In a series of articles exploring the art of meditation, Vajradaka shines light on the fine art of balancing activity and receptivity within our practice.
While teaching meditation or when discussing it with friends, I always try to keep basic principles in mind. Sometimes I refer to them overtly, but they are mostly in the background, providing the context within which the details of practicing meditation are explored. One such principle is the relationship between receptivity and activity. These are pillars upon which much of what happens in meditation practice rests.
Receptivity consists in the ability to notice and be aware in a relaxed manner. It enables us to absorb and integrate the different impressions that arise as we meditate. It is like a fertile ground in which our positive mental states can grow and blossom. Receptivity can include strong aspirations — what we might call faith, and even insight. If we are receptive in the face of hindrances to meditation, we can sometimes gain access to a strong intuitive response, as if a well of deeper wisdom makes itself felt. And this guides us away from what is unhelpful.
Activity refers to our endeavor and application. It is what we do in our practice, including the application of particular meditation practices and methods for stimulating positive states of mind, and overcoming hindrances. When we strengthen our positive states of mind — by using a phrase, or bringing to mind an appropriate image — we, are being active. When we consciously check for hindrances and adjust accordingly, we are being active. With practice, our ability to be active becomes intuitive rather than considered or premeditated.
We need both receptivity and activity in our meditation practice and it is sometimes useful to assess the relationship between them to see how much of each is present. However, they are often intermingled, and they are always interrelated. Even so, most people have a bias towards either activity or receptivity. When the relationship between the two becomes attenuated, our meditation will suffer. Over-emphasis on activity can make our practice dry and shallow. A disproportionate emphasis on receptivity can lead to stagnation.
It is important to find ways to ensure that these two qualities operate together. One approach can be described in terms of “noticing” and “looking.” Noticing refers to what happens when we are receptive, and we notice the appearance and disappearance of mental states. Their arising evokes an immediate response within us, which we also notice. We may then choose to be active, in order to strengthen a positive quality or undermine a hindrance.
Looking involves watching for, or searching out, particular mental states that may have been incipient but of which we were not previously conscious. We may ask: what is happening in my experience? or what is missing? or is there a hindrance present? These questions direct our awareness to areas that we might have overlooked. Of course, as well as being active in asking the question, we also need receptivity and sensitivity to what emerges.
The Buddhist tradition suggests various antidotes to hindrances in meditation. Some of these are quite active – for example, the technique of cultivating the opposite quality to what is obstructing meditation. So if one experiences ill-will or hatred in meditation, a suggested remedy is to cultivate loving-kindness (metta). In applying such a remedy, however, we also need receptivity because when the positive quality of loving-kindness actually arises, we need sensitivity and openness in order to include it into the practice.
Another traditional antidote draws more on the qualities of receptivity. This is the “sky-like attitude.” Here we are aware of the hindrance, but neither act to remove it, nor add to what is there. We feel that the mind is like the sky — huge and boundless — and that the hindrance is like a cloud, which we allow to drift away in its own time.
Balancing these qualities is quite an art. As we consciously exercise our skills of receptivity and activity in meditation, they will gradually become second-nature, and will interact harmoniously.
Vajradaka has been a full-time Dharma practitioner and meditation teacher since the beginning of 1973, and started practicing meditation in Japan in the late 1960’s.
Vajradaka lived for 21 years in a meditation retreat center in Wales called Vajraloka. He recently finished a year-long writing sabbatical and now lives in a Buddhist community in London. You can read Vajradaka’s blog here.