Contemplation is a spiritual practice that has been around for thousands of years. In this episode, we explore this practice to help you reach higher levels of consciousness. Continuing our series on spiritual psychology, we explore the wisdom of the Upanishads in a practical application in today’s world. Discover:
- The difference between contemplation and meditation
- How contemplation can be used to access deeper parts of your unconscious mind
- How the collective unconscious plays a role in creativity and possibility
Debra Maldonado 00:27
Hello, welcome to another episode of Soul Sessions with CreativeMind. I’m Debra Maldonado, here with Dr. Rob Maldonado. We are so excited about our topic today, continuing our series on spiritual psychology. We’re talking about the power of contemplation today. But before we begin, I want to remind you to subscribe to our channel if you’re watching us on YouTube. Or if you’re listening to us on any of the podcast services, please be sure to subscribe and not miss a single episode, because we’re going to keep talking about wonderful topics you don’t want to miss. What is contemplation and why do we need it? Why is it so powerful?
Robert Maldonado 01:12
In the series, we’ve been talking about spiritual topics, or spirituality. Then we got into the idea of what the techniques are, what the practices are that are pretty much universal, you see them in all spiritual practices around the world. One of them is contemplation. Last time, we talked about visualization, in the next one, we’ll talk about meditation. Contemplation is right in between. Both east and west, north and south, uses contemplation as a powerful tool in spiritual practice. Now, it is not spirituality itself. A lot of people mistake the techniques for spirituality, or a spiritual practice. It has to be couched in spiritual knowledge or a spiritual tradition to be a spiritual practice.
Debra Maldonado 02:18
You’re saying that if you just do the technique, the technique itself is empty unless you’re infusing it with the higher knowledge. I think it was Ram Das who said he meditated on his delusions for 26 years and realized he was just sitting with his thoughts, but there was no higher knowledge, it was loose. We’re using the discipline of contemplation with the foundation of a spiritual philosophy or spiritual knowledge that we’re bringing into that practice.
Robert Maldonado 02:52
You see it in the West currently, mindfulness, for example, which is a type of contemplation, is often presented as a great technique for relaxation, for stress relief, stress management. That’s not a spiritual practice. It’s a good way to relax and manage stress. But the spiritual intention of contemplation has to be tied to what the Upanishads call higher knowledge. We define higher knowledge as knowledge that instructs you, enlightens you as to the nature of consciousness. What is your mind made out of? What is the universe made out of?
Debra Maldonado 03:51
As opposed to lower knowledge, which is studying psychology, studying science, studying brainwaves, studying how to construct a building, physics. Higher knowledge is what this realm that we’re in is about and why we’re here, those bigger questions.
Robert Maldonado 04:10
What is the self? Who are you? What is the nature of the self? With that in mind, last time we broke down visualization into what the brain’s doing, what the mind’s doing, what the spirit’s doing. The difference between the brain and the mind is simple. If we think about the brain as the hardware of your computer, the casing, the wires, the glass that go into making up the hardware of the computer, that’s your brain. The mind is the software that runs it, that gives you the information, that presents the interesting images and ideas of the computer. That’s your mind.
Debra Maldonado 04:59
When we talk about contemplation, can we define that before we go into the elements?
Robert Maldonado 05:04
Contemplation is an unfocused attention.
Debra Maldonado 05:08
Which is really weird because you think contemplation is when you’re really focused on something.
Robert Maldonado 05:13
But it’s really unfocused, because it’s an open state of mind, like creativity.
Debra Maldonado 05:22
Instead of that fixed state of mind, you’re expanding it a little bit. Almost like when you’re in nature, your mind empties. Is that what you’re thinking? You’re in the moment, but it’s like emptiness.
