Contemplation and Meditation

In general usage, the words contemplation and meditation have the same meaning. There are, however, two distinctive forms of mindfulness for which either of these words can be used. Below, I provide a brief description of these two forms and my practice of them. For the purpose of this piece I will call one of these practices contemplation and the other meditation. I am not implying that my usage is the correct one for these terms, only that it would be helpful if we had a separate word for each.

Contemplation:  In his Nicomachean Ethics, chapter VIII, Aristotle calls intellectual contemplation the greatest form of human happiness. As Aristotle uses the word “contemplation,” it refers to an activity that seeks to penetrate into a deeper understanding of ideas. Contemplation is both an end in itself and a means to the end of greater understanding. Aristotle’s focus is on philosophical contemplation, but the object of contemplation could also be works of art, spiritual symbols, natural beauty or anything else for which we want to gain a deeper experience and understanding. 

Meditation:  Meditation, as I use the term here, is the activity that in Sanskrit is called dhyana. When it reached China, the Buddhist practice of dhyana was pronounced ch’an, which when it reached Japan became zen

In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki says about Zen meditation, “Our way is not to acquire something, it is to express our true nature.” Suzuki goes on to say that we express our true nature by doing something with all of our attention. 

Contemplation and meditation are both forms of mindfulness. Both require a quieting of the mind, focusing of attention and deep concentration. Both are a blend of passivity and activity – passively allowing thoughts or perceptions to enter the mind without seeking to shape or control them, but actively maintaining focus and concentration.  Finally, both can be enjoyed as an end in itself. But to the extent that each is also a means to some other end, the end of contemplation is a deeper understanding of the object of contemplation, and the end of meditation is self knowledge, or to paraphrase Suzuki, to realize our true nature.

Of course, within Buddhism in general, the ultimate goal of meditation is liberation or enlightenment and meditation might be thought of as a means to that liberation. In the Zen tradition, however, there is no real distinction between meditation and enlightenment. Enlightenment is the fruition of meditation. Suzuki says: “When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something…But as long as you think you are practicing zazen for the sake of something, that is not true practice.” In other words, if you “use” meditation to acquire enlightenment, you have it wrong. 

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I practice both contemplation and meditation in the senses that I have given the words here.  Like Aristotle, I find the contemplation of philosophical ideas to be a joyful activity. 

Philosophy in our time has developed a rather bad reputation. I think much of the problem is that modern philosophers are not writing from a spirit of contemplation, and modern readers often have no experience of how to contemplate. Without the spirit of contemplation, a philosophy is either materially useful or it isn’t. And in comparison to science, it usually isn’t.

Approached contemplatively, a great idea, like a work of art, is an end in itself. One takes delight in it as a rare and well-crafted artifact of human culture. At the same time, it reveals certain possibilities of thought and of being. And it helps us better articulate our own ideas and beliefs.

With time, when we have read and contemplated a considerable amount of philosophy and scholarship, entering a contemplation on any particular idea can carry us on a voyage through a great range of ideas. Of particular joy are those moments when we make a connection between two separate bodies of ideas of which we had previously been unaware.

In the hands of academia, philosophy has become a rather joyless affair. The roots of the word philosophy are love and wisdom, but academic philosophy has as little to do with either of these as it has to do with contemplation. To contemplate ideas is to give them our loving attention, and the fruit of such attention is greater wisdom. And the attainment of wisdom is a joyful affair.

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I learned to meditate in the Zen Buddhist tradition, specifically the Soto Zen tradition that Shunryu Suzuki brought to the United States. In comparison to the lofty flights of philosophic contemplation, Zen meditation, with its endless return to breath and posture, seems rather mundane. Yet it is the mundaneness of Zen practice that I most value – “chop wood and carry water” is a favorite Zen saying that expresses this earthiness.

Philosophic contemplation gives us a means to penetrate into the depths of grand conceptualizations about reality. Zen meditation, on the other hand, can put us dead center in reality. It can reveal our ordinary being in its most basic and absolute character. Oddly, its utter basicness and simplicity is what makes Zen realization so hard of attainment for many people.

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To use a rather overused metaphor, meditation roots us in the depth of being and contemplation gives us wings and an elevated view of the world we inhabit. They compliment and complete each other. Overused or not, a rooted tree and a soaring bird are apt symbols for meditation and contemplation.

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There are other forms of mindfulness besides contemplation and meditation, and other modes of contemplation and meditation than what I have focused on here. The person who is drawn to mindfulness can explore these possibilities and see what works best.

Building on what Aristotle said about contemplation and human happiness, I would add that all forms of mindfulness can bring us profound happiness.


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