“I need to dedicate more time just for thinking…” The words come out of my mouth with a mixture of excitement and shyness. I’m on a birthday phone call with my mum, reflecting on the previous few years, how much value I find in solitude, deliberate thinking, contemplation.
The enthusiasm marks the knowledge this is a core need, part of my sense of fulfillment and happiness. The shyness? Saying you need time to think, well, it’s a bit pretentious isn’t it?
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Mum laughs, tells me I’ll be like the famous sculpture, The Thinker, the man sat in a striking post, arched over, chin resting on open hand. Underneath the humor is an understanding that thinking is in my DNA; it was when I was highly anxious and depressed, ruminating over things-once-been, and things-to-come. And now? Thinking has become a tool for thriving.
Society doesn’t give much space, or credence, to thinking. Growing up, I was told I think too much, not to overthink, don’t think about it. But mostly I couldn’t help it, it just happened, all by itself. Then, after starting meditation and my spiritual practice, thinking took on a different quality, all thanks to the discovery of contemplation.
What Is Contemplation?
One definition of contemplation is ‘religious musing,’ with roots in the Latin contemplari, ‘to gaze attentively, observe; consider.’ Early Christianity was entrenched with contemplative practices including meditation and prayer. Further back in time, philosophers Plato and Aristotle esteemed the act of contemplation. Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies have roots in contemplation, too.
For example, the three prajnas (‘wisdom tools’), taught as skills to understand the dharma (‘teachings’) of Buddhism, are hearing, contemplating, and meditating. Writing for Buddhist magazine Tricycle, author and spiritual teacher Andrew Holecek explains these three skills in The Lost Art of Contemplation:
“Hearing is the first step, but the teachings are still conceptual. In contemplation, we wrestle with this material and work it into an embodied understanding. Then, through meditation, all the excess concepts are filtered out and the teachings are fully assimilated, giving us pure wisdom to power our spiritual activities.”
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Contemplation, then, is a slow and deliberate ‘holding’ of certain truths, or teachings. The subject of contemplation is ‘held’ in the mind for a period of time. There’s no desire to fix, change, or problem-solve. It is simply held, studied, and ‘gazed at attentively,’ until the lessons become part of you, not only intellectually, but deep within, mind, body, heart, and soul.
While contemplation is in its nature spiritual, due to its intention of uncovering or connecting to universal truths, you don’t have to be ‘spiritual’ to get value from it. Contemplation cultivates wisdom, it takes time, comes in many shapes and sizes, and as a deliberate practice, can be applied in a number of ways.
Types of Contemplation
I’ve always naturally contemplated, see: you think too much. But my early contemplation was directionless, and often filled with anxiety. I’d contemplate the meaning of existence, the nature of the night sky, life, and death. But it was from a place of claustrophobia, and fear. The contemplation was mixed with rumination, and my personal fears and insecurities.
When I started to study Buddhism, this changed. I saw the value of contemplation as part of my wider spiritual practice. It was, as the three prajnas suggested, very much linked to meditation. Practicing meditation improved my awareness, enhancing the quality of contemplation through being able to stay focused, and not distracted by mental activity that got in the way.
Contemplation on teachings
There are a number of basic forms of contemplation. First is contemplating teachings, what Buddhists call Dharma. You could apply this to a wide range of spiritual or philosophical texts. Spiritual guidance and philosophy are designed to be contemplated, to become part of you. There is added value with ancient scripture that has stood the test of time, although there are benefits to contemplating modern teachings, too.
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This type of contemplation avoids the superficial gaining of knowledge. Sure, you might memorize certain quotes or exercises. But until you’ve really allowed the source of wisdom to permeate your being, the teaching is only skimmed, a few bites taken from a delicious meal. You’ll get a taste, but won’t be satiated.
Contemplation on nature
This includes the inevitable: aging, suffering, life, death, change. This was where I learned a lot from Buddhism, for its ability to frame these inevitable acts of nature in a more expansive, and wholesome, context. Contemplation in this form allows truth to land in the depths of your being. It’s not without its emotional component; I’ve often been moved to tears contemplating impermanence, for example, the truth that nothing lasts forever, from both a perspective of grief and gratitude.
Contemplation of life’s big questions
While the first two encompass universal wisdom, contemplation also applies directly to your life. This is done in the form of big questions, such as: who am I? Why am I here? What do I want to do with my life? What did that experience teach me? Naturally, these questions don’t have fixed or immediate answers. Contemplation requires patience, the ability to gaze attentively without urgency.
How to Integrate Contemplation
Contemplation is life-changing. In Buddhist philosophy, meditation and contemplation is enough to transform a person, to saturate them with wisdom. It’s a tool often overlooked in this fast-paced world, where we view wisdom as information to be consumed, usually forgetting to chew, digest, and taste the fullness of flavor. Contemplation is a spiritual practice for a reason; it takes time to get the balance right.
One of the main attributes of contemplation is not trying to actively think, or problem solve. Don’t consciously look for answers. Your role is to hold the subject in mind. One of the incredible potentials with contemplation is the sense that, when held for long enough, deeper truths, insights, or revelations surface. This separates it from rumination, which is a loop of anxiety-based thoughts. Although contemplation surfaces emotion, it is calm.
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Because of the lack of urgency, you will have to carve out time to contemplate. You will have to become like me, and acknowledge that you need time to think. In today’s culture, it’s almost impossible to justify this as a practice, which on the outside looks like doing nothing, which can be seen as unproductive, or pointless. The results are far from either of those things, but it does take a leap of faith that time spent contemplating will have a transformative effect.
In my experience, whenever I set aside time to contemplate, I have to overcome a barrier of distraction. Suddenly everything other than contemplation becomes important; tidying up, settling a few more things on my to-do list. That’s just your ego talking, the smaller part of you that resists looking within.
“When the faith is strong enough, it is sufficient just to be. It’s a journey towards simplicity, towards quietness, towards a kind of joy that is not in time. It’s a journey that has taken us from primary identification with our body and our psyche, on to an identification with God, and ultimately beyond identification.” — Ram Dass
Life’s busy. We live in an age of information, our minds packed with data, day in, day out. Contemplation is the perfect antidote, a way to clear the mind and give the soul time to connect to what’s most meaningful. I’ve found contemplation to be a practice that alleviates existential fear, opens a portal to transcendent experiences, and opens my heart to higher levels of gratitude for what gifts life has to offer.
You don’t have to remove yourself from life, or live in solitude, to integrate contemplation. Make a bit of time here and there, just to think, to hold some of the topics listed above, and see how it changes you. Don’t rush, expect answers, or force the process. Don’t be surprised to discover lost parts of yourself, qualities buried under the pressure of the day-to-day.
As spiritual teachers for thousands of years have articulated, contemplation has the power to unearth a pool of inner wisdom that reveals itself, only under the attentive gaze of insight. With that in mind, contemplation might be too important not to include in your self-development practice.
When you surrender to the intelligence of contemplation, beyond the intellect, you contemplate the other end of the scale — the sanctity of life, the fine-tuned miracle of existence, the intelligence of nature, the serendipity and moments of awe that point to something more.
In the stillness of contemplation, the lack of urgency, there’s profound peace. In silence, a loving recognition that what you wish to contemplate was within, wisdom encoded in the treasures of your heart.
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