An excerpt from the book “Meditation: If You’re Doing It, You’re Doing It Right: Conversations with Meditators” by Alison Tinsley and Chris Fields
“What is important is to see how the meditation unwinds moment to moment in life.” – Zaya
“For me the ultimate meditation is looking at the stars.” – Maurizio
Ever since she can remember, Zaya Benazzo has been interested in “the big questions.” “Where did we come from?” She remembers asking her mother when she was three years old. It was Communist Bulgaria: there was no religion in the country, nor were there any spiritual books so, when she was old enough to search for answers by herself, she read Russian literature and philosophers like Kant and Nietzsche. (I’m thinking this was probably around the age when I was reading Nancy Drew.) At 15, Zaya discovered Carlos Castaneda and the world of mysticism and that “did it for me for awhile,” she says, smiling. But then she got involved “quite radically” with the environmental movement in Europe. She worked with Greenpeace, spent time in jail, and eventually was thrown out of the country. “A deep disconnect,” however, was forming within her. “Being an activist, trying to save the world, finding everything that was wrong out there,” seemed to distance her from the the spiritual questions with which she’d started.
Ultimately, Zaya moved to the United States to be closer to Castaneda and become involved in the “shamanic freedom journey” movement. When I ask her what that is, she explains it involves “magical passes” (movements to stir energy) and “recapitulating your life” (remembering your life from as early as possible and then breathing out all the energy that got stuck in your body along the way). “It’s like coming back to your original self,” she says. What she was doing then is much like what spontaneously occurs for her in her current meditation practice. But her shamanic studies still weren’t providing what she was searching for – they weren’t “answering the deeper questions.” She began to “look more broadly” and encountered I Am That by the Hindu spiritual teacher, Nisargadatta Maharaj. “It cracked me open,” she says. “Reading that book was the first seed of awakening . . . which is gradually maturing in me.”
Although his family wasn’t religious, Maurizio Benazzo attended a Catholic after-school in Genoa, Italy. Like Zaya, the “big questions” were always important to him. He “probably drove the priest crazy,” he says, “because I challenged him all the time.” Night-by-night, Maurizio reduced his prayers incrementally as an experiment, until one night he didn’t say them at all; he didn’t even make the sign of the cross. When he woke the next morning – alive! – he realized he was free of Catholicism. Unlike Bulgaria, Italy was full of ideas from America, and Maurizio “bumped into everything I could bump into.” He read and heard about “everything from TM to yoga” and all the current music and movies. “I probably watched Jesus Christ, Superstar 50,000 times.”
When he was about 16, he had a fight with his father and stormed out of the house, then realized he had nowhere to go. He knew there was a Zen Monastery on a mountain nearby, so he drove his motorcycle to it. When he arrived, they asked him if he was there for the retreat (three days of meditating 20 hours a day in complete silence as it turned out) and he said sure. “I loved it! It was another world. I’m a total monkey mind but I loved it. It was the exact opposite of what I was as a teenager. My mind calmed down.” That began a lifelong relationship with meditation. At the beginning, Maurizio says, meditation is “thinking with the eyes closed. But at least you’re focused on that. You’re listening to your mind. It was great to think with my eyes closed.”
In his early 20s, Maurizio returned to Christianity with a deep commitment. He tried joining a monastery, but they threw him out in three days for asking too many questions like, “Why does the Pope drive around in an armored car? Isn’t everything in the hands of God?” They decided he “wasn’t good monk material.” He could “see the carrot of the U.S. culture,” he says, so, when the opportunity arose, he sailed to America in an open sailboat. He and a handful of friends spent a total of four months on the trip – 52 continuous days on the open ocean. “Talk about meditation. For me the ultimate meditation is alone at night with the stars and the wind.”
After arriving in New York, Maurizio pursued a career in television and motion picture production. While in India making the award-winning documentary Shortcut to Nirvana, he rented a motorcycle to drive around “looking for a guru.” He never found one but, everywhere he went, “everybody was talking about a book called I Am That.” He returned to New York, found the book, and began contemplating passages from it during his meditation practice. One day, while meditating on the concept that “everything is an illusion – don’t let what you perceive upset you,” he heard an explosion. He ran to the window in the stairwell that looked toward Manhattan, and saw where the first plane had just hit the Twin Towers. Running up to the roof, he set up his camera just in time to film the impact of the second plane and, later, record the collapse of the towers. All the time he was filming, he “had the sense that this was all illusion.” His photograph ended up on the cover of Newsweek but, he says, “it took me forever to understand what really happened.”
Zaya and Maurizio met at a retreat in San Francisco and discovered their mutual interest in Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. On their separate paths, they had “both reached a place where a seed was planted through these teachings,” Zaya says. “From there our journey together started.”
