How to Explore Inner Worlds with Active and Passive Arising
By Matthew Joyce
“I’m terrible at visualizing,” said one of my students.
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
“When the voice on the guided meditation says to imagine a stairway I can do that. I see the one in my house since I climb those stairs every day. But the recording loses me when it says the stairs lead to a hot springs. My stairs lead to the hall upstairs. And by the time it asks me to experience wading into the water I’m stuck.”
“It’s a common problem,” I said. “It probably happens because you have a hard time with a set of skills called active and passive arising.”
Active and Passive Arising in Daily Life
When you experience something you can either actively create it or you can passively experience it.
To actively create something, clap your hands. Do it now and listen to the sound. Was it loud? Did you feel the impact as your hands pressed together? When you clap your hands you actively initiate a sensory experience.
Now look around you. Take a moment and describe what you see. When you observe the world around you, you are passively experiencing what is before you.
These are basic skills we use every day in the physical world, but when it comes to exploring inner worlds many people have a challenging time. So the trick is to take something that you are already good at—using active and passive arising in the physical world—and apply it to the inner world you want to explore.
How You Normally Use Them
In the physical world we sometimes use active arising. Other times we use passive arising. But more often than not we use both in combination.
To illustrate my point I encouraged my student to eat one of the snacks on the table. We had carrots and dip, chips and salsa, and Hersey’s chocolate kisses. He selected a chocolate and unwrapped the silver foil. Then he popped it into his mouth. After a minute or so I asked him to describe the experience.
“It’s sweet and creamy as it melts onto my tongue,” he said.
“You just used active and passive arising to create that experience. You actively reached for the chocolate and put it in your mouth, but the flavor and sensation of the melting chocolate arose without you doing anything more to create the experience,” I said. “Did you know what the chocolate was going to taste like before you ate it?”
“Sort of. I’ve eaten chocolate before so I had a pretty good idea, but it’s not like I could taste it before I put it in my mouth.”
The key to enjoying vivid inner experiences is to use the same combination of skills when you use your nonphysical senses.
Activating Your NonPhysical Senses
Just as you have five physical senses with which to experience the physical world, you also have five corresponding nonphysical senses—sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell—with which to experience nonphysical worlds.
Your five physical senses are the means by which your body transfers sensory information to your mind, which then combines them into a composite experience.
Your mind does the same thing with your nonphysical senses when you use your imagination.
When you imagine a stairway, you create in your mind a visual image of the stairs. Depending upon the level of detail that you apply to the visual you may be able to tell if the stairs are indoors or outdoors. You may also be able to see if they’re carpeted or if they’re made of stone. With a bit more effort you can add in other details such as how tall and wide each step is and whether there is a railing beside them.
You can do the same when you envision a mountain hot springs. Even if you’ve never been to one, you can likely still create a scene in your mind of a pool of water surrounded by boulders and pine trees. And if you take things a step further you might add in the sounds of birds chirping, wind blowing in the trees, the scent of pine on the breeze.
Actively creating such an experience within your mind is often an act of visiting your personal library of life experiences and mentally adding them into the scene one by one. Doing so is an act of active arising and it gets easier with practice.
From Active to Passive Arising
Some people are better at visualizing than others. So the nice thing about guided meditations is that they often suggest the types of experiences to look for in your personal library in the same way that a cookbook suggests the order and measure of ingredients to create a meal. But like a cookbook a guided meditation can only make suggestions. It can’t create the experience for you.
If the guided meditation suggests you imagine the taste of a Hershey’s chocolate kiss and you’ve never eaten chocolate before you might be at a loss to do so—unless you apply your skill at passive arising.
When you ease yourself into a physical hot spring you naturally feel the hot water on your skin. You may also notice steam rising off the water or your muscles relaxing as your body warms up. These things arise naturally and no active effort on your part is required. The same thing is possible when you imagine yourself stepping into a hot spring.
The trick is to stop using active arising and allow the experience to unfold of its own accord in the same way you do in the physical world. One reason this happens so rarely is because so few of us allow it to do so. We’re so accustomed to using our imaginations actively that we don’t allow the inner experiences to arise on their own.
The first time I experienced passive arising I was doing a guided meditation when completely out of context and literally out of nowhere someone handed me a piece of grilled chicken. The drumstick was hot to the touch as if it had just been pulled from the flames. I took a bite and felt the crispy skin yield to juicy meat within. It was so spicy it burned my lips and tongue. But I couldn’t identify the flavor. I’d never eaten it before. It was only years later when I tried Jamaican jerk chicken for the first time that I learned what it was that I had eaten nonphysically that day.
You may not have an opportunity to eat nonphysical Jamaican jerk chicken but you can have your own passive inner experiences if you allow them to arise naturally.
Doing so is an act of effortless observation. In the same way that it takes very little effort to notice the heat and steam arising from a real hot spring, you can direct your inner awareness to a similar scene within your mind’s eye. But rather than deliberately envisioning the heat and steam, you simply observe, patiently allowing things to occur on their own.
If you’re new to this practice, you may want to look for subtle clues, such as visual details you didn’t envision on your own or perhaps a texture that accompanies the visual image. Or you might look for something more obvious. Perhaps the scene appears to be in motion as it might if you were having a dream. Perhaps you hear someone talking to you and you know that you are not deliberately making up the words they are saying.
If You’re Having a Tough Time
If you find it challenging to allow a scene to arise passively, be kind to yourself. You’ve had a lifetime of practice using active and passive arising in the physical world. That familiarity makes it easy for you. With a bit of practice you can begin to feel comfortable using the same skills to explore nonphysical worlds.
As you do, you’ll discover an extra bonus as well. While those nonphysical chocolates are bursting with the same flavor as physical chocolates, they have none of the calories. So go ahead and eat all you want.
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