Contemplation is an exploration of awareness itself
We tend to think of contemplation as measured, considered thinking that we initiate as a solitary activity. We might regard it as a way of structuring and organising our thoughts, perhaps with a view to resolving some particular issue or problem. Or we may view contemplation as unstructured musing, a speculative and loosely meditative pondering around a specific subject or set of preoccupying concerns. Neither of these descriptions is what is meant here when speaking of contemplation as a formalised practice of awareness.
Contemplation fosters intuition and enquiry
Here, our use of the term implies a more passive, subtler operation of reflective awareness. What we’re talking about is the bringing about of a mental state which observes itself and which might be characterised as leaning more towards our intuitive and openly inquisitive side. We aim to develop a naturalistic mode of enquiry which operates largely outside the medium of language and problem solving. This means we’re aiming at gleaning insight into our own psyche, not merely as the imagery of representative ideas, but as fundamental and novel intuitions.
Pure, open-mindedness is the key to success
So what is insight, and what is intuition? We can say these are forms of thought, but only in as much as they bring understanding – they’re only resultant thoughts and not initiating thoughts. So insight and intuition lay between awareness and thought, in a category of their own. They aren’t answers to specific questions about the nature of ourselves, because we simply don’t know the form of questions that we might ask – we can’t discover the unknown by asking in terms of what is known. It’s really an engagement in open-mindedness in its purest form.
In contemplative enquiry, we explore the self
In this reflective enquiry, we’re encoding within our contemplative state a passive yet constant curiosity. This undemanding yet investigative attitude is used to explore what we broadly think of as our ‘self’, or what we assume to be the fundamental essence of ‘what I am’. We take this self as a given, yet when we’re asked to explain what it is, we’re at a loss to do so. We somehow regard it as an enduring agent that resides within, or as the totality of our being. We think of it as the experiencer of experience, the observer of the observed, the controlling agent.
We untangle our assumptions about selfhood . . .
On further reflection, we soon discover this notion of our self makes no sense at all. It can’t be right to think of the self as our body, as that’s a constantly mutating and evolving thing. Our cells die and mutate every second, and are replaced with others, or not at all. Our body is an entirely different entity to what it was last year, let alone to when we were children or babes in arms. And our minds are only a flux of ephemera, nothing enduring, nothing graspable as any constant form of self. Nothing persists as an enduring self in the mind-body system.
. . . and become deeply fascinated in the process
So it’s all of this which we’re looking into when we contemplate on the nature of our personal sense of being, when through insight and intuition we seek to arrive at some clearer understanding of how that sense of being is arrived at. It’s an utterly fascinating process of discovery; for many people it’s the most central and significant form of learning they’ve ever experienced. It’s also the most rewarding aspect of the lives of many sincere and thoughtful people, those who seek not only to understand themselves, but what also it is to be a human animal.
A time to be still, a time to be silent – quality time
In any formalised contemplation practice, we’re attending to awareness, though doing so introspectively. That’s to say we’re closely attending to phenomena as they unfold in awareness whilst minimising exposure to sense contacts – we’re sitting silently on a chair with our eyes softly closed in a quiet environment. Our attention is deemed introspective as under such conditions there’s a reduced tendency to grasp outwardly at the external world with our senses, which is its everyday mode of operation – attention as navigator of the external world.
We gain privileged access to our innermost being
When we use the term ‘introspection’, we’re referring to any situation in which we gain privileged and enhanced access to our private mental sphere. So in any formalised practice, it’s this inward seeing that reveals to us the workings and nature both of the contemplative state itself, as well as all the ephemera of mental activity. This is what was meant earlier when it was said we’re bringing about a mental state which observes itself. Of course, there will still be feelings that appear within the stillness of contemplative awareness, and we observe these too.
We learn about passivity – free from control . . .
The specific form of contemplative introspection that’s being advocated is unusual in that there’s no stress on concentrating the mind, as there is typically in what we might commonly regard as meditative practices. The word ‘meditation’ somehow implies a level of active involvement of the will which is not warranted or desirable here. So the use of the term ‘contemplation’ is perhaps a subtle distinction, though nonetheless is one worth making, not least of all in avoiding comparisons with certain popular meditation and concentration practices.
. . . and free from the striving of selfhood
What marks out the formalised practice of contemplation proposed elsewhere on this site, is primarily this minimising of exposure to sense contacts whilst dwelling in an enhanced and investigative sense of engagement. There’s no striving toward a state of concentration that would in any case be unsustainable in everyday life, and that, alongside our formal practice, is the very place where in time we want our contemplative skill to take beneficial effect. To this end, we’ll develop both introspective and extrospective applications of the practice.
It’s a skill for life, and for living in the world
This twofold approach means that we’ll hone and naturalise a deeply rewarding introspective contemplative skill which may then in time be taken out into everyday life. There, it will again become naturalised, though now operable also as an extrospective skill amidst the external environment. As in the introspective practice, that skill will convey a deeper sense of engagement, a more assured and clearer comprehension of experience, and alongside this, much valuable knowledge about ourselves will be directly gleaned as it could in no other way.