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A somatic biography



I became interested in contemplative practices six years ago. For some reason, it didn’t remain a side hobby, but quickly became the centre of my whole life. I can’t think of any significant event, action, production or decision in recent years that hasn’t been influenced and shaped in some way by my practice. Yet I have been rather reluctant to talk about it directly. I quickly realised how easily the act of putting things into a story distorts them, creates post-hoc justifications, skews the meaning of the actual events, or simply boils down to pointless rumination. I’ve been keeping a diary continuously for the last twenty-four years, so in a sense I’m used to pouring my life into words. But at some point in the early days of my practice (after a year), I decided to stop even journaling, because I wasn’t sure how to make this constant act of self-reflection authentic and separate it from the subtle desire to construct just another self-representation.

 

My practice also took over my work. I began to teach what I was experimenting on myself, trying to translate experience into reflections that could be presented in a classroom, while at the same time reinterpreting material that I could teach from the point of view of those experiences. The Dhammavicaya triology (Tragedy of the Self, Introduction to Friendliness and Spinoza’s Yoga) is in fact the result of this effort. In a sense, it is a kind of intellectual diary, filtered and generalised, but on some level still deeply personal. Given these premises, it’s only natural that from time to time I’m asked about my personal experience or ‘meditation journey’ (whatever that means). I am also occasionally asked if I am awakened. My strategy so far has been to avoid these questions or to disentangle myself from them. But I realise that this is ultimately not a satisfactory attitude, since I can’t avoid sharing and reflecting on my experience, having also decided that everything I do is based on it. So the problem is how to share and reflect on it. In what way is it possible to observe oneself without falling into the inevitable attitude of creating a reassuring narrative that inevitably departs from the facts in order to satisfy the cravings?

 

Prompted by the recent resurgence of this issue, I think I may have found a solution, which I will put to the test below. While words can play all sorts of tricks, the body is a much more immediate and honest witness. The body does not know how to lie, it cannot really hide anything, nor can it pretend to be anything else. What I am going to do, then, is to recount (a few milestones in) the last six years of my practice from the somatic point of view of how it has affected my own body, trying to keep all other elements to a minimum.

 

When I started, in March 2018, my body was stiff, hard, closed. I had always struggled with my appearance; I always thought I didn’t look right. I was too fat, too much of this, too little of that. At the time, I went to the gym a lot (5-6 days a week), I tracked all my calories, I really tried to get ‘in shape’. I was a control freak. This also applied to other aspects of my life. I was also struggling to get back into my piano practice, going through endless cycles of enthusiasm and frustration, as I had done fifteen years earlier at the conservatory at the cost of a burn out. And despite being in a stable relationship with the same person since 2007, I had a slight addiction to pornography. I was younger (31 at the time), but I always felt too old for everything, too late, never good enough. I had created a relatively solid and functional interface with the outside world, but it was only a crust, with oceans of frozen grief and wounds underneath that I had never really healed. I didn't have any direct relation with my body, other than using and manipulating it as an object. In this sense, I was alienated from the body.

 

In the first few months of my meditation practice, I was confronted with the obvious realisation that my mind was all over the place and that I didn’t even seem to notice when I was distracted and drifting away. I experienced the discomfort of having to sit still. I struggled with sleepiness and drowsiness. Not much changed in my body at that time. But I began to adopt different habits, to make room for ‘practice’ in my days, to get used to this new routine. Of course, I was still using my general attitude of control and applying it to meditation. However, after my first 10-day retreat (the first and only Goenka Vipassana retreat I ever did) something quite radical happened. I had a period of profound discomfort, as if I were constantly immersed in a strange sense of deep existential anxiety, as if the world was melting away. It was really dreadful. When this period ended I began to experience panic attacks that lasted for several months. I had never experienced anything like this in my life. It was as if the frozen problems beneath the surface finally found a way to come out and show themselves.

 

I felt that practice was the only way to deal with this, and I began to delve deeper into it. I was dissatisfied with the framework of Goenka-style Vipassana, and (in early January 2019) I went to a Buddhist monastery (in the Thai forest tradition) for the first time. At first I wanted to run away from that place. But I stayed for a few days. In the months that followed, I went back and I began to adopt the monastic lifestyle as a general guideline for my practice. It was really a physical practice. I began intermittent fasting, overcoming the fear of not eating in the evening (yes, there can be such a fear). I stopped going to the gym and only kept doing yoga, as something that could be a compromise between taking care of the body without getting caught up in all the narcissistic desires of how it should look. I started extending my meditation sessions, carving more time out of my days, waking up earlier and earlier in the morning. I began to cut back on my social interactions. And of course I struggled a lot with the idea of celibacy. First I cut out all pornography, then I gradually reduced all sexual activity. At one point I had an immense urge to shave my head, as if I needed to take on the outward appearance of a monk to support all this struggle. I also gave up music, closed my piano, stopped writing my diary and looked like an alien to my family and partner.

