Contemplation can be difficult to describe but it is arguably one of the most essential tools available to us for deepening our connection to the spiritual worlds. Because of its importance, I want to see what I can say about it. Getting at it will entail an admixture of the via positiva and the via negativa, so please bear with me.
Contemplation is a conscious attitude. While we can stumble into it, its development requires an intentional commitment. While it is bound up with this subjective state, it depends on an object to orient it. That object’s presence is essential to contemplation and it is the goal of contemplation to use the object as a means to regulate and modify our subjective state.
Arguably, part of the slipperiness of contemplation comes from the centrality of the object to it. Unlike the technique of mindfulness which favors objectless attention, contemplation favors objectful attention. While mindfulness can begin with any kind of attention (because its goal is separating mindfulness from the object), contemplation only achieves its full realization in relationship to a specific set of objects.
Contemplation develops within subjectivity a heightened sympathy for what is contemplated. Our subjective rhythm is made to fall into a cadence appropriate to dwelling upon the object. Contemplation depends on the difference between us and what we contemplate. If contemplation turns into mimicry or identification or possession, it loses its proper character and becomes something else (no judgment of those other states is implied here; they just aren’t contemplative).
Contemplation allows subjectivity to react freely to the object being contemplated. Images, feelings, and ideas manifest within contemplation that reflect our subjective reaction to the object of contemplation. These themselves can become part of contemplation, but if they become the focus of contemplation, if the object is displaced from its central place, contemplation also ceases, passing over into imagination, speculation, fantasy, or any other number of deeply subjective acts.
Since cultural factors have a big influence on how we select and distinguish objects, contemplation tends to be culturally specific without being unique to any specific culture. I say this with certain well-meaning folks in mind, those who try to argue that contemplation is ‘western’ meditation. At least by my use of the term, it can be argued that more than a few ‘eastern’ traditions are a good deal richer in their contemplative practice than most every ‘western’ tradition. Mantra meditations, for example, are definitely contemplative, as are some aspect of Bhakti yoga’s devotional meditation on the god (to take two things somewhat at random).
The specific object at the heart of contemplation shapes the direction of contemplation. Contemplating Jesus is not the same as contemplating a bija-mantra, because each of those objects has a different sort of existence and when contemplated produce different sorts of sympathies.
In just the same way, the specific person doing the contemplating shapes the direction of the contemplation. The specificities of their disposition shape how the object is received. Since the aim is to develop sympathy with the object, we should also expect folks who contemplate the same sorts of things a lot to develop certain sympathies with each other by way of their mutual sympathies toward a common object.
Because of this dependence on our individuality, contemplation can be guided and educated. Specific techniques can be applied to it and even become part of the contemplation itself. This is moreso in the case of spiritual contemplation directed at modalities of existence other than our own, whose objectivity intersects with our own in unusual ways. Here the habits of contemplation, the ideas and images, feelings and words, become intermediaries to developing sympathies with other kinds of objects.
Contemplation is a discrete range on a continuum of conscious attitudes and as such we can discuss sensibly the ways in which contemplation and pass over into those attitudes, and vice versa. Contemplation can pass into mindfulness, or ecstasy, or speculation, and so on.
It can also serve to anchor those other modes of consciousness and provide an organizing experience around which deeper communal explorations of the other modes becomes possible. It can do that by virtue of its objective focus–it can guide multiple subjective experiences toward a common object, providing the occasion for a gathering.
Contemplative gathering isn’t identical with cultural determination. While cultural notions shape the sorts of objects individuals prefer to contemplate, contemplation develops a spontaneous attitude toward the object. As such, contemplation can gather together individuals with disparate cultural backgrounds.
And, importantly, it needs to be emphasized that contemplation is not necessarily spiritual; that is just what concerns me most here.