Active verses Passive Meditation

Professor Tom Hickey

Active vs Passive Meditation
Active vs Passive Meditation

This is a good summary of the Kabbalistic viewpoint that Rabbi Markel has graciously provided. Interestingly, it's Jewish preference for the passive meditation described over the active meditation described is quite similar to the public position of another religious institution, the Roman Catholic Church on meditation, or at least it was some years ago unless it has changed since.

The type of active meditation described is also similar to the Neoplatonic style of meditation, set forth, for instance, by Plotinus.  It may well derive from the pre-Platonic Greek wisdom alluded to by Plato's Socrates in the Symposium or Banquet dialogue, where Socrates summarily describes the style of his teacher, the priestess Diotima.  Interestingly, Plato's Seventh Letter also speaks of a similar "lightning flash" of sudden illumination that comes for this kind of contemplative thought focused on a more and more abstract ideal, until the ideal itself flashes forth in its pristine purity.

The active style of meditation is found in Jnana Yoga also, in which a deep discriminative inquiry discovers that self is not to be found other than in pure subjectivity and that "reality" is actually appearance, i.e., what appears against the background of pure existence, pure awareness and complete fulfillment. The forms of meditation employed in Bhakti Yoga and Karma Yoga also tend to be active, although not quite in the sense described, being more less consciously (intentionally) intellectual.

The passive type of meditation is a principal practice of both some schools of Buddhism, especially Chinese Ch'an and Japanese Zen, as well as by some forms of Raja Yoga and some schools of Taoism.

On the basis of my investigation, I would agree that active meditation is generally a safer form of meditation, especially for those who are proceeding with out a qualified teacher. As I understand it, safety regarding spiritual practices cannot be assured unless the guide is a "saint" (tzaddik, wali, pir, satpurusha) of the causal level (karana loka/ Beriah).

"Choose a master for without him this journey is full of tribulations, fears, and dangers. With no escort, you would be lost on a road that you have already taken."
- Rumi

"Whoever travels without a guide needs two hundred years for a two days' journey."
- Rumi
"Do not take a step on the path of love without a guideI have tried it a hundred times and failed."
- Hafiz
The dangers of practicing passive meditation without adequate guidance are set forth correctly, for I have seen not few succumb to these pitfalls. Many who practice passive meditation styles without adequate guidance run the danger of spacing out and thinking that they are getting somewhere when they are just getting overly "airy." They are also susceptible to ego-inflation due to their inability to evaluate and process experiences appropriately. This is well known to guides, however. Qualified guides are wary of such symptoms arising and they know how to dispel them.

On the other hand, it seems to me the dichotomy between "active meditation" and "passive meditation" rather broadly categorizes complex phenomena, perhaps too broadly. A perusal of the various schools employing passive meditation styles reveals that there are many different approaches to passive meditation. The same can be said for the active styles. For example, in Meher Baba's Discourses, there are eight chapters under the heading "Types of Meditation."

Discriminative practices usually seek to ascend the Tree of Life to achieve Wisdom (Chokmah), on the right column. As I understand means of ascending the central column of the  Tree of Life by comparing my limited experience of Qabalistic thought with my exposure to other wisdom traditions, it seems that the passive meditation described is not a chief practice used by those seeking to ascend by the central column using Beauty/Love/Messiah (Tiferet), or if it is used in some cases, it is not a primary means employed. The principal meditative practice of the central column, at least as I understand it from the traditions with which I am familiar, is loving remembrance (Sanskrit. smarana, Arabic. zikr, Hebrew zachor) of the Beloved, in addition to surrender to the Beloved and pleasing the Beloved in all things, great and small. This entails living for the Beloved and not for oneself and making the Beloved one's constant companion through continual remembrance. This is an active practice, although intellectual discrimination is for the most part subservient to the heart.

Shalom, Salaam, Shanti

Home Page Tom Hickey

posted on the Donmeh forum
Tue, 18 May 1999


page uploaded 6 June 1999