“After fifteen years of radical activity, something broke up inside me. I saw no political reality in any part of the world that I could embrace.”
In 1969, at the age of 17, I was arrested with other anarchists and accused of a bloody attack on a bank in Milan. We were innocent, but it took years and years of hard work and the commitment of many people to persuade the judges and public that the bombs had not been set by us.
It was during a student demonstration in 1968 that I had bought an anarchist magazine. A few days later, I visited the magazine’s offices to ask for more information on the anarchist movement. Soon after, at the end of an angry discussion, my father said to me in a hurt and critical voice, “So you’re an anarchist!”
I started going into poor neighborhoods several afternoons a week for after-school activities with children. Then at five o’clock we’d visit construction sites to talk to the workers as they left the job. At home, although the situation with my family was getting worse, we’d discuss major international issues and talk about our aspirations for a world where everyone was free and equal—”with no God, no state, no servants, no masters.”
Fearing a radical turn to the right, even the creation of a fascist regime like the one in Greece at that time, many Italians—and not just those of my generation—were turning to the use of weapons. On December 14, 1969, I was arrested together with other anarchists, accused of attacking a bank in Milan two days earlier and planting bombs in Rome.
My first imprisonment lasted three years. After three long days of questioning, just before entering jail for two months of isolation, I found out that one of my comrades, Giuseppe Pinelli, had “committed suicide” by jumping from a window in Milan’s police headquarters.
After that first three-year confinement, I was arrested again and again. In 1971, a jailbreak attempt by inmates in my prison turned into a revolt. Though I had been locked in my cell the entire time, I was considered the instigator. There were more violent encounters with the authorities and more jail sentences, and always the only response I felt capable of was a stronger commitment to political militancy and more rigid ideological positions.
When I finally got out of prison, I moved to Milan and worked to express solidarity with political prisoners in Western Europe, especially in Franco’s Spain. Looking back, I remember believing that two visions of the world were clashing and it was my duty to fight against Fascism in black shirts, white shirts, or any other form it took. “Too simple!” I’d say today, but so it seemed to me back then.
By the early eighties, after fifteen years of radical activity, something broke up inside me. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but I saw no political reality unfolding in any part of the world that I could embrace. What I found most unbearable was the hatred of one’s neighbors—the common tendency among revolutionary groups to blame each other for their own defeats. So I went “underground” again, this time for a different purpose.
My brother had spoken very highly of Aikido and I wished to try it. Practicing a martial art was still unacceptable for a full-time political activist, but quietly and secretly, making up odd excuses each time, I managed to go to the gym and get on the tatami mat. It was then I finally found the energy and the strength to make a final break with political militancy.
Suddenly I found myself in a new and unknown dimension, without the reference points on which I had based my life for fifteen years. At the University of Rome, I started following the lessons of Corrado Pensa, a professor and teacher of Vipassana meditation. The following year I started practicing sitting meditation regularly and doing retreats with him and other teachers, including Christina Feldman, and Stephen and Martine Batchelor.
Little by little, my life began to fall into place and a different understanding slowly appeared, in what I consider to be a real process of purification. Those were not always easy years, but they were full of a new warmth.
I wound up working as a high school janitor. It was a hard job to accept, as I had no other interests to occupy me. But eventually I came to appreciate working in a stress-free, if monotonous, environment, and the opportunities it gave me for practice. It was a deep experience of freedom, sustained by the relationships I developed with my co-workers that went beyond the rigid rules of radical trade-unionism.
Not that we didn’t make every attempt to defend our rights when we had to, but I found that when the perception of conflict changes, you sometimes find new and unexpected solutions. Sitting meditation and the practice of awareness in everyday life were wonderful training for non-violent conflict resolution, because they helped develop attitudes of equanimity and non-separation. These are the doors through which our true nature emerges, enabling us to accept the truth of things as they are.
When I first heard the American Vietnam veteran Claude Thomas speak, I realized his words about war and violence related to me as well as to soldiers like him. To touch suffering means speaking not just about the violence of war and prison, but also about the violence that comes before and after war and prison. For we all have to look with awareness and compassion at our own inner suffering and violence. I believe this is the only way to set ourselves free from the automatic behaviors that so often govern our lives.
In 1996, while practicing and studying Thich Nhat Hanh’s Five Precepts, I decided together with some friends to give birth to an association called La Rete di Indra (Indra’s Net). Its aim is to promote the practice of mindfulness among those working in the caring professions or with volunteer organizations. We also offer people already on a spiritual path opportunities to come into direct contact with the suffering of others, so that they may offer their help. We have focused on assistance to the terminally ill, healing the wounds of violence, and raising funds for social activities in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Involvement in La Rete di Indra has called on some of my past skills. Practical organization comes naturally to me; it is what I did in politics. But rather than trying to define our exact identity as an organization, we do our best to experience in a dynamic way the relationships that are developing one by one. We try to feel part of a true network, witnessing who we really are through the response and work of other people.
Though my wife is American, I am still unable to get a visa to the U.S. due to my previous activities. I would dearly like to visit those American spiritual centers I’ve only read about in books. During the 1998 Zen Peacemaker Order retreat at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps, I vowed to “learn to really look deeply,” and wrote that as an offering for the small altar we had built near the railway tracks at Birkenau. Today I wish to practice a policy of total and unilateral disarmament.