Contemplation is not an effort to solve anything nor to learn anything. It is more in the nature of the still quiet practice of giving attention to life as life presents in order to learn where and how we can be more effective – that is, how we can be happier, which in turn helps others be happy.
To contemplate is to give attention, not in the formal way of Zen or other similar practices, but in a quiet and personal way. It is intimate in the sense that my contemplative practice will be different from yours. They may overlap in ways – significant ways even – but they are always this practice for this person in this place. The individual comes to contemplation on terms and conditions they set for themselves: nobody else can do it for them. The only real instruction is “go and give attention and see what happens.” We don’t even have to report back, though that is sometimes a kindness for those with whom we travel.
A contemplative is in dialogue with the whole of life as it appears to them. But to put it that way is perhaps grandiose. It means simply that when a contemplative approaches the forest, she knows that she is talking to the forest and that the forest is talking to her. That language as such does not enter into it – pine trees don’t say “hey, what’s up” – is not relevant. Communication is a whole body process; we know more than we can say, and say more than we are aware of saying.
To contemplate is to be aware of that dialogue – walker / forest, swimmer / sea, baker / bread – as it is happening. We don’t do this in a judgmental way, in the sense of wanting to get something from the dialogue, or to amend the dialogue or make it sexier or more elegant. Rather, we simply notice it, and we notice our noticing. The dialogue which a contemplative attends has its own rhythms, its own movements. It is the brook and we are its eddies.
Naturally, what is true of dialogue with a forest is true of dialogue with clouds and starry skies. It is true of architecture and oil paintings by Dutch masters. And it is true of the women and men that we meet and with whom we do our living and loving. We are in dialogue: always made by the world we are making. What else can one do but see it clearly? And seeing it so, to be grateful?
Thus, when a few moments offer themselves, we give attention to the awareness. We become aware of being aware. Awareness of awareness naturally brings in the apparent objects that are in or otherwise components to awareness – the trees and stars, the paintings and poems, the lovers and strangers. We do not have to do anything. We simply have to be present to what is doing itself, all on its own.
This can sound mystical and dramatic, but it is actually simple because it is natural. It is just what the human observer does when left to his or her own devices. We are fundamentally gentle, social and loving beings. Do not elide this! Do not denigrate it! Our capacity to build meaningful and productive systems – education, resource management, food safety, writing groups, marches, healthcare is staggering. Our slow march to sanity proceeds apace. Be part of that process by contemplating the love that arises whenever and wherever it is made welcome.
In a sense, when we are contemplating life, we are really making a tangible and potent connection to love. We are going deeply into love – first the shallows, then deeper and deeper, until we are consumed by it. But again, to say “we” are “consumed” is to perhaps say too much. What shall we say in its place? And how shall we learn this new way of speaking?