In the not so distant past our society valued contemplation. Contemplation is defined
as either “the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time” or “deep reflective thought.” It wasn’t just nuns and monks who “retired” to a secluded spot to enjoy quiet contemplation. The everyday man (and woman) was encouraged to take time off from life to be quiet, often on a daily basis. It’s true that the rich might have more time for contemplation because of their wealth but contemplative activities were not limited to the upper class. It might involve reading a book, doing some hand craft, taking a walk, praying, or just sitting by the fire in the evening. All of these were peace inducing activities that were valued by society at large and by individuals. There was the shared expectation that not only was life enhanced by having a time of contemplation but that family, friends, and co-workers would all benefit when a given individual took time out to contemplate life.
So meditation can be accomplished while doing other activities, but usually these
activities were sedentary and often repetitive in nature. Whether whittling a spoon or spinning wool, knitting or going for a walk (ok – so that’s not sedentary), there was something about the activity that freed up the mind to think. But did the mind, so freed, focus on the activity, or on something else?
Ah, grasshopper, you have finally asked a good question.
Meditation – is it the same thing as Contemplation?
Meditation is probably best defined as a place you go in your mind and body than as any one specific thought or process. It’s almost as if when you want to check if you have been meditating – check to see if your body is relaxed and your mind is calm… if so – then you probably were meditating. Why did we jump there in this conversation? Because you can get to that state by either rout. You can meditate by looking at an object or landscape and thinking about that object (this would be the part about “looking thoughtfully at something for a long time”) or by going beyond the object or view and allowing your mind to rome (that is the “deep thoughts” part of contemplation).
For best results I recommend both approaches – either one at a time or together. I have often started with looking at my hand, a tree, or a landscape and just looking long and softly (as apposed to hard). While looking, after a time, I may direct my mind to look deeper. See the colour variations in my hand or the tree. Start thinking about the blood pumping through the veins, the subtle variations in the bark, how the tree or my hand came to grow to be what it is. Then move on to sink deeper, beyond the skin to muscles, beyond the cells to the life within, and finally to the molecular level where everything hangs together. Alternatively, one can go big. From the hand or the tree to the forest, the yard, the planet, and off into the universe. Thinking about where I am in relationship to the larger world or the universe. My relative size, the glory and the wonder of it all.
Along the way I probably become aware of my breathing. I may start to hear my heart beat or feel my pulse in my fingers, neck, or ankles. It is a process of becoming more aware of my body, what I feel or sense which brings me back to the present moment. I am no longer thinking about my worries or trying to plan my day. I am just still and at peace.