 

By the time the pandemic began (February 2020), I was deep into this process. The first lockdown seemed like the ideal opportunity to finally live as a monk. And so I did. It was the time when my daily meditation theme was death, and nothing had ever been so powerful and liberating. In 2021 I spent another long month at the monastery with the not-so-implicit question: do I really want to be a monk? One morning, by the end of my stay I was sweeping the floor of the dormitory, it was 6.24am. I had this immense sense of release. Later I tried to reinterpret it in terms of Buddhist doctrine, but what it felt like on the spot was just an exuberant and jubilant sense of being alive. My whole body was vibrating. The afterglow of the experience lasted for weeks and I can still remember it now. To my surprise, however, it didn’t answer my question. I left the monastery and returned to my life in Groningen with another question: how can I integrate my practice into the conditions in which I am actually living? In-person life resumed and I began to teach the new courses I had designed.

 

The last bit of 2021 and the first six months of 2022 were indeed the most intense in my ‘Buddhist’ practice. I was finally living by the eight precepts every day. In a way it was great. I was cultivating very long sittings, up to 2h30’ both in the morning and evening, with an extra 1h30 before lunch. I was occasionally doing a 24h fast per week. I was exploring the possibilities of samādhi, having discarded most of the external distractions. My body was relatively supple, isolated and secluded from all sorts of disturbances, physical and emotional. I was completely celibate. I felt light and empty and impersonal and fearless. The Appendix to the Introduction to Friendliness was written during this period. However, there was still a very subtle struggle within, a very tiny sense of restlessness, an invisible gesture to reach the goal, to finally be ‘fully awakened’. Something was still off.

 

When I returned home (in Italy) after this period, in the summer of 2022, something unexpected happened. I saw my partner again after a few months and felt that all the love was still there, younger than ever. I looked inside and felt again that exuberant and jubilant feeling of being alive that wanted to jump in all directions. I was confused. What should I do? I was undermining ‘my precepts’ and with them the whole character I had built up. Was I deluding myself in the period before, or then, or both?

 

To move forward, the only way that seemed promising was to explore the nature of this feeling more deeply. It was a physical experience, so it had to be dealt with at that level. I began to take my yoga practice more seriously. Until then yoga had been like ‘walking the dog’, just a nice way of giving the body the minimum of movement and activation it needed to function. Now it became a research question: what’s possible? I came back to the yoga Shala (as I was doing mostly self-practice at home during the pandemic), made my physical practice more consistent and intense (striving for 6 days a week, 1h30 per day). But I began also to delve into the other limbs of yoga besides the postures (pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana). I started cultivating devotion (which is also an embodied experience). I felt I was leaving my ‘Buddhist’ practice behind, but I pushed through anyway. I also resumed a moderate sexual active life. I felt freed from the immature, greedy and morbid attitude I had in the past. I kept reflecting on the ways in which sexuality can express something more (or just something else) than either possession or craving for pleasure. I felt that avoiding these two motives was the real point of celibacy, the rest had to be assessed case by case.

 

In the past I had used the Buddhist precepts to create a new persona, a new shape for my life and body. Now I could see how the yoga practices could do the same. But from a physical point of view, it felt like they were helping to contain the exuberant energy I was beginning to get in touch with. Looking back, I can see how the early years of my practice managed to reduce and eventually stop all sorts of leakages, unhelpful and unnecessary ways of letting that energy out. Now the tools of yoga were training the body to hold this energy, to hold its intensity, without having to use or dissipate it. It wasn’t a smooth process. I suffered a permanent meniscus injury as a result of my persistent efforts to master the full lotus as a meditation posture. In some ways, though, an injured body is a better companion for practice because it manages to get its ‘no’ across (and we’re so dull and deaf that sometimes we can only hear the voice of an injury to understand that ‘no’).

 

Another very important turning point occurred shortly after the last retreat I attended in August 2023 (this time a Tantric retreat). During the retreat I sank into and enjoyed this sense of immense expansiveness, of empty and free loving background embracing everything (see this). That background seemed to have its own vibration. A secret, silent vibration that permeated everything. When I returned home to Groningen, I felt this vibration so intensely that my body had to move. Before knowing what I was doing, I began to dance on my meditation cushion. This went on for days and weeks. I tuned into this vibration and danced it out, following this inaudible music. This experience wasn’t like dissipating the inner energy, but rather letting it express itself in its own way, giving up control and allowing yourself to go along for the ride. The step into ecstatic dance was relatively short, and from there the exploration of conscious dance, until I discovered contact improvisation. All very fast, but also very natural.


