Corne van Nijhuis

Once in a while you realize that you sometimes use certain words without being conscious of the exact meaning. And when you try to grasp it a little better, you realize that it takes more depth than what you initially think to really get to the bottom of it. Last week this occurred to me regarding the word contemplation. So I decided to explore the meaning in more depth. 

The origin of the ‘contemplation’ is with the Latin word ‘templum’, which indicates a place of observation. From this the Latin word ‘contemplat’ was derived, meaning surveyed or observed. 

Thereby it had a specific orientation, as it referred to internal observation, so looking inside or to ones own mental existence. But what does this effectively mean? And how differs this from concentration or meditation? 

For me internal observation does not mean something like ‘deeply thinking about’ yourself, your thoughts about yourself or your experiences, as this is a type of focused thinking what I would call concentration. Concentration is for me a state of consciousness in which we are dedicated to be fully aware of one of our senses. This can refer to one of our externally oriented senses, like hearing or seeing, but it concerns at least our internal focused sense organ: our mind (i.e. thinking). So in a state of concentration we are focusing our attention upon an experience of the senses which includes at least thinking. Concentration is as such an active way of observing. It is a creative process in which the mind produces thoughts. Contemplation on the other hand is in my view a passive way of observing.

The degree of freedom from unwanted thoughts 

and the degree of concentration on a single thought 

are the measures to gauge spiritual progress.

(Ramana Maharshi)

So if contemplation is not fully comparable with concentration, then maybe it is more comparable with meditation? For me meditation is state consciousness and not an action. If one is ‘in meditation’ this means one is in the state of ‘pure being’. A state which is beyond experiencing individuality or personality. This means it is also beyond contemplation, as contemplation is internal observation which de facto requires individuality and personality. 

So for me contemplation, as a passive internally focused observation, is something in between concentration and meditation. More specific, for me is contemplation the bridge between both: it is the activity to go beyond concentration into the state of meditation. The best alternative words for me to describe contemplation is ‘reflective observation’. It is being aware of what is occurring in ones consciousness without active thinking. At the start, the self-created thoughts keep on coming as long as the mind isn’t stilled. As one, with effort, continues the periods of emptiness will lengthen. And as long as thoughts or experiences keep coming they are just passively witnessed, till they finally stop occurring. In this way, contemplation is the process of releasing the impact of the senses on our consciousness, by passively only witnessing what occurs in our mind, not paying attention to it. As such contemplation is the tempering of the (thinking) mind, to bring one in the state of meditation. The state in which our brain doesn’t produce thoughts and direct experiences from the senses are fading out. So leaving our consciousness without mental manifestations – pure. A state in which there is no I, but only Divine oneness. 

The Divine is not ‘a being’ but ‘Being itself’

(Thomas Aquinas)

To put it in another perspective: the practice of contemplation aims to transcend the ego, the mind and the intellect, in an attempt to free the mind from any object, leaving only the pure subject in itself. In doing so it seeks the direct awareness of the Divine, the state of pure meditation. As such contemplation can be seen as the highest form of praying, as it is the most passive form, which leaves the least room for the self (ego) and the more for the Divine. 

Contemplation is a play between object and subject.

(Corné van Nijhuis)

So contemplation is that condition of alert passivity, in which the soul lays itself open to the Divine Ground within and without the immanent and transcendent Godhead. As such it is the way for reaching union with the Divine Ground of all being.


Dhr Corne van Nijhuis is a scholar and has devoted his time to the study and practice of Vedanta. He is a regular contributor to this magazine.