A plaque from 1913 on the ancient oven of the Certosa di Pontignano, near Siena, invited the pilgrim to a peaceful stop in solitude or in company. In this relentless Italian summer, amidst the backdrop of tragic events around us, the allocated retreat of 'Cortona Week' (16–23 July) in the splendid setting of the Congress Center of the University of Siena in Pontignano offered the benefits of an immersive experience in areas that "classical" sciences submitted to mechanicism and determinism have bravely sought to scrutinize as a unified field of reality from the cell to the self, from epigenetics to consciousness.
A casual observer, enveloped in the beliefs that have led to a dualistic view of reality rather than a unified one capable of embracing nature and mind, earth and cosmos, once exposed to the interdisciplinary works of the summer school in a relaxed dialogue where English is the official language, may feel initially stunned. The available books (and for those who wished to purchase some, there was an offer at the end of the event) have somewhat unconventional titles: "Silicon: From the invention of the microprocessor to the new science of awareness"; "The Emergence of Life: From chemical origins to synthetic biology"; "The Time of the We: Women reborn in the context of urban India"; "Meditate to Breathe Infinity"; "Irreducible: Consciousness, Life, Computers, and our Nature," and so forth.
The tone of this novel way of thinking emerges, in contrast to what we are accustomed to absorbing on paper, from the screens of tablets and mobile phones. For whom is the Cortona Week experience truly intended? The program for 2023, signed by the distinguished biologist and macromolecular chemist Pier Luigi Luisi, together with his group, answers this question with concise precision. Professor emeritus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ) in Zurich, the octogenarian Luisi conceived the project of a summer school back in 1985 under the auspices of the 'Mind & Life Institute' and the patronage of the XIV Dalai Lama. He named it "Cortona" because for years 'the event' was held in the Tuscan town, then in Todi and India, before arriving in 2022 at the Certosa di Pontignano and this year under the banner of a courageous pervasive theme: "Science and the Wholeness of Life."
Luisi explains: “Today's world leaders come from universities, despite the fact that the educational system imparted by classical academic institutions is not suitable for training leaders capable of facing the problems of today's world. No specialized education, whether technological, scientific, or humanistic, can by itself foster an approach sensitive to ethical values, art, music, poetry, and personal introspection. While in the classical approach there have been positions not opposed to a systemic openness, the fact is that a "soulless science" has been constructed, and the conventional academic system remains oblivious to the principles of inner cultivation and an extended, non-dogmatic spirituality that promotes ecological awareness, as humanity and nature are part of an undivided reality.”
These principles have been shared by a host of leading scientists and thinkers invited to Cortona Week over the decades, from David Bohm to Rupert Sheldrake, from Francisco Varela to Fritjiof Capra, the author of the best-selling book "The Tao of Physics" (1975) and the treatise "Life and Nature" co-authored with Luisi (Italian: "Vita e Natura Aboca," 2016); from Tullio Regge to the composer Luca Lombardi, from the Swiss mathematician Werner Stahel to the abbot Roshi Enkyo O'Hara, from the Persian Sufi Nahid Angha to the ecologist John D. Liyu, among the many who, along with the founder, have turned the Cortona Summer School into a pioneering experiment committed to unlocking the hidden potential of the Tree of Life and grafting it onto the career paths of hundreds of young researchers and future leaders of the new millennium. This year, just under a hundred men and women between the ages of twenty-five and eighty have embraced the school's operational rule in an uninterrupted flow starting at 7:30 am, which includes outdoor meditation and Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong practices, respectively led by two Indian sadhus from the Bhaktivedanta Institute in Calcutta and Hans Pieter Siebler from the eponymous school in Zurich.
After breakfast, forty-minute lectures by the speakers followed one another in a well-equipped room, each introduced by a young research fellow in the field. In these morning sessions, the speakers, including doctors, psychiatrists, computer scientists, physicists, engineers, and entrepreneurs like the twenty-six-year-old Giovanni Volpe, a formidable advocate for programs for refugees and especially vulnerable children in Congo, Kenya, Syria, and Greece, bore witness to the emergence of a potentially revitalized academic culture. The titles of their respective presentations speak for themselves: "Epigenetics and consciousness" (Ernesto Burgio, European Institute for Research on Cancer and the Environment); "Feeling the mind from the cell to the self" (Daniela Lucangeli, University of Padua); "Contemplative scientific insights on the flexibility of the mind and the plasticity of the brain" (Antonino Raffone, La Sapienza University of Rome); "Complex systems and emotional sensitivity" (Katherine Peil Kauffman, EFS International Institute, USA); "The Earth rapidly renews its course" (Mario Pogačnik, UNESCO artist for peace); "We share new thoughts for a regeneration action" (Barbara Nappini, Slow Food Italy).
In addition to them, the renowned physicist and inventor Federico Faggin (Elvia & Federico Faggin Foundation) and the monk and activist Guidalberto Bormolini (Fraternity of San Leonardo) demonstrated with a compelling demeanor that the paths of a secularly spiritual science and a Franciscan spirituality imbued with love for all creatures, which were believed to run parallel for centuries, can indeed converge. It is not merely a wish; the most advanced non-Euclidean geometries have mathematically ascertained this. Faggin's books "Silicon" and "Irreducible" (Mondadori 2020, 2022) and Bormolini's "The Art of Meditation" (Ponte Alle Grazie, 2023) have been in high demand in today's seemingly distracted society. In the afternoons, creative activities such as painting, mosaic work, carving, breath-focused concentration, therapeutic assembly, drum percussion, and circular dances, led by Irene Reintjens, were conducted simultaneously indoors and outdoors. In some corners of the Certosa, the American composer Michael Stillwater accompanied his beautiful spiritual songs on the guitar. Depending on personal preferences, attendees registered for one or more of these workshops for the entire week, avoiding idle gazing during their free time.
The passing observer who has lived this unique immersive experience is prompted to reflect: the classical humanism that has evolved over millennia in Eurasia has defined us as both limited and unlimited. The distinct vision of Luisi, as embodied in the activities of Cortona Week, suggests that it may be necessary to rediscover the classical notion of humanism, bypassing the deception hidden in utopian beliefs. Within ourselves, now and not in some indefinite future, we can implore our cells to generate harmony. Grazia Marchianò, a specialist in Comparative Aesthetics and Philosophies and Religions of India and Eastern Asia, a former Full Professor at the University of Siena-Arezzo, and an Honorary Doctor at the Open University in Edinburgh, boasts hundreds of publications in Italian and English in the field of aesthetics and oriental studies. She is responsible for the Fondo Scritti Zolla Marchianò and is the curator of Elémire Zolla’s Collected Works at the Marsilio publisher in Venice.