I have not danced for the last thirty years of my life. The last time was when I was about 7 years old, and I still remember my father scolding me because it wasn’t something ‘men’ do. But somehow that was over, and my body felt an immense ‘yes’ to the freedom of just moving. I also realised that my great passion for music (actually the deepest love in my life) was trying to express itself through playing the piano as a second best option. This love wanted to feel the music in every cell and fiber and bone and tissue, wanted to move with the music from within. It wanted to dance (as a pianist, this has always been my problem: I wanted to play and dance at the same time, which is not very practical). In the beginning I suspected that my meditation practice should eventually provide me with a way of reconciling me with music. Now this happened, and I'm so much grateful for it.

 

This whole trajectory was perhaps logical, but it did seem to make a significant break with my previous forms of practice, both ‘Buddhist’ and ‘yogic’. At one point I even did something incredible for me, I stopped my daily sitting meditation and considered stopping yoga as well. What was the point? My mind couldn’t really keep up, but there was something in the body that knew what was going on. I trusted it.

 

Over the past few months I have come to this little pattern of contemplation: grounding, opening, enjoying, contentment and letting go. I can see how this pattern underpins the essence of the early Buddhist teachings. And I can see how I can practise this both sitting still and engaging with others in conscious dance and improvisation. It’s not a mental pattern, it’s a completely somatic-experiential pattern.

 

I realised that in thinking about awakening I had always assumed that awakening should involve a significant difference from a ‘dream state’ and that this discontinuity should lie in the quality of the experience or the level of ‘engagement’ with it. Whereas in a non-lucid dream one is fully immersed in the story, when one is awake the dream appears to be just a dream. Now I see that I have been focusing on something rather secondary and intellectual, while neglecting the main and obvious difference between waking and dreaming. When we’re awake, we’re open to the presence of others, not as mental projections of our own desires and fears, but as actual, clear expressions of life energy (or whatever you want to call it). When I dream of other people, they are ‘thin’, they are ghosts, representations, shadows. When I get in touch with other people (especially without verbal communication, as happens in contact improvisation or other forms of conscious dance), I really ‘know’ them, not only in their characters, but also in their sheer ‘presence’, in their ‘being there’, in their existential ‘weight’. This is what happens when you are awake: you are really with others, on a fundamental, deeply embodied level.

 

The little pattern I discovered (from grounding to letting go) is like a key that allows the shift from the dream experience to the waking experience. What is special about this waking experience is the sense that it is shared. The waking experience is not individualised, it is transindividual. Do I still dream from time to time? Yes. Can I wake up from these dreams? Yes. Is the waking state an end state, a point after which nothing more happens? No, not at all. It’s a beginning, it’s ‘square one’, it’s the first 'humpf' of a new stream of improvisation. Whereas dreams are about reaching goals and often failing to reach them, awakened improvisation (aka life) is about the pure and gratuitous enjoyment of the beauty of the experience itself. It doesn’t have any other goal. It doesn’t go anywhere else. It is self-contained in its immense, boundless expansion. I can see how this echoes the development of friendliness taught in the discourses of the Buddha.

 

I don’t think that anything I’ve said here fits neatly into any pre-determined set of sectarian criteria for identifying what awakening is. If someone wants to measure me by these criteria, they'll probably fail me. Personally, I would find it a greater relief to be freed from the duty of meeting any of these standards than the reward of having met them. But to me this account makes sense in the ‘spirit’ (if not the letter) of most of what I’ve learned so far. So am I awakened, then? I still think this is the wrong question. Because awakening doesn’t feel like ‘me’ being the protagonist of it. The process of awakening feels more like ‘we’ are awakening, whoever is part of that ‘we’ (and it feels like everything is actually included in the ‘we’). On a somatic level, it feels like living both inside and outside the body, being part of a whole field in which differences are not erased but enhanced, while also being embraced and subsumed under an underlying loving and liberating unity. And it is exuberant and joyful and beautiful, like an intimate cosmic dance.


This all hints to the fact that the real fundamental question is: can we wake up together? At this point, I don't know the answer. Sometimes it happens, but usually among a few people. Is it possible to extend this 'we' further? How? And how much can this 'we' be extended? I suspect that the only viable way of addressing these questions is not intellectual or conceptual, but somatic and embodied.



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Antonnie
Antonnie
5 days ago

Make me think of the song of Hozier Movement

https://youtu.be/OSye8OO5TkM?si=f28nQNsBgiBWz_5r

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Girija
Girija
Feb 26

A brilliant post… Spiritual awakening has several levels but I believe that someone who hasn’t been through any of them would not be capable of moving so gracefully across their own spiritual (and sometimes less spiritual) peripeteia - without fear of showing true vulnerability.

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