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What Is Contemplation Anyway?

If you have been reading these essays for any length of time, you know that I often refer to yoga as a contemplative practice. (If you’re new to these essays, I believe that the greatest gift of a yoga practice is daily time spent in contemplation.)

But what do I mean by contemplation?

The top definition of the word when searched on Google is “the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time.” That’s actually a pretty good description.

Why is contemplation a good thing to do?

Bear with me as I share a non-yoga example of a contemplative experience that I think will help answer this question.

I love to snorkel. No matter where I am fortunate enough to be to get to do so, for the first few moments after I sink down into the water, I don’t see anything but water and sand. Then it happens. A tiny movement flickers at the corner of my mask. I sometimes have to look twice before fish – sometimes whole schools of them – the exact color of the sand materialize right before my eyes.

This happens over and over again. It doesn’t matter whether I’m drifting over a coral reef or the ocean floor. What I see in my first glance never, ever tells the full story of what I’m looking at it. I have to hold still, soften my gaze and keep looking. When I do, what I see is simply amazing.

When I pause to really look, it becomes clear that what I first thought was an oddly shaped rock is coral. When I look longer, I can see the little openings in the tops of the tubes where I imagine the coral eats. If I hold still a little longer, beautiful fronds come into focus, waving like graceful octopus arms in the water.

A few more moments of stillness and entire communities start to emerge. Tiny colorful fish poke out from around pieces of coral. Another blink and I glimpse an urchin, perfectly camouflaged, resting on the side of the coral. A slight shift of position and I notice a pipefish pretending it isn’t there as it “stands” among the coral “pipes” waiting for a snack to swim by.

To me, contemplation feels like this. When you look thoughtfully at something for a long time what you observe continues to unfold before your very eyes. You go from seeing through the lenses of your assumptions, preferences and beliefs to seeing clearly. When you’re looking contemplatively, you gradually begin to see what you’re looking at (even something hiding or camouflaged) as it truly is.

It doesn’t feel like work to see like this. But for most of us, it feels like an awful lot of work to hold still enough so that we can see like this. Yoga helps with the holding still part of contemplation.

What are we “looking at for a long time” when we practice yoga?

We are looking at ourselves. As we move our body into the many odd shapes of yoga postures as we breathe, we are teaching our minds to hold still so that we can look inward. Over time and with practice, we begin to see clearly our thoughts, our habits, our preferences, our fears, our joys, our worries and our hopes.

The creator of Ashtanga yoga, Pattabhi Jois, was known to say that “yoga is looking for God.” While this has proven to be very true for me, I would add that we are also learning to see as God sees – clearly and to the very heart of things. Richard Rohr says that contemplation “rewires our brains to think non-dually with compassion, kindness, and a lack of attachment to the ego’s preferences.”

In other words, we are looking at ourselves clearly, perhaps for the first time. We learn, again with time and practice, to love what we see. Maybe even to marvel at it as a wonder as filled with surprises as a piece of coral that first seemed to be a plain, old boring rock on the bottom of the sea.

Practicing contemplation changes your life.

With more practice the real magic happens. One day we notice that we’re looking at everyone and everything around us – even people we’ve known for so long that we think we know everything about them – with the same patient curiosity and wide-open, loving eyes.

Slow down. Hold still. Open your eyes. Look for a long time. What you will see will surprise you. Contemplation, when we keep practicing (it takes a lifetime) wakes us up to the wonders of life all around.

Want to give contemplation a whirl? Come try one of our yoga classes – either in person or on-line. What you see might surprise you and keep you coming back!