A daily contemplation practice can have radical and transformative effects. Right now, as you read this, your eyes are rapidly scanning the environment for something significant to focus on. Once they lock on to something, your brain starts assembling an image to make sense of the information. The more familiar the environment, the more recognizable the images. And the faster you can ‘jump to conclusions’ about what reality looks like.
A commonplace directive from coaches, mystics and philosophers today is that you can change your reality by changing how you look at things. Change your lens of perception and you change the world, they say. They make it sound easy, as though changing our perception is as simple as changing our shoes or our sunglasses. For most of us, a first step to changing how we look at things is to change what we look at. Such an approach acknowledges recent discoveries in mirror neuron theory, and the fact that we mimic and match the mood of what we are ‘looking’ at.
Contemplation is mindful observation. It involves looking slowly and intentionally at something. This looking is not only outward-bound, with eyes wide open. It also engages inner vision, dwelling on the relationship between the ‘one that sees’ and the ‘one that is seen’.
Contemplative practices are found throughout the world and can be defined as the cultivation of “a critical, first-person focus, sometimes with direct experience as the object, at other times concentrating on complex ideas or situations”.The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
Contemplation is often associated with a kind of thinking you do outside of your current environment, in a special space set aside for observation. This could include taking a walk in untamed nature, meditating in a sacred building or chanting a prayer in a temple. Some contemplative practices place emphasis on a special object or mantra or gesture. But it is possible for contemplation to be practiced daily and closer to home. Emphasis is then placed on a personal, practical approach that suits the contemporary lifestyle.
Nothing can be as productive for human development as learning to discipline and focus attention.Sidney Callahan
Whether you are looking to get started on a daily contemplation practice, or wanting to enrich your current practice, these 5 suggestions are simple and practical.
1. Begin where you are
This seems so obvious as to be unimportant. But very often when we are feeling out of sorts, distracted or imbalanced, it is because we have compared ourselves to others and found ourselves lacking. Or we have imagined ourselves being somewhere other than where we are. In seeking to remedy the out-of-sorts feeling with contemplative practices, we may well compound it, by thinking: ‘I will feel better if I could just meditate like so and so’ or ‘when I go on that retreat then I will be able to get it together’ or ‘the environment in that photo looks like a good place to reconnect – if only I was there‘ and so on.
Take a tiny first step, from wherever you currently find yourself. Trying to organize the ideal time, place and conditions for a daily contemplation practice is not the same as discovering and honoring the gifted moment. Don’t worry about whether your chosen practice is good, right, appropriate, viable, achievable, sustainable.
Gaze up at the clouds for a few minutes.
Observe the patterns of the crowds in a train station.
Notice the rhythm of your breathing.
Tune in to the hubbub in a café.
Pay attention to any tingling sensations in your toes, or your fingers.
Soon you will notice that even the most insignificant action, when done purposefully, can bring meaning and realization. And there are trillions of so-called insignificants in our daily life that can become meaning-filled!
Begin where you are.
2. Be persistent
Being persistent can be easily misunderstood to imply pain, suffering and hard work. But persistence is not the same as perseverance. Perseverance implies going against the odds – pushing through, gritting your teeth, putting your nose to the grindstone, grinning and bearing it. Modern cultural narratives have glorified the attainment of goals through perseverance. Goals can be attained faster with perseverance, they are measured as more economical. But they deny the timing and integrity required for each individual to flourish. A persistent practice is measured over a longer span of time and so need not be enforced. It involves a soft touch repeated often. It takes into account the interconnections within the whole environment and the integrity of the one practicing.
Like a perennial river, or fruit tree, persistent contemplation is everlasting but always in response to its environment. Persistent contemplation is based on an intrinsic discipline – wanting to practice for one’s own benefit – rather than an enforced discipline – feeling you have to practice for social validation or out of obligation. The latter is more closely aligned to your fear impulse. The former is an expression of an innate and intuitive desire to be the best that you can be based on your unique design and designation.
Another way to look at persistent contemplation is as an infusion. An infusion is defined as the process of extracting chemical compounds or flavors from plant material in a solvent such as water, oil or alcohol, by allowing the material to remain suspended in the solvent over time. Most of us infuse things on a daily basis – such as tea leaves and coffee granules – to extract flavor and nutrients. The two key elements? Time and integration. Over time, small daily steps accumulate and manifest as profound transformation.
3. Discover nature
There is no doubt that untamed natural environments provide a rich context for contemplative practice. But even if you live in an urban or built-up area, a simple daily practice of nature-inspired contemplation is possible. A city park, an abandoned lot, or even a pot-plant on the balcony of a high-rise building can offer opportunities for curiosity, reflection and profound knowing. The smallest, seemingly insignificant ecosystem – a trio of ants dragging a breadcrumb – can invite you to consider the nuanced interactions and relationships of existence.
Nature is abundant. Nature is around us, and also within us. Look up and you will see clouds forming and dissolving, stars blinking and vanishing. Look down and you will see the earth, solid and shifting. Look around and you will see an expanse of diverse life forms. Look within and you will see the same patterns of growth, vitality, change, structure and dissolution. A dynamic dance of appearance and disappearance.
Observing and immersing ourselves in untamed nature offers silence. This silence is a noise-lessness that comes from stilling those parts of us that clamor for recognition, validation, achievement and expression. Those instincts and impulses have their rightful place in our search to live meaning-filled lives. By their nature they can easily overwhelm and start dominating our daily experience. Countering these expressions of self with force simply feeds the flame. They can only be countered with non-violence, non-intervention and non-doing.
Contemporary life has brought an abundance of places and spaces – groups, followings, communities and cultures – to which we can become affiliated. Our sense of well-being in the world is grounded on having our unique perspective attended to. Faced with the vast number and diversity of perspectives, we may feel pressured to blurt out our truth or withhold our deepest intentions.
When you are with others, you may come into contact with new and vital aspects of yourself. Practice speaking mindfully and listening intentionally in a communal space or group. Learning to respect and acknowledge the unique orientation of each living being provides you with a similar space of flourishing.
Contemplative practices need not be associated with pure silence or inactivity…If we view silence not as ‘holding/biting our tongue’ but rather ‘withholding our judgement’, we may find we are able to appreciation the subtleties within the life-stories offered by others, as well as see the complementarities and intersections in our own life.The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
Be willing to practice persistently, even if not consistently. Be willing to try new approaches, entertain novel possibilities and improvise in your daily contemplation. Failure is a part of learning, of expanding and refining our awareness of self.
If there is a goal to any daily contemplation practice, it is simply to expand and deepen our awareness of what is already in existence. You may find yourself meandering and backtracking along quite a few different contemplative paths before finding the one that you really resonate with.
Artful Contemplation is our free tool to support simple, practical and persistent contemplation. There are no goals, no curriculum, no measurables, no workbook, no predefined outcomes, no deadlines. Only an easy-to-use online resource that offers uplifting images and words for the daily practice of curiosity, introspection, reflection and illumination. Grab your weekly infusion!
What practical steps do you take on a daily basis for a contemplative practice? Share your insights by commenting below.
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