Robert Maldonado 05:37
Let’s look at the brain first, it’ll give us some clues as to why it’s a distinct state of mind. It’s not a typical relaxed state. When we look at the neuroimaging and neuroscience that looks at the brain and what it does during contemplation, these are some of the key components that play into contemplation. It alters our perception because most of the time we’re looking at objects in our environment, that’s typical perception. But in contemplation, it’s an open perception, we’re looking more at the space around us, instead of the objects themselves, more of the container of those objects.
Debra Maldonado 06:33
We never focus on the space. But the space is between the objects, there has to be a place for these objects to live. When you ignore the space, it’s like when you go to the movies, you forget there’s a screen. You can’t really see the movie unless there’s a space for the movie to play on.
Robert Maldonado 06:59
There’s a simple exercise you can do now, if you’re not driving or operating heavy machinery. Look at your environment, look at the objects in your environment. Now imagine there is a point of interest in the middle of the empty space in front of you, in the middle of that there’s something hanging there. That’s just still in the space itself. When you focus on that point, your mind automatically goes into that contemplative state of mind because you’re not focusing on the objects anymore. You’re unfocused.
Debra Maldonado 07:54
It sounds like when you focus on the objects, you’re in conditioning because you have labels for them and meaning, it reminds you of things. But when you’re focused on the emptiness, there’s no past to hook the conditioning. It’s just the space. When I do that, it feels so freeing.
Robert Maldonado 08:15
It’s a simple technique that you can use to get into the contemplative mind.
Debra Maldonado 08:22
One of the things you talked about with neuroscience that I found fascinating is that we only can focus on a thumb. If you hold your thumb up, that’s where all your attention goes. Everything else is blurry. We only focus on such a tiny place. Our brain is naturally able to do this. We think we are focused on everything but actually, it’s just focused on a little laser piece of what we see in the outside world.
Robert Maldonado 08:54
Some of the other factors that play into the neuroscience of contemplation is body awareness. The state of contemplation gives you a better sense of your body awareness, which means you can sense where you are in the space you’re occupying. You’re more present in your body. You’re more able to be aware without hyper focusing. It’s a contradictory state of mind where you focus on the awareness, not so much the object. You’re not so much focused on your body, but the space it’s occupying.
Debra Maldonado 09:46
It’s the subtle energy in our body that’s empty. That’s what we’re actually bringing, but we’re feeling that the container our body is in is this consciousness that’s running through us.
Robert Maldonado 10:03
It plays into pain tolerance. Can you imagine why? If we’re in a state of contemplation, why would it be a way to work with our level of pain tolerance?
Debra Maldonado 10:20
I always see those monks that are able to slow down their heart and able to cut through blocks. There’s some mechanism in the mind where you’re not identifying with the body, you’re identifying with the space. The body can only feel pain. The neurons in the brain, the physical heaviness in the skin. If you are not identifying with that, you won’t identify with the pain?
Robert Maldonado 10:48
Pain is very subjective. If we hyper focus on it, which is what the ordinary state of mind does, it wants to solve the problem, so it hyper focuses on the area that’s in pain. But that increases the pain because we’re paying attention to it intensely, instead of that ability to pay attention without focusing on it.
Debra Maldonado 11:16
I want to say, this is different than disassociation. Disassociation is where you’re out of your body, this is you in your body but you’re focused on the awareness in the body versus focusing on the skin.
Robert Maldonado 11:30
Emotional systems, emotional regulation. These are deep centers of the brain, the amygdala, the limbic system, as it’s called. These centers are very ancient, we share them with all mammals. They regulate fear, anger, but also sensations of pleasure and euphoria. These are very important centers, like reward centers that are part of the limbic system. When we are in contemplation, we can regulate these things a lot better, we can regulate our emotions a lot better.
Debra Maldonado 12:16
It’s like the saying that our natural state is joy and bliss. When we’re focused on our thoughts, our body, objects, it creates the disturbance of that peace. When we focus on nothing, we are actually accessing that bliss automatically. Is that what you’re saying with the emotional regulation? It kicks in that mechanism of accessing the bliss which is the emptiness of objects and feeling automatically relaxed.
