Any exercise assigned to one on the path to self-mastery pursues one single goal—mastering one’s attention. Retrieving attention from the yoke of desires is not an easy, yet it is still a feasible task.
In essence, all exercises can be classified into active and passive. In regards to awareness, passive exercises are fundamental. They are designed to detach consciousness from identification with the body, mind, and emotions, therefore these do not play an active role in passive practices. Instead, the main efforts are made on observing and witnessing.
Just as an observation is an integral part of the observer, witnessing is the manifestation of the witness. Consciousness becomes a witness of the internal processes through uninvolved perceiving.
The subject for observation can be breathing, emotions, tensions in the body, and so forth. In fact, the subject of our observations does not make a big difference. The main point is for us to be able to, first, not let our attention merge with the subject of observation, and, second, keep our attention on the subject without wandering for as long as possible.
The key point here is to get a grip on holding your attention steadily and the steering it according to instructions of a technique assigned. The very effort to hold attention helps one to create a gap in attentions’ habitual mechanistic flow along with desires and emotions. This is a step toward freeing our attention and an opportunity to master it fully.
The most well-known passive techniques are Vipassana, Zazen, and listening. There are other techniques, for instance, awareness of different body parts, that G. I. Gurdjieff recommended to his students.
The state of awareness is passive as well, because in this state, we witness external and internal events without getting identified with them and yet we maintain the ability to perform concurrently in the outer world.
At the core of all passive techniques lies the principle of using attention as a pure function of consciousness with no active involvement of the body, emotions, and the mind during the process.
It may seem that exercises on focusing attention, such as gazing intently at one point or at a candle’s flame, are passive, but this is not the case. In these practices, the physical body serves as a vehicle for attention, meaning one has to make an effort to not blink, not look away, and to sit still. Similarly, recitation of mantras, koan practices, and the well-known Neo-Advaita constant self-inquiry (“Who am I?”) are all active techniques, where the mind and body are instrumental in performing these practices.
A deep prayer is an expression of our gratitude and awe and equally affects all three lower bodies. Dynamic meditations, which are the practice of expressing emotions, and visualization practices are all examples of active practices. These practices are always aimed at and used to accomplish certain tasks in the seeker’s being. They are similar to crutches that help a convalescing person to walk. Quite a few of active techniques are designed to resolve certain problems that seekers face on their way along the Path, and thus they are of applied significance. Those seekers who fail to realize that and attempt to build their entire work practices around such techniques will never make any progress.
Most of the existing religious traditions and paths use a combination of active and passive techniques. Active techniques create an opportunity to overcome existing obstacles and clear up our inner space for a deeper plunge into passive techniques. In other words, the intentional releasing of anger that was not expressed in a timely matter and causes continuous internal pressure makes us a bit more relaxed which allows us to go deeper inward and discover things hidden previously by our anger.
Active techniques prepare the groundwork to make it easier for our consciousness to break free of identification with things and become crystallized. Passive techniques per se represent the process of breaking free from identification and redirecting our attention to the process of awareness of the body, emotions, and the mind. Active techniques help resolve issues in the lower bodies, while passive techniques bring them into harmony. These two types of practices complement each other and, when practiced correctly, lead seekers to their primary goal.