WHAT IS CONTEMPLATION?
by Heather Johnson
If I never had access to religion, philosophy or other people’s experiences, what would my source of knowing be?
If I only had the substance of my own life to explore from within, what truth would I find?
These questions first occurred to me when I was a child, trying to make sense of life. They have continued to surface throughout my adult life and through my explorations of different philosophies and wisdom traditions. In my inner life I have been a Sufi, a Buddhist, a Christian, a Taoist, a yogi, a devotee of the Goddess, an existentialist, and an agnostic. I am a rational person and a critical thinker, a person who doubts, and yet I am also deeply attuned to the heart and mystical truth. After gathering much experience and learning about the many pathways to God, I have returned to the original questions of my young heart and feel that they are still relevant, more so than ever. There is only one way to know what is true, and that is by direct experience. In this, there is no easy path and there is no guide who can tell you how to find it. To me, the practice of contemplation, in its essence, is the attempt to inquire deeply into life itself; to knock on a door that is completely unknown in the hopes of discovering something true.
Contemplation is the practice of going within to seek truth, without preconceived ideas.
Rather then projecting or actively imagining, you wait and listen. You wait for God or life or truth to reveal itself. It is as if you are asking a question, though you may not even know what the question is, and waiting in the darkness of the unknown for an answer. In this way, you are truly open to receive something new, something that is not created by your own mind. Waiting in the darkness is a metaphor for stepping outside of your comfort zone, all the things you already know– in other words, your ego. So much of our religious and spiritual practice involves creating an elaborate mental structure and then continually circling around it and reaffirming it. We are faced with the vastness of a starry sky, a bewildering and yet majestic world that we can barely make sense of, so we construct a beautiful mansion to dwell within. We spend our lives painting its walls, putting in just the right furniture, filling it with beautiful fragrances and music. This beautiful mansion becomes a sanctuary and a place of worship, but we are dimly aware that we are hiding, afraid to go outside under that awesome and unknown sky. We fear we might disappear entirely without the protection of our ancient and familiar walls.
Our religions can sometimes be the citadels that guard our deepest fears, longings and uncertainties, all the anxieties of the small disconnected self. Without an inner, felt experience of love, connection, and meaning, we must fortify our minds with words, images and ideas that stave off the meaningless and chaos which we believe is at the heart of life. Only contemplative and mystical experience, that is, direct experience of truth can supply the inner, lasting sense of trust that we crave. Religions may partake of this mystical truth, and can point the way to it, but the experience is not dependent on a religious form.
In every one of the beautiful mansions, in every religion, there are windows where fresh air and light get in. These are the contemplative and mystical practices, which are a part of every genuine spiritual tradition. This impulse belonged to the human heart first, before religion. If there is a creator or source of greater consciousness, as part of creation we must surely share in it. Human beings must have a natural and direct connection to whatever truth that exists, just as rivers naturally find their way back to the sea. To leave beliefs behind and truly enter the unknown requires great trust, but it can lead to a source of knowing which is real and genuine, based on your own experience and realization.
Contemplation, in whatever form, can be the most direct path to a felt sense of belonging in life. Through it you may feel a return to the ground of your being, the source of life, what is often called God. In this way, contemplation is a way of knowing God, becoming intimate with the highest truth that can be reached by a human heart.
These are a few practices from different traditions that I see as contemplative in nature:
Centering Prayer: A practice created by Father Thomas Keating and now practiced worldwide by contemplative Christians. It involves the repetition of a sacred word in an attitude of surrender amidst a period of silence.
Christian Meditation: A practice developed by Father John Main, based on an ancient form of Christian prayer where attention is focused on the repetition of a mantra during a period of silence.
Meditative/Ecstatic Kabbalah: Uniting the individual with God through meditation on the Names of God in Judaism, combinations of Hebrew letters, and Kavanot (mystical “intentions”).
The practice of Presence: The state of being and atmosphere produced when one is “in God”, inhabiting divine unity.
Zhikr: the chanting of a sacred phrase, in remembrance of the unity of human and divine, or invoking the divine qualities/Names of God. The purpose is to invoke and produce a state of Oneness.
Practices relating to Rigpa,the pure awareness of the nondual ground of being
Zazen : simply sitting in awareness of one’s inner and outer experience, inhabiting pure being
Vipassana meditation: Awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, actions, sensations, etc, in order to gain insight into the true nature of reality (“Mindfulness” approaches are based on Vipassana methods)
Savasana: often known as “corpse” pose, which produces complete relaxation of the body, mind, emotions, and nervous system.
Yoga Nidra: a state of conscious deep sleep, in which subtle layers of being and impressions can be purified
Wu Wei: The way of following the Tao, letting things take their natural course with non-interference
Mindfulness practice: A practice of simple awareness of one’s experience without judgment