Robert Maldonado 12:54
The relaxation response is very powerful, it plays into pain, tolerance, and emotional regulation.
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Robert Maldonado 13:59
Introspection. Now, introspection is the ability to look inward. It increases our ability to look inward when we are in contemplation because it’s that unfocused approach to our own mind.
Debra Maldonado 14:22
The objects are distracting us and pulling us externally. When we drop the objects, there’s nowhere else to go but inward.
Robert Maldonado 14:30
We’re not necessarily focusing on a particular idea, or word, or concept in our mind but we’re able to do that. That’s the dichotomy that we’re able to focus without hyper focusing on it. We’re able to pay attention but we’re paying attention to our attention more than just the object itself.
Debra Maldonado 14:59
The objects can create that conditioning, judgment, or whatever it is. If we’re empty, observing our own observation, it removes us from that judgment: good or bad, right and wrong, pleasant or unpleasant.
Robert Maldonado 15:17
The last one I’ll mention as far as the brain, is the sense of self. This can be the ego, for most people it is the ego. But in spiritual practices, the sense of self is meant to be the larger self, the true self, which is the awareness itself. Contemplation has been used as a stepping stone towards the realization of the true self. That’s why it plays a big role in spiritual practices, because it’s leading us to that realization of what the true self in me is, where I can find it. Let’s move on to the mind, what’s happening in the mind. Remember, the brain is the hardware, the mind is the software. As we’re running these programs in the brain, the mind then is the ideas, the concepts, the larger landscape of story narrative that gives us the deeper meaning of our experience in life. In the West, we see people that go to monasteries, become monks, become hermits, isolate themselves in nature. They’re thought to be living a contemplative life. Franciscan monks, Augustinians, they remove themselves from the normal activities of society. They’re in contemplation. They’re in a continual, perpetual state of contemplation, they’re in an altered state all the time, because they read their holy books or their practices, going through their day, meditating, praying, chanting, being in this contemplative state of mind. In the East, in the Upanishads particularly, it says: when you read higher knowledge, that is knowledge about the true nature of yourself, you first hear it. What they mean is you hear it from the teacher or you read it.
Debra Maldonado 18:06
You’re getting it on an intellectual level.
Robert Maldonado 18:09
You gain the insight. You’re understanding what it’s talking about. But it says: then you have to contemplate it. The contemplation is the next step to understanding.
Debra Maldonado 18:25
When you said it’s unfocused, I guess you hear something. When you’re focusing on the emptiness, this concept is something you can’t really find intellectually, that everything’s one. Instead of looking at an object to focus on that, you focus on the emptiness of the idea of everything’s one. It’s this bigger idea. Is that what you’re saying?
Robert Maldonado 18:50
You’re on the right track. Jungian psychology helps us a bit because Jung was interested in the spiritual psychology. What’s going on when people do this? What is happening in the mind? Jung says the state of contemplation allows the unconscious to participate in the ideas you bring to the conscious mind.
Debra Maldonado 19:22
The unconscious has the personal level, which is conditioning, but we’re talking about the bigger unconscious, the container of our universal mind.
Robert Maldonado 19:33
The collective unconscious. It’s a powerful practice because you read and understand it from your personal point of view. You hear this idea that everything is one. It makes sense intellectually, perhaps, or you can understand it intellectually. But in contemplation, you allow the unconscious to participate in you paying attention, this unfocused attention that allows the unconscious to participate in it.
Debra Maldonado 20:12
I have a question. This is like when we have intuition, when we have creative impulses, things that come to us we don’t know where we got them from. A lot of artists are in that unfocused state because when you’re doing art, drawing, or singing, or writing— I’m a writer, I’m not thinking about anything specifically, it’s like a stream of consciousness. You’re unfocused on the world. You’re in that state where the things are just flowing through you. Would you say that that’s what you’re talking about?
Robert Maldonado 20:50
I’d say that’s what Jung was talking about. Later on, it became for researchers the state of flow, the creative flow. Contemplation is definitely tied into that state of flow.
