by DT Strain
The ‘temp’ in contemplation comes from the same Latin root as the ‘temp’ in temple. It meant, to cut or stretch out a reserved space. In the case of a temple the space is physical. In the case of contemplation, we are clearing space in our minds for a very focused purpose.
In many traditions, contemplation is considered a type of meditation, but we will delineate them for explanatory purposes here. Like meditation, contemplation requires a still mind, and the development of focus: the ability to maintain attention on something for extended periods. For this reason, it is good to practice meditation if one is going to practice contemplation. It is also helpful to precede contemplation with a period of meditation.
But, unlike meditation as described in these resources, we do not focus on a continuous object such as the breath, walking, chanting, etc. Instead, the object of our focus is a particular matter that will require the handling of logical concepts. This can be a particular teaching or doctrine; what it means and how it applies to us. It can be an honest assessment of ourselves or our practice. It can be on a particular virtue. Or, it can be on a conundrum we are facing that might require a complex mix of considerations. Some forms of loving-kindness meditation can be considered under this form of contemplation.
In contemplation, we discover new insights and understandings that can be very important in the development of our wisdom. We take advantage of this calm and highly focused state to watch for signs of bias, delusion, and errors in our judgments, perceptions, and assumptions. But it is important to know that knowledge of things beyond our experience cannot be gained without the hard work of learning from our environment and from others. Therefore contemplation must be balanced with study and the lessons of applied wisdom in life. Contemplation, being a search within, is equally important, however.
The practice of Contemplation is not too much unlike our recent ability to detect planets in other star systems. It’s not that any “new data” has come to our planet. It’s the same light from the same stars that has been coming our way since the formation of the earth. What has changed is that we have more closely examined the light coming in, and in so doing, have found new knowledge we never knew we had.
It is also important to balance contemplation with time for our minds to wander. Focus can be a powerful tool in logical thinking, but it also consists of an intentional form of blinding. While we seek to blind ourselves from distraction when focused, this can lead to a number of missed elements – things we couldn’t have known would be relevant to a matter. High focus can also result in a failure to see the entire holistic picture. This is much like an artist who begins a drawing with a highly detailed segment of a hand, rather than a large sketch of the overall composition. By the end, it will be very difficult to maintain a proper sense of proportion with this approach.
One way to balance highly focused concentration with mental ‘thumbnail sketch’ time, is to delay matters until we have had time to ‘sleep on it’. During sleep, our minds reprocess a lot of information, moving things between short-term and long-term memory, and sorting them together in more proportionate ways. This is why we often awake to find a whole new perspective on something. Another way to balance focused contemplation is to engage in introspection (as we’ll call it here), or even various artistic practices, which are excellent for integrating our creative faculties. Of course, different personality types will respond better to these different options, but it is often enlightening to engage in all of these so that we grow beyond our comfort zones.
Another very important thing to understand about contemplation, is not to push it beyond it’s justifiable scope. There are limits to what we can accomplish with focused and isolated logical assessment of an issue. We must learn to recognize when contemplation is appropriate and when it is not. For one, there must be some ‘computation’ that needs to be processed. In other words, we must have the sense that we have taken in a lot of information which we have yet to compare to itself and to other information, wisdom, or concerns we have in our possession. Secondly, there should perhaps be some productive action we can take as a result of having contemplated the matters in our minds; or at least, the possibility of some action given the results of our contemplation. Thirdly, we should try to recognize when contemplation has run its course on a matter, and we are simply rehashing the same issues (turning our wheels). These kinds of recurring ruminations are typically a big source of unproductive stress and distress – one of the very things that meditation is designed to help relieve. As with all things: the right prescription for the right ailment.
Productive contemplation will feel like you are moving through a structured outline or pruning a shrubbery. You will be able to unfold the branches and take them in parts, moving from one to the other, noting their interconnections. There will be a feeling of progress as you arrange the matters in your mind. Study of formal logic can be helpful in this. But be careful, these carefully constructed thoughts and conclusions can become idols and we can become attached to them easily, thinking we have come to some inerrant conclusion that will be overly difficult to re-examine later should that become prudent.
If you begin to experience bias or obfuscation of your thoughts by your passions, or you begin to experience distress, or if the matter seems to be getting more complex rather than less, these are signs that contemplation may not be what is needed. At the very least, give your mind a break. You can stop contemplation and set the matter aside. You can engage in meditation to still your mind. You can take some time to gather more information. You can also seek out the counsel of others to help you approach the matter. Remember to have patience and know that all things do not need to happen simultaneously.
Another thing that will make our contemplation more effective is not to devalue it. We do this by constantly trying to contemplate things in a half-hearted manner. We think we need to think about matters on our minds while we are grocery shopping, while we are driving, or working, or under stress with other daily activities. This is not contemplation – it is worry, which is never helpful. This is how we end up not living in the present and, instead, our minds are always elsewhere. Instead, give important matters their deserved respect by setting aside contemplation time. If they try to grab our attention when it is not a good time, simply set them aside and return to the present. You do not need to know, understand, or resolve all things now. Here is where we can take the focus we have developed in meditation, and apply it toward living mindfully in the present.