis.

 

Theoretical background

Systematical studies on meditation and spiritual practices increased exponentially since the early ‘70s, and nowadays it is possible to observe new contaminations of meditation in performing arts from the perspective of artistic research. A noticeable mark of the institutionalization of such a phenomenon is the birth of scholar publications on the topic, such as the Dance, Movement & Spiritualities journal, founded by Amanda Williamson in 2014, the online journal Performance and Mindfulness, published by the University of Huddersfield Press, or the volume: Dance, Somatics and Spiritualities – Contemporary Sacred Narratives (Batson, Weber, Whatley & Williamson 2014).

The current landscape of artistic research on meditation presents a variety of different methodologies. Phillip Zarrilli (2002), for example, 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 (Whatley & Lefebvre Sell 2014) in the field of dance and somatics.

A different 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 (2010) focuses on the interaction between her painting practice and several Buddhist meditative techniques, such as bowings, mandalas, and breath-awareness.

In other cases, the artistic practice itself can be understood, to diverse extents, as a form of meditation. The vocal artist, performer and choreographer Meredith Monk (2010) – just to mention one – openly bridges her artistic practice to her spiritual practice, drawing parallels between the Buddhist notion of dharma and making art.

My work follows an alternative track: formal sitting meditation is investigated as an artistic practice in its own right. I claim that approaching meditation as an art-form enlightens its potential of integrating an individual meditative experience with the surrounding world and life. By challenging the tradition of isolation which characterises meditation retreats, this project opens questions around the place and the function of meditation in an artistic-pedagogical institution, as well as in our society.

Sources

Barbiero, Giuseppe. Benessia, Alice. Bianco, Elsa. Camino, Elena. Ferrando, Maria. Freire, Dinajara Doju. & Vittori, Rita. 2012/2007. Di Silenzio in Silenzio, Rimini: Anima Mundi Editrice.

Batson, Glenna. Weber, Rebecca. Whatley, Sarah. & Williamson, Amanda. 2014. Dance, Somatics and Spiritualities – Contemporary Sacred Narratives. Chicago: Intellect.

Cardeña, Etzel. & Winkelman, Michael. 2011. Altering consciousness: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC

Elenjimittam, Anthony. 1995/1990. Meditazione per la realizzazione del Sé. Milano: Mursia.

Fabbro, Franco. 2014. Neuroscienze e spiritualità. Mente e coscienza nelle tradizioni religiose. Roma: Casa Editrice Astrolabio.

Monk, Meredith. 2010. The art of being present. In: Lion’s Roar. Online magazine. Accessed 19 October 2017. http://www.lionsroar.com/the-art-of-being-present/

Schmidt, Stephan. & Walach, Harald. 2014. Meditation – Neuroscientific Approaches and Philosophical Implications. Cham: Springer.

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Varela, Francisco Javier. Thompson, Evan. Rosch, Eleanor. 2016/1991. The embodied mind. Cognitive Science and Human Experience. London: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Wallace, Bruce Alan. 2007. Contemplative science. Where Buddhism and Neuroscience converge. New York: Columbia University Press.

Zarrilli, Phillip. Daboo, Jerri. & Loukes, Rebecca. 2013. Acting: psychophysical phenomenon and process (intercultural and interdisciplinary perspectives). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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