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New beginnings

My last five years have been a laboratory for exploring meditative practice(s). No aspect of the rest of my life has been unaffected by this experiment, and I did not foresee the depths of its ramifications. The following notes are a self-reflection on some aspects that stand out at this point.

Until a year ago, I would have said that my practice consisted mostly in a version of Buddhist meditation. I say 'a version' because I quickly grown slightly impatient with the most popular (or commercial, I'd dare to say) styles (like Goenka's Vipassana, or mindfulness). Part of my practice became thus to study and learn from the Pali discourses of the Buddha how to practice.

In this process, I learned three core elements, which remain now deeply engrained in how I see the world: (1) deeply facing the immanent but real possibility of death (marananussati) can be scary at first, but eventually is deeply liberating; (2) replacing attitudes of aversion and dissatisfaction with friendliness and compassion (mettā) is the most sustainable and healing attitude to face life; (3) learning how to make the mind composed, enjoy that state, and eventually learning how to let go of it, creates a sense of incredibile lightness and freedom.

As I was searching for a somewhat 'original' form of Buddhist practice, in the beginning, I was drawn towards the traditional monastic model (in its 'forest' version, the hard one). For some years, I tried to live as a monk, and at some point I seriously considered ordaining. While I do still recognize a beauty in the simplicity of monastic life, I now feel I'm passed beyond this conundrum (since it was a conundrum: how to reconcile ordinary and ascetic life?).

The way out from it, for me at least, was to be found within practice itself. Precisely when things started to appear completely impersonal, I realized that I myself didn't have the right to shut down this bizarre character (myself) that I constructed over the past three decades of this life -- even that wasn't ultimately something to try to control at my will. And together with this, came also the intuition that something was still missing and remained unaddressed.

Over the past year, my practice turned around the question of 'integration', namely, how to reconcile and possibly create a synergy between a more contemplative attitude and ordinary life. Another intuition suggested that if there is a solution to this problem it has to do with a sense of embodiment.

I started practicing a style of yoga (ashtanga-vinyasa) a few months after I started my meditation practice in 2018. But until last year, the two proceeded on two independent tracks. This was also reinforced by a certain adversarial attitude that can be perceived among many practitioners of the two (and from a historical point of view, Classical yoga and Buddhism saw themselves as rivals, if not enemies). But I tried to set aside these quarrels and see what can be learned from the practices themselves.

For some months I explored various methods cultivated in classical and hata yoga (including pranayama and chakra meditation). The one thing that actually worked best was a sort of rudimental devotional practice (supported by the utterance of Om in a particular way, which I later learned to be codified as 'uccara', cf. VBT v. 39). At the end of the utterance, focusing on the resonating silence of the sound, there was a sort of magical opening, in which my attention would naturally like to sink. This wasn't the form of emptiness that can sometimes be reached in other forms of meditation. It was still empty, and yet full of a loving presence, like an immense, sweet hug.

This was something difficult for me to process. My upbringing has been strongly against any sort of religious commitment. At some point, when I was 21, I had a parenthesis in which I was deeply fascinated by the Gospel, but I didn't follow that up later, as I didn't know how, nor I was (and still am not) interested in joining a Christian church. The good thing about Buddhist practice is that it tends to present itself as relatively light on this front, and relatively more open to secular (if not atheistic) interpretations. Yet, I eventually discovered that there is a profound emotional beauty in the idea of bhakti (devotion), and that propelled things further.

Reading the Gītā and the Purana, I also discovered one possible way of thinking about integration. Ordinary life might be seen not only from the individualist perspective of the one who goes through it in search for their own self-satisfaction. It is possible to look at life from a more 'cosmic' point of view, as a self-expression of the Divine who seeks leisure and fun in finite forms (līlā). The reason why this idea took hold in me relatively quickly is because (now I realize) I prepared myself for more than a decade for it, by studying and working with Spinoza (who, I now believe, thought something similar, although this is for another time).

The past spring, I came across Sri Aurobindo, who has been perhaps the most thorough and committed practitioner (mystic, philosopher, seer, and much more) to directly address the problem of integration. And I was convinced by his basic view. In fact, I could find in Aurobindo a sort of third-party judge, not directly affiliated with any specific school or lineage, and yet clearly competent not only on the theory, but also on the experiential background that underpins particular lineages. I still have to understand some crucial points in Aurobindo's system (like his idea of immortality), but I'm increasingly more convinced by his overall approach (especially since I started deepening my understanding of the traditional non-dual Shaiva tantric philosophy, which provides a significant background for Aurobindo's own view).