Debra Maldonado 21:08
It’s the opposite of mindfulness, because mindfulness is that focus attention, having you focus on the object. Contemplation is contemplating on emptiness. It’s a show about nothing, it doesn’t have guardrails to it, which actually opens up our creative impulses. On a deep level, beyond our conditioned self, there’s a creative force, contemplation gives room for that to be realized and heard.
Robert Maldonado 21:45
The Upanishads say you hear it, you contemplate it, then you meditate on it. It’s the bridge between hearing something, understanding intellectually, and the actual absorption of it, or the union with it, which is meditation, which we’ll talk about on our next podcast. What’s going on spiritually then? This is from the West, from Meister Eckhart who was a medieval German monk. He says “What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.”
Debra Maldonado 22:45
You’re spending time, then when you’re back in the world and taking care of things because you can’t focus on emptiness forever, unless you’re a monk, this actually helps you have more fruits in your action and have more purposeful action?
Robert Maldonado 23:02
We go back to the Upanishads. They say you read something, the truth about consciousness, the deeper understanding of what consciousness is, then you are contemplating it throughout the day, or maybe days and weeks, maybe months, years. You’re contemplating this idea of what this means, how I can apply it in my life. You’re also putting it to the test, you’re contemplating it in many different angles, in many different forms. The third element of absorption then, of actually becoming one with that truth is through the practice of meditation. In the West, because the focus wasn’t so much on meditation, but on an external creation, an external manifestation of it, Eckhart says: “This is the way we create our life. What we contemplate, what we think, becomes what we are.”
Debra Maldonado 24:23
If we think about our problems, we focus on things that aren’t going right, which is a natural default, the ego mind is always looking at what’s wrong. If we just allow it to be there, contemplation has us focus on possibility of expansiveness and openness. Then when we go out into the world, you’re saying that we naturally act from that place versus our results will show up in a more open way because even as we get feedback, we’ll start thinking about the results differently than if we were in that ego mind, like how do I feel, what’s wrong? Is that what you’re saying?
Robert Maldonado 25:04
In part. We mentioned in the visualization piece that our thoughts become our reality. The same principle applies here. Contemplation points us, guides us into the deeper, absolute reality of things. When you reach this intermediary stage of contemplation, you’re able to create because it is tapping into the creative source, what Jung called the collective unconscious, where ideas come from, where the archetypes reside. Greeks called it the realm of the gods, it is where things are created. Archetypes mean the original idea of something. Where are those original ideas? In our psyche, in our mind, in the collective universal mind, the collective unconscious. As they come up through contemplation, then you’re able to translate them into action, into the way we show up in the world and the things we do in the world. This concept is also expressed in Buddhism, Buddha states very clearly that your thoughts create your life, the way you think — and he’s talking about deeper thinking, of course, not just random thoughts, this deeper intention of thinking, of contemplation creates your life in a very intentional way.
Debra Maldonado 26:56
You bring up a great point, because there’s a distinction between what you’re thinking, because a lot of people, myself included, were like “Change your thoughts, change your life, think positive”, but we’re really talking about how we’re thinking. We can either think through fear and limitation. If it’s couched in fear and limitation, like “I want to create a love in my life, I want to create money in my life, I want to create better health in my life”, we’re doing it from that lower place, not including higher knowledge, we can be positive, or think positive, but it’s not going to have the same effect as if we see it from a higher perspective. In the end, it’s really how we’re thinking about life from that higher perspective. It’s a level of thinking that’s much more advanced, which will actually reap more rewards, because you’re thinking about it in a different way. Not just your thoughts changing, but how you think about it.
Robert Maldonado 28:00
It’s thinking about things in a broader context. What is it that I work with when I look at a thought, when I look at an emotion? The normal waking state of thinking is that we think of things as separate objects out there. In contemplation, you bring the spiritual awareness, the truer, deeper understanding of the ground of being, consciousness into your thinking thoughts, that then creates a different reality for you.
