Note on the Modes

The Four Modes of Meditation that I’ve developed (see Four Modes of Meditation post) can be collapsed into the two principles described in The Awakening of Faith: Calming (cessation, stopping, samadhi, etc.) and Clear Observation (prajna insight, vipassana, etc.). While it would be best not to get caught up too much in the terminology, it is certainly useful to see that there is a more passive aspect and a more active aspect of meditation, and that these two need to work together. Without letting go of addictive patterns of thinking and feeling (the passive aspect), we can’t appreciate and really engage in our life as the life of the Buddha (the active aspect). Without giving up the self, we can’t see the needs of others and help out. Without calming the waves, we can’t see the pearls and then freely give them away.

Each of these two aspects again seems to have an active and a passive side. We could compare Calming with quitting an addiction, which is easy and difficult at the same time. One could just give up and stop—which would be the easiest because it is essentially a passive approach. But many of us just don’t seem to manage and may need an active device to get to the point where we really let go. Turning our own light inward is for most people an active and at first difficult task but it can lead to a great sense of calm. Over time this procedure can become more natural, and therefore easier. Yet the active aspect may continue to be necessary at times, just because we’re human and easily disturbed.

In the same vein, we can identify a passive and an active aspect of Clear Observation. Once we’ve let go of some of our preconceived ideas, the world opens up to us and we start seeing things in a very different light. Yet, however wonderful that may be, we might still not get to the hidden corners of our mind and discover what’s blocking us from living this life to its full potential. That’s where koans come in, along with working with a teacher and fellow students. They challenge us to see what would otherwise remain hidden. We can, of course, also actively challenge ourselves—for example by asking: What is it that I might be ignoring right now at this very moment? And this can, over time, become a more natural part of our life—an effort towards effortlessness.

Considering the passive and active side of Calming as well as Clear Observation makes me realize again that our world, even in its smallest departments, seems to be made up of binary aspects that keep everything moving. Ignoring one of these aspects can freeze us into a lifeless system. The sixth-century Chinese master Zhiyi repeatedly refers to this in his Essentials of Buddhist Meditation. Throughout his very detailed manual he warns against getting stuck in any particular state or definition and tells us to keep our meditation open and alive by alternatively calming or activating the mind.

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