What is contemplation?

Photo: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

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.

Discover if contemplation is right for you

11 thoughts on “What is contemplation?

  1. I love the way, Hariod, that you make the distinction, and explain the difference, between meditative practice and contemplation. A wonderfully helpful post.

    • Thank you very much Don; I greatly appreciate you giving time to reading this article and for providing some valuable feedback. Of course, many others before me have written about the distinction between formal meditative practices and contemplation, though it’s true to say that the line between the two is to some extent blurred. The absence of any volitional effort aimed at concentrating the mind is, for me, the primary distinction, which is not to say that the mind does not settle into tranquillity of its own accord; it can, and in time, most certainly does as you may well know from any endeavours of your own in this arena Don.

      Many people struggle with meditation because of the frequent stress on concentrating the mind. At the outset, there’s the assumption that we are in control of our mind and body; and so it can be rather a deflating experience to discover that this is far from being the case! And often, whatever skill is developed in concentration remains not only hard to apply in everyday life, but also something of a stilted, contrived adjunct to proceedings whenever it is. After a lifetime of working earnestly and intensively in this area, I’ve concluded that a softer, more workable approach is better suited to the modern Western mind.

      Many thanks once again for your interest Don.

      Hariod.

  2. “Nothing persists as an enduring self in the mind-body system.” This made me remember the first time I felt that. It was strange and frightening to feel so lost and liberated at the same time. Consciousness has changed now, and at least today we have the language (if we can find the words) to share our experience. Thank you for this Hariod; you have a wonderful gift for writing about complex understandings concisely.

    • Thank you very much for your interest and engagement Willow-Marie; I appreciate both greatly. Thank you also for your generous and kind words; they are received most gratefully and are truly a welcome encouragement to me in my writing and endeavours here, coming as they do, from a published author such as yourself. You may well have covered in your own fashion much of the material I write about here, and suspect that is so. Either way, I am gratified and honoured by your presence.

      You are quite correct to bring up the subject of fear in contemplation, as of course it may occur dependent upon a number of factors. I think it’s correct to say that it more commonly occurs when mentation ceases, or is about to cease, and the internal model of self, in its egoic mode, senses that its foothold is slipping, that it’s standing on a sliding floor, so to speak. I’ve written about this before and described it as standing on the edge of a cliff and feeling as if we are about to fall into a great chasm below.

      That may not be true to the experience you allude to in your comment, and you seem instead to be referencing a deep insight into non-duality/non-self. Nonetheless, it is true to say that fear is for many something that must be faced as one’s practise deepens; although as doubtless you know, it tends to be short-lived and non-recurrent, having the benefit of bringing a major breakthrough in its wake. The unknown usually causes trepidation in some degree or another, much as some might object to the suggestion.

      With gratitude and respect,

      Hariod.

  3. Contemplation: yes I am still trying to contemplate deeply the topic you have so beautifully dealt with. It is never easy to simplify the complexity behind the process of contemplation – it no doubt being a process of self discovery. The more we think, the more we allow the power of insights and intuitions to lay hidden and rarely get used; we just scratch our brain and start blaming it that we have a dearth of solutions and are not able to get the right answer to the question that is bothering us. The answer is hidden in our insights, and we need peace to give the mind the space to think through and fetch us the most profound response – the one we had been looking for.

    Contemplation and meditation are again not easy to differentiate and define. Thought, at the surface of it, looks simple and easy to explain – contemplation is about thinking everything and meditation is about thinking nothing; though this indeed sounds too simplistic, and I know it is not true. The meaning is subtler and requires that we delve deeper to understand and appreciate the finer nuances of introspection, reflection and assumptions. We fall prey to the age-old ways and assumptions that drive our thinking and restirct us from shifting gear, or changing orbit. We keep revolving in the same mental orbit whilst expecting different results and outcomes, mired in the mirage of illusion.

    This is such a fascinating facet of thinking, and I am still in it, trying to fathom the unfathomable. Great post!

    • Thankyou so much Nihar, for your consideration of this offering and for your sagacious and generous response to it. Contemplation and meditation can mean differing things to differing individuals of course, and my primary reason for using the term ‘contemplation’ to describe the practises I outline elsewhere on this site is so as to distinguish the methods from recognised meditations such as Vipassana or Zen perhaps.

      My own methods in fact unfold progressively through the phenomenological reductionism and observed conditionality of the mind as enumerated in Vipassana or Husserlian techniques, through to the pure and objectless lucidity of awareness characterised by Zen practise and perhaps even mystical prayer, and on also so as to embrace the non-duality of Advaita Vedanta, which itself is identical to the Buddhist concept of Anatta, or non-self.

      May I ask, are you a practitioner of any formal meditation or contemplation yourself Nihar?

      With gratitude and respect,

      Hariod.

      • At the outset Hariod, let me say that I am really loving your blog, and the depth and detailing in handling the topic is extraordinary. This is my kind of thinking; I enjoy dwelling on such topics which cross the boundaries of philosophy, imagination, reflection, inspiration and intuition. The way you have covered the various aspects of contemplation made me feel so good about the subtlety and substance that is present in the subject.

        It so happened that the other day I was in discussion on the topic of meditation, and what really we do by being in that state – is it realising emptiness; is it about doing nothing; is it about connecting self with the soul; is it just being calm and composed to collate distracted thoughts and get them organized in a particular way?

        In answer to your question, then no, I am not a formal practitioner of meditation and contemplation; but I have a deep fascination for the subject which at times treads the zones of meditation. I am broadly familiar with Vipassana and Zen, but have not gone into any deeper understanding of the methods of practice. I have been going through the eightfold path of Buddhism, but not the related concept of Anatta.

        There are so many commonalities between the varying modes of meditation, across differing religions and communities of practitioners, and although the methods may vary, the essence and the outcomes remain the same.

        I am going spend more time in reading your other posts and would love to learn more from you.

        It is my great pleasure to have discovered your blog.

        Stay blessed!

        • Thankyou so much for your continued interest and engagement here Nihar, and I hope you are able to navigate your way around the site successfully. I post articles once a month, and you will see from the home page the difference described between the ‘pages’ you have been viewing and those monthly ‘posts’, which are of a different character. Here is the offering for November: http://wp.me/p4wkZJ-di

          With gratitude and respect,

          Hariod.

          • Yes, I am enjoying the blog and have no problem at all in navigation. I am trying to absorb, to soak into the depths and diverse aspects that present in your wonderful posts. I will be going through and sharing my perspective over time, as I see through to the finer details of what you bring to the subjects. I will check out the November article now.

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