The seeker is he who is in search of himself.
Give up all questions except one: ‘Who am I?’ After all, the only fact you are sure of is that you are. The ‘I am’ is certain. The ‘I am this’ is not. Struggle to find out what you are in reality.
To know what you are, you must first investigate and know what you are not. Discover all that you are not—body, feelings, thoughts, time, space, this or that—nothing, concrete or abstract, which you perceive can be you. The very act of perceiving shows that you are not what you perceive.
The clearer you understand, on the level of mind, you can be described in negative terms only, the quicker will you come to the end of your search and realize that you are the limitless being.
– Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
Seven years ago, Zaya and Maurizio founded Science and Nonduality (SAND), a conference, video series, Facebook presence, and web site. SAND is a “container where people can be exposed to many different kinds of teaching and find out what works for them.” It’s a forum that, they believe, can be “a catalyzer for a secular, non-dogmatic, non tradition-bound experiential spirituality. It’s inspired by the wisdom of old traditions, informed by modern science, and based in your own experience.”
SAND focuses on the big questions that have haunted them for so many years: What is the self? What is the I? What is reality? What is free will? What is time? What is space? What is awareness, consciousness, perception? What is the thing that connects us all? “The goal is to frame these questions in ways that work for both scientists and mystics,” says Zaya. “To emphasize the existence of many paths toward nonduality – from quantum theory to mantras.” The term “nonduality” has come up in many of our conversations about meditation so, since it is the title of their organization, I ask them what it means to them.
Zaya and Maurizio view the concept of nonduality as “the connective tissue between all spiritual traditions.” It is the “state that meditation takes you to.” It is “unity, union, interconnectedness, oneness, merging with the universe, no-self, no I – and many other formulations.” It is the understanding that “you are not separate from what you see around you.” Zaya uses the metaphor of a wave on the ocean coming toward you. It is unique and magnificent, but it doesn’t exist apart from the ocean. “Or,” adds Maurizio, “imagine removing water from the ocean and then allowing it to flow back in, drop by drop. Our life is like the drop’s life as it falls through the air. We are all connected. It is all one.”
Zaya and Maurizio “regularly meditate irregularly,” and neither has the need to align with any particular tradition. Although they don’t have a routine, Maurizio says it’s important they have a specific spot where they sit. “You have to have a different posture than your normal. Even on a chair. But it’s nice if it’s a specific chair in a specific part of the house. Make it a little special.” It’s not the actual morning practice where a change happens, Zaya adds. “I sit,” she says, “but what is important is to see how the meditation unwinds afterwards.” “It’s not about happening,” Maurizio agrees. “Don’t expect anything.”
Two months ago, Zaya went to a 10-day Goenka style (the really hard kind) vipassana retreat: her first. She went “as a scientist. To find out what it’s like to be in silence for 10 days.” It was very difficult and she “hated it” most of the time. She didn’t like the emphasis on meditation as a process to get some place, “the carrot – if you do it right you’ll get enlightened.” As soon as the retreat was finished, however, she loved it. “It allowed me see the mechanism of the mind.” (I found it interesting that when she first started to talk about the retreat she referred to “my mind” and as her experience progressed she changed to “the mind.”)
For the first five days, she says, “I saw my mind in chaos because I was watching the mind without routines.” By the second five-day period she had “adapted to the new routine of meditating twelve hours a day in silence and not eating after midday and the mind was getting more relaxed.” She experienced many different states of consciousness during the ten days, giving her “another dimension of being that I hadn’t previously accessed.” One time, she intensely felt like she wasn’t in her body and she couldn’t move. At first she was frightened, but then she told herself to just “watch and see.” After a while, she was able to move her fingers. Gradually, she came back into the rest of her body.
Since the retreat, she has noticed a “sense of having a core awareness that is new and has continued.” She has planted a “seed that wants to grow now.” I ask her if she’ll go to more retreats and she says that she can understand how meditation can become an addiction of “going to retreats and trying to get back into some particular state. What’s important though,” she adds, “is to integrate this state into everyday life.” Another happy outcome from the experience is that she’s developed a “space before reaction.” Now, when responding to her teenage son, “there is a pause in which I can transform the reaction.” Has your communication improved, I ask. “Absolutely!” she replies. “No doubt.”
“Her meditating changed me,” Maurizio says. “My state was different. I was in the house in a meditative state.” He’s done three of these ten-day retreats and “the last one was both the worst and best. You have to go to the bottom of your reactions. This last time I kept going a little deeper every day but never hit bottom. It was beautiful! I needed another month!”
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Excerpt 2 of 3 from the book Meditation: If You’re Doing It, You’re Doing It Right: Conversations with Meditators