The Lost Art of Contemplation
By Matthew Joyce
Once upon a time Aladdin was polishing an old lamp. As he rubbed the lamp it began to smoke and out popped a genie. “You’ve freed me,” said the genie. “Now I’ll grant you two wishes.”
You don’t need to hear any more of the story to know that something is amiss. Everyone knows that wishes come in threes. So do little pigs, musketeers, and Stooges. All three are essential to the story.
Without one something is missing
It’s a bit like that with spiritual practices. Traditionally there are three kinds of spiritual practices designed to bring you into a state of oneness: concentration, meditation, and contemplation. Concentration focuses your attention. Meditation deepens awareness. Contemplation invites insight. But these days only the first two seem to be receiving much attention in popular books and teachings.
Contemplation is becoming something of a lost art
In most forms of meditation the goal is to clear your mind of thoughts. With contemplation you actually encourage yourself to think. Not the random kind of thoughts that normally race or drift through your mind during meditation. Rather, you want to concentrate on a brief but powerful idea and allow it to take you into a deeper state of being.
Essentially contemplation uses the seed of an idea as a springboard to take you into an understanding of the truth beyond the words. You use your mind to engage in the topic at hand, but rather than analyzing it in depth you ponder what the words point to. And in this way the practice moves past thinking into a direct experience of an inner truth that lies beyond thought and form.
Contemplation is also a great way to encourage whole brain synchronization without the need for outside technologies, such a binaural beats or other brainwave entrainment tools. As you ponder the seed thought with your left brain, you also use your right brain to understand its meaning on an intuitive level.
What to Contemplate
You can contemplate big questions like the meaning of life or poignant issues like whether you should accept a job offer. But it can also be valuable to contemplate qualities like love, courage, or compassion. As you dwell on attributes like these you begin to infuse them into your character and express them in your daily life.
Another popular approach to contemplation is to ponder the wisdom of sages whose words point to deeper truths. The poems of Rumi, the parables of Jesus, the sayings of Buddha, the Upanishads, the teachings of the Talmud and Tao te Ching are all time honored sources, but more recent teachings like those of Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra can also be good choices.
If you choose to read a passage, keep it brief—a few words or sentences at most. Read the passage and then set it aside. Notice how it affects you as you consider its meaning. The idea is to merely seed your mind with the new topic. If you read too much you risk focusing on the words themselves. Ultimately the wisdom you’re contemplating won’t arise from the words on the page. They’re just the keys to unlock the door so you can experience for yourself the insights that the sages have written about.
Why Contemplation Is Important
While learning to concentrate and deepen your awareness are essential practices to master on your path, it’s contemplation that reveals the nature of your true Self. Contemplation also helps you to recognize the thought patterns that cause you stress; to focus on the personal qualities you want to enhance; and to see your circumstances from a broader perspective. In short, it’s a practice that deepens your understanding of the events, people, and circumstances in your life.
Here are the basic steps to follow
Prepare for your contemplation by selecting a question you want an answer to, a passage you find inspiring, or an idea that you would like to explore.
- Find a spot where you can relax comfortably without interruption. Even though you are not meditating per se, you don’t want disturbances to interrupt the process.
- Take a few deep breaths and relax your body.
- Contemplate the seed idea. Begin by reading the passage, asking yourself the question, or recalling the topic you want to focus on.
- Observe your thoughts as they arise. Consider them as they sit in your awareness. If thoughts come that don’t seem closely related to the seed idea, gently dismiss them.
- To concentrate your thinking, ask yourself questions such as: What does this mean to me? What are examples of this in my own life? How do I feel as I think about this? How can I consider this from a different perspective? What is the truth that lies beyond this? How can I use this awareness or information to enhance my life? Ask your own questions as you think of them.
- It’s natural that you’ll try to answer your own questions with your thinking mind. That is appropriate, but don’t limit yourself to the responses from your ego. Allow a deeper wisdom to emerge from within as well. The goal is to use the seed words and questions to access insights drawn from your inner self.
- As your thinking slows and eventually exhausts itself, allow yourself to sit in peaceful silence. Sit as long you want.
- When you’re done, take a moment to express gratitude for any insights you’ve received.
- Then shift into normal meditation or resume your daily activities.
- Pay attention to any additional insights that may arise as you go about your day.
Like any spiritual discipline, contemplation takes practice. If you’re new to it, start with 10 to 15 minutes. Then after you grow familiar with it, try extending yourself for longer periods. As you continue the practice, you’ll begin to notice positive changes in your thinking and in your sense of well-being.
And you may find that you’ve now incorporated a missing element in your life story as well.
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