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The contemplation effect

Contemplation is one those mystical terms that we associate with monks, hidden away in ancient eastern monasteries, reflecting on their existence and the vastness of the cosmos. Sounds idyllic but a long way from our busy realities. Though perhaps that depends on the way you look at it.

Most of us in the west are taught at school that gazing off into nowhere is called daydreaming; time-wasting for lazy people. We quickly learn to frown on daydreamers and we do our best to not get caught in the act, for fear of being called out, shamed or publicly humiliated. It could be said that contemplation in the West is less a lost art and more a forbidden act. However, if you spend a lot of time daydreaming, then you are not alone. A recent Harvard study showed that each of us generally spends an average of 49% of our waking time lost in self-reflection. We all secretly steal these moments, neatly hidden in the easily justifiable spaces between tasks that link our responsibilities. Such ‘between’ moments include waiting for a train, standing in a queue at the supermarket, walking away from the office to get lunch or flying in a plane, where we briefly enjoy the rush that goes with escaping everything. Every one of these moments comes with the quiet permission to drift off from the outer world and reflect inwardly.  The question is where is this place we disappear to and how can we make the most of this time.

Tuning into the inner world is like being in a movie theatre inside your head. Everyone experiences this a little differently, but commonly we each experience a running dialogue, sometimes with numerous (possibly opposing) voices, often supported by dream-like images of people, memories and hopes that make up our lives. As our days are hurried, our inner thoughts are often hurried too, expressing stress, self-doubt and exhaustion or playing old records of past memories that we wish we could reshape. Our thoughts are often seeking solutions, such as: ‘What can I… and how will I…?’ Or desires, like:  ‘I want… if only… and when…?’  Furthermore, we know our thoughts are hidden, and can, therefore, fantasise about indulging in ways we may never discuss.  We can amuse ourselves with possibilities, flights of fancy, and delusions of grandeur. We hear ourselves internally responding to others with witticism we wouldn’t dare speak out loud and it is also common to experience a barrage of inner criticisms, that tell us we are not good enough in an untold number of self-deprecating ways. The inner landscape is a complex place. But for most of us, it remains unconsciously unmapped.

Contemplation is the key to mapping that inner landscape by becoming the observer of our thoughts. If we return to the image of the movie theatre; objectively watching your thoughts, is like sitting in the audience watching the story play out. This is different from the everyday subjective view, in which you are generally the main actor in the film on the screen. When we contemplate we actively pay attention to what is going on, or what our thoughts are saying. As the observer we can interact with these thoughts, creating a second layer of observation in which we might question ourselves, like a dialogue. As the observing self develops, you may even begin to observe yourself, observing yourself, observing yourself. This is quite a transcendent experience, similar to meditation, that allows you to stand back and be less attached to your thinking processes, recognising thoughts for exactly what they are, just words and images passing through the ‘movie screen’ of your mind. Another good metaphor is to imagine you are standing in the centre of a room of mirrors and surrounded by an untold number of reflections of yourself. Sounds complex, but it’s not. It’s just the same as daydreaming, the only difference being the point of objectively and a willingness to allow time to follow the process of your thoughts through.

It is said that contemplation reveals the nature of the true self.  Returning to the image of a mirrored room is a wonderful way to portray how we might reflect on the different aspects of your unique way of thinking. As with the mirrored room, each angle you look from is different, depending on the way you look at it you will get a different perspective. Imagine for a moment that rather than placing a person in the mirrored room you place a beach ball, with different coloured segments of red, yellow, blue and green surrounding the ball’s surface. Depending on the way you look at the ball you will see a different colour, with no two perspectives the same. In a manner, this is similar to the process of contemplation, in which you actively attempt to consider ideas from differing perspectives, with the hope of finding new ways of looking at things.

Contemplation helps you to recognize and detach from the thought patterns that cause you to 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.

Our modern lives don’t offer much time or guidance about thinking.  Although we spend a large proportion of our lives being led by the inner narratives we constantly tell ourselves, we are rarely encouraged to stop and really think about how this process is happening. Forget what you learned at school, daydreaming is good for you, with the upgraded model of consciously contemplating offering a path to deepened self-understanding. So perhaps it could be said that daydreaming does, in fact, offer a pathway for making dreams come true; I guess it just depends on the way you look at it.

Here are some basic steps to follow to develop a contemplative practice.

  1. Find a spot where you can relax comfortably without interruption.
  2. Take a few deep breaths and relax your body.
  3. Allow your gaze to soften or close your eyes.
  4. Observe your thoughts as they arise, without pushing to move or change them. It is likely that what is most important thought will float to the surface. Acknowledge this, and then follow the train of thought that leads on from that idea. If thoughts arise that aren’t related to this idea, gently dismiss them.
  5. To further concentrate your thinking, ask yourself questions such as: What does this mean to me? How do I feel as I think about this? Has this happened before? How can I consider this from a different perspective? How could I act differently? What is the truth that lies beyond this? What outcomes am I looking for? How can I grow from this? Ask questions as you think of them, allowing the questions to arise naturally. Sometimes you will not need questions, as one thought leads naturally to the next.
  6. Don’t limit yourself in your responses; if strong emotions arise, try sitting with them without judgment. Allow a pearl of deeper wisdom to emerge from within.
  7. You may find that as your refection finds a conclusion, your thinking may slow and eventually exhaust itself. Allow yourself to sit a little longer with any insights that may have arisen for you.
  8. When you’re done, take a moment to acknowledge the process and then resume your daily activities.
  9. Sometimes it helps to journal your thoughts, to allow for later reflection.
  10. Pay attention to any additional insights that may arise as you go about your day.

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 wellbeing.

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