The Four Ways of Working

The practices that we receive from the Asian traditions of Buddhism are the product of literally hundreds of years of experience and refinement. It is sometimes difficult to appreciate the many dimensions of even a simple practice. I discuss here one framework for understanding what is important in practice and then apply it to our practice of returning attention to the breath.

The framework is found in many arenas. We’ll call it the four ways of working or the four dimensions of presence: power, ecstasy, insight, and compassion.


Power is the ability to stay present in action. It is one thing to be present when there is nothing going on. It is a different matter to stay present when we are in motion. Many people say to me that they are caught up by the demands of their lives and find themselves reacting to events and situations. The reactions tend to be habitual and have less to do with the actual circumstances and more to do with what buttons are being pushed. Power means the ability to act appropriately even when our buttons are being pushed. Internally, it means that we can cut through the tendencies that pull us back into distraction.


Ecstasy is the ability to open to experience. When people are introduced to this aspect of practice, they often remember how they used to do the same thing when they were a child, quite naturally, without any instruction. In other cases, they realize that that open way of experiencing the world comes to them effortlessly when they are out in nature. The ecstatic quality also arises when we fall in love. The sight, sound or memory of the other causes us to open to the world and everything we experience is wonderful. We often feel only that person or that environment can give rise to the sensation. However, it is possible to experience anything ecstatically.


Insight is the ability to see into what is arising. When we see into things, we see more clearly what is going on. Externally, this means that we can see the deeper patterns operating in a situation. Our responses are then more in tune with what is going on. An effective teacher can see what prevents a student from learning something and fashion their efforts accordingly. Internally, insight is the ability to see into what is going on in ourselves. At first it allows us to see through the clouds of thoughts to the physical sensations that accompany them. As we continue, we see and experience the feelings that are at the basis of the thoughts and physical reactions. As we continue further, we see that all experience is groundless, and we begin to appreciate that our true nature is this open, clear awareness that abides nowhere.


Compassion is the ability to let go. Almost always it is an attachment to some kind of agenda, some kind of investment, some kind of self-interest, that prevents us from being present. In everyday affairs, in personal interactions, a little less self-defensiveness can go a long way toward smoother, more effective, and more meaningful interactions. Frequently, people who have been practicing for a few months come to me impatient with the rate of progress in their meditation. “My mind is just as active as it was when I started,” they say. “In fact, it is worse, there are more thoughts than even before and I feel that I’m getting nowhere.” When I ask them how their life is going, they are usually surprised to hear themselves saying that it is going very well, they are having better relationships with their spouse, friends, coworkers, even difficult supervisors or employees. While they may not have noticed it, all the practice of letting go of thinking and coming back to the breath has begun to show up in their daily life. The reactivity doesn’t operate quite so quickly and just that little bit of letting go makes a difference. As we deepen our relationship with compassion, we become less and less reactive and more and more responsive. In Buddhist thought, compassion is the natural expression of the open, clear awareness that is our birthright.

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