I think that my 'ascetic phase' might be over. No matter who is proposing the ideal of transcending the world and leaving it behind (and both Buddhists and Yogi have articulated this ideal), I can't help but seeing it as only a partial compromise, and ultimately as an unnecessary one. A certain ascetic discipline helped me tremendously to compensate and heal from a state of almost chronic addiction and bondage, which I did not even realized I was suffering from. But the next stage is to put to use this regained state of balance, and not to dissolve it. There is more to explore, to understand, and to realize than sheer cessation (even if that 'more' does require a certain understanding of the place that cessation plays in the grand-scheme of things).

At several moments, and growingly so these days, I realized also that several of the practices I was experimenting with, remained entirely confined within the domain of the mind. The mind can not only be a scattered monkey jumping all around, but it can also bring a certain degree of order and composure within itself. Both samatha and pranayama (for instance), are forms of mental discipline to pacify the mind. This in itself is not a big news. What changed at some point is the discovery that there is something beyond the mind, something of which the mind can be a tool, but that it is irriducibile to it. This 'something' is a sentient principle, a very intimate one, who operates in a silent and intuitive way, by pointing out a certain direction for action or exploration, but rarely justifying it. Yet, it is a very real presence. To find it, the mind-breath-body compound needs to be relatively pacified (and for this purpose, vinyasa practice works quite well). But the pacification of these outer layers is only a preliminary step. That 'something' remains somehow beyond (beneath) them. It doesn't take actually any effort to get in touch with it, but it is necessary that one remains open enough to listen and recognize its immediate soft presence.

Now, the problem with most meditation techniques is that they are mental devices to pacify the mind, but as side effect they might also get one stuck within the mind (either by creating a form of self-hypnosis, or by simply sucking up all resources in the attempt at sustaining this or that state or experience).

Hence, I eventually resolved to drop techniques and rather try to explore what lies beyond them. I probably could have not done so if I did not spend so much time before learning and practicing some mental technique (so, no denial here that they are helpful and indeed play an important role in one's development). Yet, at this point, in order to move forward, I need to jump outside of the mental game. This is a very weird and difficult move, as a part of my mind remains uncomfortable with this decision and tries to constantly regain hold and control on the whole process, instead of surrendering to it fully. But I guess that this is where my practice is at the moment.

What I learned is that it is experientially true that a human being, with a bit of training and by relying on sufficiently accurate instructions, can in fact open up to a whole universe of intense, boundless, and amazing feelings and insights, the beauty of which has nothing to do with how they reflect on the self-interpretation of subjective 'me' who experiences them, but rather to how they uplift, transfigure, and yet fully embrace and enliven that same 'me'.

In fact, the problem of integration ceases by itself as soon as one realizes that reality is already an integrated unity of experience, in which finite and infinite components are intertwined in the same dance. The problem is not really integrating them, but understanding how not to disintegrate them.

Over the years, I observed that in many cases, spiritual practices become a kind of orthopraxis, in which acting in certain ways (performing certain motions) is an entry ticket for joining specific communities. The Buddhist teachings are clever enough to put this attitude under the spotlight and making it into one of the basic fetters ('the wrong grasp of rituals and morals').

At this point, I see practice as a scaffold that needs constant adjustment in order to serve the evolution of the practitioner. If the practice works, it will change the one who practices it, and hence the practice itself needs to update and upgrade itself as to remain effective. I'm also increasingly uninterested in engaging in the semi-competitive game of winning 'super powers' (how long can you suspend your breath, how long can you stay in a jhana, how high or deep can you go into a samadhi state). At best, these are ways of exploring a territory (the territory of what is humanly possible). But I don't think I'm an explorer. I don't travel for the sake of traveling. I've got a very limited amount of time, much has been done already by others, and I'd like to use the time I've left in the most profitable manner possible (not just for my own sakes, but for what might be helpful more broadly).

What that might be, is not yet fully clear. But it has to do with integrating (again!) some of these insight into the life-infrastructure that I've build over the past years, which include my role as a sort of teacher in public education. I'm thinking at normalizing this sort of discussions through public teaching, hopefully contributing to make 'spiritual skills' (for lack of better terminology) a regular part of all curricula (much like mathematics and geometry, which happened to be also 'spiritual skills' some millennia ago). But now I'm also thinking that what needs to be taught is not how to become part of a specific group, sect, or lineage, but rather how to open, transform, evolve. Spiritual skills should be used to facilitate the natural process of evolution that is propelling us all (since to live, is to change and to evolve, ask Nietzsche for further details).

Where this is going, I don't know. But I'll follow whatever will be pointed out to me. And I will trust it, because I know that it comes from a place of absolute goodness and beauty. The same place from which we all come (humans and non-humans).



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