Contemplation is the ancient technology of inner change

Contemplation is the ancient technology of inner change
Thought for the Day MCO

Today in his post Dan, our Primary Counsellor, invites you to understand more about contemplation and consider what space you might have for a contemplative practice in your life.

...not very clever, not very proud and therefore all the more warm, curious and sympathetic - Herman Hesse

This quote, from Hesse’s spiritual classic ‘Siddhartha’, describes a subtle but profound shift in Siddhartha, the wayward son of a Brahmin, towards the end of his quest for self-knowledge and authenticity. Contemplative practice assumes many forms, but a spirit of humility and steadfast diligence is at the heart of all methods contemplative. The careful contemplative movement inwards towards an ego-less understanding of one’s own limitations and of one’s place in the order of things, avoids a hollow spirituality of a life without practice. Contemplation is the ancient technology of inner change.

To understand contemplation, one must first understand its linguistic roots. Long before the coming of Christianity in ancient Rome, those responsible for determining the will of the Gods, were called augurs. They would find an open space with a clear view of the sky in which to interpret certain kinds of cosmological signs, such as the flight of birds or a sudden lightning strike. This holy ground was called a templum. The boundaries of the templum would then be carefully marked in an act designated by the verb contemplor. From the very beginning, contemplation has been associated with the human effort to protect space in which to apply diligent, attentive effort to ultimate mystery.

The natural clarity of the mind can be hidden by the restless mental chatter of daily experience. There remains, however, the possibility of rediscovering, in relief from ourselves, the profound peace of sitting simply in silence. Contemplative practice is not so concerned with the technique of things, though some pointers follow below, as much as the cultivated intention to ‘give ourselves’ over to the sweetness of not-knowing. It is a strategic response of self-forgetfulness in a world where ancient and spiritual notions of ‘self’ have become confused with a narrow egoic version, and an attendant rise in anxiety and stress. The contemplative path is one of self-inattentiveness, in favour of a return to wide-reaching and non-conceptual curiosity about our human existence, moment to moment; A holy nod in the direction of the deep integrity of human spirit.

Flock  of birds

An understanding of the nature of mind does not come from the intellect alone but from a balance of intellect and the direct experience of piercing into the heart-reality of things. The contemplative Abhishiktananda, spoke of the ‘guha’ or ‘cave of the heart’ as the inner dwelling place where contemplation befalls us. Much of contemplative practice might be imagined as discovering, step by faltering step, the path towards ‘guha’ whilst clearing personal brambles or rocks along the way. Contemplative practice is therefore an approach in the direction of the ‘Real’, a subtle enough attempt towards an all-encompassing awareness. We reach beyond the ongoing attempts of our knowing, towards an awareness that is more peripheral and less personal in character or feeling. We do not try to stop any mental activity, for the ‘trying’ is yet more focused mental activity, but we reach beyond to the further shore. It is existential dwelling, difficult to express or reduce in language, concepts, images; A living knowledge.

Empty chair outside

One discovers that there is less to cure or heal when dwelling within the heartbeat of existence and that the illusion the ego has about itself - that it has the final say in who we are - is not wholly true. Only love has the final say in the midst of the unresolved matters of the heart, or unresolved matters of the mind. Contemplative practice is an acknowledgement of our brokenness and of our need for love. We make the long journey, in simple silence, towards the cave of the heart.

Instructions for contemplation

We start with the body and with posture. There is an ancient awareness that physical stillness facilitates interior stillness. If you sit in a chair, it is better to use one with a flat, simple seat, like a kitchen chair, that encourages your pelvis to tilt slightly forward. I sometimes encourage folk to sit towards the front edge of the chair or to place a small cushion underneath the buttocks to elevate the hips and invite a light tilting contact. This opens up the abdomen for proper breathing. Don’t lean back, but keep the back gently straight and think of your lower spine as akin to a young tree in soft soil. The lower spine has a natural soft curve to it whilst tending towards the heavens and finds nourishing support in the buttocks. Feet are flat on the floor, providing a rootedness and connection with our common ground. There should be a sense of soft solidity about the overall posture resulting in relaxed effort of breath. Hands are fidgety things so either rest the left hand in the right, cupping the navel, or lay them palm down on the knees. To avoid saliva building up in the mouth place your tongue lightly pressing against the roof of the mouth and touching the teeth, lips and teeth gently together. Eyes may be left open or closed for personal preference as some might feel sleepy or distracted. If eyes are left open, I advise the line of sight to be tilted 45 degrees towards the floor and focus deliberately softened.

Young girl sat in daisy meadow

The mind has many faces and infinite restless energy. We find that our attention is forever being stolen away or claimed. For centuries, contemplative texts have warned against initially (meaning the first 20 years or so!) practicing contemplation without first giving the mind something to do. And so when starting to sit, it is often useful to begin with a word or phrase to be repeated silently. It is important that the word or phrase does not invite cognitive activity or rational deliberation (ie. about the meaning of the word) and so often I encourage something whimsically nonsensical, dreamlike (ie. it appears in a waking or nighttime dream), or inexhaustible in its meaning (eg. ‘peace’ or a spiritual name for the religious). At first, this might feel somewhat artificial but the word soon takes on the quality of a powerful inner still point through the unpredictability of the day, a refuge for the tired of mind. I advise that you keep the word or phrase to yourself to provide an emotional seal to the practice. Keep it in the cave of your heart.

 A contemplative practice is considerably deepened if tied to an awareness of the breath, but it is important that practice aligns with breath as it is in simplicity. It is enough to simply rest attention steadily alongside the rise and fall of breathing, whatever the depth or tempo, trusting that, at some moment in time, a unity between attention, word and breath might occur. I encourage, where circumstances allow, to breathe in and out through the nostrils. Whenever the inevitable thinking distracts away from leaning into this underlying unity, just gently return again to light attention, repetitive word and easy breath. The habit of gently returning to the present moment - held by word, breath and attention - gradually empties the mind and introduces a dynamic stillness.

Contemplative practice is ultimately about inner transformation, a preparedness of the soil in which the seed of who we truly are might flourish over a lifetime. It is an intimate paradoxical practice of the emptying and demotion of the ‘self’ as we ‘know’ ourselves, in favour of something more authentically real in the moment. We become less ‘important’ and more grounded in the interconnected significance of being human and aware. We lose ourselves to gain life.

What space might you have for a contemplative practice in your life?

What word or phrase offers itself? Ask your heart. Be patient.

Start simple. Take a chair…sit…breathe.

Author: Dan Lawrence, Primary Cousellor, Alice Smith School

'and breathe' neon sign