Debra Maldonado 28:42
Can I ask an example because this comes up a lot? A lot of my clients often have a lot of anxious thoughts or obsessive thinking. We all can relate to that, we’re worried about something. When we think about it, we’re actually contemplating it, but it’s not really true contemplation, we get caught up in it. For someone to use this technique of contemplation with obsessive thinking, how would that look?
Robert Maldonado 29:15
Depends what you’re obsessing about.
Debra Maldonado 29:18
You could be obsessing about spiritual growth, but more like obsessing about ego needs. When am I going to get paid? When am I going to find a partner? When am I going to lose that 10 pounds? When am I going to get my boss’s acknowledgement? When am I gonna get that promotion? When are my kids going to behave? That kind of everyday stuff that our mind tends to glue to, the ego sticks to and runs us. Contemplation would be not thinking about that, but thinking about that in a different way.
Robert Maldonado 29:52
I’d say people are accidentally creating mishaps for themselves, negative outcomes, accidents.
Debra Maldonado 30:03
They’re planting the soil with worry and fear, and they keep getting worry and fear.
Robert Maldonado 30:10
Not always, of course, because it requires that true contemplative state, but if they accidentally get into a contemplative state, they’re focused on thinking negative thoughts or negative outcomes, they’re creating those things for themselves.
Debra Maldonado 30:30
When someone does have them, how can they use contemplation in a way to transcend that thinking? This is what I’d think, then I’d love to get your take on it. Someone’s obsessing about something, it’s sticky. They want to sit in contemplation, they look at that empty object, the undercurrent is still there. They’re contemplating why they have the worry versus how they can fix the worry. Why am I having it and the nature of the mind versus I gotta stop this thing, I gotta stop obsessing over this versus that’s interesting why my mind is doing that. Understanding how the mind works. Would that be a different way of approaching it?
Robert Maldonado 31:21
It’s a good one because the state of worry itself takes you out of the contemplative mind. It puts you into a very problem solving, a very concrete state of mind where the objects become very solid.
Debra Maldonado 31:35
Basically, you’re saying that we just drop the worry for a minute and get into contemplation, empty our mind of nothing. Then it will resolve some of that, because we’re starting to think about, but it can’t be just “empty your mind”, it has to be “let me read something of higher knowledge, then empty my mind.” That’s going to do it versus chasing those thoughts, trying to change them, make them positive, reprogram them. We’re actually saying “Let me bring in this higher knowledge” that’s within us in the unconscious, have the emptiness, have the intellectual understanding. It’s like connecting the two: the conscious understanding and then the unconscious wisdom that’s within us, that breaks apart the need to worry anymore. I’d like to visualize it and put it together in a tangible way.
Robert Maldonado 32:29
That itself is a contemplation that we’re asking questions, using our mind’s eye to turn things over in our mind and see them from different angles. That itself is a contemplation. But remember, it’s the bridge between our normal waking state of mind where we solve problems, observe objects and the meditative state, which we’ll talk about next time, which is a very special state of mind. It’s not what people think, it is not stress management, it’s not relaxation. It’s a very focused state of mind we’ll talk about next time.
Debra Maldonado 33:15
In the meantime, practice unfocused attention, just emptying your mind, focusing on a spot, just be in that state, explore with it a little bit, try to do it for a couple minutes. The longer you do it, the better. But also try to read some higher knowledge, pick up the Gita, pick up the Upanishads, whatever spiritual knowledge you find deep, true meaning that is not ego based. You’re going to really see a difference in your sense of self and awareness. Next week, we’re going to talk about meditation. I hope you join us. Don’t forget to subscribe, there’s a button here in the corner. If you’re listening to us on our podcast, do not forget to subscribe. We are so excited to share this information with you and hope you have a great, contemplative day.
Robert Maldonado 34:10
See you next time. Stay well.
Debra Maldonado 34:14